What's Wrong With Chicago's Giant New Marilyn Monroe Sculpture? Pretty Much Everything

What's Wrong With Chicago's Giant New Marilyn Monroe Sculpture? Pretty Much Everything

Feel that itch? That's another public art controversy brewing.

Friday saw the debut of a new public art icon, of a sort, for Chicago: J. Seward Johnson's "Forever Marilyn" in Pioneer Court on Michigan Avenue. The 26-foot-tall, 34,000-pound sculpture, manufactured in New Jersey of painted stainless steel and aluminum, is a super-sized sculptural tribute to Marilyn Monroe's iconic scene from Billy Wilder's 1955 infidelity comedy, "The Seven-Year Itch," with the figure frozen at exactly the instant that a blast of air raises her dress. It will be on view until spring 2012 — that is, unless public outcry sends Marilyn packing.

There's no doubt that the "Seven-Year Itch" scene is a part of the American imagination — the white halter dress Monroe wore in the scene just sold at auction for no less than $5.6 million — but Johnson's new work of sculpture already has people lining up to denounce it, for a variety of reasons. Here's ARTINFO's round-up:

IT'S SEXIST

"To some, the iconic dress-flapping pose in Seward Johnson's sculpture Forever Marilyn stands as testament to a classic American beauty," the Chicago Tribune remarks diplomatically. "To others, the installation on Michigan Avenue is a shameful exercise in caveman misogyny."

This is not the first time that Johnson has invoked the skirt-blowing scene — he did a more to-scale version for a series of commissions for downtown Dayton, Ohio. However, enlarging this image to giantess size can have only one result: to encourage rather lewd novelty pics. Already, these range from a portrait of a bunch of groomsmen eagerly taking upskirt pics with their cell phones (classy, guys!) to a snap of Chicago rapper Sergio Rockstar, pictured leaping up to tap Marilyn's panties with his palm. Heck, even the pictures of the sculpture being finished, with a masked workman being raised up under Marilyn's skirt by crane, are pretty creepy.

The Sun Times has a less judgmental take on "Forever Marilyn": "Even worse than the sculpture itself is the photo-op behavior it's inspiring. Men (and women) licking Marilyn's leg, gawking up her skirt, pointing at her giant panties as they leer and laugh."

There's a case to be made that the sculpture develops something of a theme in Johnson's oeuvre. For Key West, he made a sculptural tableaux of Matisse's "The Dance," featuring the circle of cavorting nudes. However, Johnson didn't just recreate the scene but offered his own addition: a young boy, reclining on his back at the center, staring up dreamily, apparently at the frolicking maidens' loins. The title of the work? "The Daydream."

IT'S KITSCH

Johnson is in demand as a public sculptor. However his work is hardly highbrow. He's done sculptures of the iconic WWII kiss between a sailor and a nurse, and recreated Edouard Manet's "Déjeuner Sur l'Herbe" in sculpture. "Forever Marilyn" replaces another giant-sized Seward commission that was on view in Chicago, a huge pair of sculptures recreating the couple from Grant Wood's classic "American Gothic."

The Sun Times calls the new "Marilyn" piece "beyond-kitschy." And indeed, for a city associated forever with Picasso's classic outdoor piece, and Anish Kapoor's "Bean" — undoubtedly one of the more successful public art commissions of the last decade — its hard to argue that "Forever Marilyn" marks a step up.

IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH CHICAGO

While Johnson's previous "American Gothic"-themed piece at least related to the fact that Woods's icon of Americana is part of the Art Institute of Chicago collection, denizens of the Second City are taking umbrage with the fact that "The Seven-Year Itch" is a quintessentially New York movie. In the scene in question, it is an NYC subway grate that causes her skirt flap — there can be very few more NYC-specific bits of mis en scene.

"Give me the Dark Knight or the Fugitive or Jake and Elwood — or if we're going to go old school, Cary Grant in 'North by Northwest' or James Stewart in 'Call Northside 777,'" the Sun Times movies critic Richard Roeper gripes. "Something that celebrates a memorable pop culture movie moment with a Chicago connection. Marilyn from 'The Seven-Year Itch' on Michigan Avenue makes about as much artistic sense as a 26-foot-sculpture of Ferris Bueller having his big day off in Times Square." The guy has a point.

IT CAUSED A DIVORCE

The original image itself, while iconic, has always raised hackles. The Chicago Tribune notes that to promote the original film, 20th Century Fox Studios placed a 52-foot banner of the same Monroe dress scene on the facade of the Loew's State Theatre — but had to take it down after complaints that it was lewd.

Oh yeah, and among the original scene's most famous critics? Joe DiMaggio. According to a fire-breathing denunciation of "Forever Marilyn" by the Wall Street Journal's Eric Felten, the Wilder scene contributed to the end of Monroe's relationship with the ballplayer: "When director Billy Wilder shot that scene one night in 1954 at Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, a thousand Manhattan gawkers stood around leering at Ms. Monroe's unmentionables. Her husband at the time, Joe DiMaggio, was there, seething. His rage led Ms. Monroe to end their marriage." Who knew?

Adds Felton: "I rather doubt this ugly backstory is what the spokeswoman for the Chicago site's property manager had in mind when she described the giant Marilyn as 'art that makes people think.'" To be fair, more than a few people seem delighted by this monstrous pop-cultural ode. But still, if the current piece leads to another painful break-up — between Johnson and the public — don't be surprised.

To see a news report on the unveiling of "Forever Marilyn," click on the video below: