I’ve been following the Times’ “Arts Crush” series, and one of the best, and best-written, in the series has been Holland Cotter’s piece on poetry and the MFA. Cotter’s writing is always elegant and accessible, with an amazing ability to render high concepts simply. (I wish he’d taught my graduate seminars in art theory…) The series inspired me to think about my first visual arts crush, and how it still resonates today.
I grew up on the North Side of Chicago, in the actual city, not Ferris-Bueller-land. By the time I was in high school, I had a pretty free-range existence thanks to the Chicago Transit Authority, and rode the bus anywhere and everywhere, even up to the southern edge of Bueller-land, also known as Evanston.
Thanks to the CTA, and to the car my family drove only on weekends, and plenty of field trips in school, we visited most of the museums in the city: the Museum of Science and Industry, the Shedd Aquarium, the Chicago Historical Society, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. That’s where I found my very first crush.
There’s a lot to love in the AIC, from classic Impressionists to post-war Abstract Expressionists, but when I was in grade school, what really made an impression on me were the Thorne Rooms. The Thorne miniature rooms are meant to be the most accurate 1/12 scale representations of historical interiors. It will not surprise you that I pressed my 10-year-old nose against the glass of the early Pennsylvania rooms, or the high-style Rhode Island rooms, wishing desperately that I could shrink and slip through that solid membrane and inhabit the world the rooms depicted.
My mother and I would play a game: Which is your favorite room? Which one would you like to live in? And even if the rooms filled with tiny ball-and-claw feet were my favorite, or the chestnut-panelled keeping rooms, the one I wanted to live in (because somewhere there would be a telephone and a radio, and behind the tiny door, a well-appointed bathroom) was the Art Deco apartment. We were fairly certain this was a room you never saw in “Bringing Up Baby,” maybe the room on the other side of the bathroom where the leopard was kept.
Accuracy and anarchy: those contradictory impulses have guided most of my life, from the work I made as an artist, to the work I do now. Getting details right, from citations to what’s on a table for a 1799 tea, matters; but once that’s set in motion, life takes over, the metaphorical leopard is loose, and we’re off to see what life was really like in all its emotive glory in 1799.
And it all started in the basement of the Art Institute of Chicago, imagining what it would be like to live in each of the tiny worlds that ring the walls of the Thorne Rooms gallery.