Jaume Plensa and
His Pursuit of Beauty


Jaume Plensa’s name may not be known to many Chicagoans but his art certainly is. During the years that the artist has been represented by the Richard Gray Gallery, his work has been exhibited throughout the world. His local notoriety came with the installation of the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park in 2004. That ingenious take on the traditional fountain template has delighted hundreds of thousands of city children who love to stand under the water-spouting mouths of a thousand-assorted Chicago faces.

In 2014, several of his gigantic, elongated alabaster heads took up residence inside the park at Madison Street for more than a year to commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Crown installation. In September of this year, Plensa exhibited several new female heads at the Gray Gallery’s Warehouse on West Carroll St. We spoke with him on the day of that unveiling. (The conversation has been edited for reasons of space).



Jaume Plensa, Crown Fountain, Photo by Laura Plensa. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Gray Gallery.


Tom Mullaney—I have the pleasure of speaking this afternoon with Jaume Plensa, a Spanish artist, architect and sculptor from Barcelona whose work is exhibited internationally and is especially well-known here in Chicago. You have visited Chicago many times. Tell me about your relationship with and feeling about this city.

Jaume Plensa—Well, actually, when I got the commission for the piece that would become the Crown Fountain, the initial idea was to do a traditional fountain, a project with water. They wanted to do something that would be in conversation with the fantastic fountain (Buckingham) you have on the other side of the park.

I was doing a project at the time that I called the “Miraculous Fountain.” And I did a show at the Jeu de Paume (museum) in Paris and some of the advisers from the city and the Crown family visited that show and were very impressed. I was selected as one of the three artists for the competition. Working on that commission made my relationship with Chicago incredibly strong because I was coming one week every month for four years. I got to like Chicago as my city and almost my second home.

And the Crown Fountain is a very special and specific project I’ve never wanted to repeat, even in a similar shape in any other place.

TM—There is something about the fountain that is singular, just one-of-a-kind.


TM—I know from your work that, when you have a theme, you make numerous interpretations but not here.

JP—My main concern was to try to do something for Chicago and the idea of community which is very important to me. The people, in a very anonymous way, have felt it to be a part of the city. Normally, we are talking about buildings and buildings and monuments. My piece was really an homage to the anonymous people in my city.

TM—Can you pinpoint how you went from the practice you were doing in the ‘90s (drawing) to the period in the mid-2000s when you switched to the stainless steel heads known as “Self Portraits” and now with the growing body of oversize heads.

JP—Actually, I can tell you that I started work in the ‘80s with the human body and intuitively exploring the border and very fine line between an animal and a human being. Back then, I spent a lot of time working on that idea in cast iron and I was beginning to be known internationally.

And then suddenly, that shape disappeared and I spent almost the next 10 years in the emptiness, the absence of that body, working with doors and handles. The handle gives you the size of the hand. The door gives the relationship with the scale of the body. That is something that happens often in my work, that one project is not the beginning but the end of a process. The Crown Fountain was the end of my work with the cells, where people were invited to open the doors and go in. That changed into the alabaster head Portraits.

TM—So, the Crown Fountain was the ending of your work with cells. You said you wanted to combine photography with the water to create a new form.

JP—The thing that I wanted for many years was to merge photography and sculpture which I’m now doing with my “Portraits.” When I finished (my work on) a video project, I decided to continue on the portrait track but with very traditional materials—alabaster, marble, bronze, wood—but trying to merge my concept of photography because many of my sculptures seem not real, like a hologram. Many times, when people are seeing a photo of my installations, people think it is Photoshop.


Jaume Plensa, Self Portrait III, 2017, Installation shot. Photo by Tom Mullaney.


TM—In looking at the Portraits, I want our readers to understand how you create one of these heads. You start by taking photographs of young women and I understood that you basically shoot just the head and the neck and then what happens next?

JP—Well, actually, I want it to be as precise as possible, taking the information of one’s head because the head is the palace of one’s dreams, it’s where everything happens. And then I’ve been exploring the scanning of the head because, with the scan, you have all the information. It’s not interpretation, it’s the real thing. The scan gives the three-dimensional shape of one’s head. And then, in the computer, I continue to manipulate and elongate the head and to making scratches sometimes.

TM—Today, at the warehouse, I was seeing these little waves in Julia’s hair. Is that also done in the computer?

JP—Well, she was like that. I’m not changing the expression of that portrait but only changing the volume of that portrait.

TM—I look at these faces and the scale and I wonder, “Are these supposed to be totemic figures” like the ones on Easter Island? It’s similar in a way.

JP—No. It is always the same, people need to find connections. I don’t know why but it’s life and an obsession. My pieces and those pieces on Easter Island were done by human beings so obviously there is some memory there. I return to the tradition of the head that is true. Because in Mexico, it’s the tradition of the Olmec heads or the heads of Buddha in Cambodia.

If you do a thin figure, it doesn’t mean you are copying Giacometti because, maybe, Giacometti was copying El Greco or Modigliani. And if something is a little bit fat, it’s already Botero. I don’t know. I hate this kind of problem (laughter).



















Jaume Plensa, Private Dreams, RGG, Photo by Tom Van Eynde. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Gray Gallery.


TM—In the last 15 years, your practice has solidified. You are now identified with the text (Self-Portraits) and the heads. You are seen as a ‘public sculptor.” When I think of other sculptors who have had such major impact, I can only think of two other artists: Alexander Calder and Henry Moore. Do you see that comparison?

