What is now Meyer’s Ace Hardware Store, on the corner of East 35th street and Martin Luther King Drive in the historic heart of Bronzeville, was once home to the Sunset Café or Grand Terrace Café, one of Chicago’s foremost jazz clubs. Throughout the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s it hosted the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Harold Burrage, Cab Calloway, Earl “Fatha” Hines and Benny Goodman (whose Chicago birthplace we are yet to locate). Later on, it branched out to accommodate the slightly more adventurous sound world of jazz pioneer Sun Ra, who lived in Chicago from 1945 until 1961—a time which saw the decisive transformation of his orchestra to the renowned arkestra. A single billboard installed inside the hardware store reminds the visitor of Ra’s stint there. A very helpful shop assistant who must be used to this kind of tourism showed us the way to the back room, a somewhat disorganized-looking office, the walls of which were adorned with big band-era murals (the band’s keyboard player now partly obscured by a microwave oven). Among the items for sale at the store are a set of postcards chronicling the club’s glory days during the rightly named Jazz Age.
We spent the day exploring the social geography of the city under the guidance of one of Chicago’s most knowledgeable guides, Don Davis. We learned about Don from MCA curators Julie Rodrigues Widholm and Steven Bridges after he took Colombian artist Doris Salcedo on a tour of Chicago in June of 2012 that focused on the history of public housing in the city—preliminary research that will feed into a public art project that Salcedo is developing in conjunction with her forthcoming MCA exhibition in 2015.
Only later did we realize that this sculpture on the corner of Armitage Avenue and Burling Street has actually been in the news for quite some time—and according to the latest, it will soon be taken down (a pity). To anyone unsuspectingly traipsing around Lincoln Park, it stands out in a way that only art can. (“What is it?” “It must be art.”) This 40-feet tall bright blue sculpture titled Chevron is the work of American artist John Henry, who has a stretch of North Cermak Road renamed in his honor (he is an alumnus of the School of the Art Institute, and currently a curator of the Outdoor Museum of Art at Chattanooga State College, Chattanooga, TN): another of Henry’s signature neo-constructivist assemblages, titled Arris—and this one a sunny bright yellow—graces the corner of Cermak Road and Indiana Avenue, adjacent to McCormick Place. There are plans to move Chevron to the campus of Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, where it is unlikely to cause comparable neighborhood upheaval.
In front of the James R. Thompson Center on West Randolph Street (another John Henry sculpture, titled Bridgeport, is installed inside the lobby), photographing Jean Dubuffet’s iconic Monument with Standing Beast from 1984, one of the celebrated art brut (“raw art”) pioneer’s last great public works before his death in 1985. Dubuffet first visited Chicago (a city for which is said to have felt a “special affection”) in December 1951, an occasion marked by a lecture, titled “Anticultural Positions” and given at the Arts Club, in which he listed his various deep disagreements with western, or what he called “occidental” culture.” (“Fourth: Occidental Culture is very fond of analysis. I have no taste for analysis and no confidence in it. One thinks, everything can be known by way of dismantling it or dissecting it into all its parts, and studying separately each of these parts. My own feeling is quite different. I am more disposed on the contrary to always recompose things.” This sounds familiar—it is pretty much how Goshka conceives of her own practice: recomposing, recycling, revisiting, rewriting.)
Here we are visiting the Haymarket Memorial—a sculpture by Mary Brogger inaugurated in 2004. This seems a bit late for an event of such momentous consequences and epochal proportions: the “Haymarket Affair” (a peaceful workers’ protest, a bombing, a string of sentences and executions resulting from a trial now regarded as one of the worst miscarriages of justice in American history) dates back to the 1880s. The Haymarket entry in the Encyclopaedia of Chicago has this to add: “Inspired by the American movement for a shorter workday, socialists and unionists around the world began celebrating May 1, or “May Day,” as an international workers’ holiday. In the twentieth century, the Soviet Union and other communist countries officially adopted it. The Haymarket tragedy is remembered throughout the world in speeches, murals, and monuments. American observance was strongest in the decade before World War I. During the Cold War, many Americans saw May Day as a communist holiday, and President Eisenhower proclaimed May 1 as “Loyalty Day” in 1955. Interest in Haymarket revived somewhat in the 1980s.” It should be noted that Labor Day, which takes place in September, was first celebrated in 1882, three and a half years before that fateful May 1, 1886.
A lonesome symbol of the long-since vanished Union Stockyards, at 850 W Exchange Avenue—a massive arching gate made of stone, a bull’s head (not shown here, though we do know the prize-winning animal’s name—it was Sherman) staring down on the occasional urban heritage tourist. The gate dates back to 1879, a mere fourteen years after the Union Stockyards, which would go on to become the world’s largest meat-processing complex, opened its doors (on Christmas day!). The market definitively shut down in August 1971, and it is estimated that some one billion animals lost their lives here to become bacon, hamburgers, sausages, and many more things we did not realize had animal fat in them (Goshka lives a quasi-vegetarian life). The Stockyards occupy a fair chunk of the Back of the Yards neighborhood, which until the early 1970s remained strongly Slavic and Eastern European in character.
