Publication Date

December 1, 2011

Perspectives Section

AHA Annual Meeting

The Forever Marilyn statue located in Pioneer Court. Photo by <a href="" target="_blank">DoodleMatt</a> on Flikr.

The Forever Marilyn statue located in Pioneer Court. Photo by DoodleMatt on Flikr.

Meeting attendees who wander to nearby Pioneer Court (401 North Michigan Avenue) will be greeted by Forever Marilyn, a recent addition to Chicago’s public art scene. Unveiled in July 2011, the 26-foot, 17-ton steel and aluminum figure is the work of New Jersey-based artist Seward Johnson. The mammoth sculpture recreates a famous moment from the 1955 film The Seven Year Itch, when the skirt of Marilyn Monroe’s dress billows up as she stands on a gusty Manhattan subway grate.

So what exactly is the giant likeness of the actress doing on Michigan Avenue? There is little to connect Monroe or the memorable film scene to Chicago, except perhaps by tenuous association. Monroe graced the cover of the first issue of Playboy, founded by a Chicagoan, and it does get awfully windy here. Zeller Realty Group, which owns the plaza and leased the sculpture, was not looking for a Chicago connection, however. President and CEO Paul Zeller has punned that the work was meant simply to be “uplifting.”

Ordinarily, Pioneer Court is a good place to take in the impressive vista formed by the buildings surrounding the DuSable Bridge. Within the plaza, a marker commemorates a national landmark, the home site of the city’s first non-native settler, Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, and south across the river at Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive pavement markers call attention to the site of Fort Dearborn. At the moment, these nearby architectural and historic landmarks threaten to be upstaged by Johnson’s immense depiction of the platinum blonde. Not surprising in a culture enamored of celebrity, it is a hit with tourists and passersby, who sidle up to her legs and photograph her derrière.

Many of Johnson’s sculptures, which populate park benches and other public spaces around the country, are lifelike bronze figures of ordinary people engaged in everyday activities. He also has become known for—and has drawn criticism for the derivative nature of—his larger-than-life sculptures that render in three dimensions what photographers and painters have created in two. An earlier Pioneer Court installation of Johnson’s God Bless America gave towering form to the farm couple of Grant Wood’s painting, American Gothic. Forever Marilyn similarly draws inspiration from a well-known image, a 1955 Bruno Bernard photograph of Monroe in her flyaway dress.

Monroe, of course, was a talented but troubled actress who capitalized on her looks, figure, and dizzy blonde persona to delight audiences and achieve motion picture stardom. The Seven Year Itch is Monroe at her most alluring and comedic best. In the film, she lingers over a sidewalk grate on a sultry summer night and revels in the breeze from a passing subway. Her dress is momentarily blown upward. Little flesh is actually revealed in the brief but much-ballyhooed scene. Publicity photos offered a bit more thigh and transformed the image of Monroe with uplifted skirt into a pop icon—the ivory halter dress sold for $4.6 million at auction this summer—but they remained merely suggestive.

Johnson’s take on the image leaves little to the imagination. In this regard, Forever Marilyn is akin to his 2003 Corcoran Gallery of Art exhibition, Beyond the Frame: Impressionism Revisited, which gave sculptural form to figures and scenes found in works by Monet, Renoir, and others, while adding new elements Johnson imagined might be visible “beyond the frame” of the original paintings.

For his effort to take us beyond—or more to the point behind—the frame of the Bernard photograph, Johnson might be credited for the engineering feat of stabilizing the weight of the skirt with 20,000 pounds of ballast in the subway grate. But he has reduced Monroe and the celebrated image to a visual one-liner. Now, standing between her legs, strolling beneath the cantilevered skirt, we get to stare up at her underpants. Whereas film and photograph provide a glimpse of skin, Johnson’s sculpture gives us Marilyn forever frozen in painted metal, rear end exposed in perpetuity.

Forever Marilyn is a curious, albeit temporary, addition to the streetscape. Like most cities, Chicago offers relatively few physical reminders of women’s contributions and achievements. Until 1996, when Hull-House founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams received recognition in the form of a sculpture in a city park, Chicago women were virtually absent from the memorial landscape. In recent years, civic leaders have begun to address the dearth of public remembrances of women’s activities through sculptures, historical markers, and the naming of parks. Forever Marilyn stands apart from these efforts in that it is privately funded and resides on private property. Nevertheless, it certainly gives one pause to consider that at the moment, the city’s most prominent tribute to a woman is one that encourages passersby to gaze at her ruffled panties. The sculpture is scheduled to remain on view until spring 2012. If you are anywhere in the vicinity, it’s unavoidable.

Elizabeth Fraterrigo is associate professor of history at Loyola University Chicago and the author of Playboy and the Making of the Good Life in Modern America (Oxford University Press, 2009).