Thu 16 Nov, 2006 07:15 am
`Spooky,' `ugly'--and `really powerful'
106 headless sculptures in Grant Park could stir reaction not seen since Picasso debut
By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah
Tribune staff reporter
November 16, 2006
It's been a generation since Chicago proudly unveiled Picasso's sculpture of--a dog? a woman? a baboon?--in Daley Plaza, but city officials have not forgotten the public greeting it received.
"They hated it," said Gregory Knight, deputy commissioner for visual arts in the Department of Cultural Affairs. "They thought it was ugly, hideous. It wasn't realistic and they couldn't accept that it was an abstract face or shape."
Such memories won't be far from the surface Thursday morning in Grant Park at the unveiling of Magdalena Abakanowicz's monumental installation of 106 towering, headless sculptures.
Art aficionados have already praised the interactive possibilities of Abakanowicz's 9-foot iron figures, imagining visitors wandering through their forest-like presence, fascinated by the textures, finding their own places in the massive grouping.
But at least a few casual passersby, not to mention those who have seen pictures of the work, have called the sculptures spooky, and wondered whether they belong in the happy-go-lucky atmosphere of a park.
Times and tastes change, but that kind of tension--mutual incomprehension, at times--seems a permanent feature of the world of public art.
"If it's totally user-friendly and happy art, there may be no controversy," Knight said. "But it's somewhat suspect to the art-world perspective as to whether it's conceptually challenging."
Knight says the Abakanowicz sculptures aren't controversial. But he expects a wide range of reactions. And in the next breath, he thinks a little controversy may be a good thing.
Mostly, Knight just hopes people will give the work a good, long look before they decide whether they like it or not.
Public pieces often underscore the divide between artists and much of the viewing public, especially when it comes to modern art.
"As artists, it's very pervasively taught to us that we must always be pushing the envelope," said artist Lynn Basa, who teaches a class in public art at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. "And if you make something decorative that appeals to the public, then you've sold out."
But when she teaches budding artists how to pursue commissions for public places, she urges them to listen carefully to outside voices, especially everyday residents.
"It's all listening, all the time," she said.
Then she tells the students to put those views through their own aesthetic filter to reach a final product that is both worthy and acceptable.
City at forefront
Knight and others say Chicago is already at the forefront of the public-art scene, both for the size of its 700-piece collection, and for the stature of its artists, such as Joan Miro and Anish Kapoor. The city mandates that 1.33 percent of the budget for any large municipal construction project be used to buy public art.
"Ours are more intellectually challenging than in some other places," Knight said, adding that many cities limit themselves to blander pieces, such as decorative benches and light posts.
Over the years, some pieces of public art have been immediately embraced, such as Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate" and the Crown Fountain.
For others, it has taken decades for familiarity to breed acceptance.
Like the Picasso, Claes Oldenburg's 100-foot-tall Bat Column in the 600 block of West Madison Street was initially met with outrage.
"People were like, `What the hell is this?'" said Lynne Warren, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art. "People feel if it's done with their money, they get to have an opinion."
When images of Abakanowicz's "Agora" became public, anticipation was mixed with a smattering of negative comments. Lyn Ridgeway has been watching the Polish artist's sculptures go up from her 21st-floor window across the street.
"To me, they are ugly, ugly, ugly," she said. "Even one would be ugly, but 106 of them ..."
Abakanowicz has acknowledged that she does not want her pieces, a gift to the city, to be decorative, but rather thought-provoking. Her own experiences with war inspired the work.
Criticisms of public art can be visceral, like Ridgeway's. Abstract pieces often draw controversy, officials say, as do pieces with overt sexuality.
Sometimes context and setting can make all the difference.
When Richard Serra's "Tilted Arc" was erected in the Federal Plaza in New York City in 1981, the setting became a significant problem.
People who formerly cut across the plaza had to walk around the curving wall of steel. A letter-writing campaign was launched. Eventually the federal agency that had commissioned it gave in. In the dead of night, the piece was cut up and carted off to a scrap-metal yard.
Decades later, with New Yorkers reeling from the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the unveiling of Eric Fischl's "Tumbling Woman" brought a storm of criticism.
The bronze sculpture of a naked woman falling was meant to commemorate those who jumped or fell to their deaths from the World Trade Center. About a week after going on display in New York City's Rockefeller Center, the sculpture was draped and removed.
Temporarily relocated to the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago, "Tumbling Woman" stirred little controversy over the three years that followed.
The MCA's Warren believes that Grant Park is large enough for the joyful pieces at the north end, and a more reflective piece on the south end.
"It will be a good mix for people," she said. "If they walk around, they will get a lot of different experiences."
