The Ministry of Artistic Affairs
Friday, August 12, 2011

Marilyn Monroe was always larger than life. But here in the Windy City, the bombshell's recent appearance, in sculptural form, is showing that some viewers like it hot, others not so much.

A 26-foot-tall, 17-ton sculpture of the movie star in her iconic pose from "The Seven Year Itch," holding down her flyaway halter dress, went on display last month in a prominent plaza on Michigan Avenue.

Curious visitors, sometimes more than 100 at a time, swarm Marilyn. Little girls stand on her toes, leaving black scuffmarks on her red pedicure. They hug her ankles and struggle for footholds on the straps of her slingback high heels.

Others have used the installation as an opportunity to photograph Ms. Monroe not against the backdrop of the Magnificent Mile, but from between her gargantuan legs. To the chagrin of some and the frisson of others, that has meant peering upward toward her quilt-size, lace-trimmed underwear.

"There's always someone under her legs," said Keara Nicholas, a 20-year-old waitress at an outdoor bar. A brass band had just been serenading the sculpture with a swooning rendition of Stevie Wonder's "Isn't She Lovely?"

Such over-fascination has riled some residents and visitors, who say the artwork of the actress, and the behavior it inspires, have painted the city scarlet.

Amy Olberding, a philosophy professor at the University of Oklahoma, stopped by the sculpture while visiting Chicago in late July. She said she observed a woman coaching her toddler son to gaze up at Marilyn's underwear. "That was sort of mind-bending," Ms. Olberding said.

Famous attractions such as the Wrigley Building and the neo-Gothic Tribune Tower loom nearby, but, said John Williams, a radio host, "nobody looks at them."

The response has been "almost uniformly negative," said Andrew Huff, publisher of a popular local blog, Gapers Block. "Most people think it's in poor taste, cheesy, and some of them think it reflects poorly on Chicago," Mr. Huff said.

Beyond the behavior the sculpture triggers, critics have seized on the subject's lack of connection with the city. The film's famous subway-grate scene is set in Manhattan, and the Amazonian replica of the pin-up was fabricated in New Jersey, where the artist, Seward Johnson, an 80-year-old grandson of a co-founder of Johnson & Johnson, maintains a studio.

"I really question the thought process that the owners of Pioneer Plaza went through as they chose this piece," Mr. Huff said.

In fact, they thought that the work would be "uplifting," said Paul Zeller, president and chief executive of Zeller Realty Group, a commercial developer that owns the property.

Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office also gave the project a lift, said Mr. Zeller, helping speed the permit process for the firm. Mr. Emanuel's office declined to comment.

Raising Marilyn was still a complex process. Rendered in painted stainless steel and aluminum, "Forever Marilyn" is a realistic-looking work, much in the way that wax figures appear life-like. She was shipped in three parts and installed over the course of three days. "She was two years in the making and a very difficult engineering challenge with the imbalance created by the cantilevered skirt," said Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Zeller began installing sculptures on the plaza a decade ago as a way to enliven what was once a quiet corner of the city.

He quickly came to admire the work of Mr. Johnson, who, along with his siblings, famously clashed with their late father's third wife, Basia, in a bitter dispute over the family's pharmaceutical fortune. The case was settled out of court in 1986.

Mr. Johnson is known for his sculptures inspired by familiar images, such as the stern couple from "American Gothic," and the sailor and nurse caught in an embrace in Alfred Eisenstaedt's famous photograph, "V-J Day in Times Square." Despite his popularity, his work has provoked intense disdain from some in the art world. In his 2006 memoir, the critic Robert Hughes used off-color language to describe Mr. Johnson's abilities.

Mr. Zeller imported Mr. Johnson's "American Gothic"-inspired work in 2008, and the artist's sculpture of King Lear a year earlier. Mr. Johnson had long planned to create a likeness of Marilyn; Mr. Zeller asked the artist to create the piece for Chicago and paid to transport and install it.

A former chairman of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, Mr. Zeller dismissed criticism of the Marilyn, saying he stands out on the plaza for 10 minutes each day watching visitors smile and "poke each other in the ribs." The sculpture is scheduled to stay in the plaza until spring.

The Sculpture Foundation, a nonprofit that owns and manages all of Mr. Johnson's artwork, owns the Marilyn, a spokeswoman said. She added that the work has no post-plaza plans as of yet although the foundation has fielded numerous inquiries from across the globe.

Those responsible for maintaining Ms. Monroe's image are on Mr. Zeller's side. Authentic Brands Group, a co-owner of the Monroe estate, zealously guards all Monroe-related, copyrighted products, such as T-shirts and posters. But the company says that fine-art projects, such as the Johnson sculpture, enjoy first-amendment protection and that no approval was required from the group.

"The fact that people want to interact with her by standing next to her legs, that's great," said Nancy Carlson, vice president of marketing for Authentic Brands.

Others, such as Ben Caro of Los Angeles, Calif., have also come to her defense.

"Standing tall over Chicago/ don't despair/ the windy city won't blow you down/ your skirt is already up..." Mr. Caro wrote in a poem inspired by the work. "Let them lean on your heels/ pretend to lick your feet/ keep your eyes pointed/ toward St. Louis..."

Visiting the plaza on a recent evening, Fred Schebor, a 57-year-old college administrator from Hillsdale, Mich., pointed to the Wrigley headquarters across the street, and said, "What could be more American than Wrigley gum and Marilyn Monroe?"

By Erica Orden and Jack Nicas for the Wall Street Journal.