There is something reassuring about living in a city stretched along a lake. In Chicago, once you figure out where you are in relation to Lake Michigan, your sense of direction crystallizes. Streets snap against a grid whose point of origin is downtown at the intersection of State and Madison. Addresses increase or decrease from that center, with odd numbers on the south and east sides of the streets, and even numbers to the north and west. A longtime graphic designer who grew up here once told me that he could determine exactly where he was in the city just by looking at the addresses. That might seem mundane—and we do of course now have Google Maps—but I believe this sense of order in Chicago has a grounding effect in subtle ways that can be specific and unexpected and diffusely felt.
This past summer, I would look at the skyline from the south, from 31st Street Beach or Promontory Point, and savor the city’s tall sweep, like a curtain drawn beyond the blue waters. My favorite skyscraper in the lineup is Edward Durell Stone’s Aon Center, originally the Standard Oil Building, an elegant piece of milky white retro-modernism. At least that’s my term for it, seeing as it takes the same simple Mies van der Rohe–inspired shape that so pervades the city—but, in this case, in a form clad entirely in Carrara marble. During the building’s construction in 1973, a slab fell off and penetrated the Prudential Center’s roof. Cracks were found in the next decade and, in 1990, the decision was made to re-sheath the building with Mount Airy white granite. The design itself is understated: tinted windows run down the sides like fluting, and squares are barely excised from the corners, technically making a cruciform of the plan. By the time this letter goes to print, the building’s checkered gray facade will be swathed in winter’s cold, dense fog.
Chicago is filled with storied architecture, but shining among all the looming structures is an animated constellation of artist-run spaces of a more makeshift sort. Thanks to relatively low rent, you can find new art in old buildings here, with a daring, untethered spirit on display in storefronts, apartments, basements, and subdivided studios. Scrappy, straight-out-of-school work coexists with that by veterans of the scene, a number of whom—including Diane Simpson and Richard Hunt—seem keenly aware that they live in a city so attuned to architectural matters like detail, surface, and distance. Their work maintains an inner logic and humble consideration of how people will walk up to and experience it in space.
A recent sculpture by Simpson, Two Point Enclosure (2020), is made of stained planes of fiberboard, slanted into each other and held together with soft canvas hinges. Following the shaded zips of muted fuchsia that run down its surface, you admire its lightness but wonder how the thing stands. Simpson has contributed steadily to Chicago’s artistic conversation since the 1980s, showing in galleries and university museums in the city and throughout the Midwest.
In 2010 she had a retrospective at the Chicago Cultural Center right in the Loop, just a block away from Hunt’s We Will (2005), a soaring if awkwardly located stainless-steel sculpture that ascends outside a location of the LA Fitness gym chain. Public art is only as good as its placement, which is often out of the artist’s control; fortunately, Hunt’s presence is better represented by dozens of elegant, unexpected works I continue to discover across town. Slabs of the Sunburnt West (1975), a memorial to the poet Carl Sandburg, surfaces as a set of blunt bronze fins in a Brutalist quad at the University of Illinois Chicago, and Scholar’s Rock or Stone of Hope or Love of Bronze (2014–20) recently anchored a survey of rippling and variously tapered sculptures that stood against the skyline on the Bluhm Family Terrace at the Art Institute of Chicago.
These are just two of the artists who have been in Chicago for the long run. You meet plenty of “lifers” here, perhaps because it’s a city open to curiosity and continuation. Different generations feel both highly visible and easily approachable—Chicago is, after all, a city of teachers.
Though now retired from their teaching posts, Julia Fish—a painter who distills longing in deliberate renderings of such things as floorboards and joinery—and Richard Rezac—who encapsulates movement in hewed and patterned sculptural koans—have guided countless students at UIC and the School at the Art Institute of Chicago. They still travel regularly from the 1922 two-flat home and studio they share on the Near North Side to show up at openings, and they recommend younger artists for teaching positions.
The relationship between teachers and students is ongoing in Chicago. Some students work as assistants for faculty, and it is not unusual, when the time comes, to see teachers exhibiting alongside former students—with the invitations going
Spaces like Devening Projects and 4th Ward Project Space consistently and admirably build community in this way. Earlier this fall, Dan Devening put on a show of lambent, mundane paintings by his one-time student Nathaniel Robinson that reminded me of Lewis Baltz’s photographs of stucco and reflective glass, but with a bit more hope. Around the same time, Mika Horibuchi, one of the four artists who direct 4th Ward, invited her former professor Michiko Itatani to exhibit a series of washy, beguiling paintings of home and the cosmos.
A number of artist-run spaces also seem centered around particular schools. Openings at Prairiealways draw a fun crowd from SAIC, and in the back where the Kölsch is served, you can easily chat up cofounders Tim Mann and Jack Schneider. You’ll find them there among prismatic white tables and benches made by Mann, whose style of sculpture-furniture crafted with fiberboard and Formica, and marked by crosshatched colored pencil, comics, or collage remind me of Simpson’s artwork.
