Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

Word on the street: Sidewalk poetry

July 9, 2008

Like most big cities, Chicago has its share of graffiti. Most of it is mindless tagging, the annoying human equivalent of animals spraying their scent to mark their territory. Only this is done with spray paint or markers or—in the latest defacement innovation—acid that actually etches into plate glass and has to be ground and polished out. This is vandalism, pure and simple.

But there’s a much more creative side to graffiti that, if it doesn’t exactly make me ready to forgive taggers, maybe causes me to adopt something of a philosophical “take the good with the bad” attitude. Most famously, graffiti has given us artists like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat. It also gives us random poignant moments like this piece, spotted downtown last winter, near Columbia College:

And on a grander scale, this piece done with stencils and spray paint by graffiti stencil artist Peat Wollaeger:

Most recently, graffiti gave me a bit of street poetry. Well, sidewalk poetry, to be more exact. Walking up to the Bucktown offices of the ad agency where I work one morning, I saw a seemingly random word stenciled onto the sidewalk. And then another. And another. When I explored later, I discovered there were 38 words in all, in 29 groupings, spaced out over two city blocks. Someone or a group of someones had cut out these stencils and, in the wee-est of the wee, small hours of the morning [Bucktown and neighboring Wicker Park are infested with late night bars], had applied a poem to the streets of Chicago. Here it is:

Goodbye, Robert Rauschenberg. Thank you.

May 14, 2008

This will be a short post. I just saw on the New York Times website that American artist Robert Rauschenberg died Monday night at his home on Captiva Island, Florida. Please read their excellent obituary of this seminal artist. It is far more articulate than anything I might write here.

Rauschenberg is sometimes identified as a Pop Artist, but he actually predated Pop Art of the ’60s, emerging in the early ’50s. And his work over his long career defied definition or pigeonholing. Here’s how Michael Kimmelman of the Times puts it: “A painter, photographer, printmaker, choreographer, onstage performer, set designer and, in later years, even a composer, Mr. Rauschenberg defied the traditional idea that an artist stick to one medium or style. He pushed, prodded and sometimes reconceived all the mediums in which he worked.”

Jasper Johns came to prominence about this same time and while both he and Rauschenberg embraced and, in fact, heavily shaped Pop Art, they transcended it as well. Coming out of the Abstract Expressionism of Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and others, their work was more painterly than other Pop Artists. And this only served to make their inclusion of found objects and mixing of media more exciting, more shocking, more energizing.

A couple of years ago, I had the amazing good fortune to see the show Robert Rauschenberg: Combines at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Combines was his term for pieces that included painting, collage and sculpture. I considered myself to be reasonably familiar with Rauschenberg’s work and a big fan of his. But suddenly seeing these 67 works, all created between 1954 and 1964 and all in one place, was electrifying.

In looking back at art from other periods, I’m sometimes frustrated by not seeing it with eyes of the time in which it was created. Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art is among the most beloved today—Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh… But when the work was first exhibited, it was revolutionary and caused an absolute uproar. Walking among these Combines at the Metropolitan some 40 or 50 years after they were created, I could get some sense of either how outrageous or wonderfully fresh they must have seemed when they were first exhibited.

It was an amazing show. An amazing career. An amazing life. Thank you, Mr. Rauschenberg.

RIP, The Spindle: Big art in Berwyn dies

May 7, 2008

Last fall I wrote about an unusual landmark in suburban Chicago that was threatened with demolition. Sadly, it fell last week, another victim of progress, if yet another Walgreens can be deemed progress. We learned about it first at Curious Feet St. Louis. Be sure to read this brief, heartfelt post. You’ll also find links there to photos and video of the demolition. Here’s my original post:

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Alas, it is now gone. And the world is just a little bit blander.

The history of the world in five minutes

March 19, 2008

I love the Internet. If the Smithsonian is the nation’s attic, the Internet is the planet’s attic, basement, garage and rented storage locker. I used to be amazed by what I could find online; now I’m annoyed when I can’t easily find something. Recently a friend showed me a YouTube video of a school project by bhilmer, remaking the credits of Star Wars mimicking the style of design pioneer Saul Bass [perfectly done, by the way—I’ll include it in this post].

