CHICAGO — There are a lot of questions that may come to mind when one gazes upon Seward Johnson’s latest, gargantuan sculpture in downtown Chicago, but the most immediate one (aside from “WHY?”) is, perhaps, “Who is that man?”
Not the one on the right, who is clearly Abraham Lincoln, bearded and waving his top hat skyward. But the 16th President is accompanied by a gent from an era much closer to our own. The neatly coiffed man is dressed in a pink collared shirt beneath a crisp, white cable-knit sweater and tan corduroy pants. Also, white sneakers. A plaque affixed to its base names the 36-foot-tall sculpture as “Return Visit,” but it leaves the modern man up to our interpretation.
“Return Visit” was installed last November at Pioneer Court on Chicago’s Magnificent Mile, which means that countless Chicagoans and tourists alike have been left scratching their heads at the realist work for about 10 months. In fact, since it stands near the Trump Hotel — in a way that Lincoln, oddly, appears to gesture towards the tower — people have actually believed him to be Donald Trump. (Aside from hair color, that wouldn’t be a completely terrible guess considering that Trump digs that whole country club look.)
The figure certainly stirred some buzz online earlier this week, when artist Kevin Buist tweeted a picture of it along with a detail of the man’s fresh kicks.
Cross between Jeff Koons and Mr Rogers
— Bert Green (@bgfa) August 7, 2017
its jared fogle
— ?⚰? (@a_alesy) August 7, 2017
Just saw this with @prplst. Seward Johnson is still alive – who knew? (Santorum mansplaining Lincoln was the first thing I thought of too.)
— John Powers (@JohnPowersUS) August 7, 2017
“president lincoln and his friend, the pedophile”
— BAKOON (@BAKKOOONN) August 7, 2017
All of these guesses, actually, could be correct (save for the last) — the man, according to Johnson’s studio, represents “the common man,” who is listening to Lincoln talk about his Gettysburg Address. Previously installed in Dayton, Ohio and in Crown Point, Indiana, “Return Visit” now stands on the spot once occupied by the artist’s world-famous Marilyn Monroe sculpture, which left little room for debate.
Bewildered is how I would best describe the mood of many passersby Tuesday afternoon, when I visited the sculpture to survey people’s opinions on the man’s identity. Among the guesses I received were “college professor,” “Perry Como,” “a famous news journalist,” and “Bob Costas, sort of.”
Nancy Dold, visiting with her teenage son from Western Springs, Illinois, told Hyperallergic, “We have no idea. I don’t think he looks like the common man. I mean, look at him. The corduroys are throwing me. If he was a common man today, he would have on a pair of jeans. And he would not have on that sweater. He would probably have a fleece of some kind.”
And her son’s guess: “An environmentalist from the 1960s.”
That’s one problem with the common man: he simply looks dated. Visiting from out of town, college student Madison Trevino said the man “has a dad look. You have to look at the shoes,” she said. “They’re, like, from the ’80s.” Her friend Vynesa Evanson pondered the possibility of previous presidents, given the presence of Abe. George Bush, Sr.? Definitely not. Richard Nixon? Perhaps.
“He just looks like what everyone thinks the typical American guy should look like, but maybe not what actually is,” Evanson concluded. “He should be wearing a football jersey or something, I don’t know. But not this big sweater. Not that. I really thought that was someone from the ’70s or something.”
Chicago native Neill Porteous pointed out a more frustrating problem: that Johnson’s sculpture seems to champion a very, very narrow definition of the average man.
“I would say it’s a common rich, white man with tweed pants and a sweater.” Porteous said. “It fits the area. There’s a lot of upper-middle class, white businessmen around here. I wouldn’t say it’s terribly representative of man as a whole. Why not have a woman? Or two people? Or anyone other than someone wearing white sneakers and corduroy pants and a sweater. I mean, come on.” Add to that identity, “married” — the man wears a gold band on his left ring finger.
To local Susie Oh, Johnson should have just played it simple and focused on Lincoln, or at least designed a figure that has some widely understood significance, such as an Illinois politician.
“This is the land of Lincoln, so he should be featured, and if anyone else is featured there should be some significance,” Oh said. “I feel like I’m not sure why there’s just a man. If it was, say, Stephen Douglas, then I could maybe see it’s the Great Debate. I guess I’m very confused about why this scene.”
Despite all the confusion it generates, “Return Visit,” unsurprisingly, still makes for a hugely popular photo op. I saw countless individuals and families not only take pictures of it, but with it — which just suggests, sadly, that people will simply embrace public art as long as it’s giant and wacky, never mind its meaning.