Sunday, June 29, 2014

Chicago: The Art Institute Experience

A very wide angle of the Art Institute of Chicago main entrance.
Note:  This is the second part of my travelogue on the trip Jennifer and I made recently to Chicago.

We went in to and out of the Art Institute of Chicago four times during our stay there.  We spent over 7 hours walking the Institute's extensive floors and spaces; several more hours discussing what we saw.  We trekked through the Southeast Asian exhibit three or four times as it was a transfer area from one large wing of the museum to the other.  I recalled seeing much of that collection's style when I was living in India. The temples there are covered in vast intricate engravings.  I pointed out the Cambodian section to Jennifer before we knew the art was, in fact, Cambodian.  I know my Southeast Asian art styles.

But that certainly was not the great attraction for Jennifer and me.  Nor was ancient Roman and Egyptian art.  Nor was African, medieval, nor religious art, all of which are plentiful at the Institute. The wonder of the Institute's vast ancient culture collection, art from every part of the world, its robust and representative American art collection, all of this was something we appreciated and spent a lot of time walking through.  It was a treat to see, for example, the enormous Assumption of the Virgin by El Greco. Truly one of the great paintings in western civilization.

But our foremost reason for visiting Chicago was for the Art Institute's modern art and Impressionist art collections.  Jennifer and I spent more time in the modern wing of the Institute and in the Impressionistic collection than in all other parts of the museum combined.  I will blog about the Impressionist collection in part three.  For now let's take a rather quick look all the other greatness that the Institute has to offer.

The Art Institute of Chicago was recently voted the best museum in America and the third best in the world in the Trip Advisor's Travelers' Choice Attractions awards.  The Institute has three main levels and a lower level.  The sprawling nature of the Institute's design means that all buildings are connected on the first level only.  Which is why Jennifer and I walked through the India and Southeast Asian portion so many times.

Since we planned to visit the museum over two days it turned out to be less expensive for Jennifer to join the Institute as a member.  Members get to bring a guest for free and receive discounts from the gift shops. There is also a nice lounge area for members to relax which we took advantage of on our second visit.

The lower level contains some extraordinary exhibits for paperweights, miniatures, photography, architecture and design, textiles, and Islamic art.  The first level is by far the largest of the three containing Asian and African art, Native American art, American art before 1900, Greek, Roman, and Byzantine art, the relocated and historically preserved Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room, and Chagall's stained glass windows, among other things.

The second level contains collections for European art before 1900, medieval arms and armor, the Impressionism collection, modern American art 1900 to 1950, and two sections of contemporary art from 1945-1960 and after 1960 to the present.  The third level is the smallest and features an additional modern art section along with collections of contemporary sculpture.
A look at Laurie Park through a large window across the street from the Modern Wing entrance of the Art Institute.  You will notice the streaks of verbena that Jennifer photographed in the previous blog post.  In the background is the Great Lawn and the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.  The Modern Wing offers incredible views of Chicago.  
Generally speaking, compared with our museum trips to Boston and to the National Gallery in DC, inside the Institute building itself there only a few really elegant spaces, no interior gardens or large hallways.  You can go to the sculpture garden or go look out the windows of the Modern Wing.  If you are a member (which Jennifer was) you could access a nice exterior courtyard within the Institute buildings from the member's only lounge.  

These are important spaces for clearing the senses and preparing you to connect with more art. But that's about it. Instead, this place is chocked full of artwork, with nice lighting, organization and display.  So, while the interior design lacks the grand feel of the rotunda in Boston or the National Art Gallery's halls, it more than makes up for it with masterpiece after masterpiece of the greatest paintings and other art forms to be found in the United States, competitive with any museum in the world.

Discovering great works of art (mostly paintings) up close and personal has always been of interest to me, particularly in the past 15 years or so of my life when I found more money and more leisure time to enjoy such things.  That is how long Jennifer and I have been regularly visiting major art museums (mostly the High Museum in Atlanta).  But I have never before experienced what the Art Institute of Chicago offers.  There were many times when I was impressed with a piece of art only to turn my head and see yet another and yet another and yet another magnificent example of human creativity. I have never had this occur with the frequency I experienced in Chicago.  It was truly amazing and ultimately satisfying.

