Re-seeing Masterpieces: Chicago Art Institute

On my first day to the Art Institute of Chicago last week I was waylaid and overwhelmed by the talking heads in their great Egyptian, Roman, Greek, and Byzantium rooms. We had great conversations. They had much to say. (See blog “The Eyes Have It” from six days ago.)

On my second visit, I focused on paintings by the greatest in more recent history, and I formed two tenets.


Durer’s Eve knees

Tenet #1 is on beauty: paintings that are masterpieces can be apportioned into sections of themselves that are small masterpieces that retain the ability to wow your socks off. The strokes, colors, and lines that make up the whole can be “reframed,” say by a camera, into miniatures that are in themselves transcending.

I am not sure this applies to minimalist paintings but I have convinced myself that it applies to representational and abstract paintings. It certainly held true for the best works of Durer, Cezanne, Monet, Renoir, and – interestingly – Georgia O’Keefe and Arthur Dove. Are there any works by Durer or Cezanne that are not “best works”? Surely, the artists among my readers can add more painters who never fail.


Eve’s leaves

Tenet #2 is on how to best navigate galleries not filled with masterpieces: when in a room of paintings that are not masterpieces you have two ways to bring more life and joy to the experience – study the evolution of a painter, marveling that they too could have a bad day, OR find sections of, ah, “lesser” paintings that are nonetheless thrilling. It’s usually in there somewhere.

Best is to look through your camera so that you see only what the camera sees, move it about, and wait for that moment when you feel a little brain “ping.” That’s it! You will have participated in the creative process by framing (finding) the marvelous something that exists inside the larger something that is less than transcending. You have become your own artist. (Think of it as a form of “cut and paste.”)

Below are moments, dim sum of pleasure, facets that I captured. To identify them all is tedious on WordPress, and really I just want you to look, to see, to feel without thinking about the where and when and by whom they were painted. Some you will recognize. Others perhaps not. Relish!

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Memorial Day in Real Time . . . oh, dear

You have to get this setting. I’m in the upscale restaurant on the ground level of my hotel at the corner of State Street and Washington Street, Chicago, trying to find the mildest thing on the menu.

No, they don’t have chicken soup. No, they have no side dish of steamed spinach to substitute for a salad. Yes, they can make the veggie burger, substituting the Boursin for a chèvre, and leaving off the creme fraiche. Yes, they do have mint tea.

Outside, people are gathering for the Memorial Day parade due to arrive momentarily. I can see nothing from my seat in the restaurant. It is a window seat but on the wrong side. I look across the restaurant out the far windows and see the backs of standing people. Chicago seems to be a patriotic town, we need northern patriotic towns, I think.

I am here for the wedding of a dear friend. His first, her first. He is 64, I don’t know how old she is but it’s reasonable. He is the oldest of a brood of Irish Catholic siblings. She is the oldest of Japanese-American siblings. They are being married in a United Methodist church across from Daley Plaza and the Picasso statue. The church has magnificent stained class windows. I cried, though no one knew, at the rehearsal last night. Oh my, people with faith in each other and life.

I hear drums, masses of drums, and see the tops of flags, lots of flags. I see the top of a float of the Illinois state seal.

I have a tummy ache. Hence, the mint tea. This is my first meal in 24 hours.

No one in the restaurant looks out even though many hundreds came to line the street and the television station scaffolding is right outside. Theoretically we are at the apex. I hear trumpets.

Let’s talk about war. My veggie burger has arrived. Thick, predominantly brown rice and mushrooms, a limited thing.

War sucks. War would not be necessary if humans were more clever, particularly if Americans, the people with money, were more clever, and kind, and far thinking, and not, in sum, ridiculous in our choices and closing of our hearts. We cheat our own, so I guess it makes sense that we believe people who aren’t us are “outsiders” better left alone until they attack us.

I’m not saying all war is avoidable. There are people who do evil in the world. I have dear friends who believe in strands and stains of evil. Mostly I say there are humans who try to avoid being “merely” human, who want to feel they are so much stronger than others that they are safe despite the dumbbell they see reflected in the mirror – the dumbbell they think they are because they didn’t discover the Grand Unified Theory, or can’t sing like Pavoratti, or run a three-minute mile.