Change of tune
Jason Kemper, 31, a Grant Park regular, was one of those who believed "Agora" was "too solemn" for the site. But since his initial objection, he has seen the sculptures in person.
"I think it's a really powerful piece," he said. "It awakens our conscience to everything that war and tragedy represent. It doesn't let us forget that."
Source: Chicago Tribune
(photo from today's print version, page A1)
Provocative achievement in Grant Park
By Alan G. Artner
Tribune art critic
November 16, 2006
Let there be no mistake: Magdalena Abakanowicz's "Agora," the installation of 106 cast-iron figure sculptures that will be unveiled at the south end of Grant Park Thursday morning, is at once a strong achievement and a giant step back from the abstract pieces the artist created in fiber during the 1960s and '70s.
It makes the northeast corner of Michigan Avenue and Roosevelt Road a place for contemplating the human condition even if its formal means are much less commanding than those that decades ago revolutionized textile art and made Abakanowicz the best-known living Polish artist.
The irony is that this forest of viewer-friendly 9-foot-tall figures has been talked about as if it were going to be new and controversial, whereas the artist's equally large winged, open or round abstract forms really were, changing the face of both textile art and modern sculpture.
But enough. The city that mounted Abakanowicz's first comprehensive American retrospective in 1982 now has a piece showing what became one of her chief interests, representations of the human body that lead viewers to consider their own place in the world.
"Agora" is the name for the marketplace or square where the popular political assembly met in ancient Greece. Abakanowicz's "Agora" thus has outsize, mythic figures with one or the other foot thrust forward as if walking. The figures face in all directions on a sprawling toned-concrete base, forming thickening and thinning crowds as one moves from south to north. Four figures also stand in different places apart from the groups and, symbolically, outside of the group-think that has led the artist to describe crowds as "brainless organisms acting on command, worshipping on command and hating on command."
The disposition of the figures has changed entirely since a computerized rendering of 20 months ago. The artist sited each component for maximum effect, creating passageways for viewers (who are meant to move among the figures) as well as complex patterns of light and shade plus a composition that can be seen whole mainly from high-rise buildings on two of its sides.
Each figure is a fragment without heads or arms. That was the source of their "controversy" long before the pieces arrived. However, fragmented figures are part of a long tradition in sculpture, and these are additionally shell-like, conveying the power of torsos, legs and feet only from the front and a fragility from the incompleteness behind. The sameness of the forms and their equal height suggests the anonymity of a forest even as each one has particularizing differences in surface, barklike patterns. The current red-brown color -- it will deepen with time -- is stirringly set off not only by the sky but also by the colors of nearby buildings.
Seen in midmorning on a sunny day, the piece -- which has many more components than the artist's other permanent figure compositions in Israel, Italy and the United States -- is far removed from the grisly atmosphere that some viewers living in the area feared.
Abakanowicz has been a "hands-on" artist both at the foundry and at the site, creating many small points of interest within the overall scheme that supports her idea of a crowd and forest being "a mysterious assemblage of variants of a certain prototype." The metaphor she wanted to create is consistent and complete.
If "Agora" is more somber than other pieces downtown in the park, it can afford to be, as Jaume Plensa's "Crown Fountain" and Anish Kapoor's "Cloud Gate" -- both of which are also concerned with movement through a space that may serve as a place for contemplation -- amply engage viewers' buoyant emotions. The south end of Grant Park, which was said to be a historic entry point to the city for immigrants during the 20th Century, can bear the added sobriety, not least because the tone of the landscape again lightens a few minutes east, on the Museum Campus.
Much art of the 21st Century is concerned with stories and metaphors that modern art banished. This has made it look conservative next to some older artists' early explorations, and with Abakanowicz -- who is 76 -- that is cause for disappointment, as she is a creator whose previous work in fiber expanded our concept of sculpture. But the presence of the human figure, even as fragments, is bound to arrest casual viewers in a way that the artist's fiber evocations of the structure of human organs, with its twisted and torn viscera, would not. So the site of "Agora" needs more benches for visitors to take the time to look at the piece as if it were a mirror. That, much less than the $10 million cost of the sculpture (paid by the Polish government, its ministry of culture and a private foundation) is the gift to Chicago: an environment for puzzling over our own behavior.
source: Chicago Tribune
(photo from today's print version, page Tempo1)
This is Chicago's latest outdoor sculpture. I have lived in Chicago since 1958 and have seen all of them. On local Chicago television over the past few weeks, they have shown the artist directing the installation of her conception.
That curator was out to lunch - of course people get to have an opinion! They're the User Group for the art.
I like this latest myself.