Jennifer praised this work, which is a bit more complicated than it might appear at first.  Tableau Vert by Ellsworth Kelly (1953). This oil on wood.  We visited it both times we went to the museum. 
Jennifer also was impressed with this light installation.
Part of the Constantin Brancusi collection of modern sculpture on display at the Institute.  The piece on the right is Golden Bird (1919/1920), one of the museum's prizes.
A massive Andy Warhol portrait of Moe Zedong from 1973 greets visitors entering the contemporary art collection.
Jennifer taking another photo of me taking a photo.  This time I am photographing the Man Ray painting featured below.  You can see the very large painting Ecclesiastical by Francis Picabia (1913) on the wall to my right.  
The photo I was taking above.  I did not realize Man Ray, a famous art photographer, dabbled at painting as well. Invention (1916).  Oil on composition board.
A detail of Jackson Pollock's signature from a 1953 work, Greyed Rainbow.
This photo and the next is from a media art display entitled Clown Torture (1987) by Bruce Nauman.  Here a clown sits on a toilet while reading a newspaper.  He periodically shakes and has fits.  In moments of calm he takes toilet paper and marks random places in the newspaper.  This sounds absurd, of course, and that is part of the point of the six video display. Two large projected images on flanking sides of a dark room with four smaller monitors between them.  Sound from all six videos, regardless of their size, is equally mixed.  It seems funny (or silly) to start with.  Then it becomes rather puzzling and disturbing as various clowns express anxiety, pain, and fear.  In the end I realized it was the clowns who were torturing me. 
The other large image in Clown Torture.  Here a clown has a goldfish bowl stuck to the ceiling with a broom handle.  He is attempting to get the bowl down without spilling it, acting rather frantic and concerned the whole time.  I would rank this contemporary work alongside the snails and cabbages display Jennifer and I experienced at the Hirshhorn while in DC. Interesting and evocative. 
Jennifer observing Gerhard Richter's four medium-sized abstracts entitled Ice 1,2,3,4 (1989).  I am always drawn to Richter's magnificent abstract work.  I sat and looked at these paintings for a long time.  This was only one wall of the Richter room at the Art Institute.  Also featured there were a number of defused oil paintings, including two of Richter's famous photo paintings of candles and a wonderful black and white oil, Woman Descending a Staircase (1965).  

This detail and those following from the various Ice paintings might give you some idea of how fascinating it is to see these works personally and study different sections of the paintings. Paintings within paintings, as it were. Richter, of course, is my favorite contemporary painter.

Pablo Picasso's cubist portrait rendering of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler (1910).
Part of the Art Institute's sculpture court.
Jennifer snapped this photo of me as I was looking down into the sculpture court.  There are few open spaces like this at the Institute, which opts for maximum display of its many works. Spaces like this help cleanse the mind and the senses for further viewing, however.  Especially when you spend as much time inside the museum as we did.  This is a neoclassical design.
A detail I took of the famous Chagall Stained Glass exhibit at the Institute.
A wonderful semi-modern mask from the African Art collection. This dates from the late-19th and early 20th century.
Yet another famous work.  A self-portrait of Jean Simeon Chardin (1776).
Of course, Henri Matisse is a favorite of Jennifer's. Interior at Nice (1920). 
Another Matisse.  Woman before an Aquarium (1921-1923).
A famous Georgia O'Keeffe.  Cow Skull with Calico Roses (1931). Oil on canvas.
Grant Wood. American Gothic (1930).  One of the greatest American paintings in history.
Winslow Homer.  Another great American painter.  The Herring Net (1885).
Detail of one of my favorite paintings. Edward HopperNighthawks (1942). 
The art work in Chicago is reason enough to visit that city all by itself.  Outstanding.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Chicago: the Bean, the Wind, the Booze, the Food, the Blues, etc.