That clip reminded me of an obscure but Academy award-winning short film by Saul Bass that I used to show the first day of class to every one of my art classes when I taught college. More specifically, it reminded me of the opening segment of the film, an animated short that covers the “history of the world man has built on ideas” in a little under five minutes. And it does it brilliantly, with economy, wit and charm. A quick search on Google [again, thank you, Internet] and there it was! Give it a quick watch—it may give you your biggest smile of the day.

 

The film in question is Why Man Creates, produced in 1970. Amazingly, it is still in print and available from educational film distributor Pyramid Media. Here’s how their site describes it: “A series of explorations, episodes and comments on creativity by Saul Bass, a master of conceptual design, this film is one of the most highly regarded short films ever produced.”

Saul Bass wasn’t just a designer—he invented the field. He described the situation in an interview in 1986. “There was no school as we understand it today that taught the notion of design… In those days, all people who did work that was paid for were called commercial artists—as differentiated from painters, who never got any money for anything.” Bass took only one night class at the Art Students League in New York, a painting class. So essentially, as he put it, he was self taught.

Bass moved to Los Angeles, where the film industry became a huge client. According to Design Museum London, he was “not only one of the great graphic designers of the mid-20th century but the undisputed master of film title design thanks to his collaborations with Alfred Hitchcock, Otto Preminger and Martin Scorsese.” If you’ve seen any American films from the 50s, 60s and 70s, you’ve probably seen his design work in the opening credits. West Side Story, Psycho, Vertigo, The Man with the Golden Arm, Ocean’s Eleven [the original, starring the Rat Pack], Exodus… And the 1959 Preminger classic, Anatomy of a Murder. I show you the opening credits of this film not because they are necessarily the best work Bass did, but because when you see the Star Wars take-off, you’ll understand where it came from.

And now, the take-off that launched this whole diatribe. If nothing else, this post may send some business Netflix’s way.

Art and food together. “Is this heaven?”

February 6, 2008

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Last Saturday night we went to Chicago’s first ever Slideluck Potshow, held at the spacious Madron Gallery. As the event’s name sort of implies, it’s a combination potluck dinner and slideshow. At first blush, this sounds like something the Moose Lodge in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, might put on to liven up a long winter night, with everyone oohing and aahing over the multiple green bean casseroles and Ed’s 827 slides of the Alaskan cruise he and his wife Doris took, “when was it now, two years ago… three years ago?” Or as my Brooklyn Buddy Ronnie Ann put it, “Now wait a minute… people willingly go to watch slide shows without having committed a crime?”

Except the slideshow was art—very current work by Chicago artists. The crowd was an entertaining mix of mostly artists and hipsters. The food was plentiful and, for the most part, really good and interesting—this was not the kind of event where you show up with a bag of Doritos or a green bean casserole. And there was even a potluck dessert table and a potluck bar.

For our contribution, we brought a nice bottle of California sparkling wine, and Marion made a heaping bowl of the delicious soba noodle salad she posted on Blue Kitchen last week. The latter was an especially big hit—had the bowl been scraped any cleaner when we picked it up at the end of the evening, we could have just put it back on the shelf.

After the crowd had sufficiently fed, imbibed and networked, we all settled in—mostly sitting on the floor [and feeling fairly collegiate, I think] for an amazing show.

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Slideluck Potshow is the brainchild of advertising and editorial photographer Casey Kelbaugh. It began in his backyard in Seattle back in 2000, when he invited friends and colleagues to bring slides and food. He told me Saturday night that the first shows really were slideshows, with artists loading their slides into carousel trays and projecting them onto the screen: “Click-click… click-click… click-click…” Now it’s all gone digital [of course], with images being set to music and the whole show being run from a laptop to a projector.

Kelbaugh did a number of slide show parties in Seattle before moving to New York in 2003. He wasn’t sure how the idea would fly there, but he gave it a shot and hosted his first New York Slideluck Potshow in his East Village apartment in 2004. According to a New York Times article, “He was surprised when 120 people arrived, obligingly toting home-cooked dishes as well as images of their work. The event mushroomed into a kind of open-mike night for photographers and other artists, who would show up with trays of slides or CDs to show.”

As Slideluck Potshow’s own website says, “Slideluck has become something of a global phenomenon, as they are now taking place everywhere from Berlin to Minneapolis, Mexico City to Washington, DC.”

And now, Chicago. Chicago’s show was heavy on the photography—no surprise, since Kelbaugh is a photographer. The work was a real mix of images, ranging from beautiful to compelling, disturbing, amusing, lyrical and sometimes just plain strange.

