June 6, 2011

The Summer of Love: Picasso’s Monumental Gift to the People of Chicago.

It was the Summer of Love.


The music was groovy.

Youthful rebellion and idealism were bursting forth from the epicenter, San Francisco, vibrating outward to places like Los Angeles, Seattle, Chicago, Montreal, and cities across Europe. My father had recently arrived in Chicago from South India; he was a 33-year-old neurosurgery resident at Cook County Hospital. I wouldn’t be born for another five years, but the fact that there was a time in our country’s recent past dedicated simply to the idea of love is appealing to me in the 21st century. Looking back, it seems fitting that the Chicago Picasso was unveiled that summer.

In 1967, there was a feeling in the air that things were bad and getting worse. There was an ever widening generation gap, a war that few supported, and an appalling lack of civil rights for African Americans. The Summer of Love was a giant collective pushback of peace and love, clad in flowers, LSD, strange dance moves, and long, flowy dresses. Regardless of what we associate with the word hippie, there is no denying that hippies felt a powerful sense of unity that summer.

It was a season rich with music and expression. The Monterey Pop Festival was held in California; it was the largest rock music festival ever produced up to that time. And in fact, the Beatles kicked off the summer of ‘67 with their first live worldwide televised broadcast of All You Need is Love. What better soundtrack could a Summer of Love ask for? They performed it on a television program called Our World, the first live global satellite program, which also happened to feature the genius of modern art, Pablo Picasso.

At the unveiling of the Chicago Picasso Sculpture on August 15, 1967, there were 50,000 ordinary Chicagoans waiting to see what had been for weeks kept under a giant cloth gown–ostensibly to dissuade naysayers such as one vocal alderman who, up to the moment of the sculpture’s unveiling, proposed the Picasso be “deported” and replaced with a statue of Chicago Cubs First Baseman Ernie Banks. Also milling about the crowd with microphone and tape recorder in hand was legendary historian, author, and broadcaster Studs Terkel, who was conducting interviews with “the man on the street.” I wish my dad could have met Studs. I think they  would have gotten along.

And at the moment of its unveiling, the Mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, declared, “We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”

[Sadly, the unveiling video is no longer on youtube.] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_aFyPOhuuso

In the background, the Chicago Symphony played Beethoven and Bernstein, and soon-to-be Poet Laureate of Illinois, Gwendolyn Brooks, read her poem The Chicago Picasso:

Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms.

Art hurts. Art urges voyages—

and it is easier to stay at home,

the nice beer ready.

In commonrooms

we belch, or sniff, or scratch.

Are raw.


But we must cook ourselves and style ourselves for Art, who

is a requiring courtesan.

We squirm.

We do not hug the Mona Lisa.


may touch or tolerate

an astounding fountain, or a horse-and-rider.

At most, another Lion.


Observe the tall cold of a Flower

which is as innocent and as guilty,

as meaningful and as meaningless as any

other flower in the western field.

Tulips at Daley Plaza

Pablo Picasso, however, was absent from the festivities. As was my dad, who was likely peering through a microscope somewhere a few miles away. He’s gone now, but I wish I had access to his thoughts from that time. I’m sure he did not have a free moment to ponder much beyond the human brain. But if he could, I think he would have appreciated the Chicago Picasso very much. Contrary to my old man, Pablo Picasso never set foot in the United States during his lifetime; however, he did send a simple message from his home in the French Riviera for the occasion of the unveiling: My warmest friendship to Chicago.

But the following year was most certainly not about friendship.

It was 1968.

And the forces of division and darkness had retaken their hold; it was a time I’m sure the I Ching would have called

Darkening of the Light.

The year opened with the Tet Offensive in January, escalating the Vietnam War. The Communist North Vietnamese forces, who had fallaciously agreed to a ceasefire on an important Vietnamese holiday, executed a multi-city attack that took the South Vietnamese and American forces by surprise.

My father in 1967

America’s involvement in Vietnam was about to expand dramatically.

And by 1968 the black neighborhoods of Chicago were bursting at the seams. The majority of black folks were ensconced in an area on the city’s south side called Bronzeville, where Gwendolyn Brooks herself had grown up. However, in order to gain more economic opportunities and housing, black people ventured to move out of overcrowded areas and into nearby white neighborhoods. This seeming encroachment was not  welcome news for many white residents, who, ever since The Great Migration, had pushed hard against integration, often with the complicity of the city’s police.

Then on April 5, 1968, one day after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in Memphis, chaos erupted in cities across America, with some of the worst violence happening on the west side of Chicago. The riots prompted President Lyndon B. Johnson to send in 5,000 National Guard troops to help the city’s outnumbered police force. Mayor Daley issued a curfew and “shoot to kill” orders for any person caught with a Molotov cocktail, and “shoot to maim” orders for any person caught looting.

Later that year, in August, just months after the assassination of Senator Robert F. Kennedy in Los Angeles, Chicago was host to the Democratic National Convention. The mood in the city in 1968 reflected America’s deep anxiety. Inside the convention hall, there were several skirmishes. Meanwhile, outside the hall swarmed thousands of young Vietnam War protestors who clashed violently with (twice as many) police and national guardsmen armed with tear gas and billy-clubs.

Daley had once again stoked the flames of violence by not allowing protestors to rally anywhere near the convention hall – an edict they defied – thus polarizing the city further.

Bloodshed and pandemonium are apt words to describe the Chicago of 1968.

