My New York month is coming to an end—just one more week and I’ll be heading home. Mixed feelings, because I always love going home. And there is certainly lots of arts and culture to consume and review in Chicago. But there’s a certain something about New York. No other city can match it. So I hope to do this again in a year or two. Here’s what I’ve been doing since I last posted here.
Among the plays I’ve seen recently are three that I’ve reviewed for Third Coast Review.
Theater Highlights, Part 2
Sam Shepard’s True West, starring Ethan Hawke and Paul Dano as the battling brothers, was a pleasure to see again with another set of players. I’ve seen this play many times–first in 1982, when Steppenwolf staged it with John Malkovich and Gary Sinise playing the lead roles. This New York production at the American Airlines Theatre was excellent—and I took a different theme from it this time. The American dream, perhaps exemplified by one brother’s hard work at developing and writing a screenplay, is turned on its head. His drifter brother manages to bullshit his way into a film contract by making up a story as he talks with a film producer. And, of course, it all ends in a battle of…toasters and toast.
Juno and the Paycock at Irish Repertory Theatre is the second in its Sean O’Casey season. This is the best known of the three plays and Irish Rep stages a terrific production, led by the theater’s co-founder, Ciarán O’Reilly, as the ne’er do well Captain Jack Boyle. The play is beautifully cast, mostly with Irish Rep regulars, and succeeds in threading the tragedy of the Irish Civil War beneath the humor and occasional sadness of a Dublin family.
King Lear (Cort Theatre on Broadway) starring Glenda Jackson as Lear was a highlight of my New York month. I saw the play in preview, since it won’t open until April 4. Therefore I can’t review it now, but will write a review later. I can say now that it is a four-star production; not only is Jackson a solid and satisfying Lear, but the cast is diverse and the staging and direction (by Sam Gold) are brilliant.
Nantucket Sleigh Ride, John Guare’s newest play, is a world premiere being staged by Lincoln Center Theaters in the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. My review was just posted today. The play is a farce, with lots of laugh lines, but it is a strange mix of reality and surrealism, laced with more pop culture references than I could keep track of. It’s an updated version of an earlier play, as I mention in my review, but I think it’s still not ready for prime time.
A unique theater resource in New York is the Theatre on Film and Tape archive (TOFT) at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts (adjacent to the Lincoln Center theater building). TOFT records many of the plays and musicals produced on Broadway and off-Broadway. The archive is available to theater professionals, students or researchers with work- or study-related projects. You request viewing of a play by locating it on the TOFT website and calling to sign up for a viewing appointment. When you arrive, the films are cued up on a computer in the archive’s screening room. I’ve watched several plays there on two different occasions, including the 1988 and 2009 productions of Waiting for Godot. I’m hoping to get there once more this week.
Art at the Whitney and the Museum of Arts and Design
One of the important art exhibits on view in New York right now is Andy Warhol–from A to B and Back Again at the Whitney Museum of American Art. I saw a preview of the exhibit last fall, just before it opened, and I was happy to be here in time to see the exhibit before it closes March 31. It’s a huge exhibit, a retrospective of Warhol’s life in art, film and pop culture generally, beginning with his childhood in Pittsburgh. The exhibit will transfer to the Art Institute of Chicago this fall, with an October opening planned. Here’s my review of the Whitney exhibit.
The Museum of Arts and Design is a small museum located at 2 Columbus Circle, near 58th and Broadway. I particularly liked the exhibit titled The Future of Craft, Part One, on the third floor. The exhibit features many beautiful works in fabric art, both decorative and (sort of) wearable. On the second floor, there’s an exhibit of contemporary jewelry, titled Non-Stick Nostalgia. It’s all exquisitely displayed in unusual cases.
A special feature of the museum is the restaurant Robert on the ninth (and top) floor of the building. The restaurant has great views looking north toward Central Park and the upper west side. The food and service are excellent. We had a delightful brunch there on a Sunday.