Jennifer snapped this view of Lake Michigan and the sky out our window just before we banked to land at O'Hare International Airport.  We were both impressed by our aerial views on this cloudless day.  It was 66 degrees and breezy.  An incredible June day from my native southern perspective.  
Note: This is part one of a three-part travelogue about a recent trip to Chicago.

Jennifer and I recently visited Chicago for a four-night vacation.  The trip was terrific.  Chicago is a amiable, clean town with more to offer than we could possibly take in during such a short stay.  As I have in the past with our vacations to Alaska, to Boston, and to DC, I will attempt to capture the spirit of the trip in a three-part travelogue.

We arrived about mid-afternoon on the Friday before Father's Day.  Our stay was downtown, centrally located to several attractions but, most importantly, only about a block from the Art Institute of Chicago, our primary reason for visiting the Windy City.  We stayed at the historic Palmer House, a wonderful older hotel located in the heart of "the Loop" downtown.  Friday afternoon was not the best time to check-in. There was a long line of people coming in for the weekend. Not only was it Father's Day weekend but there was a large blues festival in town.  The hotel staff worked through the lines very quickly, however.  It was more difficult waiting on an elevator to take us up to our 21st floor room.

The magnificent ceiling mural in the Palmer House's grand lobby.  It was great getting drunk under this view one late afternoon when we were in Chicago. 
The grand lobby is lighted entirely from the sides and below.  It is richly appointed with lavish carpets and chairs.  Here I am standing near the bar section of the lobby.  The light fixtures were magnificent.
But life is good.  Our room was smallish but comfortable, the hotel staff was top-notch, for which we often tipped.  After unpacking we decided to walk to the Chicago Cultural Center to get oriented to the city and to check out the largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world.  It was an impressive sight and, for a brief period, we enjoyed that space all by ourselves. About a block and a half from there lies Millennium Park and Cloud Gate, the world-famous art sculpture known locally as "the Bean".  We spent a long time under gorgeous bright blue skies enjoying that sunny space.  Cloud Gate, a huge public draw, was rather crowded at the time.

The largest Tiffany stained glass dome in the world located on the second floor of the Chicago Cultural Center.  Jennifer got this wide angle with her iPhone.
In solitude under the dome.  Jennifer stitched three shots together to give you a sense of the space and its design.  I am laying on the floor looking at my camera pointed toward the dome.
The shot I took while lying on my back.  It gives better definition to the center of the dome.  Eight panels of exact design each suggesting a butterfly to me but perhaps other things to other people.
A classic photo of Cloud Gate.  This was taken on our second visit, in the morning there were fewer people around.
A shot I took of the reflected blue sky on our cloudless first day in Chicago.
Gulls land on top of Cloud Gate and poop all over it.  It is very visible on the surface higher up the sculpture.  I took this shot from the same position as the previous shot.  I merely twisted my body the other way and kept the camera at roughly the same angle.
Two lucky people.  To have this moment in Chicago and to have each other.  Under the Bean there is shade.
From there we walked about three blocks to a rooftop bar that had been recommended to us by various friends who had visited Chicago.  Once again, it was extremely crowded.  Half the space was reserved for a special event.  The usual numerous Friday after-work crowd was cramped into half the space.  We had a couple of Heinekens at the Wit bar and managed to hobble out to the open roof and get a nice view of Lake Michigan and the Bean in the distance. The Wit offered great views and was nicely appointed but it was far too crowded for us to enjoy so we escaped after a beer and a look.

