surprisingly little traffic, enormous trading floors, elevated trains, genuine
old-time bars, Louis Sullivan ironclads and Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers, this
and lots and lots of art makes Chicago a first-rate cultural destination. Cleaner
and more provincial than New York, less glitzy and cosmetic than L.A., Chicagoans
trace their serious engagement to the arts as far back as 1882, the year the
Art Institute of Chicago–the jewel in the crown of the city’s arts
institutions–was born from the ashes of the city’s debt-ridden Academy
of Fine Arts (which it replaced) and the boom period that followed the Great
Fire of 1871.
Chicagoans of the late 19th century, rich beyond imagining and ambitious as
only provincials can be, followed and often led New Yorkers, Philadelphians
and Bostonians in a countrywide blitz to ennoble their cities and their loot
(though not necessarily in that order). Libraries, symphonies, university endowments,
museums of science and art museums followed. Embarrassed by their status as
cultural appendages to their European cousins, America’s superrich expressed
their cultural ascendancy (which they intended to match their growing economic
power) the only way they knew how: by buying it.
were grand. Better and more innovative architecture, deeper and more ambitious
art collections snatched from the treasure troves of classical and Renaissance
(and later, mannerist, Baroque and Romantic) art–the Gilded Age brought
the booty of European civilization to America. For justification, rich Midwesterners
and Easterners turned to a transatlantic version of Manifest Destiny. As famed
New York architect Stanford White put it: "In the past, dominant nations
had always plundered works of art from their predecessors… America was taking
a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever
from this period of runaway cultural consumption, American artists like Samuel
Morse finally got what they wanted. A painter first, the inventor of the telegraph
had long lamented the lack of quality art in his country, "for taste is
only acquired by a close study of the merits of the old masters." More
than a mere windfall, collections like that of the Art Institute of Chicago
put Americans face to face with the world’s art, ushering in a familiarity
that in turn bred a go-get-’em brand of optimism. During the World’s
Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, for example, the sculptor Augustus
Saint-Gaudens (creator of the gold-plated Sherman memorial at 5th Ave. and 59th
St.) was heard to gush, "Do you realize this is the greatest gathering
of artists since the 15th century?" That he did not refer to visiting Europeans
pointed to an innocent, novel confidence; a mere hint of that in the old country
would have thrown an entire continent into hysterics.
a century later, the Art Institute boasts a collection of some 300,000 works
brought from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its most popular collections,
the store of impressionist and postimpressionist art–its wealth of Manets,
Renoirs, Picassos, Braques, Matisses and Chagalls–hold a special place
among the world’s leading art institutions and bring the tourists flocking.
But it was the Art Institute’s collection of American painters that held
my interest on a recent visit. Full of underacknowledged gems, like Joshua Johnson’s
1805 portrait of the wife of a prominent Baltimore abolitionist, as well as
famous showstoppers like Edward Hopper’s much reproduced Nighthawks,
the Art Institute’s holdings of American art tell a story of obscure work,
persistence and artistic recognition gained through struggle. These pictures
are reminders of America’s once insurmountable peripheralness to world
culture, facing forward with the odds of a long shot, oil and canvas Davids
brandishing slingshots at Europe’s centuries-old accomplishments.
Johnson, for instance. The first black American to achieve professional standing
as an artist, Johnson’s autodidactic gift is the tiniest footnote to the
accomplishments of Western painting. Yet his picture of Mrs. Andrew Bedford
Bankson and her son proves amazing in its steady-eyed, descriptive frankness.
With subjects seated on a Federal-style sofa ornamented with brass upholstery
tacks (a favorite motif, the trick earned Johnson the nickname the "brass-tack
artist") and outfitted elegantly in light-catching dresses (the tow-headed
boy reminds one of Hemingway, who neurotically could never shake off a photograph
of himself in a dress), Johnson’s painting balances color, form and line.
A record of an extended meeting between a black man and a white woman in the
slaveholding 1800s as well as a family portrait for the home, the painting invokes
the self-trained gifts of both the artist’s hand and brain. Johnson flattered
his sitters as best he knew how: like mere equals of himself.
painting to speak to the complexities of 19th-century American society, William
Sidney Mount’s Bar-room Scene (1835) is the perfect foil for the
heroic panoramas of Thomas Cole, Fredric Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt,
on view in adjoining rooms in the Art Institute. It’s a picture of a tavern’s
spare, wood-slat interior, and portrays a ragged tramp performing a foot-stomping
jig for three well-dressed men, a boy and their black manservant. A scene right
out of Huckleberry Finn, the painting is a study in animated facial expressions,
gestures, nearly theatrical light and invisible/visible social distinctions.
The black man is shunted toward a corner by a composition that brilliantly echoes
social custom, placed at a mirthful remove from the painting’s central
action. Colloquial yet awful to watch, the artist describes the white tramp
with his back to the viewer: a merciful yet perfectly detailed view of Jacksonian
democracy curved down toward its realistic, seedy bottom.
interesting today than the stale lessons of analytic cubism and the cubist-derived
paintings of Americans like Lyonel Feininger and John Marin, Charles Demuth’s
still-lifes and architectural studies pack a wickedly modern punch that bring
to mind Ezra Pound’s gimlet-eyed definition of art: news that stays news.
Demuth interpreted the built landscape of his hometown of Lancaster, PA, by
superimposing webs of abstract shapes like beams onto his paintings of industrial
architecture. The cryptically titled And the Home of the Brave (1931),
for instance, traces a compressed and discontinuous view of a factory, a water
tower, a lightpost and a traffic light as the idealized urban and commercial
forms of a new century. Demuth said goodbye to the romanticized landscapes of
the Hudson River School, the mythologized West of Frederic Remington and the
rural characters of revivalist painters like Grant Wood (his celebrated caricature,
American Gothic, is also on view at the Institute), and faced the 20th
century so squarely, it is tempting to find echoes of his paintings in the work
of hypercool contemporary artists like Michael Bevilacqua, Michael Craig-Martin
and Julian Opie.
expatriate and diehard Los Angeles transplant since 1964, David Hockney has
long been one of a reduced company of painters the world looks to for his visions
of sun-washed flatness, bright colors and the modern-day centrality of the California
landscape. A less than flattering portrait of L.A. collectors Fred and Marcia
Weisman, the painting American Collectors (1968) pictures the artist’s
subjects standing stiffly on their terrazzo deck surrounded by their brand-name
sculptures (there’s a William Turnbull here, a Henry Moore there). Hockney’s
image, pictured so rigidly as to look like sculptures themselves, is a tightly
clenched riff on the hollowness of America’s late 20th-century consumer-citizen
ideal. It’s an unsparing view of America ascendant, standing as an uncomfortably
critical coda to the efforts of collectors in Chicago and elsewhere at the turn
of the previous century.