More drums, more flags.

Or they aren’t rich or . . . Oh, I see the tops of rifles going by.

Or they aren’t . . . whatever.  So they go rigid and fundamental. (All extremists are fundamentalists in one way or another.)

And then the rest of us (we do like to think we are on the good side and God really does prefer us) have to fight back, to protect ourselves, or whatever.

I am the only soul in this restaurant who is looking up and out the window. Oh, mimosas, salmon, Eggs Benedict, and salade nicoise, how privileged you are!

People die in wars.

More flags, a gap in the crowd, I see the American Legion.

People die in wars, mangled, cut short, leaving children and spouses, and futures. And that’s just the fighters. And now more civilians die in wars than fighters. Women crouched down to protect their children and standing up and running to get water. Children who play with spent shells.

More flags. A float. Was that the mayor?

I don’t believe in war. I do believe in marriage between people who love each other. I believe in mint tea. I believe in mint tea for tummy aches and heart aches.

I believe in the nations with substance acting in ways that prevent war in the first place. But that depends on people caring about others in real time, seeing the needs, and tending each other early.

I am proud of the people who serve. I can’t bear that we need to fight because we didn’t tend.

More drums, more flags.

Rifles and berets.

The wedding is in an hour, I must leave here and get ready.

A marching bane, white tubas, red uniforms, flags twirled by majorettes.

. . .


I stepped outside, went to the corner to get you a photo of flags, and inside of three minutes I am interviewed on t.v. (complete with my name) as to what I see as the most crucial question facing Chicago today. “I’ve only been here three days but from what I see Chicago is a vibrant robust city.”

imageAnd an Indian woman waving an American flag then introduced herself as a commentator for 17 years, now a doctor, and the great-granddaughter of Gandhi, “the great freedom fighter for India.” “Yes, I know of Gandhi.”

Gandhi, the icon of non-violence. You cannot make this stuff up even if you don’t know what to make of it.

I now look out from my hotel window on the 9th floor, a float is going by of paralyzed veterans.

The Eyes Have It: Chicago’s Art Institute

First time in Chicago in four decades. It was too cold and windy to land in after graduation, so I went further east, suitcase and borrowed money in hand, to Washington, DC. The first days there, in what I mistakenly thought would be an international city but was still a sleepy southern town when I was 21, I went to the National Gallery of Art and gawked. Yesterday, having just arrived, I went to the the Art Institute of Chicago. I was not alone.

image You would have thought I was alone but I was not, and it wasn’t because of pods of high school students or tourists with museum maps. I was surrounded by 1500- to 2500-year-old people who overwhelmed me by their humanity – Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Indians, and Tibetans. Statesmen, philosophers, fighters, conquerors, ordinary people, and gods. Mostly male, some female.

Why now so strongly? It’s not that I’ve never seen a marble bust before, I’ve seen plenty. It’s that I’ve never “felt” a marble bust – or stone or terra cotta or cast bust or bas relief or, yes, Carrara torso – so alive. They were cold, they were separate before.

imageNow they told me their story, how they carried themselves in the agora, their sense of responsibility or defeat, their innocent inability to explain that they didn’t know they were still innocent, their bafflement, their serenity inside the temple.

They told me through the turn of their head or the jut of their jaw, but they told me mainly through their eyes. We held conversations of a phrase here and a phrase there. My job was to listen, just that.




There was a painting of a man taken from his (Egyptian) tomb that I’d first seen in a compendium of art in a book I bought with that borrowed money so many years ago. I was struck by it then for its realism, I was almost mowed down yesterday by its eyes. This was a human being! He lived! He walked, talked, wore a wreath at least for his funeral but surely for other occasions also. Bet he was married and had children, maybe a business, or . . . what? What, dear human male, did you do when you had a viable body and mind? You had, I believe, a sense of wonder tempered by caution. I saw it in your eyes.



Why now? Perhaps because I am of an age where more people are dying around me than are being born. Of an age when people who have died are still real to me. Of an age where I not only understand the shortness of life but the aliveness of life. Of an age where nothing, nothing, nothing matters so much as caring and loving and holding, and beauty. Beauty as both treasure and key to treasure. Of an age where callousness is fatal.

