Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus

The Flight of Daedalus and Icarus, 1991
Roger Brown
120 North LaSalle Building

In Greek mythology, Daedalus, a very skilled Athenian artisan, was called upon by King Minos of Crete to build a labyrinth to confine the dreaded Minotaur, a half-bull and half-man monster. Instead, Daedalus helps a young hero escape from the monster and the angered king imprisons him and his son Icarus in the labyrinth. To escape, Daedalus makes wings of wax for himself and his son, and he warns his son not to fly too low because they will get wet from the waves of the sea and not to fly too high. However, Icarus gets caught up in the thrill of flying and forgets all of his father's advice. He flies too high, the sun's heat melts the wax and he plunges into the Aegean Sea.
Roger Brown (1941-1997), a prominent member of the Chicago Imagists, was commissioned by the Ahmanson Commercial Development Company (a subsidiary of Home Savings of America) and the architectural firm Murphy/Jahn Architects, to create murals for the Helmet Jahn-designed building at 120 North LaSalle Street. The brilliantly-colored composition, with the father and son floating amongst pillow-shaped clouds, draws the eye up the granite fa├žade.
Born in Hamilton, Alabama, Brown enrolled in Bible school at David Lipscomb College in Nashville with the expectation of becoming a preacher, but he became diverted after taking a life drawing class at the University of Nashville. He moved to Chicago in 1962, studying at the American Academy of Design and earning a degree from the School of the Art Institute (SAIC). In the late 1960’s and early 70's, Brown was among a group of fellow SAIC artists, including Ed Paschke, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt and others, who were inspired by European Surrealism. They developed the Chicago Imagist style, a version of pop art that worked to shock or excite audiences. According to the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago, "Imagism became known as 'The Chicago Style' and it was this group of artists that put Chicago on the map for national and international art audiences."
In a 2012 interview with Time Out Chicago, Lisa Stone, curator of SAIC’s Roger Brown Study Collection, noted the 27-by-54 foot mosaic has several meanings, among them “[it] warns against the danger and futility of hubris.” Created from more than 900,000 tiles, it was assembled by a team in Shilimbergo, Italy, north of Venice. Made of colored, opaque glass and various metal powders, the mosaic took three weeks to install. Just inside the lobby is a smaller companion mosaic by Brown. It depicts an imaginative view of LaSalle Street, with planes flying overhead.

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Four Seasons

The Four Seasons, 1974
Marc Chagall
10 South Dearborn Street

Born into an Hasidic Jewish family in Vitebsk (in present-day Belarus), Marc Chagall (1887-1985) studied art in St. Petersburg, Russia before moving to Paris, where he lived from 1910 to 1914. During his time in Paris, Chagall absorbed the influences of Symbolism, Fauvism and Cubism and combined them with his own childhood memories of Jewish shtetl life and mysticism to create dreamy, fantastic images that defied artistic conventions regarding space and perspective. Chagall returned to Russia in 1914 and, as a supporter of the October Revolution, in 1917 he was appointed Commissar for Fine Arts in Vitebsk. He returned to Paris in 1923 and became a French citizen in 1937. As a Jew and an artist whose work was ridiculed by the Nazis, Chagall found it necessary to leave Vichy France and he found safe haven in the United States between 1941-48.
            Although best known as a painter, working in oils, watercolors and gouaches, Chagall has also produced ceramics, stained glass and, as seen in this work, mosaics. Regarding the title of this piece, Chagall explained, “In my mind, the four seasons represent human life, both physical and spiritual, at its different stages.” Using a model created by Chagall in his studio in France, a skilled mosaicist was sent to Chicago to install the 128 separate panels, featuring 250 different colors, and then join them together with additional glass and stone fragments. The finished piece is 14 feet high, 10 feet wide and 70 feet long. Imagery includes symbols associated with his earlier works, including birds, fish, flowers, suns and lovers, all references to memories of simple, village life, interspersed with sunbursts and city skylines. Chagall’s signature “floating” figures and the absence of a consistent ground line contribute to the otherworldliness of the scenes even as they refer to quotidian activities associated with rural and urban life. As is the case with “the Picasso,” viewers already familiar with the artists’ earlier works are able to recognize each as typical of their style, even if the scale and materials have changed.
            Chagall arrived 2 weeks before the unveiling and realized that he needed to make adjustments to the areas featuring the Chicago skyline, as he had based them upon his memory of the city from 30 years before! The work was presented as a gift to the city of Chicago on September 27, 1974 and the protective glass canopy was added after renovations in the mid-1990s.
            Another major work by Chagall, the America Windows from 1977, is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago and were made in commemoration of the Bicentennial and as a reflection of Chagall’s gratitude for the safety and religious tolerance that he found during his stay in the U.S. during the 1940s.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Fountain of Time

Fountain of Time, 1922
Lorado Taft
Washington Park, west end of Midway Plaisance
5900 South Cottage Grove Avenue

Located in Washington Park, a 367-acre expanse designed by Frederick Law Olmsted, Lorado Taft’s Fountain of Time is the only realized portion of his grand beautification scheme for the Midway Plaisance, a mile-long and 220 yard-wide area linking Washington and Jackson Parks on Chicago’s south side. Originally, he envisioned an equally monumental “Fountain of Creation” to be erected on the east end of the Midway, consisting of figures emerging from the earth, acting out the Greek legend of Deucalion and his wife Pyrrha, who repopulated the earth following the Deluge by throwing stones over their shoulders. Visitors to the east end of the Midway will find, instead, the Thomas G. Masaryk Memorial, installed in 1955.
            The work is not a fountain at all but, rather, a massive 110-foot long sculptural relief of 100 figures behind a pool of water, traveling from birth to death before a 16-foot tall mantled figure representing “Time.” Taft stated that the lone figure standing across the water was  “watching with cynical, inscrutable gaze the endless march of humanity.” Taft found inspiration for the work in a passage from a poem by Austin Dobson:

            Time goes, you say? Ah, no.
            Alas, Time stays; we go.