Last week, I posted my opinion about Lincoln Yards on Third Coast Review. With all the discussion and controversy about parks, soccer stadiums and TIF money, I wanted to focus on the element that’s being taken for granted. The design of Lincoln Yards is centered with a mass of high rise buildings. The area is surrounded by traditional Chicago low-rise neighborhoods and this seems like thumbing your nose at Chicago’s history and traditions. Yes, we have a wall of highrises along the lakefront and in the loop, but they do not belong in our neighborhoods. There have already been too many intrusions of this type. Here’s what I wrote.
We don’t have to look far for a definition of a neighborhood. Jane Jacobs, the famous architecture writer who faced down Robert Moses’ efforts to demolish part of Greenwich Village to build a highway, wrote about it. She stressed the importance of mixed uses, short blocks that added corners, sidewalks and parks, population density, and both old and new buildings. Her 1961 book, The Life and Death of Great American Cities, is considered one of the most influential works in the history of town planning.
The plans so far for Lincoln Yards, one of the most important planned developments in Chicago’s history, meet none of the Jacobs definition. We had a victory last week when Alderman Brian Hopkins (2nd Ward) vetoed the part of the Sterling Bay plan that was to include a 20,000-seat soccer stadium and a massive Live Nation entertainment district. But the worst aspects of the 70-acre plan remain: The presence of 20 highrise towers ranging from 400 to 650 feet. That means roughly 40 to 60 stories. The buildings, planned for commercial and residential use, could house 24,000 workers and 5,000 residential units, and would loom incongruously over the surrounding low-rise neighborhoods of Lincoln Park and Bucktown/Wicker Park.
Lincoln Yards is located along the north branch of the Chicago River in a former industrial district; it’s the former home of Finkl Steel. It’s bounded by the Kennedy Expressway to the west, Webster Avenue to the north, Clybourn Avenue to the east and North Avenue on the south. If you’re a music lover, you will recognize immediately that the site of our beloved Hideout is within those boundaries.
As the risk to the survival of the Hideout and the damage to other music venues became clear in November, Chicago’s independent music venues organized to fight the Lincoln Yards plan. They asked the city to take time to consider all aspects of the plan, including use of TIF money, rather than rushing it through so that Mayor Emanuel can consider it part of his “legacy.”
When Alderman Hopkins was seeking input, I completed his survey and included this as my response to the single open-ended question: “The high rise residential plan is totally unacceptable. This will not be a Chicago neighborhood. Residential buildings should be two-, three- and four-story max. Also the Live Nation entertainment venue is far too large. It would be much better to encourage local venues and local art/music groups to create small, storefront spaces typical of Chicago neighborhoods.”
Blair Kamin, the Tribune architecture critic, has done an excellent job of describing and criticizing the Sterling Bay plan and its support by almost-lame-duck Mayor Emanuel. Kamin begins one article this way:
“A great urban place is more than a motley collection of tall buildings and open spaces. It has lively streets, pulsing gathering spots and buildings that talk to one another rather than sing the architectural equivalent of a shrill solo.
“Daley Plaza, with its enigmatic Picasso sculpture and powerful county courts high-rise, is a great urban place. So is the North Side’s Armitage Avenue, lined with delightful Victorian storefronts.”
A neighborhood is a place where you can walk around at any time and see many other people walking, shopping, pushing strollers or riding bikes. There are places to stop for a coffee or a sandwich, to linger with your laptop, and benches where you can sit and people watch or read a book. There are bars where you can have a beer with a buddy or listen to music, which blares out to the street at night. And please let there be bookstores. As Jane Jacobs said, a neighborhood is for foot people, not car people.
That’s what Lincoln Yards should be. It should settle in a neighborly way amongst the surrounding neighborhoods and enable traffic back and forth across fungible neighborhood lines. It should not be, as it is set out now, a self-contained skyscraper community insulated from the rest of the city. Sterling Bay and architecture planning firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill should not be trying to foist this nightmare on Chicago. They should all be reading, or rereading, Jane Jacobs’ book.
For an excellent overview and critique of the Lincoln Yards plan, I recommend these articles by Kamin.
