ART NOW AND THEN: Both the Bean (here) and the Picasso strive to make their marks on Chicago's residents and visitors alike.
Christopher Penler/Alamy

Most large cities are represented by an iconic image, but in Chicago, the beloved symbol of longtime residents and traditionalists has been crushed by a shiny upstart.


Not to alarm anybody, but the picasso is MIA.

Oh sure, you can find the iconic sculpture — the face of Chicago — still standing in Daley Plaza in the Loop on millions of old postcards and calendars. But try to find it on a new postcard or a calendar. Or, for that matter, on a key chain, a coffee mug, a refrigerator magnet, a T-shirt, a snow globe, a deck of cards or a Christmas ornament. At a Walgreens a few doors down from Daley Plaza, an investigation one day turned up 31 Chicago-themed postcards for sale. Not one included the Picasso. Six postcards, though, did feature Cloud Gate, better known as the Bean, the stainless steel sculpture that reflects like a fun-house mirror in Millennium Park.

A Bye Bye Chicago souvenir shop on Michigan Avenue had a variety of shirts, pot holders and memorabilia, but not one had an image of the Picasso, although the Bean was on pretty much everything.

“No, wait,” says Rogelio Soto, the store’s manager. “We do have one Picasso — a little charm for a necklace.”

Where?

“It’s in the back room. We don’t sell many.”

And at Accent Chicago in Water Tower Place, a must-stop stop for tourists on a shopping spree, the story is the same: no Picasso, all Bean. “Fourteen years ago when I started, it was all Picasso,” says Linda Skinner, a store manager. “The Picasso was the Bean before the Bean was the Bean. But the Picasso can’t compete. The Bean is all about you. The Bean is a mirror. You walk through it and see yourself. It’s a giant mirror, and everyone is in it.”

Exactly right.

As the public art symbol of Chicago, the Picasso has been deposed by the Bean, understandably so and arguably to the city’s advantage. The Bean is an engaging work of art and more complex than might first be appreciated. It perfectly reflects — literally and figuratively — the shiny, post-industrial town Chicago has become. Yet bumping off the Picasso comes with a price, beginning with a loss of healthy grown-up ambiguity. The Picasso confuses us, and life is confusing.

The thing is, without the Picasso, there would be no Bean — the ingrate. A gift to the city by the most celebrated artist of the 20th century, the Picasso was unveiled in 1967 and immediately got the whole town talking, mostly along the lines of, “What the heck is it?”