The figures include dancing children, a priest, a poet, a conquering hero on horseback, soldiers, lovers, an old man reaching for death as well as a self-portrait of Taft on the back, striding with hands behind his back in a meditative pose. Viewers may find it hard to imagine that the work, commissioned in 1913 by the B. F. Ferguson Monument Fund, was intended to commemorate 100 years of peace between the Britain and America following the Treaty of Ghent, thus fulfilling the requirement that sculptures funded by the trust related to “important events in American history.”
            In addition to being a haunting and visually stunning work, the Fountain of Time was an incredible technical achievement for the time. As stone carving and bronze casting were ruled out due to expense and time considerations, Taft appealed to John Joseph Earley, a sculptor who had developed a pebble-finish architectural concrete to complete the casting. Over 4500 pieces comprised the finished mold but Earley was able to complete the casting in less than a year and the work was unveiled in 1922. Since that time, due to vandalism and the effects of harsh weather and pollution, the sculpture has undergone a number of renovations and repairs.

Other works: 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Eternal Silence: Dexter Graves Monument

Eternal Silence: Dexter Graves Monument, 1909
Lorado Taft
Southeastern section
Graceland Cemetery
4001 North Clark Street

            Dexter Graves (1789-1844) was a hotel owner and one of first settlers in the area, bringing a colony of 13 families to Chicago from Ohio in 1831. This bronze figure, 8 feet high and standing against a polished black granite backdrop, was commissioned by Graves’ son, Henry, to mark the site of his father’s burial. Taft’s approach to the work signals his awareness of innovative funerary art, such as the Adams Memorial by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, installed at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. in 1891. Saint-Gaudens’ piece featured a shrouded figure of ambiguous gender that reflected Henry Adams’ interest in Buddhism and his desire to honor his wife’s memory with a serene figure who has accepted the inevitable. Similarly, Taft’s shrouded figure does not reflect a traditional or Christian approach to a mortuary monument, and the eerie quality of the work may have been enhanced by the fact that the exposed areas have developed a green patina while the face has remained dark. 

Other works: 

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cloud Gate (“The Bean”)

Cloud Gate (“The Bean”), 2004
Anish Kapoor
Millennium Park
East of North Michigan Avenue, on axis with East Washington Street

            Often it is difficult to predict how the public will respond to an innovative, large-scale work of art. It is even more difficult to imagine which work of public art, among the many located in a place like Chicago, might emerge as the “icon” of the city. Following the opening of Millennium Park, the one thing about which most Chicagoans would agree is that Cloud Gate, better known locally as “The Bean,” has replaced “The Picasso” as the unofficial symbol of Chicago. Even architect Frank Gehry, who designed the nearby Pritzker Pavilion, declared of Cloud Gate: “That’s the star of the show.”
            Artist Anish Kapoor was born in India in 1954 and has worked in London since the 1970s. Remarkably, Cloud Gate is his first outdoor permanent installation in the United States. Inspired, in part, by liquid mercury, the massive stainless steel structure is affectionately called “The Bean” due to its elliptical, kidney-bean shape. Deceptively simple in concept and form, Cloud Gate plays with the notion of a “triumphal arch” or “gateway” to a city in a manner that corresponds to the whimsical approach to a “fountain” demonstrated in Jaume Plensa’s nearby Crown Fountain. Abandoning any militaristic or nationalistic sentiment, Kapoor’s 33-foot high, 66-foot long sculpture features a twelve-foot high arch that invites viewers to pass through, gaze upward and encounter images of themselves rather than heroic figures from history. The artist has stated that he is “interested in how sculpture activates space” and believes that “big objects can do something poetically wondrous.” The reflective surfaces offer a variety of experiences, depending upon one’s perspective, the weather and the time of day. The sculpture does, in fact, allow for contemplation of clouds, as well as an incredible panorama of the architecture along Michigan Avenue. Nighttime viewing offers different rewards, in terms of color and light. The 110-ton structure manages to appear almost weightless, in part because it only touches the ground in two places.
            Acclaimed as both an aesthetic achievement and an engineering feat, the 168 stainless steel plates used to construct the surface required 2200 lineal feet of continuous welding. Not surprisingly, Cloud Gate received “The Extraordinary Welding Award” from the American Welding Society. The realization of this piece required an extraordinary collaborative effort, including the contributions of engineer Christopher Hornzee-Jones, Ethan Silva of Performance Structures, the company that fabricated the plates, Roark Frankel, supervisor of the project, and MTH industries, which assembled the piece. Additionally, the final price tag for the project was nearly four times the initial estimate of $6 million, but the entire cost of the work was covered by corporate and private donations.