This is my kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of town, Chicago is
My kind of people, too
People who smile at you
Frank Sinatra. Songwriters: Sammy Cahn / Jimmy Van Heusen
The trip from Salt Lake to Chicago takes about 34 hours on the California Zephyr but it just doesn’t seem that long because the scenery is so dramatic, in particular the stretch through the Rocky Mountains and into Denver. There is dense snow outside, and you can actually feel the silence that accompanies – it makes you want to lower your voice to a whisper. We’re up very high – frighteningly so in some places – and we pass through something like twenty-nine tunnels and many many ski fields. Gerard gazes longingly at the skiers – I know that he would love to be zipping down the slopes along with them.
We meet some really interesting people in the dining car at meals times, not through choice, but because the staff sit you with other train travellers as you arrive for your meal to ensure the most efficient use of space. There is a young couple who live on Guam at the US Military base; a very friendly gay couple in our age group who are seasoned travellers; a man in his late sixties who tells stories of his cycling adventures around the world and, a fairly loquacious middle aged woman who is an expert quilter, and her brother who has a white trucker moustache and wears his cowboy hat the whole time. A man of few words, he does reveal at one point that he collects rocks – really big ones.
Chicago railway station seems huge, dark, crowded and a little forbidding. We see a large group of Amish in their distinctive dress with lots and lots of luggage – and I really feel I am in America. We take a taxi to our Hotel, the Silversmith, on Wabash Avenue, which is just one block from Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue, the big main street that runs the length of the whole city. The Silversmith is called a hidden gem on Trip Advisor and other travel sites. It’s an older, boutique hotel, built in the late 1890s reflecting the style of the new Arts and Crafts movement and with very distinct references to Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s also listed on Chicago’s National Register of Historic Places. The spacious lobby is on the second rather than the first floor and is dominated by groupings of large, heavy-looking but quite elegant deco armchairs made from a pale timber used throughout the hotel. It also has a grand piano that is never played during our stay and I never see any more that one or two people sitting in the big armchairs. Our room is spacious and a little austere but the furniture is elegant and it all feels a bit like staying in a more upmarket version of University House in Australia’s capital, Canberra.
Gerard and I both love our time in Chicago. It’s a big city, but a very easy to navigate – and it has a friendly, relaxed atmosphere. We are in the perfect location to see all the major tourist sites and we dutifully set off each day to see something new, despite the terrible weather. On average it’s about 7 degrees for our first few days and the tops of almost all the massive skyscrapers disappear into a misty fog. But I don’t mind – it all adds to the atmosphere. Then, on our final day, the sun decides to come out and the sky is blue and everything sparkles.
One of our first destinations is Millennium Park and Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate, installed in 2004 and known as The Bean by the locals. It is the most superb site-specific outdoor artwork I have ever seen. It both contrasts with the city and blends with the city– a giant smooth, organically shaped structure made of highly polished stainless steel – like a massive drop of mercury – that is the complete opposite of the angular skyscrapers it reflects in its shiny surface. Even though the weather is cold, there are still many people admiring The Bean, taking photographs of themselves mirrored on its exterior. It’s a work that seems to defy the laws of gravity – it looks simultaneously light and heavy – and it’s also a work that makes you smile. You can walk right under the bean where its mirrored surface creates fabulous distortions reminiscent of Kertesz’s Surrealist photographs. Gerard and I see the bean reflect a very dramatic Chicago in the mist and fog, but on our final day, when the sun is out, the bean is like a pair of mirrored sunglasses and the crowds are out, swarming around the sculpture like bees to a honey pot.
Nearby is another fabulous public art work, Jaume Plensa’s Crown Fountain, but sadly, it’s under maintenance and we don’t get to see it fully working. It consists of two fifteen metre high, glass brick towers that feature individual giant projections of the faces of around 1,000 Chicago citizens. Every now and then, a face spurts water from its mouth, the people of the city creating a mock fountain –I also think of Bruce Nauman’s Self Portrait as a Fountain. We see some face projected on the first day but by the end of our stay, the glass bricks are just glass bricks.
On the next block along from these great public art works, is the Art Institute of Chicago. What can I say? Two conjoined buildings – the original classic building and the newer contemporary wing – with 3 floors of iconic art works: Georgia O’Keefe, Gerhard Richter, El Greco, Seurat, Chagall, Matisse, Tadao Ando… plus an exhibition devoted to Picasso and superb collections of Ancient Greek, African, American Indian and Asian artefacts – I’m fluttering with excitement and not sure where to begin the journey. I start with Contemporary Art after 1960, then go to the American Modern collection which includes Grant Wood’s American Gothic, work my way through the Impressionism gallery and then back up to European Modernism, which has examples of almost every artist included in the first year art theory module taught at the Tasmanian College of the Arts. If only we could beam students across to these galleries so they can see the works in the flesh!
