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Postcards from the Windy City - Art in the City


By Abby Stocker

Fri, Aug 9th, 2013
Posted in All Columnists



Dear Readers,

This week, I found myself on the train once again, tumbling into downtown Chicago. Beautiful Saturday afternoon, plans in the city, what more could you want?

Art. And people to share it with, of course.

My trip downtown a few weeks ago, to the Taste of Chicago food festival, was a trip of experimentation and observation. Traveling by myself, I did a lot of watching—fun when the crowd is diverse and you have time to observe their antics. I felt quite independent, quite adventurous. This trip, I went with my host parents and my mom, who was happily visiting for the weekend.

Our destination? The Art Institute of Chicago, near Millennium Park and home to great works of art such as Wood’s American Gothic, van Gogh’s The Bedroom, and Monet’s Stacks of Wheat. If you pass it on the street, you might recognize the two bronze lions, unofficially titled “in an attitude of defiance” and “on the prowl.” Since its founding in 1879, it has been home to both a museum and a school, and today owns almost 300,000 pieces of art.

My guidebook to three pieces you absolutely must visit, based on our trip:

1. Georgia O’Keeffe’s Sky Above Clouds IV (1965). O’Keeffe is well known for paintings of flowers and deserts; this painting, a vast landscape that hangs by itself in a spacious white stairway, depicts the sky from O’Keeffe’s perspective in an airplane. The painting is striking, but is also well-displayed to give you a sense of the vast size of the sky and the endlessness of the clouds which O’Keeffe portrays. It’s so large that some museums haven’t been able to display it—no door was big enough to bring the painting inside.

2. Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River (1909-10, 1913, 1916-1917). This painting was considered by Matisse as both his test canvas and one of the “most ‘pivotal’ works of his career,” according to the Art Institute. Over the years, Matisse altered the work, with the result that closer museum study of its revisions shows signs of his literally scraping paint off in his various stylistic periods. It was never quite finished, perhaps like the artist himself?

3. Vasily Kandinsky’s Improvisation No. 30 (Cannons) (1913). I didn’t realize I’d bump into Kandinsky while at the Art Institute, so it was a pleasant surprise to round the corner from seeing Matisse to be greeted by this work. The painting, somewhat abstract, also reflects the world war at the time through the depiction of cannons and smoke. But the shouting colors also reflect the chaos of the war. I think Kandinsky incorporates powerful ideas into his work, while still creating abstract art that’s pleasing to look at. And his personal story—involving science, religion, music, and their intersection in art—is worth looking up.

It’s really not fair to pick a favorite piece when you’re surrounded by so much history. I loved seeing Kandinsky’s Improvisation No. 30, Grant Wood’s American Gothic, and multiple works by van Gogh. An amateur history buff, I loved the historical costumes in the Impressionism exhibit.

What a guidebook couldn’t tell us about visiting last weekend was that the perfect August weather meant that the crowds (both inside and outside the Art Institute) would take over the sidewalks in Millennium Park as children splashed in the fountains and photographers and artists captured the moment. Herds of young adults greeted us when we made our way back to the train—not only was the weather lovely, but last weekend was also Lollapalooza, a major summer music festival. The people-watching possibilities were bountiful. Some of the particularly colorfully-attired people we saw probably could have been considered works of art themselves.

But my favorite part of the trip? Seeing the art in person, being able to see the brushstrokes and study them myself, standing back, surprised, at the sheer size of a work like Seurat’s Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grade Jatte. (It’s huge. So many tiny dots!) And learning their stories—Matisse never really finished his Bathers by a River, and the Impressionists’ use of fashion was both personal and a form of radical social statement. Knowing the backstory made the pieces come alive for me. And sharing those stories with those I was with, making the art a postcard from the summer to our future.

If you’re ever in town, swing by the Art Institute. I’d recommend touring, and just wandering. Especially with a friend.

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