Note: posted on History for the Present, December 12, 2016
In Pioneer Court in Chicago, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, a 25-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln demands attention, as his iconic stovepipe hat stretches out over the busy sidewalk. But while the less-than-perfect likeness of President Lincoln (it’s a little too smiley and too rosy-cheeked for my liking) draws pedestrians in for photo-ops, as it did for my daughter and I on Sunday, Lincoln’s shorter bronze companion leaves them baffled. Who in the hell is that dude in the white, cable-knit sweater and khaki pants? What is he holding? And why in the world is Lincoln hanging out with him?
I had already heard about the installation of Seward Johnson‘s colossal version of his “Return Visit”—a life-size statue he did for the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania in Gettysburg in 1991—so as I excitedly crossed the river, shuffling through the snow, I knew something of what to expect when I finally cast my eyes upon it. Apparently, the dude in the cable-knit sweater represents a “common man” of the present, who is holding the Gettysburg Address as Lincoln explains its depth and meaning. But in seeing the public art for myself, in observing the many furrowed brows and confused expressions of the pedestrians all around me, and in hearing people ask their companions about that dude in the white sweater, even my little advance knowledge of the art and of the artist did little to help me understand the sculpture’s message and to appreciate its purpose in Chicago in December in 2016.
The snow may have defeated my efforts to locate a descriptive marker about the art, but I did not find one, and it appeared as though the confused pedestrians I saw had not located one either. It is possible that well-written, well-curated signage may have offered some answers about the art and explained something of artist’s intention with the work. However, the sculpture alone failed to reinforce the little knowledge I had about it and, in fact, it left me with many questions. How does this public art connect with its urban context at that historic and iconic Chicago intersection? What history is it trying to share with the thousands of pedestrians who will see in over the course of the next year that it is scheduled to be a fixture on that plaza? How can a diverse, urban populous relate to a statue that depicts a mythical and colossal Abraham Lincoln and a “common man” depicted as a seemingly confused, middle-aged, white guy?
It is not that I disapprove of a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago. On the contrary, I was thrilled to see Mr. Lincoln there, hoisting his hat, beckoning his fellow Americans in the Windy City to come say hello and to snap a photograph with him. I am always in favor of interjecting a little Lincoln into our public spaces, because I know about his power to inspire. I just wish we spent more time thinking about making meaningful connections to our past. The Chicago Tribune reported that the owners of Pioneer Court, who organized the installation of this statue, hoped that Honest Abe’s presence in Chicago would “remind people that one of the most fundamental things we should be striving for is honesty in our political dialogue, in our exchange, in our debate, as opposed to criticism of each other.” I wholeheartedly agree, but I am at a loss to understand how the “Return Visit” evokes that meaning, and without a marker to offer even a suggestion to that point, the message is entirely lost on the audience. And without providing any artistic or historic context, the colossal sculpture in Chicago is nothing but a humorous photo-op, a quirky destination for Roadside America. Disappointingly, it is missing a giant opportunity to substantively engage pedestrians traveling through that iconic Chicago intersection with history and to offer them a vehicle for discussion about the intersections of our shared past and our shared present.
By way of a more positive conclusion, I must say that I have no doubt that tens of thousands of Chicagoans and visitors in the city throughout 2017 will take note of the giant Lincoln statue on Michigan Avenue. Like me, most of those visitors will fail to see the relevance of Lincoln’s companion in the cable-knit sweater; but I suspect that in spite of their confusion, they will enjoy Lincoln’s presence there in that intersection and will take time out of their schedules to spend a moment with him. And who knows, perhaps the colossal sculpture’s placement, in juxtaposition to the colossal Trump tower kitty-corner across the street, will at least for a moment connect the present with the past in some meaningful way. Perhaps the giant letters on Trump tower will catch the eye of people posing for their photos with Mr. Lincoln and remind them that American presidents can be and should be good and honest people of character and decency. That possibility, in the end, might just cancel out my skepticism about this perplexing sculpture and make worthwhile all of the effort and expense it took to install it.