I apologise for the list-like nature of this, but here are some of the works that stood out for me: Morris Louis’ Earth (1959) an abstract expressionist work that I have often seen in reproduction but am blown away by in real life; Glen Ligon’s Stranger in the Village #13 (1998) a completely black text-based work created from enamel, oil, acrylic paint and the magic ingredient of coal dust that makes the words sparkle; Barnett Newman’s Vertical Painting (1950) in which 2 long skinny uneven vertical canvases are boxed together to form a single long skinny painting; Robert Motherwell’s Wall painting with stripes (1944) which is an earthy, rich, dense and beautifully composed painting that I far prefer to his giant black and white canvases; Picasso’s bronze bust of a jester (1905) who has the most poignant hollow eyes, and Eva Hesse’s Hang up (1966) in which a huge loop literally emerges from the canvas to create that something that is neither sculpture nor painting. The list could go on and on… I think the magic for me is mostly the result of actually seeing these works first hand rather than via reproduction. Sometimes, the real thing can be a disappointment, but not in any of these instances.
We also visit the Museum of Contemporary Art, which is across the river, towards the end of the major shopping stretch called the Magnificent Mile. The entrance to the gallery is marked by a huge, slowing rotating neon sign by Martin Creed in which the word ‘MOTHERS’, supported on a big steel post, slowly turns round and round and round and round. Inside the gallery is very noisy and very busy – it’s family day and there are parents and children taking part in arty activities in specially designated areas on each floor of the building. We decide to take a docent lead tour of the exhibition Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void, 1949-1962. (The word ‘docent’ is an American term for a well-trained volunteer who conducts free tours for cultural institutions.) There are two other couples in our group and I feel a bit weird because we are all in the same age group and we all wear a slightly similar style of clothing – it’s like we’re members of a middle-aged art appreciators club.
The tour is fascinating and contextualizes post World War II Japanese conceptual art works along with American and European art of the same period. I am particularly impressed with the Japanese works, which seem to precede the more ‘official’ western Conceptual Art movement of the 60s by about 15 to 20 years. In particular, I am drawn to the astoundingly contemporary performances by Kazuo Shiraga, who paints using his body in a way that makes the action painting of the abstract expressionists seem incredibly tame. I also get to see my first John Latham work in the flesh, a giant canvas dotted with an arrangement of destroyed and burned books. I had never considered Latham’s work as a post-war commentary, so it was a new way of considering the work of an artist significant to my own practice. I also discover the work of an American artist I had never heard of – Lee Bontecou – who makes extraordinary, three dimensional ‘paintings’ from grungy pieces of canvas and other everyday materials to create strange, vertical, industrial landscapes.
On the top floor, there is a small exhibition of William Kentridge films and drawings, and one floor down, a live performance by a music student learning to play Frédéric Chopin’s Nocturne in F minor, op. 55, no. 1. He has been invited to practice the piece by Chicago-based artist Jason Lazarus, as part of Lazarus’ current exhibition in the gallery. The student plays the nocturne over and over, correcting mistakes, repeating particular phrases, becoming more and more familiar with the work. It’s a compelling performance and a small crowd has gathered to listen.
Chicago is of course known for its superb architecture and we take two Architectural Foundation tours while we are there – a 3.5 hour bus tour on a cold rainy day, and a 90 minute boat tour on our final, sunny day in the city. Both are fabulous. The bus tour takes us into the stunning lobbies of some very famous skyscrapers in the city; through Chicago University; into Frank Lloyd Wright’s landmark Robie House, built between 1908 and 1910 in the Prairie style that also characterizes our hotel; into Mies van der Rohe’s minimal, streamlined Crown Hall building at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) which is essentially just one giant room and was packed with architecture and design students, and into the futuristic Rem Koolhaus designed Student Centre, also at the IIT, which is literally built around a railway track. The weather is really bad and, at one point, while we are listening to a talk just outside the Mies Van der Rohe building, it starts hailing! Our cheap umbrellas struggle with the wind and the wetness. We also drive through the wealthy areas of Chicago, where Oprah and Obama have houses, and then through the more depressed suburbs. It’s an insightful tour that provides a great overview of the lie of the land as well as the architecture. We take the boat tour a few days later. It’s a little more relaxing, and takes us up and down the river that divides the city into three areas, lined with fabulous buildings from many different architectural styles, including Beaux-Arts, Art Deco, Bauhaus and Postmodern. The architecture is truly impressive. The buildings genuinely reference each other’s styles, so it seems as though every building is having a conversation with others nearby – so very different from what has happened in Hobart!
