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Reading: Exterior Decoration

If bronze and stone were no more substantial than the status of artists in this city, the public sculptures of Lorado Taft would have crumbled long ago.

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"One pair of bronze trousers is not very much more interesting than another pair," Lorado Taft wrote in 1921. One of Chicago's most famous sculptors, Taft had surveyed the city's collection of public statuary in that year and did not like what he saw. Too many generals on pedestals in the parks and too few wood nymphs. Too many figures posed in modern dress ("clothing dummies," Taft called them) commemorating the fashionable instead of the timeless. Too many members of what Taft called "the petrified congress of nations" memorializing Chicago's "mighty melting pot," and too few icons of universal meaning.

Taft did have a point about the politicization of public art. The Irish may have taken over City Hall by the 1920s, but it was an Italian who commanded the city's parks and plazas then. In fact there had been such a glut of Columbuses earlier in the century that when a local worthy wanted to raise a monument to the memory of William McKinley--McKinley, champion of the protective tariff, was to be somehow shown holding forth on that issue, to remind workingmen what a friend they'd had in the late president--they melted down a spare Columbus to make it.

Buildings have been the real public sculpture of Chicago since the days of Louis Sullivan. Nevertheless, when most people think of sculpture they think first of commemorative art--the monument, the equestrian statue, the portrait bust, the memorial frieze commissioned for the street rather than displayed in the private garden or the gallery. Chicago's collection includes the usual variations on the maudlin, the histrionic, the sentimental, the pretentious. There are exceptions, of course; Albin Polasek's mounted knight on Hyde Park's Midway and Augustus Saint-Gaudens's standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park are two of the handful of local works that ennoble the form.

That short list should probably also include Taft's Fountain of Time, located at the west end of Midway Plaisance. The work, recognized as Taft's masterpiece, stands today as the epitome of an era. In fact the 1890s, partly because of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, promised the flowering of a distinctive Chicago school of sculpture, devoted to public works that would express the fundamental cultural values of the city and not just its clothing styles. Lorado Taft was that school's spokesman, theorist, and principal practitioner.

Creator of two of the city's best-known works of public art--Fountain of Time and Fountain of the Great Lakes (now on the west wall of the Art Institute's Morton wing)--Taft also was an influential scholar, teacher, and critic. In 1903 he wrote the authoritative History of American Sculpture. In the years before World War I he undertook, through lectures and newspaper columns, to mold the public taste in Chicago. And as an instructor (at the Art Institute, the University of Chicago, and the University of Illinois, as well as in the artistic community that he housed at his Midway studio in Hyde Park), he taught a generation of sculptors how to cater to that taste.

Yet if bronze or stone were as ephemeral as his reputation, Taft's works would have dissolved years ago. Scholars scarcely mention him today except to note his influence on Chicago in the early years of this century. Timothy J. Garvey, an art historian at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, has tried to rectify that inattention with Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago. Garvey takes us back to the day in 1913 when Fountain of the Great Lakes, Taft's first major public commission, was dedicated. Speeches were made that day by the artist and by art patrons, and in these speeches and in the statue itself, Garvey finds themes to illustrate the status of the artist in Chicago, which has always been problematic.

Taft arrived in Chicago in 1885 after an extended student sojourn in Paris. The city had long since pulled itself out of the mud, but its reputation as a cultural swamp was unredeemed. Sporadic attempts to render the city less squalid had been made, however, with encouraging results. Saint-Gaudens's eloquent Lincoln was installed in Lincoln Park in 1887, for example, the same year that saw his Storks at Play (done in collaboration with pupil Frederick William MacMonnies) unveiled in nearby Bates Fountain.

It was not until the Columbian Exposition of 1893, however, that the decoration of the midcontinent's Porkopolis began in earnest. The great fair coincided with (and to some extent was the creation of) a local political movement that embraced civic beautification, old-fashioned boosterism, and a philosophy of public art in which monumental works (quoting Garvey) "would not only serve as records of municipal ideals, but as a means of extending the ideals themselves into the future."

