Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Why Marilyn? Why Chicago?

This past July 15, a new sculpture called "Forever Marilyn", by pop-artist J. Seward Johnson, was installed in Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue's Magnificent Mile in Chicago.

The sculpture depicts Marilyn, in high heels, pushing the front of her dress down as a gust of wind rushes up between her legs. The back of the dress is blown up in a panty-revealing canopy.  She stands with her legs apart wide enough for the curious to walk between them and gaze right up her dress.

The 26-foot tall, 34,000-pound likeness of Monroe in that iconic scene from the 1955 film "The Seven Year Itch", was vandalized yesterday for the third time since its unveiling.  This time, red paint was splashed on her right leg, and it dripped down to the base of the sculpture.  24-hour security in the building on the plaza was unable to catch the vandals.

The sculpture has drawn criticism and questions from all over the city.  Local journalists and residents reacted with embarrassment or outrage.  Others found some humor in the work.  Tourists and thrill-seekers flock to the site almost 24 hours a day. There are the usual wits who leer at it, set up silly photos of themselves pushing up her dress, or worse.

But the reactions almost all boil down to two questions: Why erect a statue of Marilyn Monroe now?  And why do so in Chicago? 

Although Monroe is still a pop icon, many people are too young to remember or relate much to Monroe.  For those who remember her, she is as much a tragic figure as a sex-symbol, and so there is something unsettling about the frivolity and aggressive sexuality of the work. 

And the scene depicted took place in Manhattan, not Chicago.  Why not do a sculpture from another iconic movie that has a direct relation to Chicago, "Some Like It Hot", showing Marilyn with her gorgeous sequined dress and ukulele?  It would seem more appropriate, more lighthearted, and less---I don't know--threatening. 

I find nothing especially beautiful in the sculpture.  It seems to invite derision; it certainly doesn't inspire contemplation of Marilyn or her life and influence.

Then, too, there's the feeling of having seen this before, in a context of satire and scorn. And we have.  Ken Russell's 1975 movie of The Who's "Tommy" featured a scene in which Ann-Margret takes her deaf-dumb-and-blind son (Roger Daltrey) to a "church" for a cure.  Likenesses of Marilyn Monroe are idolized, in a heavy-handed but fascinating comment on misplaced celebrity-worship.  A huge sculpture of Monroe is carried down the aisle, and congregants file by to pay homage...The sculpture is even mounted on a mirrored base, all the easier to...well, you get the picture.

Russell's outrageous imagination was all a part of his "art".  It seemed appropriately over-the-top in "Tommy", a fantastical work from 36 years ago, when Marilyn's movies were more fresh in the minds of moviegoers.  Besides, this "spectacle" in the movie "Tommy" was "privately" experienced in movie theaters, not foisted on those simply moving down a world-famous thoroughfare. 

On Michigan Avenue, with tourists and families from the world over, many people either stare in fascination or try to avert their gaze. Even those who spend time looking at every angle, snapping pictures and trying to figure it all out, react with the expected embarrassed laughter.

Why does Marilyn Monroe deserve this now?  It has been 50 years since her death.  An invitation to leer seems sad and out of touch (it's naive not to expect this reaction in such a public venue rather than in a more private museum space).  The sculpture may be good for a momentary gasp, or laugh, even an appreciation of the joy Monroe exuded in some of her performances...But it's a misleading testament to her difficult existence, and the whole thing seems like overkill.  

The sculpture is scheduled to remain until 2012.

If I were not so cynical, I might wonder if Paul Zeller, of the Realty Group that oversees the public art in Pioneer Court, has some direct connection to BBC Films or the Weinstein Company.  Each studio is releasing a Marilyn-themed film this year : "Blonde" (Naomi Watts), and "My Week With Marilyn" (Michelle Williams) respectively.

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I much prefer the work created by Jeff Koons in 1992 titled "Puppy", now located in Bilbao, Spain, and made of a steel structure covered in a variety of flowers.  It is 43 feet tall.


  1. I'm glad you brought up Tommy use of Marilyn as celebrity iconography as well. It does seem an odd decision to display such a noticeable piece of public art.

    It doesn't even seem to add anything for the atmosphere of the location, at least from the shots you've got here. Or am I just being an art snob?

  2. You're right..the sculpture is not well-integrated, and detracts from the beauty of its surroundings.