And of course, Jane Jacobs’ book.
A second book, which I highly recommend, is The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s biography describes how the unelected official built an empire and lived as an emperor under six New York governors and 11 NYC mayors, until his reputation was finally destroyed. It’s a great read.
Spring Green is an arts center in nearby south central Wisconsin that’s easily accessible to Chicagoans interested in theater and the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. In a long weekend, you can see classic theater at the American Players Theatre (APT) on a hilltop in Spring Green and tour Taliesin, the home, studio and school built, rebuilt and rebuilt again by Frank Lloyd Wright, his apprentices and family. (This article was previously posted at thirdcoastreview.com.)
I was in Spring Green last week for the annual meeting of the American Theatre Critics Association and, as is our custom, we crammed as many plays as possible into the four-plus days. The conference was expertly organized by Madison ATCA members. Discussions included association-focused business plus panels and speakers on topics such as producing period comedy today, racial equity in theater, podcasting and legal/ethical issues in criticism. We also spent an afternoon on a private tour of Taliesin. First, a recap of some of the plays we saw. There are many theater connections between Chicago and APT, as you might imagine.
American Players Theatre
At the Hill Theatre, you’re seated in a natural bowl on the hillside. To reach it from parking and picnic grounds below, you walk up a hill through the woods on a gravel path. There’s also shuttle service to the hilltop. Your theater companions are hordes of mosquitoes, so the theater sets up “spray stations” around the grounds.
As You Like It by William Shakespeare
Set in 1870, As You Like Itis a totally delightful and quite traditional rendition of this happy-ending play, directed by James Bohnen. (Bohnen was longtime artistic director and cofounder of Remy Bumppo Theatre. He now also runs Arcadia Books in Spring Green, a fine indie bookstore and cafe.) Melisa Pereyra is a charming Rosalind and her friend Celia (Andrea San Miguel), her admirable sidekick. After Rosalind is banished by Duke Frederick, she and Celia head to the forest of Arden in disguise. Many scenes and many characters later, disguises are removed and several couples are happily joined in marriage.
An interesting casting choice is Chicago actor Tracy Michelle Arnold as Jaques (a role usually played by a male). At the end, Madame Jaques declines to return to court and makes her own way. During a later discussion, someone suggested that Madame Jaques represents one of those 19th century woman travelers. (As dramatized in the play On the Verge or the Geography of Learning by Eric Overmyer.)
The settings on the Hill Theatre stage are simple and built on the gray frame structure that holds the theater’s sound and lighting equipment. (Actors in Hill Theatre are never amplified because the company prefers natural sound. Thus the company doesn’t stage musicals.)
Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin
You probably know the story of Billie Dawn, the “dizzy blonde” who really isn’t, and her thuggish boyfriend. Remy Bumppo Theatre staged an excellent version in 2017. APT’s production brightened our Saturday night, starring Colleen Madden as Billie, David Daniel as Harry Brock and Reese Madigan as Paul Verrall, the journalist who becomes Billie’s tutor and more. Direction by APT artistic director Brenda DeVita was spot-on and each actor kept the pace and the sparkling dialogue.
Set in a luxury suite in Washington DC in 1946, Nathan Stuber’s scenic design adds black and metallic art deco ornament and furnishings to the Hill Theatre backdrop. Fabio Roblini’s costume designs, especially for Billie, are exquisite and timeless.
Haven’t seen Born Yesterday lately? Get a DVD of the 1950 film, starring Judy Holliday and Broderick Crawford. Holliday won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for her performance.
At the Touchstone Theatre.The Touchstone, opened in 2009, is located about halfway up the hill and it’s enclosed, air-conditioned and sans mosquitoes. Both venues have raked seating, so sightlines are excellent no matter where your seat is.