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Particularly moving was a series of paired images by Chicago Tribune photographer Scott Strazzante. He began visiting an Illinois family farm 13 years ago, taking thousands of pictures of the husband and wife, their land and their animals. In 2002, the farm was sold and became a subdivision. Last year, he returned to the area and began shooting the new life there. He was surprised by what he discovered when he did. “I just started to watch and to shoot and I began to realize that there were so many similarities in what I was shooting to what I had shot,” Strazzante said. “When I think about it now, it’s really eerie.” Here’s a link to a Tribune piece that includes more of his wonderful photographs.

As with any group show, there were a few clunkers in the bunch. But they were greatly outnumbered by real gems. At the end of the evening, we left happily sated, our bellies and brains equally full.

How the wild things sound

January 30, 2008

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Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are is one of the great works of children’s literature. Playful, inventive and completely inside kids’ heads, it tracks young Max’s journey from getting into trouble for making mischief in his wolf suit through anger and back to the familiar comfort of home.

The story begins with this deceptively simple, delightfully run-on sentence: The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything.

As Max stews in his room, it transforms into a jungle, and the illustrations grow from small, contained, wide-bordered images to full-bleed spreads spilling off the pages. As his anger subsides and the comforting smell of dinner reaches him, the fabulous Sendak illustrations shrink back down.

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So when I read recently on New York magazine’s website that ‘Yeah Yeah Yeahs front woman Karen O is writing “pretty much the whole” soundtrack’ to an upcoming movie version of Where the Wild Things Are [with a script by Dave Eggers and Spike Jonzes, no less], I thought it was one of those counterintuitive but brilliant choices.

Having seen the Yeah Yeah Yeahs live a couple of times, I know Karen O is capable of genuine wildness, of careening right up to the edge of out of control and dancing on it. She’s also capable of playing wild thing dress-up and throwing herself into it with abandon. Just as important, though, there are also occasional balancing moments of vulnerability and smallness in her performances. The YouTube video below demonstrates her ability to channel Max’s command to the other wild things, “Let the wild rumpus start.” [You’ll have to take my word on the vulnerable side.]

All of which makes me think she can give this live action film the genuinely wild edge it needs. As much as I love Randy Newman’s music [I really have to talk about him in the Kitchen Boombox sometime], this film is not Toy Story. It has the opportunity to go places much darker, much deeper. I think Ms. O may be just the person to get it there.

Borrowed milk, butt bumps and poetry

October 24, 2007

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The small ad agency where I work has a full kitchen, complete with—quite improbably—gas stove. Mostly, though, people use the microwave, the coffee maker and the big, communal fridge.

The other morning my colleague Matt asked if he could mooch a little milk from me for his coffee. He then said he was always doing that, borrowing stuff or even occasionally filching it [the former is fine with me, the latter drives me nuts]. I told him our styles were just different. When he brings food in, his philosophy is “what’s mine is yours.” I never take him up on it, though, because, as I told him, my philosophy [at least regarding communal fridges] is “good fences make good neighbors.”

That led to a discussion of the Robert Frost poem I had referenced and Matt had picked up on, Mending Wall, which of course led to us looking it up online and reading it. It was as wonderful as I’d remembered it to be. I’ll include it in its entirety below, so stick around.

The poem talks about two different ways of looking at life—one open, the other private, turned inward. It also talks about the walls we put up between ourselves and others. When the narrator of the poem questions the need for the stone wall he and his neighbor are repairing between their rural New England properties, the neighbor simply answers, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

Besides reminding me yet again of the simple beauty of Frost’s writing, the poem also got me thinking about how, on some levels, “good fences” make urban living work as well as it does.

I live in Chicago and, like in New York, our subways and els can be packed, especially at rush hour. Once my brother was visiting me from small town Mississippi, and he took the el with me down to my office one morning. He expressed surprise later that all these people were crammed shoulder to shoulder on the train and nobody spoke to anyone else. Living in a place where everyone says “Hey” to people on the street—sometimes even people they don’t know—it seemed cold and unfriendly to him.

To me, though, it is just creating one’s own private space in very crowded conditions—and respecting the privacy and boundaries of others. And it’s what makes this kind of situation work. Riders adopt the 1,000-yard stare or read or pop in the earbuds and the “good fences” go up. Even in this most public of situations, they can retreat into their own privacy—precisely because their fellow riders have, for the most part, signed off on the same unwritten contract to respect those fences.

