Am I a Phony?

The Thing I’m Doing This Year #20

One of the great things about my job is that I get to travel and when I’m in a new town, I find the cool coffee place, bookstore or restaurant. But in some towns, I don’t have to look too hard. I knew for months before heading to Chicago that I was going to go to the Art Institute.

That place is impressive. I liked it as much or more than MOMA in New York. In the art world these museums are called encyclopedic because they collect a little bit of everything. The Art Institute is fifth in the nation for attendance with 1.8 million a year. At one million square feet, it is second in size only to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What blew my mind – beyond the numerous, iconic paintings – was the depth. They have 10 of everything … 30 Monet’s, for example.

Their best known works are Georges Seurat’s pointillist masterpiece, Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks.

So here is a quick walk through using my camera roll as a guide …

guitaristPablo Picasso was called a prodigy before he even left the crib. His painting, “The Old Guitarist,” is from his Blue Period, which simply means that he restricted himself to a cold, monochromatic palette of blue, for the most part. Picasso depicts a downtrodden old guitarist, a struggling artist, just like Picasso at this point in his career.

chagallMarc Chagall, “White Crucifixion,” from 1938. As is so often the case, it takes an artist to draw attention to the issues of the day, in this case, the persecution and suffering of the Jews of Germany. This painting reminded me of his spectacular stain glass windows at the Fraumunster church in Zurich, about the coolest thing I saw in Switzerland (next to the bandaged-ear Van Gogh self-portrait).

Three Salvador Dali’s …

“The Earth is a Man” by Matta, a painting that greatly influenced Jackson Pollock and other abstract expressionists.

walking manThere was a Giacometti sculpture, “The Walking Man II.” Giacometti did the bronze sculptures that a super-elongated and skinny. Just a couple of weeks earlier, Carli and I saw “The Walking Man I” at the Denver Art Museum. Of the two versions, which are basically the same, only seven are on view to the public in the world and I saw two of them in a month. Another WMII belongs to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., it is very possible that I saw that one too.

So what’s the big deal? It’s an iconic work of art. Why? I can’t tell you; I didn’t get a degree in art history. But the sculpture appears on the Swiss 100 Franc note. And in 2010, an edition of WMI sold at auction for a world record price of $104.3 million.

I am no Andy Warhol fan, but his gigantic Mao portrait was impressive, with rouge on the cheeks and blue eye shadow.

Cy Twombley. What the fuck? Do not understand the appeal. How does this guy get into museums? Blake likes him, so whenever I see some of his stuff I text Twombley pics to Blake … because I’m a good friend.

jasperI was happy to see a Jasper Johns work … red, yellow and blue lines arranged this way and that … crosshatched marks … called “Corpse and Mirror II.” I read that Johns saw the pattern on a passing car and later said, “I only saw it for a second, but knew immediately that I was going to use it. It had all the qualities that interest me – literalness, repetitiveness, an obsessive quality, order with dumbness and the possibility of a complete lack of meaning.”

monetThere was Monet’s “Water Lily Pond” painting from 1900. He would paint the same things over and over in slightly different light. I remember going to the wall hanging store in the mall as a young man with a friend, who was mystified when I bought a Monet Giverny print instead of something with sports or a hot lady.

What he didn’t know that I already had a Loni Anderson poster. Farrah too. Diversity is the spice of life.

Once again I was very pleased to find a handful of Van Gogh’s, especially considering how Van Gogh incorporated pointillism or his version of it … color theory … placing certain pairs of colors side-by-side to create a certain effect.

van goghThey had “The Bedroom” … his painting of his bedroom from the Yellow House, the home he shared for nine weeks with Gauguin in Arles, the South of France. This is the single bed where Van Gogh was found nearly having bled to death after cutting off his ear, which he did in part to punish or convince Gauguin to stay. Van Gogh wanted to start an artistic movement in Arles, but when Gauguin decided to leave after just two months, well, Vince didn’t take that too well. He painted “The Bedroom” whilst staying at an asylum for people who have had things fall off of their heads.

seurat“A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte” by Georges Seurat. There are whole bunch of reasons why Seurat painted using a bunch of dots, mostly concerning ‘color theory,’ but I’ll draw an oversimplified brushstroke for you … artists, not all, but some, are an obsessive, compulsive bunch, who think hard about the world and their craft. When you see this large canvas – 10 feet wide — and see the thousands of tiny, well placed, ingenious dots, you have to think, “wow, that’s amazing” and also “wow, that’s crazy.” Seurat worked for two years to complete his masterpiece. He was 25 when he began and tragically died at just 31.

