The Art Institute of Chicago

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Wide avenues, surprisingly little traffic, enormous trading floors, elevated trains, genuine old-time bars, Louis Sullivan ironclads and Mies van der Rohe skyscrapers, this and lots and lots of art makes Chicago a first-rate cultural destination. Cleaner and more provincial than New York, less glitzy and cosmetic than L.A., Chicagoans trace their serious engagement to the arts as far back as 1882, the year the Art Institute of Chicago?the jewel in the crown of the city's arts institutions?was born from the ashes of the city's debt-ridden Academy of Fine Arts (which it replaced) and the boom period that followed the Great Fire of 1871.

Wealthy Chicagoans of the late 19th century, rich beyond imagining and ambitious as only provincials can be, followed and often led New Yorkers, Philadelphians and Bostonians in a countrywide blitz to ennoble their cities and their loot (though not necessarily in that order). Libraries, symphonies, university endowments, museums of science and art museums followed. Embarrassed by their status as cultural appendages to their European cousins, America's superrich expressed their cultural ascendancy (which they intended to match their growing economic power) the only way they knew how: by buying it.

The results were grand. Better and more innovative architecture, deeper and more ambitious art collections snatched from the treasure troves of classical and Renaissance (and later, mannerist, Baroque and Romantic) art?the Gilded Age brought the booty of European civilization to America. For justification, rich Midwesterners and Easterners turned to a transatlantic version of Manifest Destiny. As famed New York architect Stanford White put it: "In the past, dominant nations had always plundered works of art from their predecessors... America was taking a leading place among nations and had, therefore, the right to obtain art wherever she could."

Benefiting from this period of runaway cultural consumption, American artists like Samuel Morse finally got what they wanted. A painter first, the inventor of the telegraph had long lamented the lack of quality art in his country, "for taste is only acquired by a close study of the merits of the old masters." More than a mere windfall, collections like that of the Art Institute of Chicago put Americans face to face with the world's art, ushering in a familiarity that in turn bred a go-get-'em brand of optimism. During the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, for example, the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (creator of the gold-plated Sherman memorial at 5th Ave. and 59th St.) was heard to gush, "Do you realize this is the greatest gathering of artists since the 15th century?" That he did not refer to visiting Europeans pointed to an innocent, novel confidence; a mere hint of that in the old country would have thrown an entire continent into hysterics.

More than a century later, the Art Institute boasts a collection of some 300,000 works brought from Europe, Asia, Africa and the Americas. Its most popular collections, the store of impressionist and postimpressionist art?its wealth of Manets, Renoirs, Picassos, Braques, Matisses and Chagalls?hold a special place among the world's leading art institutions and bring the tourists flocking. But it was the Art Institute's collection of American painters that held my interest on a recent visit. Full of underacknowledged gems, like Joshua Johnson's 1805 portrait of the wife of a prominent Baltimore abolitionist, as well as famous showstoppers like Edward Hopper's much reproduced Nighthawks, the Art Institute's holdings of American art tell a story of obscure work, persistence and artistic recognition gained through struggle. These pictures are reminders of America's once insurmountable peripheralness to world culture, facing forward with the odds of a long shot, oil and canvas Davids brandishing slingshots at Europe's centuries-old accomplishments.

Take Joshua Johnson, for instance. The first black American to achieve professional standing as an artist, Johnson's autodidactic gift is the tiniest footnote to the accomplishments of Western painting. Yet his picture of Mrs. Andrew Bedford Bankson and her son proves amazing in its steady-eyed, descriptive frankness. With subjects seated on a Federal-style sofa ornamented with brass upholstery tacks (a favorite motif, the trick earned Johnson the nickname the "brass-tack artist") and outfitted elegantly in light-catching dresses (the tow-headed boy reminds one of Hemingway, who neurotically could never shake off a photograph of himself in a dress), Johnson's painting balances color, form and line. A record of an extended meeting between a black man and a white woman in the slaveholding 1800s as well as a family portrait for the home, the painting invokes the self-trained gifts of both the artist's hand and brain. Johnson flattered his sitters as best he knew how: like mere equals of himself.

Another painting to speak to the complexities of 19th-century American society, William Sidney Mount's Bar-room Scene (1835) is the perfect foil for the heroic panoramas of Thomas Cole, Fredric Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, on view in adjoining rooms in the Art Institute. It's a picture of a tavern's spare, wood-slat interior, and portrays a ragged tramp performing a foot-stomping jig for three well-dressed men, a boy and their black manservant. A scene right out of Huckleberry Finn, the painting is a study in animated facial expressions, gestures, nearly theatrical light and invisible/visible social distinctions. The black man is shunted toward a corner by a composition that brilliantly echoes social custom, placed at a mirthful remove from the painting's central action. Colloquial yet awful to watch, the artist describes the white tramp with his back to the viewer: a merciful yet perfectly detailed view of Jacksonian democracy curved down toward its realistic, seedy bottom.

Far more interesting today than the stale lessons of analytic cubism and the cubist-derived paintings of Americans like Lyonel Feininger and John Marin, Charles Demuth's still-lifes and architectural studies pack a wickedly modern punch that bring to mind Ezra Pound's gimlet-eyed definition of art: news that stays news. Demuth interpreted the built landscape of his hometown of Lancaster, PA, by superimposing webs of abstract shapes like beams onto his paintings of industrial architecture. The cryptically titled And the Home of the Brave (1931), for instance, traces a compressed and discontinuous view of a factory, a water tower, a lightpost and a traffic light as the idealized urban and commercial forms of a new century. Demuth said goodbye to the romanticized landscapes of the Hudson River School, the mythologized West of Frederic Remington and the rural characters of revivalist painters like Grant Wood (his celebrated caricature, American Gothic, is also on view at the Institute), and faced the 20th century so squarely, it is tempting to find echoes of his paintings in the work of hypercool contemporary artists like Michael Bevilacqua, Michael Craig-Martin and Julian Opie.

An English expatriate and diehard Los Angeles transplant since 1964, David Hockney has long been one of a reduced company of painters the world looks to for his visions of sun-washed flatness, bright colors and the modern-day centrality of the California landscape. A less than flattering portrait of L.A. collectors Fred and Marcia Weisman, the painting American Collectors (1968) pictures the artist's subjects standing stiffly on their terrazzo deck surrounded by their brand-name sculptures (there's a William Turnbull here, a Henry Moore there). Hockney's image, pictured so rigidly as to look like sculptures themselves, is a tightly clenched riff on the hollowness of America's late 20th-century consumer-citizen ideal. It's an unsparing view of America ascendant, standing as an uncomfortably critical coda to the efforts of collectors in Chicago and elsewhere at the turn of the previous century.

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