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American Society of Landscape Architects


October 2007 Issue

Image of the Crowd
A monumental artwork mills around Chicago’s Grant Park.

By Jeff Huebner

Image of the Crowd Magdalena Abakanowicz

The southwestern corner of Grant Park, often referred to as Chicago’s “front yard,” had been a conspicuous open space in a 320-acre park that dates to the 1830s and faces a more-than-a-mile-long skyscraper wall along Michigan Avenue. The park was designed in the French Renaissance style of formal outdoor “rooms,” graced with neoclassical museums, gardens, fountains, statuary, and other ornamental features. While the spectacularly popular Millennium Park brought showy contemporary art, architecture, and landscape design to Grant Park’s northern end, the southern end at Roosevelt Road remained a large grassy field, a seeming blank slate.

Not anymore. Last November, after three years of work, Magdalena Abakanowicz dedicated Agora, an installation that covers about three acres and is said to be the largest group of figurative sculptures in the world. It’s certainly the 77-year-old Warsaw artist’s most ambitious “crowd” piece, one of a series of figural groups that she’s been creating in various materials and permutations for museum exhibitions, sculpture parks, and other public spaces since the 1980s, evoking lockstep ideologies, historical memory, conformity and difference, and angst.

Agora even surpasses the scope of 2002’s Unrecognized, permanently installed in Citadel Park in Poznan, Poland (where Abakanowicz was an art professor for 25 years, until 1990). The park was the scene of a successful 1945 Red Army and citizen resistance against the Nazis, which left many residents dead. While the Chicago piece isn’t as politically resonant, the artist says, “Because of its scale, it does not refer to any other work I have made before.... It is for me the most important statement I have addressed to people.”

Named for the ancient Greek assembly place, Agora is made up of 106 nine-foot-high cast-iron figures, each a headless, armless, shell-like torso with a rusted, barklike texture that reveals humanity’s connectedness to nature. All the figures are similar in shape, yet no two are alike. Unlike the figures in Abakanowicz’s earlier crowd pieces, those in Agora are arrayed with deliberate randomness: Two loosely linked groups span across concrete pads, posed in stopped motion and facing different directions. A few stand outside the groups, as if they’re leading—or lost.

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