At the Newberry Library, one of the country’s finest research institutions—its curator of maps, James Akerman, generously guided us through the Library’s vast holdings of cartographic material. Some of these maps tie in with the institution’s focused research interests, such as the history of nineteenth-century westward expansion along the growing network of railway lines (we are shown here looking at maps of Iowa and Nebraska published by the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad company); this subject was tangentially touched upon in an exhibition project undertaken by Goshka Macuga in 2009—the first time she crossed paths with Aby Warburg. Other findings concern the ethnic make-up of Chicago’s mosaic of neighborhoods around the turn of the century and a collection of materials related to Alexander von Humboldt, whom Goshka is thinking about with an eye on an exhibition project in Berlin in 2014. Historical maps of Chicago are of course scrutinized with a couple of predictable questions in mind: what stood where the MCA now stands, or is my house on this map?
One of the great perks of visiting Crown Hall, widely considered to be Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s crowning achievement in modernist architecture, is that it continues to be used as a workspace for the aspiring architects of tomorrow—its interior is anything but a sacrosanct minimalist affair, but a charming mess of stools and tables covered with models, drawings, building plans, overall much more ‘analogue’ than one would expect. Surely this would have pleased Mies—and his likeness watches on, in the shape of a modest bust guarding one of Crown Hall’s two entrances. The bust is the work of Swiss-born sculptor Hugo Weber, who, before moving to the US in the 1940s (Laszlo Moholy-Nagy was instrumental in bringing him to Chicago to teach at the new incarnation of the Bauhaus at IIT), worked with the likes of Alberto Giacometti and Aristide Maillol. (This is the kind of meshwork of art-historical connections that Goshka is often interested in basing her work on, however obliquely.) The bust was presented to the Department of Architecture at IIT by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in Fine Art in 1961.
After walking through the open studio workspaces in Crown Hall, we met with Kim Soss, Librarian and Head of the Graham Resource Center at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s College of Architecture. Kim’s specialization in architectural research and long-standing involvement in twentieth century design history were the perfect introduction to the school’s rich history, the legacy of Mies van der Rohe, and IIT’s merger with László Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus inspired Institute of Design in 1949. Kim’s vintage style and scarfs caught Goshka’s eye—hanging on her office wall are just a few choice selections from her collection.
This is the Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior on the IIT campus—Mies van der Rohe’s only foray into the world of ecclesiastical building, as the Mies Society’s website puts it (apparently he cherished a life-long dream of building a cathedral someday). It is also referred to, on campus, as the “God Box”—though we were not able to corroborate this. Peering inside, we found little traces of frequent use, and very few markers of the structure’s religious status indeed. It certainly would make for a great performance space.
Over the course of a short walk through downtown Chicago on a rare sunny afternoon, the city’s pioneering modern architecture and distinct mix of styles is immediately evident. Gleaming glass and steel towers loom over the city’s first modern skyscrapers, built in the wake of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. Elaborate and stately buildings by Louis Sullivan, John Root and Charles Atwood dating from the turn of the century stare down minimalist, mid-century Miesian structures typical of firms like Skidmore, Owings and Merrill—marking an architectural transformation driven by modernist idealism.
