The 30ish woman leaned in close to the thing on the wall. "What," she asked, "is this supposed to be?" The question was directed at no one in particular, but she asked it in a drawn-out sneer meant to expose the artiness in her soul. She was dressed to stress the point: ankle-high black flats, black skirt cut a good three inches above the knee, and a black sweater baggy and thick.
In contrast, the artwork was creamy beige. It was wide and tall and it looked like last-minute wrapping paper. To an untrained eye, it looked like an artistic con job.
The woman backed away. She moved in closer. Then the small black lettering on the wall beside the piece caught her eye.
"What," the arty lady asked again, "is this?"
The sign said, "Beyond Boundaries #3 by Joe Ziolkowski has been covered from public view at the request of the building management."
The show was in the lobby of 200 N. LaSalle and included the work of ten graduates of the School of the Art Institute. The piece--by Joe Z., as he is known professionally--hanging under the paper was a black-and-white photograph of two men. They float in white space, with ropes tied around their ankles that appear to be pulling them down. They are also nude. It appears the building's management has no objection to nudity in general. Another of Ziolkowski's nudes hangs right beside the covered portrait. Also there is a bronze statue of a nude woman included in the exhibition.
The problem seemed to be that the men in the photograph were embracing.
For something no one could see, Ziolkowski's photo was getting a lot of attention when the show opened last Friday. The folks who wandered in to sip white wine and munch pretzels studied the other pieces. But Ziolkowski's work was the one they couldn't stop talking about.
Ziolkowski couldn't stop talking himself. For this veiled unveiling of his work, he had worn a pea green blazer, a black shirt with a skinny black leather tie, black pants, and, of course, black shoes. His squash-yellow hair was cropped close on the sides and stood straight up on top. He paced before his work, snapping photos with both a Polaroid and a 35-millimeter camera. A friend videotaped the artist photographing the covered photograph.
"I was here the other day and, let me tell you, they were lined up out in the hall looking at it. I mean people had their faces plastered against the glass," Ziolkowski told two pals who had dropped by to offer moral support. "What it is is what it is and here we go. I am really, really mad about this. You can't believe how angry I am."
Nothing could cheer him. He was only trying to open the public's eyes and he had almost shut down the show. He looked as forlorn as the widower at a wake. People kept offering him their condolences. Time and time again, he would pull his thick lips into a tight, sad smile. Then he'd launch into the whole story again, whether they asked for it or not.
The short version, which Ziolkowski had mastered by evening's end, went like this: The exhibition, titled "Caught in a Revolving Door," is being sponsored by the Alumni Association of the School of the Art Institute. Curt Zeiser, the association's president and a tenant at 200 N. LaSalle, asked the building's management to donate space in the glass-enclosed lobby for an exhibit. Miglin-Beitler Developments Inc. graciously agreed.
The artwork went up on Wednesday. Complaints about Ziolkowski's photograph began pouring in from offended tenants almost immediately. A spokesman for Miglin-Beitler, a longtime supporter of the arts in Chicago, said the company had no choice but to ask that the photo come down. After all, the exhibition space is a fishbowl of sorts, visible from both the lobby and the street. Tenants and passersby would have to go out of their way to avoid the photo. It is big and prominently displayed. The spokesman who explained all this seemed genuinely pained by the dilemma.
The management company settled on having one of Ziolkowski's two photos covered. The artist agreed, albeit reluctantly. Had he refused, Zeiser said, the association would have been willing to close the show before it even opened. Hence the statement in tiny black letters on the wall beside Beyond Boundaries #3.
"I have a suggestion," a woman informed Ziolkowski. She had waist-length brown hair and was wearing black tights and a sweater emblazoned with colorful snowflakes. "You really ought to write the title larger. You ought, you know, to make people see what's going on here."
"Thank you," Ziolkowski said. All night he thanked everyone for their comments. It didn't matter that his picture was getting all this attention. He wanted to rip that ugly paper off his beautiful photograph.
"Man, wow, I'm just in shock," said a beefy man with half his head shaved and the other half covered by short black bristles. "Like, I can't believe this. Hey, you don't by any chance have a copy of it that I could, you know, take a look at, do you?"
Unfortunately, Ziolkowski did not. He was waiting around for the catalogs for the show to arrive, but an hour and a half into the opening the table by the door was still empty. As soon as they did, he was planning on getting out of there. He was having an opening at N.A.M.E. the same evening, which was sure to be a happier occasion.
"The way I see it, they asked him to show his feelings and then they denied him the right to show them," said Steve Rains, an art director in the advertising department at Marshall Field's and a friend of Ziolkowski's. "Joe is really bummed out, to say the least. It's insulting to him as an artist and as a person. I'm surprised but I'm not surprised. Art is always going to annoy someone. And homosexuality is still something that society refuses to deal with."