Whatchamacallit turns 40

Mike Ramsey

Happy 40th birthday, whatever you are.

 City officials on Wednesday staged a celebration -- complete with cake and birthday serenade -- at the slanting base of the ambiguous, untitled Pablo Picasso sculpture that anchors Daley Plaza in the Loop. It was 40 years to the day since then-Mayor Richard J. Daley introduced the 50-foot-tall cubist work at what was then called the Civic Center.

 Then, as now, people can’t quite figure out what the statue is supposed to be, although some have guessed “horse” or “bird.” Nonetheless, today the dark steel structure is a local icon as familiar as the Sears Tower, Wrigley Field or the city’s “L” train system.

 “Whether people love it or hate or are indifferent, we think it’s a very important piece of art in Chicago, and we love it,” Gregory Knight, deputy commissioner of visual arts for the city’s Cultural Affairs Department, told a crowd of about 100.

 The statue, sometimes referred to as the “Chicago Picasso,” is credited with softening the city’s blue-collar edge and driving the local policy of installing art at public sites – a movement seen in full bloom at the popular Millennium Park a few blocks to the east.

The world-renowned Picasso (1881-1973) ultimately waived his $100,000 design fee as a magnanimous gesture to Chicago, yet he never stepped foot here. Instead, the late architect Bill Hartman visited him in Spain and brought him a White Sox jacket, a Bears jersey and a Native American headdress to help inspire him, according to Richard Tomlinson, a partner in Hartman’s firm of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, which helped build the Daley Center.

He said Hartman also brought a model of the skyscraper and plaza, and Picasso used objects from his own studio to determine what the scale of his sculpture would be.

“When he set down a cigarette lighter (onto the model), Picasso claimed, ‘That’s the right height,’” Tomlinson said. “So the sculpture turned out to be 50 feet high based on a cigarette lighter.”

 The high-rise and plaza were completed in 1966. They were the first project undertaken by the local Public Building Commission. Based on the artist’s design, the full-sized Picasso sculpture was finished in 1967 and unveiled before crowds that mobbed the plaza.

Daley prophetically said the strange sight “will be familiar tomorrow.” But legendary newspaper columnist Mike Royko derided the statue, saying it evoked the city’s greedy and cruel qualities.

“The fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like some giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect,” Royko wrote. “It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.”

 Bill Collins, a 73-year-old retired city employee, recalled attending the unveiling 40 years ago. On Wednesday, he sat near the statue, which sported a giant fabric top hat as part of the festivities.

“I didn’t figure out what it was then. I still can’t figure out what it is,” Collins said. “Now, everybody thinks it’s beautiful.”

Mike Ramsey can be reached at (312) 857-2323 or ghns-ramsey@sbcglobal.net.