Whatever it meant for the city, for sculptors like Taft the Columbian Exposition meant commissions and careers. Taft attracted attention with two allegorical groups he did for the entrance to the exhibition's Horticultural Building; he also was chosen to superintend other sculptors' works. Not exactly overnight stardom, but welcome nonetheless to a young sculptor in a hurry. Shortly after his arrival, he had been describing himself in letters to his family as a rising artist with "accumulating" prospects. But Garvey argues that Taft's hopes before the exposition for a career in Chicago were naive. True, he did a certain trade in portrait busts, mainly for clients who confirmed Hawthorne's opinion that no man who needs to have a monument to himself ought to have one. He also taught, modeled fireplace grates, even did butter sculptures for restaurants; the major commissions in those years went to out-of-towners with artistic pedigrees.

But while the city's moneyed class did not as a whole share Taft's belief in the necessity of art that might uplift and instruct, a few members were alert to its civic possibilities. Saint-Gaudens's seated Lincoln (in Grant Park) had been commissioned by industrialist John Crerar, and Taft's own mentor was Simeon B. Williams, a real estate magnate he'd met in Paris, who provided the young artist with introductions and financial support. Such men were patriots as much as patrons. Then as now, economic development depended on making Chicago the kind of town the owner and managerial classes would enjoy living in; thus were commerce and culture linked. Besides, attention to the civilized amenities might persuade Chicago's existent wealthy families not to flee the city for its suburbs.

As Garvey makes clear, the history of art in Chicago belongs as much to its philanthropic men of business as it does to its artists. But such men were not connoisseurs. They bought their art by the reputation of its manufacturer, much as they bought their suits or their children's educations. Anyway, it was largely their wives who made local artists' reputations. It was the ladies who sustained the vogue for studio visits, for example. Artists outdid each other in providing exotic settings and tempting refreshments for these bands of roving aesthetes to drop in on. The artists tolerated the interruptions and the expense in the hope of impressing clients, with mixed results; many of the ladies apparently used the studios as convenient refuges from the crowds in the Loop's busy shops.

It was a pernicious environment for an artist. Taft (who was a gregarious man anyway) joined lots of clubs, the better to hobnob with potential clients. Typical of these was the Literary Club, where Chicago burghers retired for what Garvey calls "polite readings and mild discussions." Taft rented studio spaces larger than he could afford in order to appear as prosperous as possible; as he later explained, "People like to patronize . . . a man who has the approval of the crowd." "Patronize" is the correct word. The social standing of the artist in turn-of-the-century Chicago was somewhere between the footman and the grocer. To the bored bourgeoisie, artists were an exotic amusement, invited to swank dinner parties not as equals but "as curiosities providing a measure of diversion."

Taft was made for the role. He was good-looking, glib, ambitious, and accommodating. He had few illusions about the depth of his audience's interest. "No one wanted my work," Taft recalled in 1923, "but, strangely enough, the women's clubs liked to hear me talk about sculpture!" Like mother, like daughter: the classes that Taft taught at the Art Institute (between 1886 and 1907) were especially popular with "girls who have nothing to do," as Taft described them.

Garvey's rambling exposition may frustrate those wanting either a careful biographical account or a more developed critique of Taft's artistic theories. What Garvey does well is to re-create the artist's life in Chicago before the Great War, relying on the novels--thinly disguised accounts of real life--by members of Taft's circle. At home, in the midst of their artistic friends, Chicago's artists forswore the hypocrisies of the wider world and celebrated Art devotedly. Taft's colleagues gathered in informal clubs like the Little Room, which met weekly in the tenth-floor penthouse studios in the Fine Arts Building. The menu at such feasts was mostly talk, although the group also staged amateur theatricals and told stories. In the summer, they moved the congregation out-of-doors, most famously to Eagles Nest Camp near the Rock River, west of the city.