Blood Knot by Athol Fugard
Fugard’s 1961 play, set in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, during apartheid, tells the story of two brothers who live together in a shack in the “colored” section. They have the same mother but different fathers. Zachariah (Gavin Lawrence) works for an oppressive white boss and comes home each evening to soak his aching feet and eat a meal prepared by his at-home brother, Morris (Jim DeVita). Zach is dark-skinned and Morris is a light-skinned man who can “pass” for white and apparently has in the past. Chicago’s Ron OJ Parson directs this slow-burner of a play. Act one sets up the story of Zach’s desire to meet a woman and Morris helps him meet a newspaper “pen pal.” (Yes, that’s how people met before OKCupid and Tinder.)
The pen pal sends her photo (she is a white woman) and later says she plans to visit Port Elizabeth and wants to meet Zach. The two brothers, who have engaged in role-playing games since they were children, embark on a plan. In act two, the games ratchet up to an explosive level. This is a intense play about an era of a different sort of racism than the racism we live with now.
Both actors deliver powerful performances, but there has been controversy over the casting. In early productions of the play, Fugard, who is white, played Morris. And DeVita is white. The optics of the casting selection are tainted because it was made by his wife, artistic director Brenda DeVita. Director Parson came on later but apparently he concurs with the decision.
The controversy is addressed in this article in American Theatre magazine. These questions of representation and appropriation have been roiling the theater world recently. APT has decided to expand the conversation with a special “pay what you like” performance of Blood Knotat 12noon on Sunday, August 12. The performance will be followed by a panel discussion to explore the issues in the play, including the casting.
Exit the King by Eugene Ionesco
Ionesco’s 1962 absurdist play is the story of King Berenger (APT veteran James Ridge), who is told by his first wife, Queen Marguerite, and his doctor that he has only hours to live. His current wife, Queen Marie (the lovely Cassia Thompson) does everything she can to keep him alive. His kingdom is crumbling around him, he has lost all his powers, the birth rate is zero, and by the way, he’s 400 years old. The Doctor (James Pribyl) tells the king, “In three days you lost all the wars you ever won.” Every action in the play is announced by the Guard (Chicago actor Casey Hoekstra), usually to ridiculous extremes.
Marguerite is played by Tracy Michelle Arnold, who also plays Jaques in As You Like It. Arnold and Thompson are both beguiling in their parts but I thought Ridge’s characterization was weak. (We saw him again that night in Born Yesterday, where he plays Senator Hedges.) Exit the King (the only APT production we saw that runs under two hours) is a witty and moving meditation on death and mortality. APT’s production is uneven, but worth seeing if you visit Spring Green.
Our three-hour tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s 800-acre estate included his former home, studio and school. (More info below about tour options, prices, etc.) I was in two different groups for the tour—first of the Hillside School, Studio and Theater and second of the house known as Taliesin 3. The two groups were led by capable and knowledgeable docents Kyle Adams and Jill McDermott.
The school was built in 1902 to replace the one his aunts had built in 1887. The building features the Assembly Hall, a typically spacious Wright area with a high ceiling, dark and light contrasts in the woodwork and ceiling framing. Built-in furniture pieces were added later. The Drafting Room, in use today by architects and apprentices, has an interesting striped wood flooring, left over from FLW’s design for the Johnson family Racine house, Wingspread.
In the theater, Taliesin’s apprentices and staff would perform plays, musical and literary events and view performances by guests. The colorful theater curtain was designed by Wright and made by the apprentices.
The original house was mostly destroyed by the 1914 fire, an event that included the murders of Wright’s lover, Mamah Borthwick Cheney (both had left their spouses to be together), and her children, by a Taliesin workman. Later fires destroyed parts of the house, thus the terminology, Taliesin 3. Half of the extensive house was built for agricultural purposes and functioned originally as animal sheds. The house features many FLW touches, such as bands of windows that frame the grand view of the rolling hills, river and countryside. At one point, the Wisconsin electric company installed electric poles and lines across the land. Wright was incensed and demanded they be removed, because they spoiled his view. (They were eventually replaced by underground wiring.)
