Nowhere can boast of an architectural and artistic diversity equivalent to that on offer in Chicago. With a plethora of world-renowned museums showing exhibitions of all kinds, a thriving street art scene, and the cosmopolitanism of our motley metropolis, the result is an array of artistic creations in every shape and form.
One area where Chicago particularly excels is in its public art pieces. Many of these were initially met with controversy or scrutiny but have gone on to become part of the fabric of Chicago and some of the city’s most cherished features.
We haven’t included street art murals here as we have written up a whole other piece on the 25 best street art murals in Chicago, so instead we’ve rounded up the very best of Chicago’s sculptures, mosaics, innovative installations, and public art pieces of all kinds.
1. Cloud Gate (aka The Bean) by Anish Kapoor
We have to, of course, begin with the Bean. The huge shiny bean-like sculpture by the Indian-born British artist Anish Kapoor is the result of 168 separate stainless steel plates welded together to imitate a drop of liquid mercury.
After opening in 2004 it is now one of the most photographed spots in Chicago and has become synonymous with our great city. First-named Cloud Gate by Kapoor, the landmark has come to be so unanimously named ‘The Bean’ that even Kapoor himself has admitted he too now calls it ‘The Bean’.
In every season the light bouncing off the curved mirror surfaces and the reflections of the surrounding cityscape provides an utterly unique experience. It is truly one of the most amazing pieces of public art in the city, if not the whole nation.
Artist: Anish Kapoor
Location: Millennium Park, Chicago
2. Crown Fountain by Jaume Plensa
Locals and tourists alike have enjoyed Jaume Plensa’s stunning interactive public art feature for nearly 20 years now. Two 50 ft towers of LED screens are separated by a black granite pool each of which projects the faces of 1,000 Chicagoans and spouts water onto frolicking children below.
An urban escape in the hotter months, Crown Fountain has become a beloved and iconic public feature of our great city.
Artist: Jaume Plensa
Location: Millennium Park, Chicago
3. The Picasso (the untitled sculpture by Pablo Picasso)
“The Picasso” as it has become known, is an untitled 50 feet tall sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza by Pablo Picasso that weighs over 160 tons. It was commissioned in 1963 by the architects of the Richard J. Daley Center and was unveiled in 1967.
The sculpture initially sparked controversy as it precipitated a new wave of public art beyond the commemorative that reflected many cultural changes taking place throughout the country rather than just depicting historical figures.
According to Chicago.gov, in a dedication letter, Picasso gave the sculpture as a gift to the people of Chicago but never explained what the sculpture was intended to represent. He rejected payment of $100,000 insisting that it was a gift to the people of Chicago.
People have long pondered what The Picasso represents with some comparing it to the jackal-headed Egyptian god, Anubis and others comparing it to a cow sticking out its tongue. Many, however, have reportedly confirmed that the statue is inspired by the head of Picasso’s Afghan Hound, Kabul.
Regardless of the sculpture’s inspiration, it has become a beloved piece of Chicago and a de-facto interactive sculpture like Cloud Gate and Crown Fountain. Visitors to Daley Plaza can often be seen using The Picasso as a slide and climbing around its inviting jungle gym-like frame.
Artist: Pablo Picasso
Location: Daley Plaza, Chicago
4. Calder’s Flamingo by Alexander Calder
The Flamingo is a 53-foot-tall steel sculpture located in Chicago’s Federal Plaza in front of the Kluczynski Federal Building. Unveiled in 1974, it was the first work of art commissioned by the General Services Administration under the federal Percent for Art program, which meant large-scale development projects were required to allocate a percentage of the project’s budget to the installation of new public art in keeping with its surroundings.
Calder’s Flamingo is another interactive sculpture with viewers able to walk underneath and around its great steel legs allowing it to be experienced in human scale. The flamingo is yet another great piece of public art to have become synonymous with Chicago’s grand artistic diversity.
