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Marilyn Monroe Comes to Chicago, 23 Skidoo

So now there’s a giant statue of Marilyn Monroe standing by Tribune Tower, on Michigan Ave:

Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune, 15 July 2011.

Describing it, the Chicago Tribune writes:

Marilyn Monroe, as a 26-foot-tall statue in her famous subway-grate stance from “The Seven Year Itch” pose [sic]. Dubbed Forever Marilyn, the sculpture by New Jersey-based artist Seward Johnson will live in Pioneer Court through what will be a rather chilly winters for the bare-legged, exposed-panties icon. It’s scheduled to depart in the spring.

The Tribune gets it wrong, however.

Convoluted grammar aside, Forever Marilyn doesn’t quite replicate Monroe’s “famous subway-grate stance from ‘The Seven Year Itch‘ pose.” Here’s the section of film in question:

I think that we’ve forgotten, as a culture, something that Curtis White observed in his novel Requiem (2001):

I noticed when I was a boy that Marilyn Monroe was always trying, but never quite succeeding, to let me see her breasts. I mean, I saw parts of her breasts that allowed me to imagine that there was more, but she never managed to contrive a means of allowing me to see the whole, the all-in-all of her breasts. But boy did I want to! I think if she had lived longer she would have gotten there. It really did seem pretty important to her. […] Even when she leaned way over the table, that famous Academy Award table, laughing, her gown cut low in front to her ankles nearly, you couldn’t quite see. What the hell is the matter with cameras, anyway? Can cameras fail or refuse to see what is revealed? (17)

No. Rather, director Billy Wilder—unlike artist Seward Johnson—showed some modesty, some restraint, leaving most of Monroe’s revelation to Tom Ewell’s—and the viewer’s—imagination. Well, it was 1955. But in the film, in contrast to this new sculpture—

Photo by E. Jason Wambsgans, Chicago Tribune, 15 July 2011.

—it doesn’t look to me as though Monroe’s dress ever got much higher than mid-thigh.

Which itself raised the bar, uh, quite a bit, considering the scene’s inspiration: Wilder doubtlessly had in mind a much earlier film, Edwin S. Porter’s 1901 short “What Happened on 23rd Street, New York City”:

(As Jean-Luc Godard put it, “The history of cinema is the history of men looking at women.”)

Porter shot this film right outside the Flatiron Building—or, rather, right next to where the Flatiron Building was then under constructed. (It was finished in 1902.)

That building was designed by Charles Daniel Burnham, the much-celebrated Chicago architect who planned the World’s Columbian Exhibition (1893) and the 1906 “Plan of Chicago” (whose centennial Chicago recently observed, with much fanfare). Today, he’s probably best remembered for his starring turn in Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City. Anyway, Burnham’s wedgie design only assisted public voyeurs. As George H. Douglas put it in his 2004 book Skyscrapers: A Social History of the Very Tall Building in America:

The intersection in front of the building was always a congested spot, and a windy one, too, and in the old days the corner was a famous spot for young lads to watch women’s skirts being whipped around. So famous was the spot, in fact, that policemen would occasionally have to shoo away these perpetual watches, and the expression ‘Twenty-Three Skidoo’ was said to have been born on this windswept corner. The building itself doubtless contributed to these odd wind patterns. (39)

Such are the effects of urbanization. (That etymology, by the way, has been debated. Personally, I prefer Robert Anton Wilson’s explanation.)

Burnham also designed Chicago’s Flatiron Building, in Wicker Park…

…which does bring us back to the Windy City (and another popular people-watching spot), even though Burnham didn’t have much to do with Pioneer Court. So why do we find Ms. Monroe standing there now? Is she visiting? And what’s making her feel so delicious? There just isn’t a subway grate in that location.

What is more, why didn't they stop there?

Pioneer Court is called Pioneer Court because it was (supposedly) the original home of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable, Chicago’s first non-Native American permanent resident. There’s a bust of him on the site, erected in 2009

Sculpture by Erik Blome.

…but it’s not really all that noticeable. In actuality, Pioneer Court is the closest equivalent Chicago has to Rockefeller Center: a broadcasting hub (it’s home to the Tribune Tower and the NBC Tower) and shopping area. And just like Rockefeller Center—

Jeff Koons's Puppy (1992) on display in Rockefeller Center, sometime in 2000.

—it has some kind of tradition of housing public sculpture.

Rockefeller Center was completed in 1933, and was (I learned this from the Wikipedia) “among the last major building projects in the United States to incorporate a program of integrated public art.” For instance, one still finds there Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan’s famous statue of Atlas:

Erected 1937. Photo by Michael Greene.

…and Jose Maria Sert’s mural “American Progress”:

Installed in 1937. Photo by Diane Bondareff for Tishman Speyer.

Not there, of course, is Diego Rivera’s mural Man at the Crossroads:

Diego Rivera, "Man at the Crossroads" (in progress) c.1933. Photo by Lucienne Bloch.

…which was famously destroyed, on 10 February 1934, due to it and its author’s Socialist leanings.

Pioneer Court, similarly, has seen its fair share of public art. Well, it’s seen its fair share of Seward Johnson pieces. Before Forever Marilyn, it was home to a different fiberglass giant, the farmer couple from Grant Wood’s American Gothic:

Grant Wood, American Gothic (1930).
J. Seward Johnson, Jr., "God Bless America." Photo by Phil Velasquez.

Here’s my interpretation of that piece: In 2009, when the Art Institute opened its Modern Wing, it also increased its admission fee from $12 to $18. And not long before that, the institution annoyed many Chicagoans by loaning American Gothic for five months or so to the Renwick Gallery in Washington, DC. So I read the sculpture as something of a mollifying joke: the Gothic couple had recently been traveling, but now they’d returned to their true big city home. And if you couldn’t afford to see the actual painting, here was a cute facsimile.

