Any attempt to tell the story of three major American cities in the middle decades of the 20th century must cast a wide net.
After all, how does one document transformation, deterioration, rebirth, stagnation, and other processes through photographs, books, films, and other artworks? It is a tall order indeed and "The City Lost and Found" at the Art Institute of Chicago does a thoughtful job of offering ample evidence from the period 1960 to 1980.
Drawing on ambitious works by city planners, photographers, and filmmakers, this gallery exhibit brings together items from more than 30 collections that narrate different urban moments in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles during this 20-year slice of the recent past.
Let me offer to you an object from each section that will inspire your own exploration of this exhibit.
New York: A Master Planner, Some Cast Iron, and Words from the Street
The Big Apple was full of Big Proposals in the mid-20th century and Robert Moses' plan to create a massive expressway through Manhattan was of the biggest. It's on display in this particular case, along with the elegant photos of cast iron buildings in Lower Manhattan by Giorgio Cavaglieri. It's an interesting contrast between these two, especially when one glances over to see the on-the-ground in-your face cover of "The Man in the Street" by Shadrach Woods.
Los Angeles: Sixties on the Strip
The idea of an exhaustive and completist survey of any street in any city is an intriguing one, be it Cairo or Caracas. And what of LA's own Sunset Strip? Ed Ruscha set his eyes on a 1.5 mile section of the city in the mid-1960s and documented it via photographs and text in his 1966 work "Every Building on the Sunset Strip." You must come close and explore every inch of this 25-foot long accordion book as it is a truly remarkable endeavor. Perhaps you will ask: What street will I document?
Chicago: Behind the Lace Curtain
The defining moment for Chicago during the 1960s and 1970s was the 1968 Democratic National Convention. As the world watched, thousands of demonstrators rallied to protest the heavy-handed tactics of Mayor Richard J. Daley, who seemed increasingly indifferent to a broad range of social concerns. After the conventioneers left and the city began to pick up the pieces, the Richard Feigen Gallery organized a group show titled simply "Richard J. Daley." The centerpiece of this show stands before you now as the opening salvo. Titled "Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley," this work by Barnett Newman refers to the upwardly mobile aspirations of Irish Americans such as Daley. If you look closely, you will also see spatters of red paint, which suggest a certain brutalism of the human spirit. Take the time to walk around the piece before you move on the other works here.
The City Lost & Found exhibit is open at the Art Institute until
January 11. Visitors can find out more about the exhibit via their "Extras" page, which includes detailed meditations on select works.