Artworks Not to Miss at the Art Institute of Chicago – celebritiestalks.com
Even if you have never set foot in the Windy City, you may still feel as if you’ve ambled through the Art Institute of Chicago. No American art museum, besides the Met in New York, has so embedded itself in the popular imagination, whether through the iconic montage of Ferris Bueller and pals visiting the museum in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or via the classic Parker Brothers board game Masterpiece, whose 1996 version features works from the Art Institute’s collection.
Yes, American Gothic, Nighthawks, and A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte are all must-sees. But there are plenty of other treasures that are just as worthy of your time—if you know where to look. With the help of Art Institute curators, we have gathered 20 of them here.
Follow along with the Art Institute’s handy online map here.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne, Thorne Miniature Rooms, c. 1937–40 (Gallery 11)
Upon entering the Art Institute from Michigan Avenue, it’s likely your eyes will immediately be drawn to the Women’s Board Grand Staircase. Resist the urge to ascend and instead head one level down, where you’ll find a tucked-away Art Institute favorite.
Narcissa Niblack Thorne’s miniature rooms, produced at a 1:12 scale, depict imagined rooms in various locales and periods, from contemporary China to Colonial Massachusetts. Thorne first publicly displayed her intricately crafted rooms at the 1933 Century of Progress Fair in Chicago, where viewers stricken by the Great Depression were enthralled by the rooms’ opulence and detail.
Thorne was able to sustain her craft thanks to the financial support of her husband, heir to the Montgomery Ward fortune, and a studio of highly skilled craftspeople, many of whom had special architectural expertise in the period or milieu depicted. Just under 100 Thorne miniature rooms survive today, with the majority—68 in total—held by the Art Institute in this specially constructed wing.
Takamura Kо̄un, Transom Panels from the Phoenix Pavilion, 1893 (Gallery 108)
Look up or you’ll miss one of the most fascinating historical gems in the Arts of Asia galleries on the main floor, carved by a respected Buddhist sculptor. Takamura Kо̄un’s four panels date to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, a cultural and infrastructural turning point in Chicago’s history.
After being selected to host the World’s Fair, Chicago underwent a host of audacious development projects to both prepare for the fair and recover from the calamitous 1871 fire that wiped out much of the city. One of the fair’s grandest attractions was the Hōōden, or Phoenix Pavilion, which the Japanese government gifted to Chicago after the exposition.
Modeled on an 11th-century temple in Uji, near Kyoto, the pavilion was built in Jackson Park on Chicago’s South Side. The phoenix depicted in these panels commemorates Chicago’s rebirth after its devastating fire. Sadly, they are all that survive of the pavilion, the rest falling into disrepair and eventually being destroyed by arson in 1945 and ’46. The panels were discovered 30 years later in a storage facility under the bleachers of Soldier Field.
Tadao Ando, Ando Gallery, 1992 (Gallery 109)
The gallery adjacent isn’t just a dimly lit oasis in the midst of a bustling museum; it is renowned architect Tadao Ando’s first American commission. Best known for his residential spaces, Ando took inspiration from traditional Japanese domestic interiors in designing the gallery: Visitors are greeted by 16 freestanding wooden pillars, past which one can take in the art in illuminated displays.
Ando went on to pursue more Chicago-based projects, designing a house for philanthropist-activist Fred Eychaner and the interior of the adjacent art museum Wrightwood 659. He received the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in 1995.
Unknown Moche artist, Portrait Vessel of a Ruler, 100 BCE–500 CE (Gallery 136)
In the nearby Arts of the Americas gallery is this stunning portrait vessel from Peru. Imperiously handsome, the face is so naturalistic as to be almost animate, its mouth expressively bracketed by creases. We don’t know what middle-aged Moche leader this vessel depicts, but we can immediately identify his regal status by his headdress, face paint, and ear ornaments.
The exact function of these vessels remains somewhat unclear; they were often buried as funerary offerings, but scholars are unsure whether they were specifically made for that purpose. The vessels may have been circulated through neighboring communities as emblems of royal might and goodwill.
Unknown Senufo Artist, Female Caryatid Drum (Pinge), c. 1930–50 (Gallery 137)
This remarkable artwork, on view in the Arts of Africa gallery next door, takes a familiar motif from sub-Saharan Africa—of women balancing loads on their head—and turns the act monumental, almost superhuman. A small yet mighty figure bears the weight of this four-foot high wooden ceremonial drum capped by hide. Many have hailed this artwork as an allegory for Senufo society: The West African culture is matrilineal, holding women as its foundation.
