Replicating the familiar ease of Ferris Bueller’s museum jaunt was a teenage dream of mine growing up in largely languid San Antonio—a city which has numerous cultural treasures, but no home for the arts as canonical and ambitious as the Art Institute of Chicago.
During the years I attended the University of Chicago, I often dropped in on free Tuesday evenings to absorb the aura as much as the ad-hoc art history, especially when it came to contemporary marvels such as Rineke Dijkstra, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Joan Mitchell, and others who textbooks often overlook, undervalue, or have yet to uncover. You do not need scholarly or painterly aspirations, though, to find an object of fascination among the early to mid-20th-century American furniture, 16th-century European armor, and (my personal favorite) the basement trove of photographs, textiles, and dioramas. Girlfriends and I found the museum to be a highly efficient first date screening because of how quickly it could reveal incompatibility in the way people think about the confluence of history, identity, and the need to create, in the arts or otherwise.
Among my favorite discoveries, Harry Callahan’s Chicago photographs, especially the post-it size window or cornice details, that lend tangible images to my grandmother’s stories of navigating the city in her twenties when my grandfather enrolled in optometry school there through the GI bill. I wandered around the museum’s side courtyards late at night with the ignorance and perceived invincibility of a suburban kid. The relentless beauty of Jackson Pollock’s Greyed Rainbow barely matches the anticipation I felt looking at the poster of it in my room throughout high school.
Georgia O’Keeffe‘s Sky Above Clouds IV and its glorious attendant skylight punch you in the stomach when you ascend one of several excellent stairways. Another part of the series hung on the other side of a wall about 20 feet away from my cubicle last year at The Phillips Collection in a distinct context, but also imbued by a serendipitous skylight. As I would hurry past more often than not to the rest of the museum’s offices, a glint of that first viewing at the Art Institute mingled in my memory with the experiences of contributing to a very different and stellar institution.
Also, there’s the incongruous, yet absolute repose attainable only in gargantuan museums when you look at the objects through the filter of sprinting international tour groups, screaming children with parents who may look just as disinterested and determined (to stay), students camped out with their studio accoutrements or scribbling furiously into journals, and other lone bespectacled or ipoded visitors. While I relish moments when I can have a gallery all to myself as a visitor or amble into work in the morning before all the lights are on—there’s an anonymity courtesy of the huddled masses which enables the act of looking to both isolate and unleash reflection that can be difficult to pursue in daily life. Each time I return to the Art Institute, visitors seem almost incidental. I don’t mean that as a comment on visitor services or the way the galleries are organized. Rather, the collection’s holdings loom so large in my memory as proxies for the countless permutations of self a teenager and twenty-something undergoes. When visiting a first love, you slip seamlessly into the memories of the past even as your present self pulsates a new narrative.
Jess Stephens, Staff Accountant