Garvey suggests politely that Chicago's artists of the time would not have passed muster as bohemians in New York or San Francisco. They contented themselves with roaming the woods at Eagles Nest dressed up in Greek robes or berets or impersonating fauns and wood nymphs, safely out of sight of the yokels. Substance abuse consisted of a little rum sneaked into the samovar at Little Room meetings; about their sex lives Garvey says nothing, perhaps because there is nothing to say.

As World War I approached, Taft and his circle began to look a little fuddy-duddy even by local standards. Garvey notes that, for these pure souls, the 20th century was something to be resisted. "Their poses," he writes, "assume meaning as attempts to gain identity and integrity by separation from the complexities of modern life." Younger artists like Theodore Dreiser (who probably never dressed up as a wood nymph in his life) found the raw energy of the city exhilarating and embraced it. Taft's generation had looked backward, to the 19th century, for their ideals; they withdrew from the corrupting modern city.

By 1913, when Taft was awarded his last great public commission (Fountain of Time), his generation was already being outdone by what Garvey calls "the more insistent forms of modern expression." As early as 1910, for instance, Taft was berating Matisse. In 1913, the famous Armory Show, which unveiled the European modernists to astonished American eyes for the first time, appeared in Chicago. As had happened at its previous showing in New York, audiences didn't know whether to laugh or hiss. In Chicago, however, the alarms of the casual art lover were seconded by many of the city's artists. The Chicago Society of Artists, for example, so disdained the new works that they belittled them in elaborate parodies.

Chicago in those days was less threatened by newfangled aesthetics, however, than by old-fashioned sex. "In 1913," Garvey reports, "attitudes in the American Midwest were worlds apart from those of sophisticated Parisians." Taft was sufficiently provocative on those terms. When his Great Lakes was unveiled, for example, some people thought it was too, well, unveiled. Spokeswomen for the Women's Christian Temperance Union and the Social Purity Committee of the Civic Federation complained that the sculptor who depicted three of his female figures bare-breasted--had indulged in nudity for nudity's sake.

Taft left many of his sculpted figures unclothed, partly because he regarded the human body as central to the sculptor's art and partly because his ambitions were allegorical rather than documentary. Not that artistic rationale mattered much to local bluenoses. The three boys who cavort in the Bates Fountain in Lincoln Park were equipped for a time with copper fig leaves by a blushing parks board. The exposed breast of Hebe, who stands atop a drinking fountain at Michigan near Roosevelt (done by Franz Machtl in 1893), was a compromise; the sculptor had originally revealed both. When in 1927 Montgomery Ward commissioned a copy of Spirit of Progress (a Diana-like nymph that once graced its Michigan Avenue headquarters) for its new administration building on West Chicago, it ordered the breasts of the new one covered.

It is probably a good thing that no sculptor in years has tried to display a recognizable naked human in public, because the statue-viewing public has not grown more complacent. In 1986, Rogelio Tijerina, who teaches sculpting at the School of the Art Institute, placed a life-size statue of a Brahman bull on a trailer, which he parked overnight in different neighborhoods. The informal traveling exhibit got mixed reviews. Viewers often were struck by what the Trib respectfully described as "the rather breathtaking size of the bull's genitalia." One Walton Street resident complained that such a display was "not a natural thing." This is what happens when an audience gets its ideas about what is natural from statues like the famous Art Institute lions (Edward Kemeys, 1894), which are males in every way but the way that counts.

The story of how Chicago's public sculptures have so often been public scandals is told with particular relish by James L. Riedy in his 1981 book, Chicago Sculpture. Republished in paperback in 1985, the book can fairly be described as definitive. Riedy (who teaches at Truman College) describes more than 300 works, ranging from building ornaments and water fountains to commemorative art (usually representational and installed in parks) and its cousin, public art (usually abstract and associated with streets and buildings). As one would expect, a few new members have been elected to Taft's petrified congress in the last 70 years. Martin Luther King, for instance, is represented as an African king, and the Lithuanians have raised a memorial to two countrymen who crashed to their deaths in the 30s attempting a record flight from New York to Vilnius, in Lithuania.

