Chicago’s 20th Century Public Sculptures – 2017 Most Endangered

PDF Download: Preservation Chicago’s 2017 Chicago 7 Most Endangered Booklet

Chicago has one of the largest and finest 20th Century public art collections in the world. Downtown Chicago is host to more than 100 sculptures, mosaics and paintings displayed in plazas, park spaces and the lobbies of both private and public buildings.

Contemporary 20th Century artwork in Chicago’s public spaces began with the dedication of The Picasso in 1967, on the Richard J. Daley Center Plaza (formerly known as the Chicago Civic Center and Plaza). The installation of The Picasso sparked an interest in investing in public art for public and private buildings and other developments. In the 50 years since that first installation, Chicago has enjoyed the continued investment in high-quality art work by world renowned artists. These world-class masterpieces are often placed by architects, working with their creators in public plazas and semi-public interior spaces within the Loop and Downtown. The Loop’s exceptional collection of 20th Century artwork is the result of visionary architects and artists working in close collaboration to provide the public with free access to masterworks of visual art.

Developers often placed large-scale public artwork within broad open plazas at the bases of high-rise developments in Downtown Chicago, offering these features as public benefits in exchange for zoning bonuses which allowed them to construct ever-higher and more massive buildings. This resulted in some highly important collaborations between architects and artists, including Alexander Calder’s Flamingo paired with Mies van der Rohe’s Federal Center; Alexander Calder’s The Universe in the lobby of Bruce Graham of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill’s Sears Tower; Pablo Picasso’s The Picasso in Jacques Brownson’s Daley Center; and Jean Dubuffet’s Monument with Standing Beast in the plaza of Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Center, (which is recognized as only one of only three monumental sculptures by Dubuffet in the United States.) This is just a small representative list which exemplifies collaborations between some of the 20th Century’s greatest artists and architects.

Recently, we have seen a number of these plazas and their artworks threatened with removal, relocation, outright destruction, or sale to private collectors. The result are losses or potential losses to this tremendously important collection of public art and public space. These artworks in the heart of the central business district are rightfully perceived as being an essential part of Chicago by many citizens, in addition to being an important part of its artistic and cultural heritage. The loss of these treasures would result in a devastating blow to Chicago’s exceptional collection of public art and would damage the city’s reputation as an international architectural and cultural capital.

In 1978, Chicago’s City Council unanimously approved the Percent for Art Ordinance that required a percentage of construction costs for new and renovated public buildings and spaces be devoted to original pieces of artwork on the site. Chicago was one of the first, and certainly the largest, municipality to require the inclusion of public art into its public building program. While Chicago has been exemplary in providing its citizens with inspirational architecture and public art, it has not developed criteria for protecting these public works of art. In fact, The Picasso is the exception and is one of the few pieces of public art that is protected from being removed or altered in anyway.

On November 6, 2002, the Daley Center was landmarked, which includes the building designed by C.F. Murphy Associates, the plaza and The Picasso, protecting the visual trio of elements that comprise one of the most iconic plazas in Chicago. It is the hope of Preservation Chicago that many more of our public works of art, and the plazas they occupy, will be landmarked to protect the original intent of the artist and the architects who created them and for the future benefit of the public.

The Percent for Art Ordinance only applies to the construction of public buildings. In the construction of private buildings (or if public buildings are sold to private owners), there is no formal protection for public artwork to insure that they will remain in situ and not be relocated, removed, sold, or destroyed. There is also concern that some of these great works of art are not being properly maintained and are being allowed to deteriorate. The Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs is dedicated to preserving Chicago’s art treasures, and growing the City’s public art collection, but they often have limited or no jurisdiction over many of the pieces in public-use plazas, outdoor spaces, or semi-public lobbies.

An example of public art falling into disrepair is Marc Chagall’s Four Seasons mosaic in Exelon Plaza, originally constructed as the First National Bank of Chicago and Plaza by architects C. F. Murphy. Dedicated in September of 1974, the five-sided, 70-foot long mosaic depicts the changing of seasons in Chicago. It was constructed of colorful glass and stone from Italy, France, Norway, Belgium and Israel. Exposure to the elements resulted in significant damage over time. In 1988, the damage to the vertical surfaces of the Chagall mosaic were repaired, however the top of the mosaic was damaged beyond repair and the entire top of the rectangular art piece was scraped off and replaced with a granite slab. The mosaic sunburst and rainbow stripes that once covered the top surface of Chagall’s masterpiece, and which were intended to be viewed from the tall buildings surrounding the plaza, have now been destroyed. The surviving vertical surfaces of the Chagall mosaic are now covered by a protective bronze and glass canopy, but the top mosaic, by one of the 20th Century’s great artists, is tragically lost.

Another highly unfortunate loss to our city’s public art collection was the recent sale of Large Internal-External Upright Form, a world-class, large-scaled, sculpture by Henry Moore that occupied the Three First National Building lobby for decades. A small plaster version is on permanent exhibit at London’s Tate Gallery. This 20-foot tall bronze masterpiece was quietly sold for millions in 2016.