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And it’s not that people never speak or acknowledge one another. Delayed or stopped trains will start a buzz, for instance. I’ve gotten into conversations over what someone was reading. And once, when a fellow passenger took the whole privacy thing a little too far, hauling out an electric razor and shaving, another passenger made eye contact with me and mimed brushing his teeth, causing us both to smile, nod and roll our eyes. But all these are moments of genuine contact, however fleeting and casual, rather than enforced cordiality. I have spent a lot of time in small towns, watching relatives offer up a friendly “Hey” to someone passing by in the name of small town politeness, only to follow it up with a muttered scurrilous aside to me about that person’s character, lack of good sense or some other grievous shortcoming.

The subway isn’t the only place “good fences” come into play in urban living. A friend was recently in Shanghai for work and was amazed by the constant crush of people everywhere and the attendant reduced personal space. If you were walking too slowly on the sidewalk, someone would gently touch your shoulder, a sign to move aside and let that person pass. This scene is repeated thousands of times a day, and no one gets upset or takes it as an invasion of privacy. Nor is it cause for greetings or conversation—it is simply how this many people get where they are going in such a confined space.

And in New York, with its astronomical real estate prices, stores are typically designed with narrower aisles. As a New York magazine article on the Duane Reade drugstore chain put it, New Yorkers are more tolerant than most people of the “butt bump”—someone brushing past you in a crowded space.

Which is not to say the fences don’t come down, even in the big city. On one visit to New York, Marion and daughter Laurel were in the Sephora store on Broadway on the upper west side. I was standing outside, enjoying the cool morning air and the passing scene. I had my can of Diet Pepsi in one hand and Laurel’s Coke in the other. A young woman hurrying by glanced my way, made eye contact and smiled. Pointing at the soda cans, she said, “So which one tastes better? Haha! Just kidding!” I smiled back and nodded, and she continued on her way. It all happened much faster than the telling of it, human connection for just an instant. I’ll take that kind of connection over an enforced “Hey” any day.

And now, the Robert Frost poem that sparked this whole diatribe.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
‘Stay where you are until our backs are turned!’
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors’.
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
‘Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows?
But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.’ I could say ‘Elves’ to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me—
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”

 

About photographer Travis Ruse

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In December 2004, New York photographer Travis Ruse began what he planned as a one-year project, to photograph his daily subway commute from Brooklyn to Manhattan and post one photograph of each day’s commute on his blog. With occasional breaks here and there, he actually continued the project into June 2007, posting 684 images in all. Together, they form a glorious mosaic of New Yorkers and that quintessential daily New York experience, riding the subway. Ruse’s project has been written about in the New York Times and exhibited at Redux Gallery in Manhattan. It has also caused my inner New Yorker countless pangs of longing.

Big art in Berwyn, Illinois

September 26, 2007

We bought a new bed this weekend out in the western suburbs of Chicago. Some assembly required, of course. The two boxes it came in, one of them 76 inches long, meant that even with our back seat folded down, the trunk would be partially open, secured by a bungee cord. To me, that meant taking surface streets instead of the expressway.

And that meant driving through Berwyn, Illinois. Berwyn is a working class suburb of Chicago and the butt of a long-running joke for a local TV celeb and bad horror movie host [I’ll wait while all Chicagoans do their best Son of Svengoolie impersonation: “BER-wyn?!?”].

It’s also, at least for now, home of The Spindle. Created in 1989 by California artist Dustin Shuler, it has given many people a reason to visit less than glitzy Cermak Plaza [to me, the way cool vintage mall sign is another].

But if you’d like to see The Spindle, you’d better visit Cermak Plaza soon. It is likely to be moved—and possibly demolished—soon to make way for a Walgreens. Yeah, we really need another one of those in the Chicago area. The national drugstore chain is headquartered here, and they loooove to build in their hometown. If you walk or drive five or six blocks in any direction without passing a Walgreens—or the site of a future Walgreens—you’ve probably somehow accidentally left Chicago. But for some reason, a Walgreens is urgently needed, right where The Spindle now stands.