However, now that I know that the sculpture was titled God Bless America, I realize I was probably reading too much into things. I’m also guessing that Seward Johnson is either being ironic (doubtful), or doesn’t know the painting’s controversial history:

When the picture finally appeared in the Cedar Rapids Gazette, real Iowa farmers and their wives were not amused. To them, the painting looked like a nasty caricature, portraying Midwestern farmers as pinched, grim-faced, puritanical Bible-thumpers. One Iowa farmwife told Wood he should have his “head bashed in.” Another threatened to bite off his ear. Stung by the criticism, Wood declared himself a “loyal Iowan” and insisted that the figures were not intended to be farmers but small-town folk, not Iowans but generic Americans. His sister Nan, perhaps embarrassed about being depicted as the wife of a man twice her age, started telling people that Wood had envisioned the couple as father and daughter, not husband and wife. (Wood himself remained vague on this point.)

The critics who admired the painting in the early ’30s—including Gertrude Stein and Christopher Morley—also assumed it was a satire about the rigidity of American rural or small-town life, lampooning the people H. L. Mencken called the “booboisie” of the “Bible Belt.” As Biel explains, “American Gothic appeared to its first viewers as the visual equivalent of the revolt-against-the-provinces genre in 1910s and 1920s American literature”—a critique of provincialism akin to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, and Carl Van Vechten’s The Tattooed Countess.

But a few years later, as the nation sank into the Great Depression, people started to see Wood’s painting in a different light. American Gothic was no longer understood as satirical, but as a celebratory expression of populist nationalism. Critics extolled the farmer and his wife as steadfast embodiments of American virtue and the pioneer spirit. “American democracy was built upon the labors of men and women of stout hearts and firm jaws, such people as those above,” read one caption in 1935.

Wood helped along this revisionist reading by repudiating the Paris-influenced bohemianism of his youth, refashioning himself as America’s “artist-in-overalls.” He allied himself with other regionalist painters like John Steuart Curry and the virulently jingoistic Thomas Hart Benton, who railed against the “control” of the East Coast art world by “precious fairies.” Wood echoed Benton’s anti-intellectual sentiments, announcing: “All the good ideas I’ve ever had came to me while I was milking a cow.”

Before the appearance of that tourist photo opportunity, court passersby were subject to the troubled gaze of King Lear:

Apparently Seward Johnson’s signed some kind of exclusivity contract with whomever owns Pioneer Court. (He is rather wealthy, being the grandson of the co-founder of Johnson & Johnson. He’s also a rather storied fellow, if his Wikipedia page is to be believed.) I leave it to you to decide whether his work is getting better or worse.

To my knowledge, this particular “fiberglass public sculpture trend” started with those parading cows. You’ll recall them—in retrospect a positively quaint bit of pre-9/11 kitsch:

CowParade is the largest and most successful public art event in the world. CowParade events have been staged in over 50 cities worldwide since 1999 including Chicago (1999), New York City (2000), London (2002), Tokyo (2003), and Brussels (2003). Dublin (2003), Prague (2004), and Stockholm (2004), Mexico City (2005), Sao Paulo (2005), Buenos Aires (2006), Boston (2006) Paris (2006), Milan (2007, and Istanbul (2007).

I guess Chicago holds the dubious honor of being the start of that. A bronzed one still stands outside the Cultural Center:

…and another one’s still peering through a telescope on Damen Ave., between Bucktown and Wicker Park:

So now we must ask—why a cow? The CowParade website readily explains:

Simply, the cow is a universally beloved animal. The cow represents different things to different people around the world—she’s sacred, she’s historical, she connects us to our past—but the common feeling is one of affection. There is something magical about the cow that transcends throughout the world. She simply makes everyone smile.

As an art canvas, there is no other animal or object that provides the form, flexibility, and contiguous breadth of a cow. The three shapes (standing, grazing, reclining) provide artists with subtle, yet interesting angles and curves to create unique works of art. The basic cow form is also benign so that it can be altered, transformed, and morphed into completely other animals, people or objects. Incredibly, over 2500 hundred Cows have been created worldwide, but no two are alike.

We’ll take that at face value. One of those 2500 incredibly unique cows was made by David Lynch. His, however—

David Lynch, "Eat My Fear," c.2000.

did not make everyone smile:

[W]hen city officials saw the “Eat My Fear” cud-chewer, they turned into udder cow-ards and banned it from the show. Now, after months in exile at a warehouse in Connecticut, it’s gone on display at the downtown Manhattan Alleged Gallery—ironically close to the meatpacking district […].

2011 sees the cow thing more than a decade old. And next year will see the 50th anniversary of Marilyn Monroe’s death. But the questions still remain: why her? Why that pose? And why in Chicago?

Well, simply, she is a universally beloved animal. Marilyn Monroe represents different things to different people around the world—she’s sacred, she’s historical, she connects us to our past—but the common feeling is one of affection. There is something magical about her that transcends throughout the world. She simply makes everyone smile.

Sometimes, the culture is depressingly circular.
  • A. D. Jameson is the author of five books, most recently I FIND YOUR LACK OF FAITH DISTURBING: STAR WARS AND THE TRIUMPH OF GEEK CULTURE and CINEMAPS: AN ATLAS OF 35 GREAT MOVIES (with artist Andrew DeGraff). Last May, he received his Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the Program for Writers at UIC.

4 thoughts on “Marilyn Monroe Comes to Chicago, 23 Skidoo

  1. great post: one small correction: this should be Daniel Burnham, not Charles.I spent too long thinking about him when I did this project through NEH funding: vbi.lakeforest.edu.

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