Riedy does not defend all of these pieces as art. He does, however, remind us that public sculpture often moves us even more as relics than as art. And a statue can not only recall a dead cause but revive it. Consider Johannes Gelert's Haymarket monument, the statue of a "robust patrolman" built in 1889 to honor the 66 policemen killed or wounded in the Haymarket riot of 1886. Three times the target of bombs or bomb threats over the years, in 1970 the statue was placed under 24-hour police guard by Mayor Daley--a gesture that even a statue-lover like Riedy concedes "probably was an unjustifiable extravagance." (The work has since been moved, first to police headquarters, then to the city's police academy.)

But while Riedy may be considered the last word on Chicago sculpture, he is not the only word. A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture, by Ira Bach and Mary Lackritz Gray, remains essential. Riedy offers more works and the photographs are rather better, but the pocket-size Bach-Gray guide is much more convenient for the strolling statuehound. It is also occasionally more informative. It is from Bach and Gray that we learn that the committee that commissioned the Haymarket monument complained to the sculptor that his patrolman looked too Irish.

The curious statue-lover is certainly justified in investing in both. Riedy, for example, tells us that Hermann Hahn's 1914 monument to Goethe came to represent German militarism to local patriots during both world wars. Much later, it became a symbol for one of the city's subcultures when local gays chose it as the site of a vigil in 1979. "This was probably due more to its location [at Diversey and Cannon] than to any symbolic appeal," notes Riedy, although the rumored sexual proclivities of Goethe may have helped draw the connection, as would the statue itself--described by Riedy as "a handsome youth, paradigm of virility, nude but for a cloak." It is from Bach and Gray, however, that we learn that the local Germans who commissioned the work may have seen a statue of Zeus they liked and simply ordered Hahn to put a younger head on it.

The history of works such as Hahn's Goethe monument belies much of Taft's elaborately argued aesthetic. Taft had sought to purge from his pieces all references to a specific time and place, to "essentialize" their pose, form, and costume so that their message would be timeless and universal, to commemorate his subjects (as Hahn commemorated Goethe) without representing them.

But that seems a bit silly today. Taft's notions of the universal human form strike us as parochial, even racist, limited as they are to models adapted from the Greeks and Romans. Suspect in general terms--the timeless also tends to be the banal--Taft's theories also suffered from specific failures of execution. The interconnectedness of the Great Lakes system is readable from the visual metaphor that Fountain of the Great Lakes provides, with its water cascading from one shell to another. But the Great Lakes symbolized by his graceful, placid maidens are not the Great Lakes that the region's residents know. Trickling water does not essentialize a lake capable of knocking a train off its tracks during a storm.

By the time Fountain of Time was unveiled in 1922, impatience with Taft's pretensions was general. That work was described variously at the time as a row of false teeth and as something that belonged in a graveyard rather than in a public pleasure park. (Riedy is more generous, calling it an "intriguing poem in stone.") It is not only the form of Taft's pieces that today strikes us as naive but their message. Timeless art, as Franz Schulze puts it in his introduction to the Bach-Gray guide, was "the visual equivalent of the inflated rhetoric in which high nineteenth-century civic ambition was often expressed."

Taft's historical moment may be neatly defined as the 20 years beginning with the Columbian Exposition in 1893 and ending with the Armory Show in 1913. After that point, art was to be about the moment, not about timelessness. Personality now counted, and character had become an outworn concept; standards had become personal instead of public. Meaning derived from the individual sensibility of the artist, not the collective sensibility of the community. Instead of monuments to historic events or great persons, the trend was toward monuments to the sculptor's sense of the world. Artists after World War I would find themselves separated from modern life, as Taft had been, but they would be stranded in the future rather than in the past. Public sculpture in Chicago took its apparently irrevocable turn toward the abstract as early as the 1920s and '30s, when Art Deco styles began to bridge the gap between the representational and the abstract.