JP—Probably. But I prefer to say “art in public spaces” than “public art” because I think all art is public. I guess Calder, which I love this artist and Henry Moore who is a great artist, probably had a similar feeling like me that the relationship with the community is beautiful and is a very democratic way to spread art. I think it’s very beautiful the dialogue that you can create around one piece.

The other day, I visited the Picasso sculpture which is having its 50th anniversary. There’s a beautiful mosaic not so far away by Chagall which I think is lovely and is a completely different attitude and farther, there’s a beautiful Calder and a little before, it’s Dubuffet. And Miro is in this strange corner. But, in any case, Chicago has an amazing, amazing public space for public art.

TM—You said “When you introduce art, you are transforming what previously had not been thought of as places but spaces. I think it’s great because suddenly the community feels proud that beauty is coming to them as well. It doesn’t automatically go to the rich. I think that is something important.”

JP—I don’t believe I said rich but probably I said “more cultivated people.” Like I said before, you must try the democratic idea to expand beauty because beauty is the only concept that everybody knows, even if they can’t explain it… Beauty is one of the best tools to create a bridge between art and the viewer.

TM—To get back to the Portraits, you say that you see the person and then you ask the parent if they mind if you scan their daughter and they are always surprised. Do you just pick someone out from a crowd?

JP—Yes, sometimes it is by accident. Sometimes you know somebody or you know the family. Now many people are offering themselves to be scanned. I do a selection.

TM—I took down the names of some of the portraits: Anuria, Irma, Chloe, Laura, Dunya, Awilda and today, Julia. Although the heads are always the same, same technique, the same volume—is naming a way to create a work of art specifically for a new site?

JP—No. It’s always the same. I’m not giving the name to different sculptures. It’s like Giacometti did the portrait of his brother Diego, 8,000 times. I started to work on these portraits since 2004. In 13 years, I did maybe 35 portraits. But some of those I did many times, in many shapes, in different scales, because they have a tremendous capacity to express different ideas even if it is the same face.

 Like with Awilda. I did Awilda in marble, I did Awilda in bronze, I did Awilda in alabaster. But for a project I did in Rio de Janeiro, I did a very tall one, a beautiful piece in the water. That piece, that was conceived for that space, at the end of the show, I took it back to Barcelona. And then Millennium Park asked me to do a celebration of the 10th Anniversary of the park. I decided to install Awilda here in the park at Madison St., which splits the city north and south. And so Awilda was in two different spots—not anymore in Rio but in Chicago. And now, the piece has been bought by the museum in Miami, so now it’s in Miami facing the water again. It was a funny journey for the piece which started in Rio, moved to Chicago and is finally in Miami. Awilda is special.

TM—I was in Nice, France in 2013 and I was astounded seeing your piece, in the Place Massena, of seven kneeling figures on top of seven 40 ft. high columns which represent the seven continents. I was a little mad at you when I recently saw that you did the same idea for Gothenburg, Sweden. It seemed unfair.

JP—I have the same figures atop of the columns (The Poets) in many places in the world because I always understood that the poet lives a little apart from society with a tremendous capacity to influence the society. And it was one of my dreams that, one day, we can look at the world from far and see all the poets in different places all together. It was an idea. Sometimes it is one single one and sometimes two or three.

TM—Although you just work with the head, you say the body is a container of energy. Energy is what helps us create, makes us more alive. This container of energy is within us. In many ways, your art is always looking inside where the energy is.

JP—Well, I always felt that every human being has an amazing beauty hidden inside themselves. When I installed the piece of Awilda in Rio de Janeiro, many people said “But Jaume, how come she has her eyes closed surrounded by so much beauty around?” I said, “because I am trying to emphasize the interior beauty all of us have.” And energy is something you cannot see from others but you can expand.

That was the wisdom that I liked so much in that short poem by William Blake, “One Thought Fills Immensity” because that energy is probably for him—well, he expressed so well my intuition that our thoughts are just energy filling up space. But that is something in the air. When we are talking, where are our words going? We are filling the air with something.

TM—You were saying today, “My intention is that art is always something that is a path to wisdom. I think how you channel your energy is to become wise and to have greater understanding of the world and our place.”

JP—That’s it. All human beings are trying to understand who we are, where we are going. The main questions are always there, thank God. Art has a tremendous capacity to open doors. And beauty is a fantastic tool of art. Many times I said that sculpture is the best way to put the questions. The answer is less important. The beauty is when you are dreaming and somebody else wants to share those dreams with you. That is a privilege. But to explore that path of wisdom is something we should do a lot.

TM—The next time you come to Chicago in a few years, might your work be going in a new direction?

JP—Maybe yes (laughter). Why not? Well, it’s true that I’m always making moves. Sometimes the movements are shorter or more gentle than other times.

TM—As you said before when you came to the end of the period with the cells, do you feel you may be at the end of the period with faces?

JP—Who knows? I don’t know. I will tell you at the next meeting.


Jaume Plensa has two shows at Richard Gray Gallery through November 11, 2017.  “Secret Garden” is on view at Gray Warehouse, 2044 W. Carroll Ave. and “One Thought Fills Immensity” at the 875 N. Michigan Avenue gallery.


Tom Mullaney is the Senior Editor of the New Art Examiner with which he has been associated since 1980. He previously served as U.S. Editor from September 2015 to December 2016.


Jaume Plensa, Crown Fountain. Photo by Laura Plensa. Courtesy of the artist and Richard Gray Gallery.

Jaume Plensa, Seattle Echo, Photo by Benjamin Benschneider.  Courtesy of the artist and Richard Gray Gallery.

Venice, Jaume Plensa, Mist & Together, Photo by Jonty Wilde.  Courtesy of the artist and Richard Gray Gallery.


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