Want to learn more? If you’re interested in learning more about the development and history of Taliesin, there are many FLW biographies, of course. But I recommend The Fellowship: The Untold Story of Frank Lloyd Wright & the Taliesin Fellowship by Roger Friedland and Harold Zellman (2006, Harper Collins, 690pp). The authors, a sociologist and an architect, tracked down and interviewed dozens of the apprentices who worked with Wright at Taliesin. Their stories are epic but detailed in the everyday activities, tragedies and scandals at Taliesin, where Wright, a genius, egotist, misogynist, racist and anti-Semite, ruled with an iron hand. He couldn’t manage money and was greatly influenced by his third wife, Olgivanna, who was a devotee of the Greek-Armenian spiritualist, Georgi Gurdjieff. The book is rich in detail, gossipy, well-researched and annotated, and impossible to put down.
Tourist tips for visiting Spring Green
Try to plan your trip when the weather is not hot and humid. If I go to APT again, I will choose a time in late September or October. Sitting in the Hill Theatre when the temperature is in the high 80s and very humid and you are covered with insect repellent and persistent mosquitoes is not my idea of comfort. And in midsummer, the sun is out until well into the first act, so there’s not much relief from the heat. I know the Greeks invented outdoor theater, but they didn’t have electricity and air-conditioning. I’ll take my theater inside, with AC and no bugs, thank you. It’s hard to concentrate when you’re miserable and bug-swatting.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. Bring water or other beverages, bug spray if you don’t like DEET, and something to fan with.
To order theater tickets, see the calendar for the full list of plays and order online or call 608-588-2361. Ticket prices range from $51 to $86, depending on day and location. Here’s a helpful page of tips from APT.
To tour Taliesin, see tour options and make reservations here. Tickets are $54 each for the two-hour House or Highlights tours, $22 for the one-hour Studio and Theater tour, and $90 for the four-hour Estate tour. Other tours are available too. At the Frank Lloyd Wright Visitor Center, you’ll find a gift shop and the Riverview Terrace Café, serving produce grown at Taliesin.
Dress casually and wear comfortable walking shoes. You’ll be walking on uneven ground and old stone paths. Bring sunscreen, bug spray, water and something to fan with. At Taliesin, most interior spaces are not air-conditioned.
We Chicagoans may think we own most of the work of genius architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed homes that populate the Chicago area, focusing on a concentration of houses in Oak Park and River Forest. But of course Wright designed homes and public structures all over the country.
Some of my dearest friends are former docents for the Chicago Architecture foundation. We all went through the CAF’s rigorous docent training together, studied and cooked together, and have gone on architectural adventures to many locations to see famous buildings, with an emphasis on Frank Lloyd Wright. Besides the Oak Park and River Forest locations, we’ve been to Hyde Park and Beverly to see the Robie House and other Wright homes. We’ve flown to Pittsburgh to see the magnificent Fallingwater in Mill Run, Pa. We’ve driven to Columbus, Ind., to see the superb collection of buildings by famous architects in that small gem of a city. We’ve been to Racine, Wis., several times to see Wright’s Johnson Wax headquarters and the house named Wingspread. We’ve been to Springfield to see the Dana-Thomas house and visited Wright’s Beth Sholom synagogue in Elkins Park, near Philadelphia..
We took another Wright adventure recently: a 2-plus hour drive to West Lafayette, Ind., to see a small, perfectly finished and preserved Wright home that was lived in by its original owner for almost 60 years, until his recent death. Samara house was named by Wright when he was working with his owner/clients, John and Catherine Christian.
Samara is one of Wright’s Usonian houses, affordable homes for middle-income families. There are about 60 of these houses in the U.S. and they are smaller and less grand than some of the famous Wright Prairie-style mansions like the Robie house or the Avery Coonley house in Riverside. But they are no less uniquely Wrightian and feature the architect’s special touches in design and functionality.
The Christian house is about 2200 square feet and sits on an acre of beautifully landscaped property in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Christians worked very closely with Wright in designing and furnishing the house and they and their heirs have been meticulous in maintaining Wright purity in design and furnishings. The house is furnished with mostly Wright designed furniture, built by local artisans.
Samara means “winged seed,” and Wright used that motif throughout the house in structure, furnishings and ornament.
