At 9:30pm on June 1, artist Jessica Stockholder stands suspended six stories above East Adams Street in downtown Chicago, in the basket of a boom lift or “cherry-picker” crane.
To her right is the corner of a glass-block and concrete building at 137 South State Street — covered in an electric blue. To her left stands SOM’s 1962 Home Federal Building. The northwest corner of the latter’s Modernist glass-and-steel facade is swathed in bright, almost neon green, except for street-level windows and a red band above them that reads “Bank of America.”
Workers wearing reflective vests are lining the intersection at Adams and State Streets, near the exact center of Chicago’s Loop, with more than 76,000 square feet of adhesive vinyl for Stockholder’s Color Jam. Commissioned by Chicago Loop Alliance, the installation is reportedly the largest public artwork in the city’s history. Its official opening is June 5 and it remains on display through September 30.
Once Stockholder returns to Earth, she and I meet across the intersection. We chat beneath the awning at 202 South State Street, built in 1915 and designed by Holabird & Roche, later (and better) known as Holabird & Root. Red surrounds us.
Once the site was chosen and the concept decided, how many revisions were there, to where exactly these color fields meet, how high up the buildings they reach and what shapes they are?
I waited to tweak things and firm up what this would be until we worked things out with [vinyl manufacturer] Bloomingdale Signs, to understand what would be involved [in those decisions] and how much color we could use. The kinds of angles I could use were part of that process as well. It’s much harder to make [the shapes wider as they get taller]. That’s why there’s that white piece around the [southwest] corner: To make that angle of red, a white piece has to be there. So I waited until we were working with Gary [Schellerer, Bloomingdale President and CEO] to get specific, once I understood what would be possible.
Besides being an artwork that’s literally on architecture, it’s also beholden to a lot of things architects have to consider: zoning regulations, for example, and what the Chicago Department of Transportation will allow.
Yes, yes. My original plan was to fill the entire intersection, the whole roadway with color. We couldn’t do that for traffic-safety reasons. So these crosswalks will be covered with color, and there’ll be a section in the middle, a colored oval, that has the line between the red and the blue inside it. That oval will speak to the relationship between this corner [we’re standing on now] and that corner [diagonally opposite, northeast]. Ideally, the whole [intersection] would be filled with color. But it’s not a perfect world.
Is filling a city intersection with color something you’ve wanted to do for a while?
No, this is specifically a response to the invitation from the CLA [Chicago Loop Alliance].
How does or doesn’t it speak to the city of Chicago? Would Color Jam exist in any other city?
It’s specific to Chicago. I think Chicago’s architecture is really brave. There’s a real eccentricity and variety. That’s been one of the nice things about moving here — I’ve been [in Chicago] about a year now and I really love the architecture.
You moved here from New Haven, correct?
I was there about two weeks ago and Yale’s campus has such a great, and similar, architectural legacy. It’s not of one style: You have all of these wild contrasts on display, with Brutalism next to Venetian architecture next to Gothic revival buildings. Is this installation somewhat analogous for you, but with color?
I really love that butting-up together of things that are different, yeah. I love those different types of architectures sitting next to each other. [Color Jam], I think, calls attention to that kind of difference in the landscape. There’s a unity to my work — it’ll be more apparent once it’s finished — in these blocks of color, sitting here. But in the way that [Color Jam] haphazardly intersects all of the different details of these buildings, it calls attention to them, makes them stand out, and I really like that.
I’m glad you brought that up, because I wanted to ask you about negotiating instances where the color runs into something you can’t obscure. For example, it looks like you can’t cover in green this red band with the Bank of America logos on it. Are there places in this intersection you really fought to cover with color?
Well, the Bank of America building: They’ve been slow to allow us to cover their windows. If I understand it, they’re going to allow us to cover more than you see now so, yes, there have been some negotiations. But the buildings, understandably, want to function while the work is up. They want people to [still be able to] know what they are. I’m not interested in obliterating the companies that are here, in making the intersection non-functional — I have feeling for that. But I think, in the end, to carve out a little bit [of color to show] a Starbucks sign, when what’s around it is covered… I think that calls attention to the signage.
