photo: courtesy of the School of the Art Institute
Unless you're a fanny-pack toting tourist, a trip to the Loop usually requires some serious business. My visits always seem to include either a government office, employment agency or a bank. Softening the intensity of such endeavors (and of the massive architecture surrounding them) are the murals, mosaics and sculptures along State, LaSalle and Dearborn Streets. We have the city of Chicago to thank for this, since the city instated the "Percent-for Art Ordinance" in 1978, a mandate requiring public facilities to devote one percent of new construction costs to acquiring art. These are some of the best...and the best ways to see them.
Roger Brown's mosaic-mural makes LaSalle Street memorable
New York has Andy Warhol; Chicago has Roger Brown. Most famous for his involvement in the Chicago Imagist movement, from the '70s through the early '90s, Brown peppered the city with paintings that fuse pop culture themes with a folk-meets-cartooning aesthetic. One of his best ventures graces the entry way to the 120 N. LaSalle building just west of city hall. The mosaic, electrified by bright blue and white pieces, illustrates the Greek myth of Daedalus and Icarus, in which Icarus' father, Daedalus, warns him to not fly too close to the sun. Icarus does, of course, his wings melting as he falls. The sight of two toga-wearing and winged men is delightfully silly and serene among such Loop seriousness. Brown's choice of topic, an illustration of a tale about greed in Chicago's corporate epicenter, is not lost on this girl!
Karl Wirsum bugs out Chicagoans as they leave Marshall Fields
Though located at 121 N. Dearborn St., the beloved "Plug Bug" can best get under your skin from a State Street vantage point. Among the most visible pieces of downtown artwork (it's neck-and-neck with City Hall's Picasso sculpture), the zany green character takes over the side of an entire building, flinging his legs about and wearing a plug on his chest against a wildly pink background. Painted flat and in an array of colors, the mural appears as an inventive cartoon that brightens up an entire city block. Karl Wirsum, also a Chicago Imagist whose small-scale paintings can be viewed at Jean Albano gallery, created this mural on ComEd's last substation as part of a commission by the same company in 1991.
Marc Chagall's Four Seasons lightens up Dearborn Street
After a day of classes at the School of the Art Institute, I used to regularly walk by Chagall's four-sided mosaic in a daydreaming haze. The art echoed my dreamy state: Characters swirl around fish, birds and trees in happy moments of dancing, drinking and romance. Also called the "boxcar mosaic," the mosaic, constructed in 1974, rests at the First National Plaza at Dearborn and Monroe Streets and was covered in protective glass in the mid-'90s. Russian-born Chagall, always inspired by folk tales and pure imagination, hand-chipped stones and glass to construct the 14-foot-long, four-sided structure.
Catch artists in the act at Open Studio
Though more of an ongoing project than a permanent artwork, the Open Studio in the Page Brothers Building deserves mention as one of the most unconventional public art experiences in the Loop. The program, sponsored by the Public Art Program of the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, allows the public to watch artists create a site-specific installation by peeking into the street-level windows of a working studio at 177 N. State St. Since the first of this month, artist team Tom Burtonwood and Holly Holmes have worked to construct a life-size military tank while meticulously covering the room in grocery store ads. "PRODUCT Placement," an installation by Burtonwood and Holmes, will be on view at Open Studio through Aug. 30.
Look, listen and learn more through "Loop the Loop Tours"
My quick Loop tour only highlights four out of downtown's more than 50 public artworks. The Chicago Loop Alliance offers free audio tours of public art in the Loop through its website. Download the tour to your mp3 player, print out a numbered map of the Loop also on the site, and get yourself downtown for a free educational excursion. These tours are highly informational and include interviews with city experts and arts organizers. Expect the most famous works to be covered in these tours, from Picasso's sculpture at City Hall to DuBuffet's sculpture at the Thompson Center to much of Millennium Park.