Plague time at the Art Institute | Art Feature | Chicago Reader

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Plague time at the Art Institute

What it’s like to explore a familiar place under unfamiliar circumstances.

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When it was announced the Art Institute of Chicago was reopening I swore I wouldn't go. Museums are severely restricted places in the best of times. Would there be anything left to enjoy while masked, distanced, and subject to mandatory directional signage? Can art, which can give a window to the infinite, be appreciated despite the new and necessary scrims and barriers? Yet, when my old college friend Frank asked if I wanted to go, I was among the first in line outside the entrance to the Modern Wing a few minutes before noon on Thursday, July 30, waiting for the doors to open.

The first hour was limited to museum members and inside there was a receiving line of employees welcoming us back. We went up to visit an old friend first. Frank and I were students at SAIC at the start of the 90s. We have both been to this museum hundreds of times these past 30 years and have rarely missed a look at Willem de Kooning's Excavation. Curators have moved it several times as the museum has expanded and reconfigured, but to us it is a touchstone the way Georges Seurat's A Sunday at La Grande Jatte or Edward Hopper's Nighthawks is to the general public. Excavation is currently in a room which is a little too small for it, but at least it's got a couple other de Koonings to keep it company.

In the week prior to reopening the big art world tabloid news item was local billionaire Ken Griffin's announcement that he'd parked the Jean-Michel Basquiat he'd recently purchased for $100 million on one of the museum's walls. A few minutes after leaving de Kooning we found it. There were a couple other viewers in the gallery straining to see what $100 million looks like. I couldn't see it either. The painting, Boy and Dog in Johnnypump, is certainly big enough to pretend to be important, but without the famous dead artist's name, if encountered, say, at a regional art fair, it wouldn't rate a slowdown to one's pace. Its importance has less to do with art than with the state of the world, where a rich guy can display his latest status symbol purchase in a public place for the envy of others.

One thing I noticed, which marked this visit as different from any previous one, is how much interaction there was between visitors and guards. They are usually just part of the scenery. The only time one talks to them is to ask for directions or be admonished for coming too close to the art. But this day every guard was acknowledged like a long-missed friend. It was like greeting distant relations at church after not having attended in years.

New signs were all over. Arrows, Xs, squares, and circles form a now-familiar Hobo Alphabet to everyone living through this plague time. The museum's floors and doors bore the telltale markings. Movements through rooms I know by heart are now micromanaged and regulated. Strolling through the Old Masters galleries we encountered a guard who pointed out an X on the floor and told us to turn around. Not being able to choose one's path is a sure sign of a drastic realignment.

It was just after 1 PM when we wandered near the Michigan Avenue entrance to see a stream of visitors slowly filing in. The public was here, it was time for us to leave, but out of the corner of his eye, Frank noticed something new. Gustave Caillebotte's Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877—practically a mascot for the museum—didn't look like its old self. We came closer and noticed little differences; bits of color now popped, where once they'd receded, contrasts were now accentuated where they were once blurred. Restorers had obviously spent serious time deep cleaning the painting during the shutdown. It was like seeing an old movie in hi-def; perhaps more crystal clear than it needs to be.

I don't know when I'll return. For now, the first hour of every day—the museum is closed Tuesdays and Wednesdays—is restricted to members. Even before COVID, I had no love for crowds, so the chance to spend time with paintings I've loved for decades without being oppressed by groups of audio tour zombies staggering about is tempting. On the other hand, wearing a mask and being ever vigilant of breaking new rules is no way to lose oneself in the moment. This is our lot now. We have to take our respites and pleasures wherever they're offered, no matter how circumscribed or limited.   v

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