It can be argued that the most recent trend--in which pieces have not Taft's universal meanings, but private meanings or no meanings at all--confirms the culture's lack of a shared iconography. Because there is no physical vocabulary in which the culture's meanings can be understood, only literal and simpleminded terms can be applied. According to Bach and Gray, a perfect example of that literal-minded understanding is provided by the reaction to Claes Oldenburg's Batcolumn, installed in 1977 in front of the Social Security Administration offices on West Madison. However subtle the sculpture's genesis, it is widely taken as an homage to baseball--or, at their most outrageous, locals have seen in it everything from a cop's billy club (and thus a symbol of Chicago clout in its most brutal form) to John Dillinger's dick. The artist, however, reportedly was first inspired by the columns on the old Northwestern station, and later by a factory chimney, and sought some form (a fire hydrant was an early choice) to represent those familiar shapes. That Oldenburg chose to symbolize an architectural column with an object whose associations are utterly removed from architecture may have been intentionally irreverent, as Bach and Gray in fact term it, but it can be just as reasonably interpreted as perverse.

It did not require the advent of abstract sculpture, however, to make Chicago feel itself the butt of jokes it did not understand. Even Taft's work, says Garvey, remained "frequently beyond the ability of most Chicagoans to grasp." And even if the average Chicagoan did perceive the values implicit in a work, the values "were in many cases unrelated to anything those viewers might have felt important." But if locals thought Taft's values, implicit in his essentialized works, unimportant, his successors' values must have often struck Chicagoans as unintelligible, even insulting.

Indeed, the only timeless aspect of Chicago's public art is the eagerness of local yahoos to deride it. Mike Royko last year called for "real art for real people," not the sort of "Whazzits" chosen by cheese-nibbling, wine-sipping art juries, who figure that if the average guy can figure it out, it ain't art. Garvey reports a similar reaction to Taft's proposal to line Midway Plaisance with portrait busts of 100 of the world's great leaders. Taft's friend, novelist Roswell Field, asked in a newspaper piece why "good Illinois money" should be spent commemorating "dead, hence unappreciative, foreigners," like Pindar and Spinoza, when there was a crying need for a good statue of the Fort Dearborn Massacre or the Great Fire.

True, after 20 years the Chicago Picasso has been accepted, even loved, by Chicagoans who find it neither beautiful nor meaningful but who can at least appreciate the sheer brashness of the artist's gesture. A more typical reaction followed the 1985 unveiling of Jean Dubuffet's Monument With Standing Beast, which looks like a botched batch of divinity fudge, on the plaza at the State of Illinois Center. This piece is probably one of the works that inspired the Clout Street cartoon in the Trib of May 1985. It showed Jim Thompson explaining to Harold Washington that a Buick had just run into a bread truck, but "instead of towing it away," he explained, "they just left it there . . . and it won the sculpture show."

Alas, while Chicago's hoi polloi have been indifferent or hostile to its public sculpture, Chicago's traditional art patrons have been guilty of worse crimes. Saint-Gaudens worked 12 years on his famous seated Lincoln, Riedy reports; it sat for 11 more years in a garage before it was finally installed in Grant Park in 1926. Since then, it and the stone monument of which it is the centerpiece have been neglected--scandalously--overgrown with trees, vandalized, beaten by the weather. (The Park District and the John Crerar Foundation undertook a joint restoration project last year.) Taft's Fountain of Time, made of concrete, is rotting away, and there are dozens more works in similar states of disrepair.