In 1974, The Standard Oil Company, working with architect Edward Durell Stone on its new building, which at the time was the tallest building in Chicago, commissioned sculptor Harry Bertoia to design a kinetic piece of abstract art, which was placed around a central reflecting pool in the building’s plaza. Sonambient was comprised of eleven sets of copper and brass rods ranging in height from four to sixteen feet. The rods flexed and moved with the wind creating musical sounds. Sonambient was influenced by nature and represented wheat fields swaying in the breeze. In 1994, the plaza was redesigned and the grand rectangular reflecting pool was replaced with a few small fountains. The Bertoia sculptures were displaced and relocated, with only six of the original eleven pieces reinstalled. Five pieces of the sculpture were sold at auction in 2013 for hundreds of thousands of dollars, while others are believed to remain in storage. The original intent and beauty of the piece has been compromised by the plaza reconfigurement and sculpture reduction and displacement.

Jean Dubuffet’s 1984 fiberglass sculpture Monument with Standing Beast, located in the plaza in front of the James R. Thompson Center at 100 W. Randolph is comprised of four elements suggesting an animal, a tree, a portal and an architectural form. Its shape invites viewers to enter and walk through the sculpture, while it reflects on the open space of the Thompson Center’s architecture, designed by Helmut Jahn. At this time, Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner and Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan support the concept of selling the Thompson Center, which would likely result in a new development on this site leaving the fate of Dubuffet’s sculpture unknown, unless the building, plaza and the sculpture were to be landmarked. Chicago 7: Chicago’s 20th Century Public Sculptures Louise Nevelson’s Dawn Shadows at 200 W. Madison was inspired by the Loop elevated train system. This piece is meant to be viewed from all sides with an ideal vantage point being the train platform above Madison Plaza. Since Dawn Shadows was unveiled in 1983, the plaza has been enclosed with glass, restricting access to the sculpture physically and compromising visibility from the sidewalk and elevated platform.

Alexander Calder’s The Universe has been on display in the lobby of the Sears Tower, now Willis Tower, since 1974. It uses bold colors, organic shapes, and large scale to represent the Big Bang. Its massive scale was specifically designed for the massive lobby of one of the world’s tallest buildings. Shockingly, the current lobby remodeling plan fails to include displaying this magnificent masterpiece. The fate is unknown for this stunning kinetic installation by one of the 20th century’s most important artists and that has been part of the fabric of our city for over 40 years.

A few blocks away and dedicated on that same October day in 1974 as part of a grand parade led by the artist and Mayor Daley, Alexander Calder’s iconic Flamingo in Federal Plaza was designed to anchor the large rectangular plaza bordered by three Mies van der Rohe buildings. The vivid red color and organic curves provide a delightful and powerful contrast to its strict Miesian linear steel and glass surroundings. The size of the sculpture allows viewers to walk under and through the piece vividly displaying its size in relation to human scale. It is unthinkable that Calder’s iconic Flamingo could be removed from Federal Plaza, but yet no formal protections are in place to prevent this from happening.

Joan Miro’s Moon, Sun, and One Star, was created by Miro in the 1960s, in response to his friend and fellow Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso’s sculpture across the street at Daley Center. It was finally placed at 69 W. Washington in 1981, and is comprised of shapes and forms that evoke both celestial and common objects. Its placement in the small plaza to the west of Myron Goldsmith and Skidmore Owings and Merrill’s Brunswick Building, now the George Dunne Cook County Administration Building, and its relation to the
Picasso across the street was very important to Miro. Since its placement in the 1980s, a covered bus stop canopy has been constructed in front of the plaza and the Miro sculpture, partially obscuring its view from Daley Plaza across the street, and impairing the original intent and vision of its placement.

Claes Oldenburg’s Batcolumn, from 1977, stands 101 feet tall beside the Harold Washington Social Security Administration Building at 600 W. Madison. Its whimsical, larger-than-life-scale, was inspired by the soaring architecture of Chicago which the artist considered “the real art” of Chicago.

The  Sears/Willis  Tower  renovation  plans  which  fail  to  include Alexander  Calder’s  The  Universe  means  this  amazing piece of artwork is in immediate jeopardy.  Due to the likely sale of the Thompson Center, Dubuffet’s Monument with Standing Beast will likely also be in risk of displacement or sale. The powerful Henry Moore sculpture, once located in the lobby of 70 W. Madison, has been completely lost to the people of Chicago after being sold at auction. Without the protection  of  a  thematic  Landmark  District  of  Chicago’s  20th  Century  Downtown  Artworks,  or  a  new  City  Ordinance which  would  offer protections to these  world class treasures, Preservation Chicago considers many  of Chicago’s artworks to be in immediate jeopardy or at varying degrees of risk.

Preservation Chicago believes that these works of art should be protected and always on public display. Additionally, these works of art are contextual and were designed to be viewed in situ, so to the extent possible, should remain in their original environment. The loss of any of these art pieces is tragic, and we suggest that these public and private works of art, with public access, and on open plazas and semi-public spaces, be considered for thematic Chicago Landmark Designation along with their plazas and open spaces, to guarantee that they will always be here for the public good.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel has named 2017 the Year of Public Art (YOPA) to highlight the rich history of public art in Chicago. Let’s make 2017 the year Chicago protects its irreplaceable public works of art and sets a national model for public art stewardship.


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