Everyone knows that Chicago is a sports-crazy town. So why did it take so long for the five major teams to commission statuary of iconic players to promote their brands? The Bulls went first in 1994, when they brought a likeness of their global superstar to a newly built arena. The statue of Michael Jordan at the United Center, designed by the local Rotblatt-Amrany studio, set a standard of high drama for the genre. It offers a high-flying superhero overwhelming hapless, earthbound opponents. The display of athletic prowess overwhelms the energy of forms in space, but that seems appropriate for the entrance to an arena. It was made for sports fans, not art lovers. The same could be said for all the sports statuary that has followed over the past twenty-five years, including the new installations at Soldier Field.
The placement of these twelve-foot statues is much more modest than that of Jordan. Rather than being located at the center of a concourse, they have been placed at either end of the wide stairway leading up to the south entrance of the stadium. They are on pedestals, but those pedestals were built into an embankment, so from many views, the figures are at ground level. These hardworking Bears have their feet on the ground! The overall view is dominated by military-style, block-letter signage overhead that reads: ”SOLDIER FIELD – DEDICATED TO THE MEN AND WOMEN OF THE ARMED SERVICES.”
So why have statues of athletes, rather than military heroes been installed? That question may explain why it’s taken fifty years for the Bears to put their brand on a sacred public space. It may also explain why the current placement is so modest—and the pieces themselves are not as colorful and cartoonish as the statuary displayed at other facilities. Both reflect toughness more than athletic virtuosity. George Halas is shown as a menacing, old chief executive bursting onto the field, presumably to yank a player or berate an official. Walter Payton—in full body armor, face partially concealed by helmet—is striding forward, presumably into the end zone. So much of the energy in both figures is concentrated in their powerful shoulders, as befits the “city of big shoulders.” But also characteristic of Chicago is the deep racial divide, proclaimed by the signage that accompanies each figure. Halas, the son of European immigrants, is listed as “Founder, Player, Coach, Owner.” Payton, the son of African Americans in the deep south, is accompanied by his diminutive nickname, “Sweetness.” One is to be feared and respected as a self-made patriarch. The other is to be loved as a child. There were no black head coaches when Payton was a player, and there is yet to be a principal owner.
The statues were modeled by Chad Fisher (b. 1983), a Philadelphia sculptor who pursued an education in classical figurative sculpture, a discipline that has mostly vanished from accredited art schools. There is nothing soft, puffy or casual about his work. Its contours reflect the tightness of mimetic life drawing and a study of anatomical structures. Yet you won’t find the architectonic power of St. Gaudens’ Lincoln memorial up in Lincoln Park or the formal fluidity of the Daniel Chester French statuary in Graceland Cemetery. Like illustrations, these pieces are presumably about a checklist of identifiable characteristics demanded by the client, delivered with competence and verve. There are nice views, especially of the running Payton as silhouetted against the South Loop skyline and the bellowing face of Halas as seen from below.
As public life becomes ever more indistinguishable from mass entertainment, this may be the most serious figurative public sculpture for which we can hope. (Chris Miller)