The Spindle is not without its supporters, though. There’s a grassroots organization, complete with a Save The Spindle website. And the Illinois State Senate has passed a resolution to save The Spindle. If enough funds are raised, it could be moved elsewhere on the parking lot and have needed restoration work done by the artist. But as with most noble human endeavors, details of any such effort are a little sketchy and more than a little messy—questions of copyright and marketing and control [aka follow the money].

So your best bet is to get out there now and see it. Oh. And while you’re in Berwyn, be sure to check out the world’s largest laundromat, with 161 washers and 140 dryers, a kids’ play area, big screen TVs, a bird sanctuary [speaking of WTF?] and free pizza on Wednesday nights.

Art free for all in St. Louis

September 5, 2007

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The National Endowment for the Arts has a wonderful tagline that you’ll occasionally hear on PBS or NPR broadcasts: A great nation deserves great art. What a beautifully succinct argument for supporting the arts.

I can’t remember a time when art wasn’t a part of my life. To hear my mother tell it, I pretty much drew from birth on. When I was about ten or so, I got my first camera and—while I continued to draw from time to time [and did some painting, some printmaking, some ceramics, some sculpture]—found the medium that would supplant all others for me.

But art is more than something I occasionally dabble in. It is part of who I am, part of how I view life and the world. I taught college art for a while. I far too infrequently shoot and exhibit what I call my serious photography, very different from what I shoot for this blog. I judge cities and decide whether or not to visit them based on the art there. Indeed, I could not imagine living someplace without regular access to great art. If I had to name one event that set this part of me in motion, it was my first visit to the St. Louis Art Museum.

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In the fifth grade, I was transferred into the gifted program in school. Besides ratcheting up the level of work we did in the classroom, they took us places—to plays and the symphony, for example, and most important to ten-year-old me, to the art museum.

Suddenly, a whole world outside my working class neighborhood opened up to me. And best of all to perpetually broke young me, it was free. It’s engraved right there on the architrave above the main entrance: DEDICATED TO ART AND FREE TO ALL. I took full advantage of this open invitation, sometimes taking the bus there with my friend Ray, but more often going alone. I even dragged my mom and brother there one summer. My mom humored me, my brother not so much. But I had already claimed it as my own, so I didn’t care.

At first I was drawn to the painstaking realism of the artists of the Renaissance up through the mid-nineteenth century, in awe of their ability to produce such lifelike images with paint and canvas. But eventually, over manymanymany visits, I came to embrace—in turn—Impressionism, modern art and, finally, contemporary art. Now my interests flow in the opposite direction, with contemporary art being far and away the most exciting to me, and the old masters having to work pretty hard to catch my eye.

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We were in St. Louis last weekend and went to the museum. It’s still free [except for major special exhibitions, and even those are free on Fridays]. And it still has the same magical effect on me.

The St. Louis Art Museum [long modestly known as the City Art Museum] was one of the few permanent structures built for the 1904 World’s Fair. Built atop Art Hill in Forest Park [a glorious city park larger than Central Park], it was designed by architect Cass Gilbert. He later went on to design the Woolworth Building in New York and the United States Supreme Court.

St. Louis has a not totally undeserved reputation for being a conservative city—not politically so much as in its rather practical world view and general unwillingness to spend even a nickel frivolously. When pressed for the need for electric street lights in Forest Park, an old German mayor famously responded, “We got the moon, ain’t it?” But in 1907, the city’s practical citizens passed a very forward-thinking tax to support the art museum and seven years later, expanded it to build a zoo. As a result, this mid-sized city has one of the best zoos in the world and a gem of an art museum with an excellent collection, both free.

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The National Endowment for the Arts is right: A great nation deserves great art. So does a great city.

Back to Blue Kitchen

St. Louis art quartet plus one

June 27, 2007

When a city has a new art museum open, it’s a big deal. Since 1993, St. Louis has had four open. On our recent road trip, we visited all four of them in one day. It helped, of course, that they are all in the same neighborhood.

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Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts. Opened in 2001, The Pulitzer Foundation doesn’t consider itself a museum, Rather, it is “a museum-like facility with galleries that are open to the public two days a week.” It focuses on 20th century and modern art, including many pieces on loan from the collection of Emily and the late Joseph Pulitzer. Yes, that Joseph Pulitzer. The work on display was a who’s who of the periods covered. It was also kind of a name-that-artist pop quiz: There are no labels on the walls, the idea being one should concentrate on the work itself rather than names and labels. Or as their site puts it, “The Pulitzer encourages a direct and contemplative viewing experience with the artworks, both as individual objects and in the context of the exhibition and the architecture. Labels and text can aesthetically interfere with this immediate visual experience.” They do make brochures available.