You have to admit this is an amazing view from a bar.  Lake Michigan and the Bean in the distance in Chicago.
Chicago is also known for its shopping.  We passed Zara on the way back to the hotel.  Jennifer absolutely had to go inside.  I hate shopping but managed to occupy myself with the interesting varied attire of all the women in the store as they took clothing items off the racks and held them up, considering with their eyes.  Some were hotter than others.  Jennifer didn't see anything she particularly cared for.  About a block and a half past our hotel was The Berghoff Bar and Restaurant, the oldest restaurant in Chicago.  We enjoyed a wonderful dark draft of their own making.  The meal, like almost all our meals in Chicago, was excellent.  Chicago has tons of great restaurants and we visited many of them located near the Palmer House.
The Berghoff Bar entrance and the separate Restaurant entrance.
The Burghoff Bar was issued Chicago's first post-prohibition pouring license. 
The best damn beer I've tasted in a long time.
Saturday morning we hiked about five blocks to see an enormous urban sculpture by Pablo Picasso. Then we walked over to the Bean again and got to enjoy it with far fewer people around. From the Bean it is less than a block to the Art Institute of Chicago.  I will blog about our experiences there in future posts.  Along the trek to from the Bean we strolled through open gardens of grasses and perennials.  Jennifer was particularly enamored with the sweeping spaces of Verbena.  It was another beautiful day.  Sunny and clear, highs in the mid-70's with low humidity.  We were definitely not in the South in June.
Pablo Picasso in an open urban space.
Verbena in Chicago.  An open garden across the street from the Art Institute's modern wing.  This shot is looking west back toward downtown. Lake Michigan is behind us here but not visible due to the size of the park.
Splitting our time at Art Institute on Saturday was a lunch at the Exchequer Restaurant. I had the incredible Capone Burger (supposedly Al Capone frequented this restaurant) as Jennifer enjoyed her hearty black bean burger.  After returning to the hotel later in the day Jennifer and I enjoyed the marvelous lobby area, featuring its fabulous high-ceiling mural and old-style ornate design.  I several MacAllens while Jennifer sampled beers and ended up with a pink martini.  It was high urban fun and a good smooth buzz.  For a moment we felt rather wealthy, surrounded by all those people coming and going in that abundant space. It was a wonderful extravagance.

Dinner that evening was at the Italian Village, a collection of three authentic Italian restaurants under one roof.  One of them is the oldest Italian restaurant in the city.  We ate at La Cantina, the least expensive choice, on the cellar level.  It was Jennifer's favorite meal of the trip.  This was followed by a walk over to Grant Park to take in some of the Chicago Blues Festival.  The crowd was large and having a lot of fun.  The music was great. We listened to a warm-up band and then saw the first part of Bettye LaVette's funky bluesy show which started near sunset.  We also walked over to Grant Park proper and saw Buckingham Fountain in a large open public space there.
Three great Italian restaurants under one roof.  We ate at La Cantina. 
Bettye Lavette gave a strong performance at the Chicago Blue Festival.
We had to rise early on Sunday.  We took a taxi north of the city to Belmont Harbor.  It was my first time to go sailing. Jennifer went many times when she was younger, before she moved to Georgia. Our vessel, Verloren, was a 39-foot craft (one foot short of an official "yacht" our captain told me).  It was a great day for sailing, if a bit choppy.  Wind gusts were up to 30 MPH with 2-3 foot waves.  The captain expected 4-foot waves in the afternoon. We sailed leisurely at 7-8 knots out into the vastness of the great blue Lake Michigan. He only hoisted his smaller sail due to the nature and intensity of the wind.

Captain Steve, as he introduced himself, was the commander of a small fleet of 6-7 other sail boats that operated out of the harbor from April 15 until November 1.  He is an interesting guy, full for stories, of course, and very friendly and talkative. He owns a small art gallery and plays drums in a blues band on the side.  Quite a diverse individual, he plans to get his brewing licence soon and start a micro-brewery.  It was interesting to watch him tack and navigate the boat.  There was a chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon but that morning had plenty of sunshine to go with the wind.  We sailed about 6 miles offshore and enjoyed a great view of the Chicago with our fellow four passengers.  It was a 2 and a half hour excursion and certainly worth the experience.  There were many other boats out on the vast lake but after we got 3-4 miles from shore most of them were left behind.