But it was 1967, when the city’s top was still tenuously on, that the Mayor unveiled the Chicago Picasso. He had made a brilliant and unifying decision for all people of Chicago by listening to his trusted advisor, the architect William Hartmann, and green-lighting the Picasso project. Hartmann, along with other Civic Center architects, approached Pablo Picasso with a request to design the sculpture. The artist was well into his eighties but agreed to the project; it had been a long-cherished dream of his to design a monumental sculpture such as the Chicago Picasso.

A Time magazine article from August 1967 recounts how Hartmann had “persuaded the 85-year-old artist to design the sculpture (gratis) for Chicago.” It’s true that Hartmann had gotten Picasso to agree to the sculpture, but Time’s account does not capture a piece of critical information which is that Picasso refused the $100,000 check for his work. After he had completed the maquette (preliminary model) of the sculpture, the artist did not sign the “Formal Acknowledgment and Receipt.” Picasso instead examined the check and placed it back in Hartmann’s pocket. Hartmann may have persuaded him to design the sculpture, but he certainly wasn’t the one to convince him to do it for free, as Time implies.

Instead of accepting the payment, Picasso had the following “Deed of Gift” drawn up on August 21, 1966:

The monumental sculpture portrayed by the maquette pictured above has been expressly created by me, Pablo Picasso, for installation on the plaza of the Civic Center in the City of Chicago, State of Illinois, United States of America. This sculpture was undertaken by me for the Public Building Commission of Chicago at the request of William E. Hartmann, acting on behalf of the Chicago Civic Center architects. I hereby give this work and the right to reproduce it to the Public Building Commission, and I give the maquette to the Art Institute of Chicago, desiring that these gifts shall, through them, belong to the people of Chicago.

The sculpture was Pablo Picasso’s gift to the people of Chicago.

I like to imagine that the artist had premonitions of dark times to come and thought Chicago, more than anything else, needed a strong dose of love. It did. Especially considering the chaos of the following year.

Picasso’s beneficence makes me wonder about the Summer of Love’s energetic vibration. It offered a brief window, like a force field—before the Vietnam War escalated, before the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and before the Chicago riots—for Chicago to capture a bit of that love energy by receiving into its own center the Chicago Picasso, which, to me, is a kind of love creature.

It bothers me a little that the Time article implies that Hartmann persuaded Picasso to design the sculpture free of charge. It is as if the journalist covering the story for Time was trying to make the existence of this “provocative piece of public sculpture” (by an avowed Communist ) palatable to the American public. Anti-Communism had been woven into the fabric of the status quo. For a pro-establishment mayor such as Richard J. Daley to approve a Communist artist’s design of an abstract and bizarre sculpture that, at the time, was considered risky and unprecedented, was certainly a coup. In fact, the Chicago Picasso was the first piece of abstract sculpture to be placed in any city center in America. It has since become the defining piece of public art in this city, but in 1967 Chicagoans had no idea what to make of it. Thankfully Daley had been smart enough to know that he did not know about art, so he trusted William Hartmann implicitly in the matter.

And that’s how we got the Picasso.

The Chicago Picasso (back view)

But that’s not how I got the Picasso.

A friend took me there one night last November, and I gazed upon the 50-foot-tall steel sculpture as if for the first time. In fact, it was the first time I had actually seen it. I have passed it countless times, sure, but never had I given it the appreciation it deserves.

Henry David Thoreau said that “books should be read as deliberately and reservedly as they were written.” And of course books are works of art, many of them, and thus shouldn’t his philosophy apply to all types of art?  It’s what I feel Gwendolyn Brooks is saying in her poem; we don’t need to feel any particular way about art, but simply allow ourselves to be in the presence of it—and that in itself is transformative.

I came back to the Picasso again last month, during the day this time. It was a weekday when all the buildings around Daley Plaza were abuzz with business transactions and occupied people. I thought it would be fun to not be occupied and instead just listen to my iPod from inside the sculpture.

So that’s what I did.

I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular; I had no agenda aside from absorbing the energy of the piece and listening to my music. Although the seed of this article was planted back in November, the idea of writing it had not yet taken root. It was a wonderful feeling to be inside the love creature. I felt like one of the children who would pop up occasionally to climb and slide on it; they were my only companions, three and four-year-olds, specifically.

I contemplated my life, the world. I saw an old black man sitting on the concrete platform that holds the sculpture. He had a gray beard and looked utterly downtrodden. There were a few policemen around him, and one of them was issuing some kind of citation to the broken man. I didn’t hear what they were talking about, but I stood around to ensure no harassment was taking place. I wanted to be the man’s witness and tell the police, “Picasso is for the people!”  But nothing happened, and I just stood there.

I walked around the sculpture because I remembered something my friend had told me back during that night in November, which was that a sculpture should be art from all angles. So I took it in from the back and discovered something amazing. When I examined the love creature from the back, it occurred to me that I was looking at its thoracic cavity. Compare the images below. It is plain to see that the creature, whatever it is, protrudes forth from its own heart center! Picasso bestowed his very own heart upon Chicago, and this discovery thrills me to no end.

And when I think about 1967, I wonder how much has actually changed. Chicago is still a segregated city. America is fighting two insanely expensive wars. In Afghanistan right now, soldiers and civilians are getting their limbs and genitals blown off by IEDs. There are at once billionaires and starving people on the planet. Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – the lungs of our earth – has risen sharply this year. And, and, and…it all seems so hopeless.

It makes me wonder if we can have another Summer of Love—one that isn’t beaten back by the forces of darkness…one that lasts.

But I can’t change anyone but me; and maybe, just maybe, that’s enough.

At least there’s still good music.

I stepped off the sculpture and gave it a last long look before I headed into the bowels of the subway. A police officer was coming up the stairs. I smiled and said, “Have a nice day.”

I wished I had a flower.

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