Picasso's controversial sculpture

Picasso's sculpture graces Daley Plaza in the heart of downtown Chicago. (Chicago Tribune/Candice C. Cusic)

Some said it looked like a rusty tin can. Others likened it to a baboon with wings. An editorial in the Chicago Tribune derided it as a "predatory grasshopper." Alderman John J. Hoellen even introduced a City Council resolution to have the piece removed.

The subject of the city's consternation in 1967 was a sculpture planned for Civic Center Plaza in the heart of downtown. In the months leading up to the unveiling, a small-scale model was previewed for the public at the Art Institute. Grotesque, some charged. Obscene, some suggested. Rumors even swirled that the finished five-story-tall steel piece was nothing more than a 162-ton hoax -- a monumental joke on Chicago played by its creator, Pablo Picasso. The fact that Picasso declined a commission and designated it a present to the city fueled the speculation.

Then -- Mayor Richard J. Daley tried to be reassuring. What seems strange today will be familiar tomorrow, he said, and Chicago will be ever grateful for this gift.

Three decades later, it's clear the mayor was right. Picasso's sculpture has become one of Chicago's most beloved sights and a symbol of the city: bold, tough, beautiful, multidimensional.

I lived in the Chicago area from 1989 to 1994 and return regularly to see friends and family. Like most visitors, I'm usually dazzled first by the skyline, the cloud-kissing towers built by such notables as I.M. Pei, Harry Weese and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

But on trips in December and April, I paid less attention to skyscrapers above and devoted more time to the treasures below: public sculptures by Picasso, Alexander Calder, Claes Oldenburg, Marc Chagall and Joan Miro. Like Picasso in '67, each of these artists has faced his share of public protest, critical scorn, vandalism, even the Second City's public enemy No. 1, winter. And each has endured.

Hundreds of modern sculptures line parks and adorn buildings all over town, some funded by the U.S. General Services Administration's Art-in-Architecture program, others the result of a city ordinance requiring new municipal buildings to include artwork.

I focused on major works in the Loop, the downtown business core, bound roughly by the curving Chicago River to the north and west, Van Buren Street to the south and Michigan Avenue to the east. Last winter, map in hand and muffs on ears, I set off to see as many as I could in one blustery afternoon. And this spring, after more research, I revisited my favorites to see them in a different light.

For out-of-towners, a good starting point May through October is just north of the Loop at Navy Pier, the waterfront shopping-dining-entertainment promenade. Every spring and summer, the front lawn and exposition hall host Pier Walk, a collection of large sculptures -- 80 artists' works this year.

From there, one can walk southwest into the Loop and toward the James R. Thompson Center at 100 W. Randolph St. In a downtown filled with classic boxy buildings, architect Helmut Jahn dreamed up an outrageous vision of mirrored glass and curved steel accented in orange and blue. If the building looks like a grounded spaceship, then Jean Dubuffet's "Monument With Standing Beast" must be an alien slithering out the front door.

Unveiled Nov. 28, 1984, the 29-foot-tall, 10-ton fiberglass structure still gets called "ugly and papier-mache like" (Citysearch) and "a deconstructed igloo or pile of dirty snow" (Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel Online).

Dubuffet found inspiration in the art of children and the insane, whom he credits for the energy, vitality and humor in his avant-garde paintings. Guidebooks said "Monument With Standing Beast" is composed of four elements intended to suggest a standing animal, a portal and "architectural components." I still didn't get it.

I ducked into the Thompson Center for clues. The soaring 17-story atrium is a breathtaking expanse of glass walls and ceiling (more than 24,000 exterior panels and a total glass surface area of 400,000 square feet). No matter how many times I step inside, I always feel as if I've entered a UFO, not the offices of more than 50 state agencies.

Perhaps that's the point. It's not your standard governmental building. (Do most government offices freeze eight 100,000-pound ice blocks every night only to let them slowly melt the next day for use as coolant in the air-conditioning system?) Dubuffet's sculpture celebrates that unconventional approach, inviting visitors to step through the portal and into the crazy environment inside.

Next, a block down Dearborn Street, I stood at Richard J. Daley Plaza, the spot where the mayor pulled the tarp off the untitled Picasso sculpture on Aug. 15, 1967. It should have been heralded as the first public sculpture by the world's most celebrated living artist.

Instead it became a citywide controversy. On the morning of the unveiling, a crowd estimated at 50,000 packed the plaza: downtown suits, suburban homemakers, schoolchildren, hippies passing out flowers, picketers prepared to protest and security guards ready to respond.

When the wraps came off, the head-scratching began. Art experts recognized the sculpture as a woman's face, albeit in Picasso's abstract style. The public's reactions were decidedly different, according to Sheila Wolfe, a Tribune reporter on the scene. Onlookers saw a cow sticking out its tongue, a human rib cage and appendix, or "nothing, absolutely nothing."

I spent a good half-hour looking at the shapes and forms, letting my mind make odd comparisons and fanciful interpretations. If imagination is a gift, I decided, Picasso's thought-provoking work is one of the finest this city has received.

If the initial reception to Picasso's work was lukewarm, the reaction to surrealist Miro's sculpture across the way on Washington Street was downright frosty.