Next time you nix the idea of spending $12 to check out the Art Institute, think outside the box (literally). Kevin Nance, who's been writing about art for 20 years, invites you to spend ten minutes (and no money) basking in the beauty of the public art that dots the city's streetscape.
This North Carolina-native moved to Chicago in 2004 to become the arts and architecture critic for the Chicago Sun Times. He was immediately struck by the specific character of public art in Chicago and its tangled relationship to the architecture that surrounds it. Much of the city's public art was commissioned in the '60s and '70s when modernist urban planning cleared out densely populated commercial districts and made way for monolithic buildings and plazas. Looking to fill the space, Chicago went after—and scored—big-name artists, such as Picasso and Chagall.
Delighted by the idea of increasing the amount of art in our diet without cutting out the cash, we asked Nance to take us on a tour of his top five public art works in Chicago.
"Agora" by Magdalena Abakanowicz at Grant Park
"Agora," refers to the Ancient Greek town squares or forums where people could go to debate or socialize. The piece is 106 large cast-iron sculptures. There are two crowds of figures, one at the very south end of the park and then another crowd that's north of that. And between the two groups there are other figures that seem to be walking back and forth, along a plaza or promenade. Some people have interpreted it as grim and depressing, and I think that has to do with fact that the sculptures exist in the middle ground between literalism and abstraction. They're clearly human in that they have feet, but they also have bark-like skin that suggests trees come to life, possibly. They're taking on a red rusty color, and they're nine feet tall. My own interpretation is that it's really a piece about group-think versus the individual will. To me the two groups at either end represent collective thinking and the individuals who are going back and forth are mavericks and they represent the willingness of certain people to think for themselves.
"Four Seasons" by Mark Chagall in Chase Plaza
Chagall's piece is stone and glass fragments that cover a large concrete structure. It's very colorful in the way that we associate with Chagall. It has the same kind of vocabulary that we know from his work, that sort of Russian Jewish folklore aspect and yet it actually depicts scenes from Chicago, including the Chicago skyline. It's a really gorgeous piece of art. It's colorful, it makes you feel good and it's easily accessible. You kind of move around it and you see the season change. The design was executed by Chagall in his studio in France and it was installed by a mosaicist in Chicago and Chagall continued to change it after it arrived here…in 1974.
Paintings by Wesley Kimler at the Aon Center
Chicago artist Wesley Kimler makes very large-scale pieces that combine abstraction and the figure. The abstract images are often set against very colorful backgrounds, and the abstractions seem to be made from a tar-like substance, this black viscous material that he applies to the canvas and then often lets drip down. These tar-like blobs often have interesting shapes in which many people see figurative images...I hesitate to use the word unsettling, but they're like a Rorschach test…There's an interesting tension between the normal business of this lobby, and just above everyone's heads you have these looming, sort of dark images that seem a bit incongruous.
"Dawn Shadows" by Louise Nevelson at 200 W. Madison Ave.
It used to be an outdoor sculpture. About two years ago they built a glass winter garden to enclose it. She's a great American sculptor, and this particular piece might remind some people by works by Alexander Calder…It seems to be responding to what you might call the angularity of the Chicago architectural look. Downtown Chicago is this amazing collection of buildings of a whole group of different styles and they kind of bounce off each other in interesting ways. I think "Dawn Shadows" responds to that and to some extent parallels that effect.
"Flight of Daedalus and Icarus" by Roger Brown, at 120 N. LaSalle St.
It's a mosaic piece that depicts the myth of Daedalus and Icarus, though the piece just shows father and son flying in the sky...Behind the two winged figures you see a sky that has these amazing blue pillow-shaped clouds, and then behind the clouds you see the rays of the sun coming down. It's a marriage of traditional mosaics with Brown's unique vision of abstract backgrounds that convey this repetitive, roiling, turbulent background. There's something sort of obsessive here that's very typical of Roger Brown. It's 27 feet high and 54 feet wide and you just stand in front of it agog at the sheer beauty of it. There's a stylized sort of Egyptian quality to his work that, when you see any image by Roger Brown, from a distance you know it's by him.