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Art + SOM: The Chicago Picasso, From Dream to Reality

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A Monumental Work

To create the quintessential symbol of a great American city, an SOM architect found himself orchestrating a complex dialogue between one of the 20th century's leading artists and one of the country’s most powerful politicians. The result, a 50-foot sculpture by Pablo Picasso, stands on the grounds of the Richard J. Daley Center, named after the longtime Chicago mayor who gave that architect his stamp of approval.

Thanks to the vision and tireless work of William Hartmann, former Managing Partner at SOM, Picasso created a Chicago icon and his largest sculpture worldwide.

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Activating a City Center

The Chicago Civic Center—now named in honor of its patron, Mayor Richard J. Daley—was jointly designed by SOM, C.F. Murphy, and Loebl Schlossman Bennett & Dart. As its grand plaza was being conceived as a gathering place for Chicagoans, questions emerged as to how the space would be activated. A monumental work of public art would be needed. But who would create it?

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Mayor Gives the Go-Ahead

It was soon decided by the architects (and unanimously so) that Pablo Picasso was the only person for the job. When Hartmann proposed that the legendary Spanish artist design the landmark, Daley remarked: “Well, I don't know Mr. Picasso, but if he's the best person in the world, why don't you go ahead and try.”

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Convincing Picasso

Hartmann and team engaged a network of friends in the art world to assist with the difficult task of approaching Picasso. After writing, they flew to the French Riviera in search of the reclusive, 85-year-old artist. Though the idea of monumental sculpture had long interested Picasso, no commitments were made. It was only through Hartmann’s continued efforts—mailed photographs of construction at the Civic Center, gifts of American artifacts, and personal visits—that the artist finally agreed. The two would become fast friends.

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Work Begins

Having never visited the city, Picasso worked from the impression of Chicago created by Hartmann to make a number of studies, both drawn and sculpted. Two years later in May of 1965, the artist completed a pair of 42-inch-tall maquettes for Hartmann, who chose the more delicate version of the two pieces. It was approved by Mayor Daley and the Public Building Commission.

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Engineering Art

Fred Lo, SOM Design Architect (and later Associate Partner), was tasked with scaling the sculpture to 50 feet in height. He worked from the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago after office hours, and two weeks later, he emerged with seven drawings. Lo then worked with SOM Structural Engineer Joe Colaco to transform the sculpture into a sound, enduring public work.

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Good to Construct

A 42-inch aluminum model was constructed with structural revisions to be reviewed by Picasso. Though a collaborative, friendly endeavor from the start, Hartmann wondered how to present these changes to the artist. He looked to Bruce Graham, SOM Design Partner, for counsel. “Simple,” Graham said. “Just tell him: Chicago’s a windy city. Without doing that, it cannot be built.” After studying the sculpture for several days, Picasso approved and signed off on the proposal with “Bon a tirer (good to construct).”

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A Gift to the City

Later during a lunch, Hartmann carefully broached the question of payment to the artist, the subject having been avoided on previous occasions by Picasso. Presented with a sizable check, Picasso examined it with his wife, and in a moving gesture, said “No.” The check was passed back to Hartmann. “I want this to be my gift to you and the people of Chicago.” In a signed letter, Picasso firmly restated his stance, officially giving the sculpture and reproduction rights to the Public Building Commission and the maquette to the Art Institute of Chicago.

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From Model to Monument

With supervision from Lo, the American Bridge Division of U.S. Steel in Gary, Indiana, was chosen to fabricate, deliver, and erect the sculpture. SOM’s 42-inch aluminum model was shipped to the plant in October of 1966, where the design was scaled up to a wood, quarter-scale rendition standing 12.5 feet tall for further testing.

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Matching Materiality

In deciding which material to use, Cor-Ten steel was an easy choice. Not only did it match the exterior of the Chicago Civic Center, but also its strength and maintenance-free properties were necessary assets for a public, outdoor work. After six months of difficult production, the pieces were test-assembled at the plant, deconstructed, and shipped to Chicago.

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Hidden from View

Shrouded behind scaffolding and canvas tarps, a construction crew carefully pieced together the 50-foot, 162-ton work in Chicago Civic Center from late May to July of 1967. After assembly on the granite plaza, the sculpture’s ridges were flattened and the surface was cleaned in preparation for its public debut. Reports and images from the plant and construction site were regularly sent to Picasso by Hartmann.

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Welcoming A Masterpiece

On August 15, 1967, throngs of people gathered in the heart of downtown Chicago for the dramatic unveiling of Picasso’s untitled masterwork. Flooding the plaza was music from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra—personally hired and paid by Hartmann himself.

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Unveiled at Last

Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks read a special poem for the occasion, speeches were made, and with a cord pulled jointly by Mayor Daley and Hartmann, the curtain fell, revealing the work to a stunned audience. Depending on the viewer’s vantage point, the shape of the sculpture changes from a woman’s profile, to a bird or horse, to a purely abstract form.

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Beloved Landmark

Unsure of how to interpret it, public opinion swayed wildly at first. But critical acclaim eventually prevailed. The art world lauded Chicago for commissioning such a work, and a positive public sentiment took hold. The sculpture quickly became a symbol of the city and activated the plaza as a gathering place for tourists and locals alike.

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Years Later

Thrilled with his success, Mayor Daley would arrive in front of the masterwork with a birthday cake every August 15th for a number of years after its completion. Hartmann remained friendly with Picasso until the artist’s death in 1973. And Graham spearheaded the installation of a companion piece by Joan Miró, unveiled across the street at the Brunswick Building in 1981.

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A Chicago Icon

The Chicago Picasso (as it is often known) has left an enduring impact, not just on its hometown, but also globally. The debut of the sculpture in 1967 was a pivotal moment in the public acceptance of modern art. SOM is proud to be a part of the legacy of this seminal work.