ART NOW AND THEN: Both the Bean and the Picasso (here) strive to make their marks on Chicago's residents and visitors alike.
Christopher Penler/Alamy
“It’s supposed to be a woman’s face,” one Chicagoan says to radio interviewer Studs Terkel that day.

“A heart,” says another.

“A big butterfly with wings,” says a third.

“It’s like pickles and ice cream,” says a fourth.

Whatever it was, the Picasso marked the beginning of Chicago’s love affair with contemporary art. Today, more than 100 artworks stand in public spaces all over the Loop. Since 1978, the city has set aside 1.33 percent of the construction or renovation budget for artwork in city-owned buildings.

Before the Picasso, public art in Chicago wasn’t confusing. Everybody got the meaning of, say, the statue of Civil War Union Gen. John A. Logan in Grant Park — here’s a hero for you, folks. After the Picasso, which offered no agreed-upon set of meanings, anybody walking through the Loop, from a LaSalle Street trader to a traffic cop, was challenged by the frisson of uncertainty.

And it’s still going on.

“When I was growing up, we’d take the train down from Winnetka to see the Picasso about once a year,” says Toddy Dyer, 42, who was taking photos of the sculpture on an overcast Tuesday. “Then we’d go to the Walnut Room at Marshall Field’s. I always thought it was a lion, and my mom would tell me about the cubist elements, about deconstructionism.”

Dyer, who lives in Seattle, pointed out how the Picasso blends right into the Daley Center behind it. That’s not by chance. The sculpture and the building were made from the same Cor-Ten steel and share the same natural rust patina. “It’s a monkey, right?” Dyer asks. “A baboon?”