It was not only the people who revealed themselves to me, but the sculptors, unknown and nameless, who created each work, and I use the word “work” here as a precious thing, for the physicality of stone, marble, and paint require muscle in the duty of message and transference. It also requires intelligence of execution (training and skill) and emotional elasticity and, ultimately, wisdom.

image One cannot expose the eyes of resignation of the philosopher without understanding that understanding being human is to know resignation.

imageOne cannot make the eyes of a fallen warrior “dead” without knowing what leaves the body at the moment of death. imageimageimage

One cannot reveal innocence without knowing innocence in relationship to experience.

So the people revealed, and their revealing artists, surrounded me on the Chicago Art Institute and it was crowded, not by people with museum maps but by tangible presences that had navigated vast distances to say “I am because I was. Feel me, companion.”   imageimageimage

Returned: one angel’s wing

[This blog, be forewarned, speaks of hope. It was written, unabashedly, in the face of the harm, cruelty, and violence humans do to each other.]

IMG_3536Five and a half years ago I lost an angel’s wing. I also lost a husband, a house, and my trust in the bulk of humanity. 

I stopped grieving the husband two or three years after he told me of his separate parallel life.

The house I never missed. It was a McMansion that fought back hard against my attempts to make it human-friendly. A truckload of furniture would arrive – soft sofas, curved wood rockers, Afghan rugs – and, once they were unloaded, I’d look around to find in which room they had disappeared.

We originally called the house “The Stage,” recognizing it as a phase my husband seemed to need to go through. He never got through it, he loved that house.

As for my trust in humans, it will never return to fuzzy-edged naiveté. I live by: I could be betrayed, heart-broken, forgotten, and cheated on at any moment, but that’s not an adequate reason not to love and embrace joy.

In any case, any bitterness has been replaced by a manageable sadness, patience, and loving acceptance. The book of humans could be titled “Varieties of Foibles.” We don’t even treat ourselves, let alone others, as we would like to be treated.

And poignancy is an okay quality to live with. Its merging of joy and pain is spot on with the truth of life.

While the house was an obdurate beast, the garden we designed together was breathtaking – pockets of restfulness, a (recycling) creek with two dams, koi fish, water lilies, lotus, Siberian irises, a mediation house 9 feet off the ground with glass walls and a steeple of copper, and the green grass circle where we were married standing on rose petals.

The angel’s wing (Carrara marble) was in the garden. When I had the opportunity to claim some furniture and art from the house, I didn’t have the presence of mind to remember the garden. It was a hit and run mission (legal and with written permission) – and it was unbearable to point my finger at items I wanted and needed (I had nothing) while his financial manager took photos and made a list.

Last week, five years overdue, the wing returned to me. The house is being sold. I wrote and asked for the wing. He didn’t say “yes” directly, but copied me on the email asking a friend to pick it up and deliver it to me.

IMG_3520The wing sits close to a statue of a seated woman titled “Waiting for an Angel.” I did manage to get her five years ago. She has waited all this time. Some things meant to be yours return.

They are together in my garden and today my first iris bloomed – an old-fashioned purple bearded iris of the kind my mother grew. It is among allium, and peonies that will bloom soon, and a lilac bush that bloomed  two weeks ago.IMG_3529


The foibles of humans make good things more tender than they might otherwise be. Life wants to be wonderful. Or maybe the return of the wing and the hope it embodies – angels do visit earth – is making me a little drunk.



Passion, a steed

You can lead passion to rationality
but you can’t make it drink.

It may bow its head or rear up, meow or whinny,
but it will not drink.

The size of its obstinance does not matter.
Passion, any size, does not drink rationality.

We brush our teeth and tie our shoes, it does not.
We read our mail and change our beds, it does not.
We pay our bills and make coffee, it does not.

Passion drives us mad banging against the bars
and searching for the key to escape.

Passion rode us on its back long ago, or only yesterday.

It remembers, and will not let us forget.