Holabird & Roche’s elegant Chicago Building (1904-5), located at Madison and State Street on what was once known as the “World’s Busiest Corner,” is exemplary of the enormously influential Chicago School of architecture. The most famous architects associated with the Chicago School include Dankmar Adler, Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Henry Hobson Richardson, John Root, William Holabird and Martin Roche. The Chicago Building’s steel-frame construction, ornate terra cotta masonry cladding, and large window bays are typical of Chicago School buildings from this period. The building currently functions as a residence dormitory, housing students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Picasso’s untitled sculpture in Daley Plaza is commonly referred to as just The Picasso or with a bit more specificity, The Chicago Picasso. Picasso famously refused to make work on commission, but agreed to the project after one of the architects working on the Civic Center Plaza (renamed the Richard J. Daley Center, Daley Plaza in 1976), Richard Bennett, wrote him a poem asking him to create a sculpture. Picasso refused the $100,000 he was offered in payment, stating that the work was a gift to the city and people of Chicago. Fabricated in Gary, Indiana, by the American Bridge Company division of the United States Steel Corporation, the sculpture was unveiled to great controversy on August 15, 1967. Huge crowds gathered for the ceremony and the sculpture was immediately the source of public debate. The day after the ceremony, Chicago reporter Mike Royko wrote what would become one of his most cited Sun-Times columns about the plaza commission, “Picasso and the Cultural Rebirth of Chicago.” To quote a few lines from the final passages of Royko’s piece: “Everybody said it had the spirit of Chicago. And from thousands of miles away, accidentally or on purpose, Picasso captured it. Up there in that ugly face is the spirit of Al Capone, the Summerdale scandal cops, 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. It has the look of the dope pusher and of the syndicate technician as he looks for just the right wire to splice the bomb to. Any bigtime real estate operator will be able to look into the face of the Picasso and see the spirit that makes the city’s rebuilding possible and profitable. …”
Picasso’s Chicago monument/sculpture (perhaps Tony Smith, whose work so consistently explored the ground where monument and sculpture meet, would have known what to make of it exactly) was dedicated on August 15, 1967; ground had been broken on May 25, 1967. In between those two dates, marked, among other things, by the death of Belgian surrealist Rene Magritte and the delivery of John Lennon’s psychedelic Phantom V Rolls Royce, Malgorzata Macuga is born in Warsaw. In October that year, the MCA opened its doors in a building at 237 East Ontario Street (formerly a bakery that had also housed the headquarters of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy magazine) with the maiden exhibition Pictures To Be Read/Poetry To Be Seen. Other major events that took place in Chicago that year were the infamous blizzard, the Lincoln Park Be-In, the creation of the Wall of Respect on the city’s South Side, and the Martin Luther King-led New Politics Convention at Palmer House. In the artist’s place of birth, the Rolling Stones played their first ever Polish concert—in fact their first ever performance in a communist country.
Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Kluczynski Federal Building, one of three buildings he designed in Chicago’s Federal Center Plaza, and, temporary home to the offices of President Obama following his election in 2008.
Although Ludwig Mies van der Rohe received the commission for this building (really one of a group of buildings that together make up the Federal Center complex) in 1959, the iconic Post Office on the corner of West Adams and South Clark Streets was only finished in 1974, a full five years after the modernist master’s death. It looks an awful lot like the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, where Goshka first showed the glass works that were on view at the MCA on the occasion of her survey show here in the early months of 2013. These works, originally made for the fifth Berlin Biennial in 2008, reflected upon the relationship (private and professional) between Mies van der Rohe and the German exhibition & interior design pioneer Lilly Reich, who died an impoverished death in relative obscurity in 1947.
The post office contains a New Deal-era painting by Swedish-born muralist Gustaf Dalstrom depicting the “Great Indian Council of 1833”, a pivotal moment in the settling of the Midwest. The painting was initially made for a post office on Chestnut Street that was converted into a movie theater in the 1980s; we do not know whether Mies ever saw Dalstrom’s canvas in its original setting, nor is it entirely clear what happened to the aforementioned movie theater.
The roof of the MCA warehouse (not normally accessible to visitors) offers a sweeping panorama of the city, including some less familiar sights such as a giant disused railroad bridge now serving the sole purpose of holding up a set of traffic lights for oncoming Metra traffic. Seen from here, Chicago’s skyline looks somewhat unreal, like a giant Potemkin village hugging the shores of Lake Michigan. (“Potemkin village: an impressive facade or show designed to hide an undesirable fact or condition. Origin: Grigori Potemkin, who supposedly built impressive fake villages along a route Catherine the Great was to travel. First known use: 1937.”) Take a 180-degree turn toward the West, however, and there is nothingness as far as the eye can see.
For an artist known for her quasi-archaeological explorations of the institutional histories embedded in museum archives, collections and libraries, it seemed only fitting that Goshka Macuga’s first visit to Chicago in the framework of the 2013 MCA artist-in-residency project should have started in the MCA’s warehouse in the city’s Near West Side—where some of the museum collection’s less frequently exhibited pieces go to hibernate, or the oversized crates of traveling shows rest in peace, alongside countless relics from the MCA’s 45-year-old history, ranging from derelict office furniture to 35mm slides and unsold exhibition catalogues. There is no better guide to this labyrinth than the invariably black-clad Duncan Anderson, in perennial cowboy hat (custom-made in the man’s native Smoky Mountains region); his tour through the sparsely lit complex includes some rather ghoulish moments.
Perhaps the most beloved artwork (and certainly the largest) to emerge from Martin Creed’s 2012 artist residency, “Martin Creed Plays Chicago,” is his Work No. 1357, Mothers, which remained installed on the MCA plaza until the first week of June. Note the young mother lounging on the MCA stairs, soaking up April’s first sparse sunrays; appropriately, a school bus is seen departing after a visit to the museum.
This string of images, I believe, beautifully encapsulates the humdrum drama of this first “research” trip. We are looking, and looking around—snooping, scrutinizing, in the dark. It is still very unclear what we are looking at or searching for, for you as much as for us.