Spring Break –> Chicago II
11 March 2018
Our second day in Chicago started a little slow, with half of our party going to mass and the other half searching for a cafe that ended up being closed – I was in the latter half. After stopping at the Target we saw on our way to said closed cafe, we got Starbucks and headed down Woodlawn until we got to the University of Chicago’s campus and the Robie House. We were slotted for the day’s first tour of this Frank Lloyd Wright Prairie-style masterpiece. After waiting for a bit in the overheated gift shop in what was once the three-car garage – an uncommon feature for a house completed in 1910 – we gathered in the driveway/courtyard for the start of the tour.
FLW was one for a total design concept, or TCD in the words of Fr. N, in which everything – from the custom-made bricks and stained glass to the textiles of the carpets to the light fixtures and furniture –was designed by the architect. The first thing I noticed while we stood waiting to enter was the stained glass of the servants’ quarters windows, which had this beautiful iridescent quality from the outside but were shades of amber on the inside. At the end of the tour, I asked our guide what process they used to make the glass appear this way, and she said they really don’t know anymore. Restoration experts are unsure what materials or chemicals were used in the glass production to achieve such an effect, and they haven’t been able to replicate it for the windows that had to be replaced. She even mentioned that they aren’t permitted to clean the outside of the windows lest something happen to the glass. I always find it amazing the things we manage to just forget as a species since no one thought to write it down, whether it’s how to create Ancient Roman concrete and Greek fire, or more recent processes such as this glass technique.
While the restoration work being done to Robie House this spring is vital, I was still disappointed that the tour was so impacted by it. Instead of entering through the true front door, where the transition space of compression-and-release that FLW was so fond of could be experienced fully, we entered through a back door into the children’s play room. We went up the stairs to the bedrooms, where a collection of FLW chairs were on display, before making our way to the dining room and lastly the kitchen. Throughout the house there were tarps up, half torn-down drywall, unpainted walls, and many rooms closed off. I suppose that just means I’ll have to visit again when the restoration work is finished!
Regardless of the shortened tour, it was still a beautiful house to visit, and only my second FLW building to see in person (the first being his gas station in Cloquet, MN). We left the Robie House and walked around the perimeter a bit, going right up to the front door before remembering we might get in trouble. The Seminary Co-op bookstore is right next to the Robie House, so after a pit stop in there we headed onto the campus proper in a roundabout way towards the Smart Museum. It being a Sunday, Fr. N was surprised that Rockefeller Chapel wasn’t open at all, so we simply went around it to see a bit more of campus, including their science fiction-y library extension and Nuclear Energy sculpture by Henry Moore – which commemorated the world’s first nuclear reactor and self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, done at the University of Chicago.
We arrived at the Smart Museum of Art, which is on campus, just in time for our appointment for a docent to lead us through the exhibit. I will admit, I was surprised that our docent was a sophomore History student, particularly after our much older docent at MAM the day before. Although he wasn’t an Art major, he did a pretty decent job leading us through the museum, and there was a lot of cool stuff to see even with one of the galleries closed.
The first room coincidentally had the original Robie House dining table and chairs on display, the furniture from the home being sold off by a later owner strapped for cash, and it seems like we got the Smart just in time, since it was the last day on display! Just opposite the FLW-designed table was Yves Klein’s Table bleue. The docent told us how when the Klein was installed, they had to have a hazmat team pour it and seal the plexiglass because the pigment inside is so toxic, which is pretty interesting. The photo of the Rothko reflecting off the Klein was somewhat of an accident, with the deep magenta turning to rich purple against the cobalt.
Despite having read about and seeing photos of it before, I’ve never seen a piece of kintsugi art in person. This is the act of using gold to repair a broken piece of pottery, whether that is to its original condition or something entirely new, like this piece. I like the idea of it being more beautiful having been broken, reminding me of the Hellenistic and Classical sculptures I’ve been painting in my latest series.
The room with the kintsugi had miscellaneous eating/drinking vessels and art about food, such as a sweet little painting of cherry pie by Robert Carston Arneson and a messy kitchen table by John Randall Bratby. The next gallery had some Impressionist work as well as one of Rodin’s bronze models for The Thinker.
After some etchings and Modernism, we went into the gallery where “The History of Perception” exhibition was on display, featuring works by Carrie Mae Weems, Josef Albers, Robert Irwin (below), and quite a few more. The photos really don’t do justice to the atmosphere of the room with the two light sculptures.
The last piece we saw was Antony Gormley’s Infinite Cube, which was just the coolest piece. It’s a mirrored glass cube full of 1000 small LED lights, and it truly felt like you were looking into infinity. I’ve been wanting to see one of Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms for a while now, and this reminded me of those installations. Regardless, we spent quite some time in that section of the gallery – it was so hard to look away!
After exiting from the Smart, we made the long walk back towards the Norbertine House with the plan to stop for lunch on the way. Before releasing us for the afternoon, Fr. N brought us to a rock with a plaque on it just next to a parking lot a few blocks from campus. We weren’t sure what it was until we saw a photo of Michelle and Barack Obama, and a quote about that being the site of their first date, enjoying Baskin Robbins ice cream and each other.
The cafe that we had intended to go to for breakfast then became our site for lunch, as it was a half block from Obama’s first date, and so our group had a lunch ranging from cannolis to a hummus plate to good old fashioned turkey sandwiches. I also had a delicious cinnamon tea there. The street we were on had some cute shops, so we wandered in and out, from the cold street to the warm stores, before spotting a chocolate shop. We had intended on getting a treat for our hosts as a thank-you, so we thought, what better than fresh fudge? (Nothing, based on their reactions that night after dinner).
We returned to the Norbertine home, some taking naps while others read just before Vespers, which we were invited to join. One of the brothers made us lasagna and salad for dinner, and with our fudge in our bellies, a warm fire in the gorgeous fireplace (designed by George W. Maher!), and N/A drinks for those of us under 21, it was a pretty good night.
(This is the dining room of the Norbertine home. It has stained glass, mosaic floors, a grand dining table, and was full of plants. I was in heaven)