The building itself, designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando, is an amazing visual experience, austere and clean, perfectly designed to put the art it houses front and center. It also makes extensive use of natural light.

But for me, the star of this museum [okay, sort of museum] is Joe, a giant torqued spiral of weathering Cor-ten steel by Richard Serra. Commissioned by Emily to commemorate her late husband, its canted, curving walls are disorienting as you move to the center of the sculpture. Once inside, though, you feel as if you’ve entered a monumental, serene sanctuary. I had already wanted to see the huge Serra retrospective currently at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Having visited this piece, I really, really, really want to see it.

camstl.jpgContemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Opened just two years later and right next door to the Pulitzer, this museum grew out of St. Louis’s Forum for Contemporary Art, which itself had evolved over several years, locations and iterations. The Contemporary is a non-collecting museum. It displays only temporary exhibitions. This allows it to present not just contemporary work, but work that is absolutely current. If their two current exhibitions, Katie Holten: Paths of Desire and Shoot The Family [unflinching but still loving photographic family portraits] are any indication, this is an excellent model for a museum. The building, by Brad Cloepfil, principal architect of Allied Works of Portland, Oregon, is an exciting environment designed—as the architect put it—as “an intentional vacancy that achieves meaning through the art itself.” It is a museum I look forward to visiting again and again.

The other two museums we visited are both on the campus of St. Louis University, a few blocks from the Pulitzer and the Contemporary, in the blossoming midtown arts and theater district.

Museum of Contemporary Religious Art. Even though this museum opened in 1993, before we left St. Louis for Chicago, I’d never visited it before. The word ‘religious’ was the deal breaker for me, especially since it is part of a Jesuit school. I pictured lots of crucifixes [crucifi?] and pietas, only not even Renaissance or Baroque, so not exactly my cup of jasmine. Turns out I was wrong. They’ve had shows by Keith Haring. By the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. They’ve had the largest ever U.S. installation of Andy Warhol’s Silver Clouds, filling the entire former chapel that is now home to this small museum with silver mylar rectangular balloons and using powerful fans to move them around in the space [we saw a smaller installation at the Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh—it was so involving, so much fun]. And the museum clearly embraces all religions. They once had an inflatable reclining Buddha sculpture, lifesized [if such a term applies to sculptures of sculptures]. The staff would occasionally deflate and reinflate it. The museum director said that watching it deflate was as close to watching someone die as he had ever come.

The exhibit we saw, mostly smallish paintings by pioneering German abstract painter Oskar Fischinger, didn’t exactly rock my world. But their complete lack of overtly religious imagery opened my eyes to another little gem of a museum in St. Louis.

St. Louis University Museum of Art. The impressive Beaux Arts home of this museum was originally built in 1900 as the home of the St. Louis Club. As impressive as the building’s grandeur from another age was the current exhibit—Elusive Light: Michael Eastman Retrospective. The St. Louis photographer’s super-sized, voluptuous photographs of Cuba, Europe, America, horses and landscapes sing with color and light. The architectural shots celebrate elegance and decay.

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Oh, and the cost of this museum mini-orgy? Zip. Even at the Contemporary, where we loitered at the entry desk expecting to pay the five bucks the website said we’d be charged, the staffers chatted amiably with us for several minutes before finally sending us off with a cheerful, “Enjoy the museum!” Of course, free is big in St. Louis. The St. Louis Art Museum, whose building and splendid collection began with the 1904 World’s Fair, lives up to its slogan, “Dedicated to Art and Free to All.” And the St. Louis Zoo, one of the finest in the world, is also one of only maybe four free zoos in the nation.

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Art Bonus. In addition to seeing four new [to us] museums, we also managed to catch a fun gallery opening at Mad Art, a gallery that has opened in a former 1930s Art Deco police station [again, thanks, Claire!]. Graffiti artist Peat Wollaeger works mainly with stencils and spray paint to create his images. Mountain Dew became interested in him after seeing viral videos on his website. They commissioned him to create artwork for more than 70,000 16-ounce aluminum bottles. For more information, visit Peat’s website.

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