To continue my account of my recent sortie to the City of Big Shoulders—
After the football game, I had dinner with my brother, sister-in-law, and niece at a fine little restaurant called either Duck Fat or Fat Duck—it apparently hasn't quite made up its mind on the name yet. (Which reminds me, I'll have something to say about my current portrait project in a day or two. Or three; you know me). Speaking of fat, later, Charlie and I chewed a lot of it (figuratively speaking) while exercising the cats with a laser pointer. They love that.
The next day, Monday, I met Michael McCaskey and our friend Ken Tanaka at Terzo Piano, the restaurant at the Art Institute, for lunch. Ken brought along his friend and colleague Matt Witkovsky, the bright and dynamic young Chairman of the Photography Department at the AIC. Matt came to the AIC from Washington D.C. (where I went to school), where he was an associate curator of photography at The National Gallery.
I've often said that if you get any two photo guys together they'll have no shortage of things to talk about. Well, this group was that multiplied by a factorial and on steroids—I was the least articulate and knowledgeable guy at the table. Michael, who is a charming, personable guy, strikes me as a sort of polymath, perfectly at home and at ease no matter the topic. He can talk about Ethiopian written languages, or a job photographing monks making caskets, or the history of Chicago architecture as easily as he can talk about football.
And see that camera on the table, in the picture? That's Michael's, and, believe it or not, it marked the first time I've laid my eyes on a real Fuji X100. At least five individuals and organizations have promised to send me one before now and none have come through. I was beginning to think I'd never see one. It's considerably more exquisite than it looks in pictures; I can see why people find it so beguiling.
The curators and installers are in the finishing stretch of an enormous job putting up an elaborate multimedia exhibit that was six years in the making, called "Light Years," so the whole staff is in full-on work mode. But Matt was able to give us a brief tour of one of his galleries before he was obliged to get back to work. Matt's enthusiasm is infectious, and it's clear he's got good ideas and big plans for photography at the AIC—as well as the energy to implement them. One can only hope he'll get some more space to work with someday, too, now that the new Modern Wing has taken some of the pressure off the older buildings. In any event, he's already managed to put his stamp on the Department despite having been the head of it only since 2009.
Ken took over as tourguide after that. "Only" a volunteer at the museum*, he's there several days a week, knows everyone, and is just fantastic company for a walking tour in virtually any room in any of the buildings.
We finally reached the Timothy O'Sullivan exhibit three hours after lunch began, and I confess I wasn't in the mood for it. I loved Civil War photography as a kid, and went through an "O'Sullivan period." But that was then. By now, I've seen the western expedition work many times, I've read the best of the older books twice (American Frontiers by Joel Snyder, Aperture, 1981, which is excellent), and...well, it's just not where I find myself photographically right now. No harm, no foul. However, the little show right next door, called "The Three Graces," I thought was wonderful. It consists of hundreds of snapshots from the huge Peter J. Cohen collection, each one featuring three women, a curious but ultimately quite charming idea. There's a book.
What I liked best was everything else we saw, from the Bertrand Goldberg exhibit, to our casual stroll through the core of the Institute's collections, with all their Monets, to the African room.
(Oh, and as to what that is in the picture at the top of the post.... At the Corcoran, the photography department is (or was) at the end of a long corridor they use (or used) as an exhibit space for student art. Coming out of the darkroom at one or two in the morning with my friends, with no one else around, admittedly just a little punchy after fourteen hours at school, I'd exercise what I called my "Critical Principle" on the hapless artworks slumbering innocently in the hall. The Critical Principle was: if I can jump over it, it ain't art. I was as sproingy as Tigger in my increasingly distant youth, and I disqualified as art some surprisingly large sculpture-like pieces. Without ever destroying anything by accident, I might add, which I still count as an impressive achievement.
But the dude in the picture? That's art, man, that's what that is.**)
Despite not being in the mood for O'Sullivan, I might have to get the new book anyway. It's much more extensive in its selection than the ones I have, and it includes an essay by Mark Klett that I'm very interested in reading. Mark Klett, of course, is the guy who did the Rephotographic Survey Project and uncovered some really fascinating things—revelatory, even—about the way O'Sullivan worked.
All in all, then, a fun, rewarding, rejuvenating couple of days.
I really should get out more. Especially with the getting as good as that.
*He also serves on the Museum's Committee on Photography.
**Actually, I really do like that sculpture, once I manage to extract my tongue from its habitual place in my cheek.
ADDENDUM from Ken: The sculpture in Mike's first image is Vater Staat (Father State) by German artist Thomas Schuttë. Since its installation last May, this 12-foot giant has become an unofficial greeter in the Modern Wing's cavernous Griffin Court, and a big hit with schoolchildren. You can read a bit more about it on the Art Institute's Museum blog.
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Original contents copyright 2011 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.