Artist: Alexander Calder
Location: Federal Plaza, Chicago
5. Chevron by John Henry
A relatively new sculpture compared to the last few we’ve mentioned, John Henry’s Chevron was unveiled in Chicago in 2006. While Calder’s Flamingo is unmistakable for its bright Calder Red, Chevron is a bold blue monument that creates a dynamic interplay between its surroundings.
Standing at a majestic 50ft tall and 30ft wide the sculpture is an abstract, geometric design typical of the world-renowned sculptor’s work that so often appears to defy gravity.
Often referred to as ‘the windmill’ it depicts two colossal slabs leaning into each other as intersecting welded beams seem to precariously balance on either side in a moment of arrested motion.
Artist: John Henry
Location: Lincoln Park, Diversey Harbor Inlet, Chicago
6. Agora by Magdalena Abakanowicz
Another piece to come to Chicago in 2006 was “Agora” by internationally renowned artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. It comprises 106 nine-foot tall headless and armless cast iron sculptures.
The figures are posed as if walking in multiple directions while others appear frozen in time. The piece’s name Agora comes from the Greek word for “meeting place” – the central meeting place in a village or city of Ancient Greece.
Like many other pieces in Chicago Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Agora invites visitors to interact and walk through the figures becoming part of the artwork themselves. It is displayed in Chicago’s Grant Park permanently on loan from the Polish Ministry of Culture.
Artist: Magdalena Abakanowicz
Location: South end of Grant Park, Chicago
7. The Four Seasons by Marc Chagall
The Four Seasons mosaic by Marc Chagall was gifted to the City of Chicago by American stockbroker Frederick H. Prince in 1974. It is composed of thousands of inlaid chips in over 250 colors and depicts six scenes of Chicago with animals, flowers, people, and elements of the different seasons.
Chagall maintained, “the seasons represent human life, both physical and spiritual, at its different ages.” Over the years Chagall modified his design after its first arrival in Chicago, bringing certain depictions of Chicago up-to-date and adding pieces of native Chicago brick. In 1994 it was renovated and a glass canopy was wrapped around all four sides to protect it.
Artist: Marc Chagall
Location: Chase Tower Plaza, Chicago
8. The Crossing by Hubertus von der Goltz
Originally showcased as a temporary installation when Chicago hosted the 17th annual International Sculpture Conference, Hubertus von der Goltz’s “The Crossing” became a permanent sculpture in Chicago intended to symbolize a gateway between the Loop and River North.
The sculpture portrays a figure atop an angular structural element that creates a 25-foot-high silhouette of a man balancing precariously when viewed from either the north or south.
The German artist intended the work to symbolize the delicate balance of the commercial and cultural districts that converge along the LaSalle corridor. The theme of his work reportedly “focuses on the individual and the balance between thought, action, and existence. A symbolic act: the balancing person has to concentrate on himself and his path – a basic human experience.”
Artist: Hubertus von der Goltz
Location: LaSalle Gateway Plaza on LaSalle Street, Chicago
9. Magdelene by Dessa Kirk
Located on the small triangular landscape at the intersection of Congress Parkway and Michigan Avenue, Dessa Kirk’s Magdalene sculpture was created specifically for this site.
During spring, tulips line the lower section of the female figure while in summer the sculpture merges in with the surrounding garden as vines and flowers grow up the skirt of her dress.
Artist: Dessa Kirk
Location: Congress Plaza, Chicago
10. Gentlemen by Ju Ming
Installed in AMA Plaza in 2015, the Gentlemen statues were created by renowned Taiwanese sculptor Ju Ming for Chicago’s Langham Hotel.
Part of Ju’s “Living World Series,” this piece of public art features eleven bronze-plated minimalistic figures characteristic of Ming’s signature style. The gentlemen are dressed like businessmen going to work wearing trench jackets, holding umbrellas, and pulling luggage.
