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.

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