Attributed to the Varrese Painter, Loutrophoros (Container for Bath Water), 350–340 BCE (Gallery 151)
Grecian vessels like this one—which you’ll find in the galleries devoted to Greek and Roman art—were traditionally used for bathing a bride before her nupitals. This particular vase, however, was probably commissioned for burial, not marriage. That’s because it depicts a woman seated in a naiskos, a small temple marking the grave site of a wealthy family. The vase imagines what the woman’s wedding day might have looked like, with female family members and friends lovingly doting on her with perfume and jewelry.
The artist of this standout artifact is unknown, but the style is consistent with an artist called simply the Varrese Painter, the most representative, prolific, and accomplished exponent of Apulian red-figure vase pottery.
Unknown Roman artist after an original by Praxiteles, Statue of the Aphrodite of Knidos, 2nd century (Gallery 151)
Today nude statues of Greek goddesses seem ubiquitous; they’re what many of us imagine first when thinking of Greco-Roman statuary. But the artistic trend had to start somewhere, and scholars believe it began with the now-lost Aphrodite of Knidos, a devotional statue carved by sculptor Praxiteles in 365 BCE.
The Aphrodite of Knidos was built for a temple whose footprint still survives in modern-day Turkey. Its gender was groundbreaking—it was far more common at the time to depict nude male heroes—as was its size. Carved in lifelike dimensions, it was the largest statue of its kind at the time of its creation.
Unfortunately, the original statue was lost to time. Fortunately, it became fashionable among wealthy Romans to own reproductions of the statue, no longer for temple use but for secular, decorative purposes. This example, while having sustained significant damage, is immediately identifiable as one of many such reproductions.
Walter T. Bailey, Facade Panel from the National Pythian Temple, c. 1927 (Gallery 200)
Ascending to the second level, you will be tempted to head straight to the Arts of Europe galleries. But after you’ve seen Gustave Caillebotte’s massive Paris Street; Rainy Day (1877) in Gallery 201, slow your roll and check out the northern wall, which bears this pharaonic likeness. (It will be off to the left when looking at Paris Street.)
This fragment survives from a building designed by Walter T. Bailey, believed to be Illinois’s first licensed Black architect. In 1922 Bailey was commissioned to design the national headquarters of the Knights of Pythias of North America, South America, Europe, Asia and Africa, a Black analog to the white Knights of Pythias fraternal order.
Eight stories tall and boasting a 1,500-seat auditorium as well as plenty of office and commercial space, the National Pythian Temple stood at 3737 South State Street in Bronzeville, one of the most economically prosperous Black neighborhoods in the United States. The project was hailed at the time as the largest building entirely financed, designed, and built by African-Americans. That cultural pride manifested in the many Egyptian symbols carved into its glazed terracotta facade—not just the pharaoh in his nemes but griffins, rams, and other sacred animals.
In 1933 the temple hosted a Negro Exposition that ran parallel to the city’s World’s Fair, attesting to the building’s significance in Black Chicago at the time. Sadly, the edifice was razed in 1980; in a characteristic case of generational disinvestment, the bustling State Street corridor it once anchored is now an empty lot.
Adriaen van der Spelt and Frans van Mieris, Trompe-l’Oeil Still Life with a Flower Garland and a Curtain, 1658 (Gallery 212)
This collaboration between two skilled painters is as clever as it is masterful. The teeming Technicolor floral arrangement at center is Van der Spelt’s handiwork; a tulip, at the time a recent import to Holland, is prominently featured. Meanwhile, the hyperrealistic silk curtain covering a third of the canvas was contributed by Van Mieris.
So what’s the point here? The curtain reference in this trompe-l’oeil painting (literally, “to trick the eye” in French) is likely two-pronged. First, it was common to protect paintings by drawing a curtain over them when not being viewed. Second, the curtain nods to an apocryphal tale about ancient Greek painters Zeuxis and Parrhasius in which the latter tricked the former into believing a curtain he’d painted was real. Regard this canvas in person, and you might understand Zeuxis’s error.
Rosalba Carriera, A Young Lady with a Parrot, c. 1730 (Gallery 216)
The great Venetian Rococo artist Rosalba Carriera was well enough respected to get the mononymic treatment: She’s usually just known as Rosalba. The soft shading, plush colors, and lively face of her subject in this pastel portrait is a clear demonstration of her mastery.
After getting her start working in miniature, Rosalba explored portraits and allegories with her pastel works. This canvas is a rare mix of the two genres. The bird tugs at the girl’s neckline to scandalously bare her breast; the fact that its plumage is almost the exact same hue as her dress, however, cleverly conflates the bird’s and woman’s actions
John Philip Simpson, The Captive Slave (Ira Aldridge), 1827 (Gallery 220)
It is likely that John Philip Simpson painted this portrait to curry support for the abolitionist cause in upper-crust British society. His sitter, the actor Ira Aldridge, was an antislavery activist himself. Born a free man in New York City in 1807, Aldridge was one of the first African-American Shakespeareans and dramatists to receive broad acclaim, though racism in his home country forced him to build his career in Europe.
