Chicago’s Picasso, a 162-ton steel sculpture hovering 50 feet over Daley Plaza, has been slowly turning colors and gaining in popularity for 50 years.

Oxidation has given it a rusting patina. The growing popularity of metal sculptures has made it less of an oddball.

The local art scene was different on Aug. 15, 1967, when Richard J. Daley proudly unveiled a work that the most celebrated artist of the day had made especially for the mayor’s beloved Chicago. Daley acknowledged that some folks might need a little time before sharing his enthusiasm, as the Tribune noted.

“We dedicate this celebrated work this morning with the belief that what is strange to us today will be familiar tomorrow.”

Alfresco sculpture at that time usually meant historic figures carved out of granite or marble. Confusion over Picasso’s sculpture had arisen long before the piece was installed. A maquette, a scale model, that was sent to the city about a year earlier left Chicagoans scratching their heads.

Clearly it was meant to look like something. But what?

Answering that question would require the imagination of a paleontologist examining a newly unturned fossil: A few features were recognizably those of some sort of animal. Others were puzzling.

Lots of people made a stab at deciphering the statue during the hubbub that accompanied its installation in front of 25,000 people at what was then known as Civic Center Plaza.

“Groups of children driven to the Loop for the event, businessmen on their lunch hour and housewives taking time out from their shopping filled out the crowd of official guests and dignitaries,” the Tribune reported. “The experts had said that the great artist’s work was a giant head of a woman, but not everyone could quite see it that way.”

Over the coming days — and decades — people would ask, “What is it?”

Among the answers suggested by passers-by were: the head of a horse, butterfly wings, a flying nun, an Afghan hound, a vulture and Ollie the dragon — a reference to the popular television show “Kukla, Fran and Ollie.”

Children were particularly intrigued by the question. One said it “was a baboon at the top but not at the bottom.” A 5-year-old’s answer had a hint of sibling rivalry: “It looks like my brother.”

“It’s hideous!” a woman told the Tribune’s reporter. “It’s like a cow sticking out its tongue at Chicago.”

Her verdict was echoed sotto voce at City Hall. Few ward heelers were willing to publicly question Daley’s aesthetic judgment, the Tribune’s reporter stationed there wrote. “But a number have said privately they believe the city has been hoodwinked by the artist.”

An exception was Col. Jack Reilly, who spoke up, though his beef wasn’t about aesthetics. The city’s director of special events loved to stage elaborate receptions for visiting dignitaries in the plaza. With the sculpture taking up space, where would he line up the marching bands and military formations?

“If it is a bird or an animal, they ought to put it the zoo,” Reilly told the Tribune. “If it is art, they ought to put it in the Art Institute.”

Ald. John Hoellen, 47th, a Republican, wanted the sculpture deported. But columnist Mike Royko thought the Spanish artist Pablo Picasso captured Chicago’s essence. “You’d think he’s been riding the L all his life,” Royko wrote.

Of the sculpture, he noted: “Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and the weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner.”

Debate of the sculpture’s virtue was inflamed by its creator’s politics. One Tribune reader denounced it as a “so-called statue donated by the card-carrying Communist, Picasso.”

Picasso had joined the French Communist Party in 1944 and a few years later created the Dove of Peace — a symbol adopted by antiwar activists, especially those who held the U.S. more responsible than the Soviet Union for the Cold War.

In 1967, the U.S. was divided over the Vietnam War. Some were deeply opposed; others considered protesters to be subversive for not supporting American GIs facing Communist troops.

Two days after the Picasso’s unveiling, an antiwar protester “was charged with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct after he refused to quit demonstrating in the plaza,” the Tribune reported.

Daley was unfazed by the redbaiting critics of Picasso. Among the critics was Col. Reilly, wrote Patricia Balton Stratton, author of the recently published “The Chicago Picasso.”

“Politics we handle ourselves,” Daley rebuked Reilly. “Picasso is the best artist in the world and that is what we care about.”

Daley looked at the Civic Center plaza as a Renaissance prince would. The Medici decorated the public square of Florence with a sculpture by Michelangelo. Daley was similarly determined to make the great genius of modern art his court artist.

The architects who carried that message to Picasso had a sales kit, on the assumption he didn’t know much about Chicago. Included were photos of notables associated with the city, such as Abraham Lincoln and Carl Sandburg.

“My friend!” Picasso said, seeing one of Ernest Hemingway. “I taught him everything he knew about bullfighting. Is he from Chicago?”

Perhaps Picasso recalled that the Art Institute of Chicago was the first American museum to show his work. Whatever the reason, not only did he take on the assignment, he refused to accept a $100,000 check for his work, saying it was his gift to Chicago. Several of Chicago’s charitable foundations shared the $300,000 (more than $2 million in 2017 dollars) construction cost of the statue, which was fabricated by the American Bridge division of U.S. Steel in Gary.

But Picasso declined to sign over copyright. That stopped the city from collecting licensing fees for souvenir versions — ashtrays and shot glasses — that proliferated as the sculpture became an iconic image of Chicago.

Despite its mixed reviews, Picasso’s statue grew on Chicagoans. Children delighted in climbing up it and sliding down. Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin used it as the background for announcing a pig as the Yippies’ candidate for president in 1968, and the plaza became Chicago’s equivalent of the ancient Roman Forum. Visitors asked their Chicago hosts to take them there.

When Picasso died in 1973, Doug Wisecup paid his respects in front of the sculpture. “It’s just too bad that we don’t have a similar work in Des Moines,” he told a Tribune reporter.

It inspired other sculptures — by artists of the caliber of Jean Debuffet, Joan Miro and Marc Chagall — to be placed at Loop sites. On its 25th anniversary, it was saluted by Emmet McShane, a city fire marshal. “It’s what we think the city is about,” he said, “The ‘L’ is there, the Picasso is there, the mayor is there.”

He was referring to the second Mayor Daley. No doubt the sculpture will be similarly saluted when Mayor Rahm Emanuel hosts its 50th birthday party Tuesday.

That doesn’t mean Chicagoans finally agree on what Chicago’s Picasso is. It’s that they’ve belatedly recognized the wisdom of the first Mayor Daley’s aesthetic advice: “You’re supposed to use your imagination in modern art.”

rgrossman@chicagotribune.com

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