Our tour group met in the lounge or living area of the house for a briefing and discussion by associate curator Linda Eales, a knowledgeable and engaging tour leader. She began by asking the 25-plus visitors where we were from and how many Wright houses we had visited. It turned out that we were with a group of Wright aficionados, many of whom had traveled great distances to see Samara.
Eales described the long process that the Christians went through with Wright to build the house within their small budget. The process went on for more than five years and the house was finished in 1956. Some of the rooms were closed during our visit; the rooms we viewed were the large lounge or living room, dining area, kitchen and guest room, as well as the arboretum.
The Christians occupied the house until 2015, when Mr. Christian died. His wife preceded him in death. Samara is a National Historic Landmark.
Tours of Samara house are available by reservation April 1 through late November. The tours last about two hours and cost $10. The house is located at 1301 W. Woodland Ave., West Lafayette, a few miles from U.S. 65. To make a tour reservation, call 765-409-5522 or email info AT samara-house DOT org.
Slideshow photos by Nancy Bishop. This article previously appeared on Third Coast Review.
w/ HT to @anamariecox on 11/18/16
It’s been six weeks since I’ve written a post for Nancy Bishop’s Journal. 2016 has been the year that sucked in so many ways. I probably would not consider it this dismal were it not for the coup d’état we called an election. We now have the prospect of a leader for four years who is a racist, misogynist, uncurious and uninformed buffoon or “an unformed pliable piece of clay,” as Frank Bruni called him in the New York Times. I am firmly in the “Not My President” camp.
This dreadful year started with the death of David Bowie and brought the loss of so many talented artists and musicians. The death of Leonard Cohen last month was one more cruel blow.
But at least there are these few good things about this rotten year.
The Cubs. I’ve been a Cubs fan since my father taught me how to keep a scorecard when I was 12. He and my late sister were dedicated Cubs fans. I wish they could have been here to enjoy 2016 with us.
Third Coast Review. I’m grateful for all the great contributions from so many writers and editors for our new arts and culture website, launched January 8. Our previous website, Gapers Block, went on hiatus as of January 1. We scrambled to get a new website started so we could continue to write about Chicago arts and culture and now we’re almost at our one-year anniversary. So my thanks to Emma, Kim, Sarah, Miriam and Jeanne for helping us get started and to Zach, Julian, Steve, Marielle, Justin, Stephanie, Colin, Brent, Andrea, Elif, Chris, Louis, James, Karin, and all the other writers who helped us plug the hole left by GB.
Bruce Springsteen’s memoir, Born to Run. A readable, memorable story of his life and music, told in his own voice and not papering over the dark places. Seeing him in concert three times this year—twice in Chicago and once in Louisville—made the year come alive.
Leonard Cohen’s new album, You Want It Darker. Speaking of dark places, this last album by the great poet and songwriter is very dark and moody and a marvelous set of farewell tracks. Similar to the way David Bowie said farewell in his final work, Blackstar, and especially in the song, “Lazarus.”
Two Jim Jarmusch films, Paterson and Gimme Danger. Many great films this year, but these two Jarmusch films are unique. Paterson (release date 12/28) is a small film about a bus driver and poet named Paterson. Not much happens but poetry and love. The city of Paterson, New Jersey, is a character in the film too, as Paterson drives his bus route around the old industrial city. Gimme Danger is Jarmusch’s documentary on Iggy Pop and the Stooges, with Iggy starring as an articulate, reflective older version of himself. While it’s not one of the best films of the year, it’s an interesting doc and shows Jarmusch’s talent and versatility.
My two favorite books of the year were Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad, which really is about a railroad, and Ian McEwan’s novella, Nutshell, told in the voice of a fetus that may turn out to be Hamlet. Through Whitehead’s book, you’ll get a visceral feeling for what slavery was like as well as some elements of history and magical realism. Nutshell is deliciously gossipy, charming and Shakespearean.
Kill Your Darlings, the live lit and improv series, cosponsored by Third Coast Review, was seven weeks of hard work and great fun. I wrote my own story for each of the seven nights of readings, based on the seven cultural categories on Third Coast Review.