Aldridge had a tradition of directly addressing audiences in the final run of a production, where he often sounded off about social issues of the day, like abolition. At the time of Simpson’s portrait, he had just starred in the musical drama The Slave in London, which may have inspired Simpson’s associating him with the abolitionist cause.
Toshiko Takaezu, Dancing Brush, 1990 (Gallery 262)
In the Arts of the Americas wing, the gallery featuring a tranche of Toshiko Takaezu’s vessels is a bustling one: Ivan Albright’s Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida (see below) is at one end, and Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is at the other. But do take a moment with Dancing Brush and its peers. These eloquent, controlled works grew out of Takaezu’s commitment to Zen Buddhism and late-life explorations of Japanese pottery, inspired by her studies in Japan in the 1950s. This sculpture—lustrous greens and golds dancing entrancingly over sun-bleached sand—was completed while Takaezu was on the faculty of Princeton University; she would retire to focus on her practice two years later.
Ivan Albright, Into the World There Came a Soul Called Ida, 1929–30 (Gallery 262)
Ivan Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray (1943–44) might be the late Chicago artist’s most (in)famous piece in the Art Institute collection; it shocked and disgusted visitors when it was first displayed in 1945. If that’s the case, Ida, located in the adjacent room,is his most thought-provoking.
Albright’s subject, Ida Rogers, was just 19 when she sat for this painting, but Albright used her only as a very loose basis for this grotesquely decrepit depiction. What Ida sees in her hand mirror, and what we see, is open to interpretation. Is this how Albright’s Ida actually appears? Or how she sees herself? Is Ida a critique of the beauty standards imposed on women of all ages, or a misogynistic jab at aging female bodies?
Complicating the artist’s intent even further, Albright was apparently infatuated with the real Ida Rogers and presented her with a poetic declaration of his love. She giggled while reading it, inciting the painter to angrily snatch it from her hands and tear it up. Some analysts suspect the singed paper fragment at the fictional Ida’s feet is a reference to that letter and to unrequited infatuation. It wouldn’t be the only real-life detail Albright included: Also on the floor is a cracked peanut shell, a wink at the peanuts Rogers snacked on to pass the time during sittings.
Currently the informational placard that accompanied Ida has been replaced by commentary from Northwestern University psychology professor Renee Engeln. “I want Ida to be angry,” Engeln writes. “Put the mirror down, Ida. Break it. Stomp on it.”
Kelly Church, Sustaining Traditions—Digital Teachings, 2018 (Gallery 262)
Turn around and head to the glass case on the wall opposite Takaezu’s vessels. What looks to be a futuristic capsule is actually made of intricately woven and dyed black ash wood, a favored material for Indigenous basket makers across the United States. “As my grandmother once said, ‘We made baskets before they made cameras,’” Church writes in an essay on the Art Institute’s website.
But the invasive emerald ash borer—a green jewel beetle native to northeastern Asia—now poses an existential threat to North America’s ash trees. Church, a fifth-generation Anishinaabe basket maker, embedded a preserved emerald ash borer and a flash drive inside this basket, the latter holding digital files documenting the art of black ash basketry in both English and Anishinaabemowin (or Ojibwe) translations.
The strident colors of the basket’s exterior are inspired by the shell (teal green), belly (copper), and larvae (natural wood) of the emerald ash borer. Just as Native basket makers have created their handiwork since time immemorial, so, too, does Church imagine this time capsule as persisting into an unknown future.
Eldzier Cortor, The Room No. VI, 1948 (Gallery 263)
In the same room as Albright’s Picture of Dorian Gray, this work by Eldzier Cortor takes the idealized genre of the female nude to lob a pointed social critique of tenement housing in Chicago. The woman, whose ribs and hip bone are visible, shares a mattress with other sleepers next to a glowing stove. We can imagine the oppressive heat and crowded conditions, even as we marvel at the painting’s technical authority. Cortor—who grew up in Chicago and studied at the School of the Art Institute—uses gesso to texturize the hair of the nude subject and that of one of her roommates.
At the time, Cortor’s focus on the Black female nude was groundbreaking, with some critics accusing him of sexualizing his subjects or perpetuating Eurocentric artistic motifs. But like so much of Cortor’s work, The Room No. VI was simply taken from life. His subject’s elongated features were inspired by the African sculpture he absorbed at the nearby Field Museum; the piles of newspapers and inserts lying on the floor, ready to be burned for warmth, are likely meant to be the Chicago Defender, of which Cortor was an avid reader.
Cortor told an interviewer that he connected the conditions depicted in The Room No. VI with those described in Richard Wright’s Native Son, also set in 20th-century Chicago. “It was a common thing, a family in one room. . . . That’s what I know the painting by, how I know it’s in Chicago,” Cortor said.