Through the blocky, minimalistic design the businessmen are reduced to their most basic form without any other characteristics or defining features. They are, we assume, an ode to Chicago’s busy business quarter.
Artist: Ju Ming
Location: AMA Plaza, Chicago
11. Sky Landing by Yoko Ono
Installed even most recently than Ju Ming’s “Gentlemen” is “Sky Landing” by acclaimed artist, musician, and peace activist Yoko Ono. Gifted to Chicago in 2016, Sky Landing is composed of a dozen 12-foot-tall lotus flower petals and symbolizes peace.
Located on Jackson Park’s Wooded Island it stands on the site of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition’s Japanese Pavilion.
At the dedication ceremony in October 2016, Yoko Ono described the artwork as the “place where the sky and earth meet and create a seed to learn about the past and come together to create a future of peace and harmony, with nature and each other.”
Artist: Yoko Ono
Location: Jackson Park, Chicago
12. Atmospheric wave wall by Olafur Eliasson
There’s little chance you’ve missed the relatively new prismatic mosaic wall at the foot of Willis Tower. The expansive installation by Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson was officially unveiled in 2021.
The 30-foot by 60-foot piece named “Atmospheric wave wall” by Eliasson is made up of 1,963 metal tiles and now glistens near the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Wacker Drive.
In a release, he explained that the curvature and blue, deep green, and white tones of the tiles are said to be “redolent of the surfaces of nearby Lake Michigan and the Chicago River.”
According to Elisson, a dramatically different experience can be had at different times of the day and at various different positions of view. “Seen from certain angles, the pattern reveals a vortex that seems to twist and accelerate in response to viewers’ movements. The enameled steel gently catches the light of the sun; the concave surfaces collect shadows that shift as the day progresses.”
Artist: Olafur Eliasson
Location: The base of the exterior of Willis Tower facing Jackson Boulevard, Chicago
13. Nuclear Energy by Henry Moore
“Nuclear Energy” is a bronze sculpture by British artist Henry Moore that was first unveiled on the campus of the University of Chicago in 1967. It sits on the same site the first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction was created in 1942.
The twelve-foot-tall bronze sculpture was commissioned by the University of Chicago and was both a celebration of the incredible human achievement and a warning against the dangers of harnessing such natural, physical power. Moore intended it to look like a human skull and a mushroom cloud.
Commenting on the work, Henry Moore said “like anything that is powerful, it has a power for good and evil…the lower part [of the sculpture] is more architectural and in my mind has the kind of interior of a cathedral with a sort of hopefulness for mankind.”
Artist: Henry Moore
Location: University of Chicago campus, Ellis Avenue between 56th and 57th, Chicago
14. The Constellation by Santiago Calatrava
Unveiled in late 2020, “The Constellation” is a sculpture by the world-renowned Spanish-Swiss architect, structural engineer, sculptor, and painter Santiago Calatrava that stands in River Point Park.
At 29 feet high and 29 feet wide it twists in and out forming a leafy spiral. The bright red of the sculpture bounces and reflects off the mirrored architecture that surrounds it making it a unique focal point of River Point.
Calatrava intended the sculpture “to simply grow from the ground. Within each figure, an internal logic of autonomy delivers lyrical forms and implies a sense of elevation and spiritual uplifting, reflecting the building’s mirrored architectural arch.”
Artist: Santiago Calatrava
Location: River Point Park, Chicago
15. Miró’s Chicago by Joan Miró
Miró’s Chicago, originally called The Sun, the Moon and One Star, is a sculpture by Catalan artist Joan Miró that can be found just across the street from the Daley Center in Chicago’s Brunswick Plaza.
Made from steel, bronze, wire, concrete, and ceramic tiles, it is a striking abstract sculpture typical of the surrealist artist that is so synonymous with Barcelona.
Miró’s Chicago is another public art piece that was received with controversy when it was unveiled in 1981. Many residents were distinctly unimpressed with it, though, over time, the artwork has grown in popularity, and is today referred to as “Miss Chicago” by many local Chicago residents.