After the boating trip we took a taxi over to the main shopping district, the Magnificent Mile. There we had an authentic Chicago deep dish pizza at Gino's East.  Afterwards we visited the Contemporary Art Museum.  I do not understand why Jennifer insists on going to these places.  If something is not good enough for the contemporary art wing of the a city's main art museum, it is usually not good enough period.  I thought the thing was a waste of time and connected to nothing. But we did it.

We walked the Magnificent Mile down to the Chicago River.  Jennifer considered some shopping options but she really didn't particularly want anything and was more into the day and the people and buildings.  To our disappointment, the Berghoff was closed on Sundays so we had to find another watering hole nearby.  We dined afterwards at Miller's Pub. Tired from the day of sailing and walking we retired to our hotel room and watched the Braves beat the Angels on ESPN, falling asleep at various points in the game.

Captain Steve readies the Verloren for our short sailing venture.
Captain Steve talks to a Chicago Cubs fan, one of our small group of passengers.  I am perched on the stern of the boat listening in as we sail along.
The wind was so gusty that day that we made 8 knots with only one sail hoisted.  It was not the craft's main sail.
Chicago as seen about three miles out on Lake Michigan. There was a school of training sail boats heading out from our harbor just after us.  They only ventured about three miles out at most. We went further out and had the Lake pretty much to ourselves but for a couple of other vessels. The tallest dark large building in the distance is the Sears Tower.
The Chicago River.  We crossed it after trekking down the Magnificent Mile.  The boat in the middle of the river is giving an architectural tour.  That was one thing we planned that we just did not get around to doing while there.
On Monday, our last full day in Chicago, we slept late.  Phase two of our assault on the Art Institute was the plan for that day.  Lunch was at the Russian Tea Time Restaurant.  We both were pleased with the mix of traditional Russian and Ukrainian food located almost directly across from the Art Institute.  I had some chicken patties there that were one of the highlights of our culinary experience in Chicago for me.  Jennifer loves beets and had a beet salad that she gave two thumbs up.

After more time at the Art Institute we walked two blocks over to the Berghoff and had more of their wonderful micro-brewed dark beer.  Jennifer could not take any of that perfect beer back with her but we did purchase some classy commemorative bar glasses to bring home.  While there we kept an eye on the US playing Ghana in the first round of the World Cup.  During a cutaway we saw that there was a large gathering of soccer fans watching the game of a big screen TV in Chicago's Grant Park. We decided to walk over there and watch the final part of that match. The crowd was rowdy and raucous and roared as the US scored a goal late and won 2-1.

Hanging with my  my sculpted buddy.  Part of an Icelandic Art Installation featured in Solti Gardens on the outskirts of Grant Park.
Part of the huge crowd watching the US-Ghana World Cup match on a giant screen TV in Grant Park.  We arrived late in the match and had to stand in the back.  What you can't see in this shot is that the park slopes downward toward the TV.  So there are hundreds of people hidden from view, packed all the way down to the TV.  But Jennifer and I certainly heard the crowd's size when the US scored a late goal and won the match 2-1.
Chicago is an incredible town.  I have been to New York City several times back in the 90's.  I prefer Chicago.  The food cannot be beat.  The city is vibrant and classy.  There is music everywhere. Street-side performers are often very good.  It is a safe, fun feeling place that somehow seems less rushed and cleaner than New York.  There is far more to see and do than you can cover in four days, of course.  But Jennifer and I were not attempting to amass the complete Chicago experience. Instead, our goal was to sample the vibe of the city while completely experiencing the Art Institute. More on that in part two of this travelogue.  Still, we sampled enough of the city to know its nature. And I would recommend it for its combination of blue collar backbone and refined urban sophistication.
I took this with Jennifer's iPhone as we banked flying out of O'Hare. The Sears Tower is almost dead center as we look down on the city, again clearly taller than Chicago's other large buildings like the Trump Tower.  We did not see the Sears Tower up close but we did see the Trump almost daily, an impressive design.