You lose, Balducci’s

Dear John, … oops, I mean, Dear Balducci’s,

Sorry, it’s just my frame of mind. You see, Balducci’s, I have changed, and you have not. The thrill is gone. Whole Foods has more than 30 different kinds of goat cheese, not counting goat cheese crumbles, goat cheese slices in individual wrappers, and goat cheese ravioli. When I looked a couple days ago, you had only three kinds of goat cheese. You don’t meet my needs anymore.

Even when I looked for spelt bread, nada. I told you about this years ago, but you wouldn’t listen.

And Whole Foods, well, 14 different kinds of cold-pressed veggie and fruit juices! Your soy-based Odwella is so, well, yesterday.

Oh, and your lack of tofu. OMG, Balducci’s, one kind? Whole Foods has nine kinds of tofu – count ’em, nine. How am I going to make perfect smoothies with “firm” tofu? I need “soft” tofu. Got that? Soft, I’m into soft.

It was lovely while it lasted and thrilling at the beginning but now I need more. I need different goat cheeses, and non-gluten breads, and … and, oh, yes, what is that about, having only one brand of coconut water and then only in some dinky small size? Don’t you know me better than that?

This is a different era, Balducci’s. Whipper-snappers like Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s may, like you, be expensive to maintain, but they know what I like.


. . . .

Amateur (and over-simplified, but true) treatise on Capitalism with a focus on the good part:

The best part of capitalism is that it speeds up evolution of products that improve (real or imagined) our lives through health, enjoyment, science, and more. Great ideas, well executed, survive and thrive. The life blood of capitalism is innovation.

The worst part of capitalism is that it cannot be depended upon by itself to provide for people who have few or no resources to begin with. The trickle down concept is an balm for those who have a lot and want to keep it. There’s no trickle to those who really need it.

This is why affordable care for all is imperative for a healthy nation, including a nation that wants to be economically healthy. We’re getting there, despite resistance.

Now, if the US only provided education for all. What’s up with not having affordable education at the university level for people with moderate and low incomes? Oh, right, we’re shortsighted. I’m sorry, probably that should be, “Oh, Right, you’re shortsighted.”

While we’re at it, couldn’t we invest in people before they’re incarcerated? Think how much money it would save. Ounce of prevention, and all that, not to mention caring for your brother and sister.

But let’s get back to the good part of capitalism, because there is one, and it is innovative, value-based products that drive progress and economies.

Two simultaneous and countervailing forces are at work – greater and greater complexities and more and more simplicities. The most common example is: computers are infinitely more complex and, even for older people, easier to use.

The ex-husband of mine who was an entrepreneur spoke of “efficiencies.” That is, to be successful in the marketplace you needed to offer a product comparable to your competitor’s at a lower price or offer a better product without pricing yourself out of the market. (Balducci’s is doing neither of these and the customers were few and the employees grouchy. Balducci’s has lost business efficiency. Let’s hope it changes fast. Capitalism is about survival of the fittest.)

The most fun of these two “efficiencies” is introducing a new product that hits the world with impact. Rajiv Salimath, founder and CEO of Haggle, speaks of this as “perturbation.” He believes that to be outrageously successful you need to “perturb” the status quo, to offer people something that will change their lives in ways they want even if they never thought of it before. You need to inspire them, to reconfigure their imaginations and desires, which influences how they spend their money – which, in turn, can change the marketplace. Haggle, a young start-up originating in New York, may just change the marketplace.

Haggle gives consumers the power to instantaneously and seamlessly negotiate discounts based on what they bring to the seller. Example: participating restaurants compete to give you discounts custom-made to factors such as how often you eat out, the kinds of food you eat, what you usually spend, and how many people you bring with you. Your discount comes within seconds of your clicking into your app that you want, say, Indian food within a ten block radius.

The trajectory is envisioned to extend soon beyond New York, and to incorporate businesses such as gyms and clothing stores. The app is available for your iPhone or iPad through Apple store now. Check ’em out!

There is a balance – an efficiency, if you will – for capitalism that needs to be achieved, where survival of the fittest is not applied to humans but to products and goods. Being nice to everyone makes for healthy societies where all citizens have what is needed to participate in a viable economy – and be pleasantly perturbed, whether by an array of goat cheese or by having the personal power to get custom-made discounts because of how important you are to the seller.