Artist: Joan Miró
Location: Brunswick Plaza, Chicago
16. Self-Portrait by Keith Haring
It doesn’t take an art expert to immediately recognize the unmistakable work of iconic HIV/AIDS activist and artist Keith Haring. The American artist’s pop art emerged from the New York City graffiti subculture of the 1980s when Haring would cover New York City subways with spontaneous drawings of figures, dogs, and other stylized images.
Chicago’s 30-foot-high sculpture, “Self-Portrait”, which was installed in the AIDS Garden Chicago in 2019, is the largest iteration of Keith Haring’s work that has ever been fabricated, and Chicago’s first public monument to memorialize the early days of Chicago’s HIV epidemic.
Artist: Keith Haring
Location: Jackson Park, Chicago
17. Light of Truth: Ida B. Wells National Monument by Richard Hunt
Another striking sculpture unveiled in 2021 is the “Light of Truth” monument in Bronzeville. Officially called “The Light of Truth Ida B. Wells National Monument” it was created by world-renowned sculptor Richard Hunt near the site of the Ida B. Wells Homes which were demolished in 2011.
The 35-foot-tall structure has three bronze columns that support intertwined bronze sheets twisted into coils and spirals and bears images and quotes from the suffragette movement.
The monument takes its name from a quote by the iconic Black journalist and publisher Ida B. Wells-Barnett: “the way to right wrongs is to shine the light of truth on them.”
Artist: Richard Hunt
Location: Near the corner of South Langley and East 37th, Chicago
18. Fountain of Time by Lorado Taft
Inspired by Henry Austin Dobson’s poem “Paradox of Time”, Chicago’s “Fountain of Time” is a sculpture by Lorado Taft in Washington Park at the western edge of the Midway Plaisance.
It depicts a hooded Father Time carrying a scythe and watching over 100 figures including soldiers, children, and kissing couples who sit across the water basin. It commemorates the first 100 years of peace between the United States and Great Britain after the Treaty of Ghent concluded the War of 1812.
Artist: Lorado Taft
Location: Western edge of the Midway Plaisance in Washington Park, Chicago
19. You Got This by Matthew Hoffman
The huge ‘You Got This’ sign was installed on Rooftop Park at Roosevelt Collection Shops in 2021 by the “You Are Beautiful” initiative in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month.
It was installed as part of the “You are Beautiful” project by Chicago artist Matthew Hoffman. The sign is the “You Are Beautiful” initiative’s largest 3D project to date.
In an interview with ABC7 Chicago, Hoffman said he hoped to inspire and encourage others during the pandemic,” no matter what kind happens or gets thrown at you, you got this and you can handle it.”
Artist: Matthew Hoffman
Location: Rooftop Park at Roosevelt Collection Shops, Chicago
20. The Statue of The Republic by Daniel Chester French
The Statue of The Republic is a 24-foot sculpture in Chicago’s Jackson Park designed by Daniel Chester French who also designed the iconic Abraham Lincoln statue in Washington, D.C.’s Lincoln Memorial.
An even larger version of this glorious gilded bronze sculpture was originally installed to act as the centerpiece of the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago and was the second tallest statue in the U.S., only to the Statue of Liberty, before it was destroyed in a fire.
The statue we see today is a smaller version of Daniel Chester French’s original and was erected in 1918 to commemorate the 25-year anniversary of the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. Designated a Chicago Landmark on June 4, 2003, ‘The Statue of The Republic’ is often referred to as the “Golden Lady” and has become a treasure Chicago sculpture.
Artist: Daniel Chester French
Location: Jackson Park, Chicago
21. Peoples Gas Education Pavilion by Studio Gang Architects
Also known as the South Pond Pavilion or the Lincoln Park Pavilion, the Peoples Gas Education Pavilion is located on The Nature Boardwalk in Chicago’s renowned 35-acre Lincoln Park Zoo.