The most memorable evening was when I read a poem titled “City Lady Blues,” accompanied by my son Steve on tenor sax. You can listen to the podcast. But I also loved telling my story about the Spanish Civil War in my dreams.
So much art, so little time. Some of my favorite exhibits of the year were at the Art Institute. The current exhibit of work by Laszlo Moholy-Nagy is fabulous in curation and organization and in the way it displays the curiosity and versatility of Moholy. The exhibit of Aaron Siskind’s Abstractions at the Art Institute was also memorable. Van Gogh’s Bedrooms was on the surface a modest exhibit but a brilliant way to illustrate the mind that created the bedroom paintings.
Other fine exhibits were the Strandbeests: The Dream Machines of Theo Jansen at the Chicago Cultural Center and the exhibit of illustrations from Puck, the 19th century magazine of politics and humor at the Driehaus Museum.
Finally, I spent a memorable hour or two at the Art Institute following poet Stuart Dybek around the Modern Wing as he talked about art and poetry and read poems by various poets, including himself, dedicated to some of his favorite paintings.
Nights of great theater. I see 150-200 plays a year, as a reviewer and some as plain audience member. These were some of my favorites from this year, not listed in rank order. I’m going to reprise this list with commentary in a “best of 2016” post at thirdcoastreview.com. (And I did. See our Best of 2016: On Stage in Chicago.)
Direct from Death Row: The Scottsboro Boys at Raven Theatre
Haymarket: The Anarchists’ Songbook at Underscore Theater Company
Life Sucks at Lookingglass Theatre
Man in the Ring at Court Theatre
The Weir, Spinning and In a Little World of Our Own at Irish Theatre of Chicago
2666 at Goodman Theatre
The Flick at Steppenwolf Theatre
American Buffalo at Mary-Arrchie Theatre
The Hairy Ape at Oracle Productions
This essay was adapted from one of my readings at Kill Your Darlings, our live lit and improv series. This was from the night celebrated as Art (one of the cultural categories on thirdcoastreview.com).
How do you define art? This question has always plagued me.
I know what art is. It’s a visual representation of life or some emotion or some experience. Not exactly tangible. That’s why it’s hard to define art.
There are dictionary definitions. “Something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or expresses important ideas or feelings.“ But that’s crazy because art doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Then there are people who think only they can define art. The know-nothings who say, “That’s not art” or “My kid could have done that with his crayons (or clay)” about any piece of art that isn’t representational. Or that they don’t understand.
If a sculpture isn’t a man on a horse, then it’s not art.
If a painting isn’t fruit on a table, or people dressed up and posing, then it’s not art.
Public art is very often the object of this opinion: That’s not art.
When our Picasso was unveiled in Daley Center in 1967, it was met with jokes, nicknames and worse. And this was before the internet. The late columnist Mike Royko said people could see
“it was nothing but a big, homely metal thing. Some soaring lines, yes. Interesting design, I’m sure. But the fact is, it has a long stupid face and looks like a giant insect that is about to eat a smaller, weaker insect. It has eyes that are pitiless, cold, mean.
“But why not? Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago.
“Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the police scandals, the settlers who took the Indians but good. Its eyes are like the eyes of every slum owner who made a buck off the small and weak. And of every building inspector who took a wad from a slum owner to make it all possible.”
Royko concludes this way. “It is all there in that Picasso thing. The I Will spirit of Chicago. The I will get you before you will get me spirit.”
People insisted on knowing that the Picasso looked like something. Anything. A woman. A dog. Something real. Don’t show me that abstract crap.
Now we love it, however. You can believe the Picasso will be wearing a Cubs cap soon – if the Cubs get into the World Series.
There have been similar reactions to other abstract public art.
There was “Tilted Arc,” the Richard Serra sculpture on the Federal Plaza in New York.
The sculpture was a massive arc of steel that bisected the plaza. Serra attributed meaning to it in the context of the government agencies and workers in that public building. People hated it. They hated the way it looked. They hated the way it slashed through the plaza and made them detour around it on their way to their offices.