Because your work extracts those elements from their usual contexts, without actually moving them.
Yes, yes. And I think there’s also something nice about the Color Jam piece being next to all of this advertising, in that there’s some relation [between the two]. Graphic design, the pleasure of graphic design, the visuality of it: There’s something related there to the impetus of making Color Jam, in this intersection, to painting, to drawing. But this doesn’t serve any advertising purpose. It’s nice to have something in the commercial landscape that’s just there for its own self, for its own sake.
Can you talk about the selection of this particular site, and how it impacts the form of the installation?
We flirted for a little while with trying to make a work at Madison and State, because it’s conceptually the center of the city.
Zero-zero on the grid.
Exactly. But this intersection [between Adams and State Streets], actually, I was interested in from the beginning because I like the patterning on the top of this building [at 202 South State Street]. I like the difference between the glass and the concrete, the array of different materials on these corners. And, also, it seemed manageable, in terms of the surfaces: They’re flat enough. There aren’t too many odd obstructions or forms.
Opposite us at 137 South State, where the CVS/pharmacy is, we can see at night how the glass-block windows bleed light through the blue vinyl. Are moments like that intentional? Did you specifically create these places within the installation where it undergoes a transformation from day to night?
That kind of thing is all serendipity, and I’m taking in what the work actually is, now that it’s going up on these buildings.
Chicago played a central role in the history of the skyscraper. Within a few blocks of where we stand are buildings that, in their time, were the tallest in the city, the country or even the world. Highrise architecture has always been about displaying power. It’s inescapably phallic. It’s masculine, in the traditional sense of masculinity. Is there an element to this project that you’re deliberately calling attention to the void between these highrises, highlighting the other side of the coin, turning those histories and lineages on their heads?
[Pauses] Maybe. That’s an interesting way to think about it, although I haven’t put words on it, in that way, that it’s about the history of the skyscraper and its masculinity. That’s not exactly what I’m thinking. Putting color in the space between these buildings is more what I’m interested in.
More about making a work about volume, and about lining a volume?
Right, yes, and it’s also about thinking about the space between the buildings as a volume equivalent to the buildings.
How do you think or expect this work might influence what people do with their bodies as they pass through it? And was that a goal of this project? Making something that might influence people’s behavior?
I don’t spend time thinking about that, and I’m not interested in controlling what people do. But I do like watching people walk across the colors, myself. I like looking at the colors they’re wearing against these colors. And I like looking at the light reflecting onto people. You, your skin, looks a little orange right now, for example. I have an experience when moving through color that’s a bit like dream space, or fictive space. The experience of color to me is analogous to imaginative space. I have that experience when moving through [Color Jam] and imagine that maybe some other people will, too. But you can’t see people have an experience like that — you just know when you’re having it.
How did you select this palette? Were there multiple candidates for the combination of colors?
Not so much. I like the red color because it’s vibrant and upbeat and intense. The green is kind of funny to me: It’s almost a joke to cover something with green, outside, like it’s greenery although it’s not.
Like Astroturf, exactly. And then the blue, there isn’t as much of it on the ground, yet. And the vinyl on the ground and the vinyl on the buildings are actually different [colors]. We tried to match them as closely as possible, but they’re different materials. [Points to sidewalk] This is painted and [Points at the buildings] this is printed. The ground is painted in part so that it can be touched up, as time goes along. It looks to me like that vinyl is white [underneath the paint].
Whereas the vinyl on the buildings is the color it is on the surface, all the way through the material.
Seeing it take shape now, and going up: Has that experience changed your understanding of the project from what it was as a concept?
Yeah. My sense of the project is still a little on hold. It’s much more public, maybe. It’s one thing to think about that, and then [another] actually being here, seeing the numbers of people that are involved in this whole thing, seeing how many people will be walking through it every day.
Formerly director of graduate studies in sculpture at Yale University School of Art, Jessica Stockholder became chair last summer of the University of Chicago’s Department of Visual Arts. Stockholder’s installation Color Jam fills the intersection of Adams and State Streets in downtown Chicago June 5 through September 30.