While some might argue that it doesn’t count as public art, we argue that there are few finely crafted creations as satisfyingly picturesque as the pavilion. Designed to provide shelter for open-air on-site classes and demonstrate the coexistence of nature and the city, it is the work of Studio Gang Architects who are behind both the Aqua Tower and the nearby St. Regis Chicago.
Built in 2010, the stunning curved wooden pavilion draws inspiration from the appearance of a tortoise’s shell. The prefabricated wooden planks interconnect and mill to form a curving structural masterpiece with semi-transparent fiberglass pods that let light in while protecting anybody underneath.
Artist: Daniel Chester French
Location: Lincoln Park Zoo, Chicago
22. Kwanusila by Tony Hunt
Not far from Lincoln Park Zoo’s Peoples Gas Education Pavilion is the 40-foot totem pole known as Kwanusila. Sculpted by Tony Hunt, the chief of the Kwagu’ł tribe in British Columbia, it is another replica that in 1986 replaced an original installed for the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition by Tony Hunt’s ancestor George Hunt after it become too weathered.
The colorful totem pole is carved from red cedar and acts as a constant reminder of Chicago’s connection to the Native tribes of the Pacific Northwest. It depicts Kwanusila the Thunderbird at the top as well as a man riding a whale and a grimacing sea monster below.
Artist: Tony Hunt
Location: Addison Street just east of Lake Shore Drive (3510 North Recreation Drive), Chicago
23. Oz Park sculptures by John Kearney
Oz Park in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood was named in honor of L Frank Baum, the writer of ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’. Baum moved to Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood in 1891 and produced the iconic children’s fantasy novel while living in Chicago.
From 1995 to 2007 four statues depicting the famed characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were installed in the park, all designed by the late local sculptor John Kearney. The first of these, the Tin Man, was built from discarded car parts in 1995. This was followed by bronze statues of The Cowardly Lion, The Scarecrow, and finally, Dorothy & Toto which was installed in 2007.
Artist: John Kearney
Location: Oz Park, Chicago
24. Art on the MART by various artists
Though it may not be a sculpture or monument of any kind when you think of public art in Chicago one of the first things many will think of is the Art on theMART displays that run from spring through fall.
Holding the title of the “largest permanent digital art projection in the world”, Art on theMART attracts thousands to the Riverwalk and Wacker Drive in downtown Chicago every week by transforming the 2.5-acre river façade of the Merchandise Mart with prismatic moving art projections.
It provides a public platform for local artists, national artists, and international artists with work ranging from schools to renowned exhibitions and everything in between.
Artist: Various artists
Location: River façade of the Merchandise Mart, Chicago
25. Sculptures at the Morton Arboretum
One of the best places to see impressive public art is actually at the expansive Morton Arboretum, a public garden and outdoor museum in Lisle where regular exhibitions offer incredible creations.
Most recently, the Morton Arboretum’s arbor-inspired exhibition ‘Human + Nature‘ ran from May of 2021 until February of 2023 showcasing a range of enormous sculptures by renowned multi-disciplinary South African artist Daniel Popper.
Much to the dismay of many we recently had to bid farewell to the stunning creations but luckily some equally astounding towering sculptures are coming to the Arboretum for a new exhibition titled “Of the Earth”.
The incoming exhibition will feature five exclusive new works from Polish-American artist Olga Ziemska for her largest exhibition to date. According to an official Morton Arboretum release, Ziemska’s sculptures will be created from reclaimed tree branches and other natural materials gathered from various locations throughout the Arboretum’s grounds.
As with Human + Nature, they will be created exclusively for Arboretum visitors and placed in various locations across its 1,700 acres leading guests to areas they may not have explored before.
Artist: Daniel Popper
Location: Morton Arboretum, Chicago
[Featured image from Shutterstock]