One of my favourite buildings is the Cultural Centre on Michigan Avenue, which was originally built as Chicago’s Public Library in 1897. It now hosts free concerts, music performances, exhibitions and a range of other cultural events, as well as housing the Tourist Information centre. On our first visit there, we come across a wonderful free lunch time performance of Brazilian Bossa Nova music by a local musician. We sit down and enjoy about five songs before moving on. On our second visit, we find the most stunning part of the building, which is a huge domed space that was probably the reading room of the library. It boasts the world’s largest stained glass Tiffany dome, which is made from about 30,000 pieces of glass. The walls are covered in intricate mosaics that incorporate gold, mother of pearl and Favrile glass, and feature quotes from great writers about the power of books and reading. The text that encircles the dome reads:
Books are the legacies that a great genius leaves to mankind which are delivered down from generation to generation as presents to the posterity of those who are yet unborn.
In complete contrast to the Cultural centre is the fantastic Hancock Centre. We have been advised to take the lift to the 96th floor (there are actually 110 floors in the building) where there is a bar and a restaurant, rather than going to the observation deck on the 94th where you have to pay a $17.50 entry fee. We are shown to a table, order cups of tea and pear tart and admire the view from right near the huge glass windows. The outlook is vertiginous and spectacular and the limits of the city disappear into the mist of a cold and rainy day.
Chicago has great and inexpensive food. We regularly eat breakfast at the The Corner Bakery, a chain of diners that offer breakfast lunch and dinner and seem to be permanently crowded with locals. The breakfasts are varied, delicious, quickly served and very generous. We eat dinner twice at the Flat Top Grill, just a few doors down from our hotel, where you design your own stir fry. It’s incredibly popular and on our second visit we have to join a huge queue to get in. One of the staff bring out a chair for me while we are waiting, a gesture which is very welcome, but also makes me feel terribly old!
The Magnificent Mile is a shopper’s paradise and right near the start of its seemingly endless stretch of expensive designer shops, in the beautiful Wrigley building (I am guessing chewing gum) is Joel Oppenheimer’s Antique Print Shop, which is without a doubt the largest, most opulent collection of prints I have ever seen. There are several rooms to explore and the walls of each are lined with richly framed Audubon’s and other rare and exotic engravings. A well dressed older woman wearing a silk scarf and pearl earrings greets us and after a brief conversation, introduces Gerard to the man himself, Joel Oppenheimer. He is very friendly and shows us extraordinarily rare prints and hand coloured drawings, one a stunning, luminous depiction of an Australian Rosella by a 19th century Indian artist. (Gerard becomes a little hyperactive in this environment, probably because the collection is so vast and contains so many rare items.) Joel has his own specialized framing service and has a unique license to reproduce Audubon prints from the Field Museum. I find an amazing chromolithograph of a cluster of stars by the American artist, E L Trouvelot, published in 1887. I have never seen anything like it except, perhaps, for the contemporary drawings of stars in the sky by the American-Latvian artist Vija Celmins, and am sorely tempted to buy it. It’s going for $2,500 and Joel asks me to make him an offer. I say I will think about it over lunch… I am still thinking about it…
We travel around Chicago by bus and on foot, but the railway track, called the loop in the city, runs a few floors above the ground. It is incredibly grungy in comparison to the stylish neighbourhood it services and the entrance to one of the stops is just outside our hotel. We go up the decrepit stairs to buy metro tickets, but we never take the train, only the buses. Moving around the city for the five days we spend here has in general been slower than usual because Gerard developed an infection in one of his toes and had to see a doctor shortly after we arrived. Now, for those of you who know Gerard, you will be aware that he is normally very fleet of foot, so having to slow down his pace is pretty frustrating. The problem toe is a nuisance, but once the antibiotics take effect, it gradually starts to improve.
Our time in Chicago comes to an end far too quickly – Chicago is my kind of town, as Frank Sinatra sings – and I feel sad leaving such a fabulous city, not just because I want to see more of what it has to offer, but also because our final day there marks the end of my Long Service Leave. From the 15th April onwards I am on Study Leave, with a new set of obligations that begin in New York, but where I’ll have a home base at the Australia Council Greene Street Studio for three months.