I had a similar artistic experience last weekend when I was visiting Greensboro, North Carolina.
There’s a new piece of public art in a new downtown city park. It’s called “Where We Met” by Janet Echelman. It’s made of net and wire and is meant to honor the local textile industry and its workers and the networks of roads and rails that supported the industry for the many years it thrived.
While I was hanging around taking photos and watching my grandsons play, I heard people’s comments. “Huh? Why is that art?” “It’s just a bunch of net. The city paid a million bucks for that?”
And so it goes. The Picasso survives and thrives. The Serra was the subject of such controversy that it was removed from the plaza, despite the artist’s objections. We’ll see how the Echelman survives in Greensboro.
Yasmina Reza wrote a play that sums up the whole question. It’s titled, appropriately, “Art.” It’s about three friends. Serge buys a very expensive painting by a fashionable artist and invites Marc and Yvan over to see it. It’s a large canvas, painted completely white with white diagonal lines.
The friends’ reactions—laughter, anger, sarcasm—affect their relationships with each other. It ends up (spoiler alert) with Serge offering Marc a bright blue marker and inviting him to draw on the “canvas.” Marc draws a blue diagonal and then a little skier with a woolly hat. In the final scene, the two of them are carefully cleaning the painting.
An old friend of mine used to say, “Art is what the artist says it is.” And I believe he’s right.
If I define myself as an artist, then what I create is art. If I pile garbage in the middle of a gallery, it’s an installation. And there’s a label on it that says it’s art. If I smear the garbage on a canvas, it’s a painting. It’s art because I’m an artist and I say it’s art. And when I’m well known, people will pay big money for that painting. Because I’m an artist and I say it’s art.
And that’s the best answer to my question: What is art?
Chicago has two don’t-miss exhibits this summer that are a little off the beaten path and I’m going to share my reviews with you. Actually we have dozens of amazing exhibits of art, architecture, history and science at any given moment. Keeping up with Chicago’s museums could be a full-time occupation. But I don’t want you to miss these.
Aaron Siskind: Abstractions is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago thru August 14. The Art Institute has a large collection of Siskind’s work and this exhibit shows 100 of them, many shot in the 1940s and ’50s.
His work is so painterly that you would think at first glance that they are paintings or prints. Siskind’s practice was to focus in closely on elements of everyday materials such as pavement, broken windows and seaweed, creating abstractions from concrete reality.
My review also describes the conversation about Siskind by three of his former students, which added their personal insights to the exhibit.
With a Wink and a Nod: Cartoonists of the Gilded Age at the Driehaus Museum, 40 E. Erie St. This exhibit presents 74 original illustrations from Puck Magazine, the first successful humor magazine, published in the 1870s thru 1918.
Read my detailed review here.
The exhibit is beautifully organized around half a dozen themes about politics, society and human nature. You can see the framed original drawings plus the magazines where they actually were published. There’s also an exhibit describing the early chromolithographic printing process that was used to print color covers and centerspreads in the magazines.
The exhibit gives you the opportunity to also appreciate the Driehaus Museum itself, a magnificent 19th century mansion built for the family of Chicago banker Samuel Nickerson. The exhibit runs until January 2017.
And the bridge, as promised
Last weekend I watched the 2000 film, High Fidelity, again, for the umpteenth time. It’s a great film and I especially love it for two reasons: It’s shot in Chicago and I mean really filmed in Chicago, not pretend-filmed as many TV shows are. (They’ll film a scene under the L tracks and one on the Michigan Avenue bridge and think they’ve captured Chicago.)
Oh, and the other reason I love it is that Bruce Springsteen makes a cameo appearance. The film is about Rob (John Cusack), who owns a vinyl record store in Wicker Park, before it got gentrified. Read my Letterboxd recap.
One of my favorite scenes is Rob, philosophizing about his life and loves, on the Kinzie Street bridge. Here’s a great photo from the website itsfilmedthere.com. They get the photo credit too.