Influence is organic in Chicago and a conventional sense of hierarchy does not quite apply. Differences between emerging and established artists remain, but feelings of respect and friendship guide the communities that live and work here. In the fall of 2020, I reviewed an exhibition at Produce Model gallery of delicately everyday wooden sculptures by Anna Horvath, whose work I learned about from Maggie Crowley, a cofounder of the gallery and a poignantly observant painter in her own right. During quarantine, Crowley and I went on many walks where I’d watch her photograph stray trucks. Later, she painted these trucks in a form of portraiture that gives proud and sometimes eloquent dimension to the working class.
Together with Tim Callahan, Crowley renovated the high-ceilinged storefront apartment that plays bright and thoughtful home to Produce Model. A few months after the Horvath show, the gallery invited me to curate an exhibition of my own, and I asked Max Guy if he would show his explorations in paper-cutting, video, and sculpture. For months, Guy and I read together, looked at art, and talked about shared interests in the Japanese language, geometry, flight, masks, and obfuscation. Crowley, Callahan, Guy, and I all live in the Pilsen neighborhood, and we have all become friends. The exhibition opened this past summer, and we called it “The Chicago Years.”
Even the commercial galleries in the city have distinctive personalities, or at least
a penchant for play. Corbett vs. Dempsey is committed to the Chicago Imagists and a
number of heavyweight German painters, but it also rereleases obscure jazz records, and shows archival films in a vault inside the gallery. In October, to close a show of otherworldly tapestries by Moki Cherry, Corbett vs. Dempsey hosted a concert featuring latticed yet seething compositions by Don Cherry (the artist’s longtime collaborator) that were selected and performed by Chicago jazz mainstays Ken Vandermark and Hamid Drake. Of the gallery’s many such events given since it opened in 2004, Jim Dempsey said that he and his partner, John Corbett, envisioned the space as not only a platform for exhibitions but also as “a foil,” as in the comedic device of a “straight man, or a slightly drunk dance partner.”
Regards is another gallery that hews to a concept, showing artists inclined toward minimal but evocative gestures. For a show there last year, Nick Raffel devised a set of placid, vented fiberboard sculptures that drew light and air through them every time the door opened, giving form to circulation. For another show in 2019, Devin T. Mays arranged a wall of found Newport cigarette boxes into a residual sculpture and staged a performance with little more than a block of found concrete and a scripted conversation with his father, who made a special appearance.
Going around to certain galleries, one might wonder how such stuff could possibly be for sale. But art in Chicago is made to see what it will do, and that’s what energizes the scene. Sometimes, the results are outright devilish. To open the fall season, Jason Pickleman, the graphic designer I mentioned here earlier and an artist as well, made a piece for the space Paris London Hong Kong titled Clown Torture in the Ando Gallery, which is exactly what it sounds like: an architectural model that imagines Bruce Nauman’s twisted 1987 video installation involving a screaming clown (held in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago) being shown in the serenity of the museum’s Gallery 109, designed by Tadao Ando.
Artists often seem to be on the edge of something new here—partly because of the gallerists’ open encouragement but also because art in Chicago feels removed from the market and the machinations of a career. And therein lies Chicago’s ouroboros: A lack of pressure cultivates the immediate and the DIY, but a lack of critical attention and galleries beyond the small or midsize can create a frustrating ceiling. The response of most Chicago artists has long been to just keep going. One capacious artist and connector was Gregory Bae, a whip-smart organizer who left a void when he died in August at the age of 35. Almost singlehandedly, Bae founded and corralled the collective called Chicago API (Asian, Pacific Islander) Artists United toward readings, fundraisers, and gatherings in a moment of uncertainty and violence when we did not otherwise know what to say to each other. Remembrances of him and his art—which consisted of drawings, collage, and melted or reprogrammed electronics—hinted at the rueful futility of plugging away unseen as an artist, an Asian American, or both.
Funnily enough, I saw momentous shows for Richard Rezac and Diane Simpson on an October trip to New York, at the notable galleries Luhring Augustine and JTT, respectively. It seems that their moment—if we have to define a “moment” as finding an audience in a city that people actually pay attention to—is gradually and deservedly approaching. But when I meet artists who studied or lived in Chicago, they always remember it fondly, even if they left. On that same trip, I met an artist who told me that James Yood, who, as a critic, was a steady champion of the Chicago Imagists, used to tell students that Chicago came in third-place in a race of two and that it was like the younger sibling left at home while an older sibling goes to college.
I’m fine with all that is good about Chicago staying a secret, because there is so much good in just any one slice. For the most part, all the art I’ve mentioned here has been shown in neighborhoods south of the Chicago River. Ask another person and you’ll get an entirely different set of spaces. But the size of it all is just perfect: always something to see, but never too much to be overwhelming. If you a miss a show, you might hear about it anyway—or likely meet the artist at Skylark, the after-opening bar of choice in Pilsen.
The city’s fertile exchange of old and new, teachers and students, and art that appears in other cities while staying rooted at home puts me in mind of one of the first artworks I saw in the city, a text work by Lawrence Weiner at the Art Institute that reads: taken from here to where it came from and taken to a place and used in such a manner that it can only remain as a representation of what it was where it came from.