kuhnWalt Kuhn liked to draw clowns and/or circus folk. At the FAC we have “Trio,” one of the institution’s prized possessions. At the Art Institute, I especially liked “Clown with Drum.”

nighthawksEdward Hopper’s “Nightwing” or “Nighthawks” or whatever is probably best known for being on sale at your mall’s “Off The Wall” shop with neon lights inserted usually with Humphrey Bogart, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean enjoying a light night snack in a New York diner.

the doorOne painting that just totally captured my imagination was “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do (The Door)” by Ivan Albright. The style is considered Magic Realism, I did not know that was a thing. The painting is eight feet tall and three feet wide. It’s basically a door that resembles a coffin with a bouquet of roses hanging in the middle. The door is a little smooshed and a hand appears at an unnatural angle near the doorknob with an ornate ring, and it’s holding a rosary and a handkerchief.

It took 10 years to paint … one-half square inch at a time and he never revisited one square inch. Dark subject matter, very complex, his work has been called “some of the most meticulously executed paintings ever made.” This particular painting won top honors at three major exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia and Chicago. The award at the Met earned this painting a place in its permanent collection, but when the Met offered Albright $3,500 for the work. He said no and countered with $125,000. The Met said no.

bentonI actually said, “Oo,” out loud, where I saw “Cotton Pickers” by Thomas Hart Benton. Benton taught Jackson Pollock, Boardman Robinson and Eric Bransby, the latter two are connected to the FAC. Robinson was the first director of the FAC School; Bransby was his pupil as well. Bransby painted a 75th Anniversary mural for the FAC when he was in his 90s.

Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry were leaders of the American Regionalism movement and were unofficially the mentors in the early days of the FAC and influenced the artistic direction of the school.

gothic“American Gothic” is a really amazing painting. I first saw it at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, my first significant work of art. The piece is often parodied, but when it was painted in 1930, being a farmer in the middle of the Depression and a drought was nothing to laugh about … they were stoic and serious, but they had to be. Wood was depicting the farmers as clinging to old values with his imagery. Here’s something I didn’t know, that isn’t a married couple; it’s a father and his unmarried daughter.

doveThe next gallery featured paintings by the Stieglitz Circle: Georgia O’Keeffe, Arthur Dove, Marsden Hartley and John Marin. Stieglitz was an advocate. In the art world, a patron or advocate was often the difference maker who helped an artist make a living or make it big. In art, the right person saying, “That’s good; that’s important,” is huge.

The Arthur Dove piece, “Silver Sun,” captured my attention the most. It reminded me of the FAC’s work, “Fog Horns,” which appeared on a U.S. Postage Stamp in 2013 as part of a Modern Art series. Dove was the first American painter to experiment with pure abstraction. (Sarah Milteer, as fate would have it, was at the Art Institute a few short days after me, and like me, she texted Blake a photo of “Silver Sun.”)

So I took in the one million square feet and was ready to go. I went into the gift shop on my way out and saw prints for a Rothko and Pollock. I found a staffer, “Where are these?” I missed a room. I almost left without seeing the Rothko and Pollock.

rothkoMark Rothko, “Untitled (Purple, White and Red)” feature three rows of paint, the top was purple, the middle was white and the bottom row, well, that was red. Rothko would not have thought much of me as a fan. I like the way his paintings look, but he wanted me (and you) to be transformed, to stare into the canvas and find personal and cosmic truths, kind of like looking at a James Turrell light sculpture. But I am an art illiterate. I just like how they look.

pollock iiThe Pollock, “Greyed Rainbow” wasn’t quite as cool to me as the one Carli and I saw at the DAM. When I look at his works I think a few things. 1. Hey, that’s pretty cool. 2. Unlike virtually every other major artist from any period, Pollock couldn’t draw, so that might explain the dripping. 3. I wonder if he was hammered when he painted this … because he was a monumental alcoholic.

Pollock often would invite friends and neighbors into his studio to help him name his works. This one, “Greyed Rainbow,” was produced in 1953, was one of his last works. He spent the next three years drinking and moping, asking anyone who would listen, “Am I a phony?”

The next installment … “Sam Joined the Team”

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