Insensitive siting is also a problem. An American Indian "looks down upon an everlasting stream of polluting automobiles," writes Riedy. Taft long railed against the practice of placing formal statuary amid the informal greenery of parks. He also complained about setting a hard-drinking general within preaching distance of a temperance crusader; a crowd, he noted nicely, is not always company.

It is all the more sad, therefore, that one of the most egregious instances of mis-siting should involve one of Taft's own works. His Fountain of the Great Lakes was moved in 1963 from its original site on the south side of the Art Institute to the west wall of the new Morton wing. So now the maiden Erie, who originally faced east like her namesake, faces northnorthwest, destroying the symbolism of Taft's composition. (Bach and Gray complain that the west light flattens the figures, too.) Furthermore, the plaque on the back of the statue honoring the donor cannot now be seen. The resiting showed not just indifference toward both artist and patron, Riedy suggests, but insult.

That donor, incidentally, was Benjamin Ferguson, a Chicago lumber king. When he died in 1905, he left a bequest to be used for public statuary commemorating the nation's worthy men and women and its important historical events. Taft for one had hoped that the fund would give birth to a unique Chicago school of sculpture. And it was used to purchase work from artists with Chicago connections, including Taft student Evelyn Beatrice Longman. So far 17 works in addition to Fountain of the Great Lakes have been created as a result of that bequest. But beginning in the 1930s, the trustees of the Art Institute, which administers the Ferguson Fund, did not commission a single statue for 35 years, using the accumulating income instead to help build a major new museum addition. That appropriation of the fund survived several legal challenges, but it has been widely decried as wrong despite its legality, and confirms the suspicion that the people who run the Art Institute are more interested in the institute than in art.

Considered solely in terms of numbers, the beautification of Chicago, for which Taft argued so eloquently, is finally taking place. More sculpture has been mounted--dozens of pieces--in recent years than had been mounted in whole decades earlier in this century. Much of it adorns new buildings. It may be paid for by developers (who replace with a single centerpiece work the friezes, panels, and cornices that used to ornament buildings) or by taxpayers through "Percent for art" programs, which require that part of the construction budgets of new public buildings be used for artwork. The proportion of respectable new work is probably no smaller today than it was in Taft's day. The abstractionists even have their own Taft, sort of, in the person of Richard Hunt, the Chicago-bred sculptor who has nearly a dozen major works mounted in Chicago and a considerable reputation outside of it.

Has Chicago entered some kind of golden age of public art, then? Riedy doesn't think so. In an epilogue, he reminds us that Chicago (as Taft once put it) in many ways still has "no ideals at all" when it comes to its public sculpture. He notes that there is no sculpture in sites where it might be most dramatic--imagine the impact of a colossal work at an expressway entrance to the city, for example. He repeats Taft's call for more public art in the neighborhoods, urges that sculptors be involved by architects in designing major buildings as well as decorating them, argues that public art be seen as focal points of urban design instead of just doodads, and proposes that a systematic program be implemented to maintain and restore the city's existing sculptures.

Garvey ends his book by recounting an article Taft wrote in 1923. The sculptor, then 63, held that, as intelligent people, Americans had a right to beauty, "which most of us never perceive"; to the inheritance of the past, "of which we Americans are particularly unconscious"; and to the talent that rises among us but that the rush of life "is wont to extinguish."

Garvey sees in Taft's laments, which show the influence of ideals other Americans have never had or have abandoned, the tragedy of Taft's career. "Beauty goes unperceived" in Taft's Chicago, Garvey writes, "the past is ignored, talent is thwarted." And he concludes, "Any people so insensitive to what life offers can hardly be credited with the intelligence Taft mentions."

Public Sculptor: Lorado Taft and the Beautification of Chicago by Timothy J. Garvey, University of Illinois Press, $19.95.

Chicago Sculpture by James L. Riedy, University of Illinois Press, $12.50.

A Guide to Chicago's Public Sculpture by Ira J. Bach and Mary Lackritz Gray, University of Chicago Press, $8.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Richard Laurent.

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