On an almost unbelievably perfect early April day in Chicago (clear skies, temperature over 20C), I strapped on my super comfy walking shoes for an urban hike to explore public art near and inside “the Loop”. That’s an area in downtown that’s contained within the elevated train that runs through the heart of Chicago. In the city’s wisdom, there’s an abundance of public art to give life to an area rife with office buildings and miles upon miles of concrete.
Just east of the loop is Millennium Park, home to some of the most iconic of Chicago’s public art, and the first stop on my self-guided tour. The first piece I took in was “Crown Fountain”. It consists of two large skyscraper shaped structures with images of Chicago natives projected on them. Sadly, the fountains spewing from the mouths of the projected images weren’t operational on my visit, but the art is striking nonetheless:
A little further into Millennium Park is what I think is the most famous piece of public art in Chicago. Known most commonly as “the Bean”, this work entitled “Cloud Gate” by Anish Kapoor draws in hordes of onlookers to see their reflections and the reflection of the Chicago skyline. It’s like a gigantic carnival mirror and is an incredibly fun installation:
To preserve the perfect reflection, significant obstacles had to be overcome in the creation of this (building it without visible seams, how to balance it) and in its upkeep (keeping it polished and clean). Next to the “Big Blue Bear” in Denver, this is my favourite piece of public art I’ve encountered to date:
Continuing south of Millennium Park, there are three art installations in the North Garden of the Institute of Art. I’m a big Alexander Calder fan, so it’s a treat to see another of his works here – “Flying Dragon”:
The second piece of work in the North Garden is this interesting sculpture by David Smith, entitled “Cubi VII”. There are six other pieces like this by him located around the world.
The third piece in the Art Institute North Garden is the nondescriptly entitled “Large Interior Form” by Sir Henry Moore. This was first created as a component of a larger piece of work until Moore realized more than twenty years later that he liked it as a form onto itself. I see the form of a dancer bringing a sense of humanity and natural grace to the marvels of architecture that form the backdrop to this piece of art.
On this self-guided public art tour, there were a number of interesting pieces housed inside office buildings. In the Willis Tower, there was an outstanding sculpture garden inside its lobby. Here are a couple of the pieces with the Willis Tower Globe outside on the other side of the glass:
Just before having to pass through security in the Willis Tower lower lobby there is another work by Alexander Calder. “Universe” is a series of sculptures and shapes meant to represent the origin of our universe at the Big Bang. These shapes all move and rotate giving this art a movement that is hypnotizing to watch.
When I entered the Metcalfe Federal Building and my eyes met the Frank Stella work “The Town-Ho’s Story”, my first thought was the Simpsons’ episode where Homer becomes an artist by getting angry trying to build things and smashing random objects together. This work didn’t resonate with my tastes, but it’s size and scale (13,000 pounds!) is very impressive. It is named after a story in Moby Dick, but I honestly don’t see the connection.
Back outside into the gorgeous day, and this is a work of art I walked by a couple of times without noticing, thinking I had the address wrong. On the side of a building, this piece by Sol Lewitt is called “Lines in Four Directions”. As you move around, it takes on very different looks. I like the up front subtlety of this one as you first experience it, and then how it transforms and memorizes you as you consciously realize you’re looking at a piece of art.
In Federal Plaza, I took in the third piece of art by Alexander Calder on this tour. I’m a Calder fan, and after seeing his works in a number of places (Seattle, outside Copenhagen, Philadelphia), “Flamingo” is immediately recognizable as a work by him. This is located in a maze of rectangular skyscrapers, so its curves are an interesting juxtaposition. The same is true of the bright red colour in among a sea of black and dark grey buildings.
The next piece was one I spent quite a bit of time exploring. Marc Chagall’s “The Four Seasons” is a mural and mosaic that has four sides, with the longest dimension stretching about seventy feet. There are numerous scenes from Chicago depicted – some of the city itself, and some of daily life shown in surreal and abstract forms. It’s a vibrant and colourful installation.
I popped inside a generic looking office building to see another Sir Henry Moore sculpture. Just inside the lobby doors of Three First National Plaza is “Large Upright Internal/External Form”. Moore didn’t give his works of art descriptive titles – he wanted to leave some mystery in the form for the viewer. I like this as I’m free to interpret as I see fit without a bias. To me, there’s a sense of motherhood in this work with components embedded inside the larger outer form. Perhaps a symbol for caring for those about to enter their place of corporate employment?
Jean Miro’s “Chicago” is a highly unusual anthropomorphic form. This surrealist work isn’t my cup of tea, but I love how it’s nestled in between two buildings in what would normally be a dead space.
In front of the Thompson Center (side note: I really hate spelling “centre” the American way) is a great work that drew me in immediately. This is “Monument with Standing Beast” by Jean Dubuffet. I had no idea what it represented, but couldn’t take my eyes off of it. When I later came to learn it is known locally as “Snoopy in a Blender” I fell in love with it just a little bit more.
The last work of art on my self-directed tour is one of the most famous in Chicago. “Chicago Picasso” was the first large form piece of public art inside the Loop that wasn’t a statue of an historical figure. It’s huge standing at 50 feet tall. Kids apparently love to climb all over this – that’s the way good art should be: interactive. Picasso never revealed the intent or motivation for this work.
A couple hours and more than 6km later, that wrapped up a tour that had me taking in some great (and some peculiar) public art, and at the same time, wandering through interesting urban architecture in a city famous for it. Not a bad way to spend a spectacular April morning in one of America’s great cities.