Alma Thomas, Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972 (Gallery 291)
One sees this Alma Thomas painting, in the second floor’s Contemporary section, all over the Art Institute these days, as it’s featured on the cover of the museum’s latest visitor’s guides. The same year she painted Starry Night and the Astronauts,Thomas, a retired public school teacher in Washington, D.C., was honored with a retrospective at the Whitney. The exhibition made her the first African-American woman to receive a solo show at a major art museum.
By then in her 80s, Thomas avidly followed the Apollo missions and other advances in space exploration and air travel. (“I was born at the end of the 19th century, horse-and-buggy days, and experienced the phenomenal changes of the 20th-century machine and space age,” she once marveled.) Her fascination inspired a pivot from representational painting to the kind of semi-pointillistic abstraction seen in this work, the vast blue expanse on the canvas a humbling reminder of man’s smallness in an immense universe.
Takashi Murakami, Mr. Pointy, 2011 (Gallery 292)
Much like frequent collaborator (and Chicagoan) Virgil Abloh, Takashi Murakami has found an ardent audience beyond the fine art realm. His “superflat” artistic philosophy pays homage to Japanese art styles of previous decades—from woodcuts to manga—and posits, in broad strokes, that dichotomies like past and present and high and low art find potent expression in two-dimensional representational works. Chicago hosted Murakami’s first-ever painting retrospective in a hugely popular 2017 exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art, but this is the only work by the Pop artist in the Art Institute’s permanent collection.
This work needs to be seen in person to be taken in. A standout exemplar of Murakami’s superflat philosophy, this work was painted with acrylics on canvas, but it almost seems drawn from granite or created by machine manufacturing. The black canvas is flecked with sparkles, looking like a starry sky, with Murakami’s massive rendering of Mr. Pointy—a recurring character in his work—superimposed on it.
Félix González-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991 (Gallery 293)
The gallery holding this work is surely the people-watching center of the Art Institute: just take a piece of candy and watch as passersby gasp and gawk.
Interactive and slowly depleting installations are a González-Torres trademark. This piece, made up of 175 pounds of individually wrapped candies that visitors are encouraged to enjoy, is no exception. Its specified weight and its gradual winnowing away are often read as an allegory for the decline of González-Torres’s then-partner, Ross Laycock, and for the sweetness and fleetingness of memory. Laycock died of AIDS in 1991, the year the artwork is dated. González-Torres himself succumbed to AIDS five years later.
This work was the subject of controversy in 2022 when an X (formerly Twitter) user pointed out that the Art Institute had tweaked its placard to elide Laycock’s identity and González-Torres’s sexuality. (A museum spokesperson later noted that the piece’s audio guide, which mentions Laycock, remained unchanged.) A replacement placard once again mentioning Laycock and AIDS was unveiled a few days later in response to social media criticism.
Pablo Picasso, The Red Armchair, 1931 (Gallery 394)
On the third floor, in the Art Institute’s renowned Modern Wing, is Pablo Picasso’s The Red Armchair of (1931). What has become an iconic Picasso motif—faces that appear to be viewed both in profile and head-on—began with this canvas, rendered in a mixture of oil and house paint. It was one of a series of works Picasso painted depicting his lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, in December 1931; the “two-faced” motif may symbolize the illicit circumstances of the affair, which he concealed from his wife, Olga Khokhlova.
To underscore his tilt away from Khokhlova and toward Walter, Picasso completed several paintings of women in red armchairs during this period. Those that were modeled after Khokhlova were abstract, even grotesque; those depicting Walter, like this one, were more clearly humanoid and erotic.
Joseph Cornell, Boxes, 1939–1969 (Galleries 389–399)
Of any museum, the Art Institute has the largest on-view collection of artworks by Joseph Cornell (1903–1972), best known for his diorama-like “boxes” made from found materials. Cornell lived at home in Queens, New York, with his mother and brother nearly his entire life, and his reclusiveness and lack of formal artistic training have led many to dub him an “outsider artist.” If he is, he received the sort of acclaim in life usually reserved for insiders. He exhibited in the same spaces as admired Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists; Marcel Duchamp and Willem de Kooning became acolytes.
The Art Institute owns 42 boxes or collages by Cornell, most of which are displayed in the Modern Wing under low lighting. Though kept behind glass, some invite viewer interaction to illuminate their secrets. Two Cornell boxes, Untitled (Lighted Dancer) and Untitled (Lighted Owl), light up when approached. And Untitled (Forgotten Game) contains an adjustable system of ramps and bells; when aligned correctly, a marble or ball rings the bells while rolling down the box.
Artworks Not to Miss at the Art Institute of Chicago – celebritiestalks.com