Rachel Cohen

A Room

A Room

Art Institute, room installation with, from left, works by Jean Fautrier,  Salouda Raouda Choucair (sculpture), Jay DeFeo, and Barbara Hepworth (sculpture). Photos Rachel Cohen.

At the Art Institute two weeks ago, I wandered into a room of Abstract Expressionism. Either the arrangement of the space or my mood had changed and it was as if I had never seen any of it before.

A room at the Art Institute of Chicago with works, from left, by Jay DeFeo, Barbara Hepworth (sculpture), and Joan Mitchell.

In the room, there is a Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955,

that I wrote about here when we had recently moved to Chicago, and it was just after the 2016 election and I was trying to imagine the future, which is the four years we’ve just had.

So that was my first friend in the room.

But then, these others, these marvels.

This Jay DeFeo, rising like a great morphic presence. (The Annunciation, 1957-1959)

And Sam Francis anchoring the other end in red. Red No. 2, 1954.

This Pollock – you can see how humane it is when you have also been looking at the DeFeo. Grayed Rainbow, 1953.

And two sculptures. I didn’t know this artist – Saloua Raouda Choucair (Lebanese, 1916-2017). This is Trajectory of a Line, 1957-1959.

And a Barbara Hepworth, precise and odd. Two Figures (Menhirs), c. 1954/55

I liked the two sculptures together, and with the DeFeo, the Mitchell.

The room could be too many things, but it wasn’t. That day, everything harmonized in the spaciousness of one after another, one within another, one through another.

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, detail.

I thought how that is almost the first thing lost when you try to return through photographs to a work in a museum. Unless you know the museum very well, you have no idea any longer what it was among, how that made the atmosphere of your response to it. And so I tried, unusually, to photograph and think about the room, the collaboration.

Choucair, Trajectory of a Line with Francis, Red No. 2

Right now, when we see so few people, and are so rarely in a room with several strangers, this room at the museum was like traffic, like dancing, like having a body and being seen. And it was also as if each work were one in a set of beautiful glass cubes that held all the others.

Choucair, Trajectory of a Line with DeFeo, The Annunciation.

Joan Mitchell: Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell Cities in Winter

Joan Mitchell, City Landscape, 1955, Chicago Institute of Art


Two weeks ago, I went to the Art Institute to spend some time in the new modern wing and my attention was caught by a Joan Mitchell from 1955 called City Landscape.


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Since the election I have been thinking about cities, and living in them, the ways that a city’s life may be dealt a blow.


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It is December in Chicago, and cold, and I saw the heart of the city, what the wall text calls “nerves and arteries” in the colors, so many, too many to look at all at once, that drip together into brown, that, at least in my pictures, resembles the collecting trunk and lower limbs of trees, and I saw the grays and whites above and below as the bleak surrounding sky.


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What a painting this is. Difficult to know, as a real city is, but also, I’m pretty sure, although I haven’t yet had time to find out, it is a painting possible to know, as a real city is.


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Cities, one of the largest things people make together that are still, more or less, on a human scale, can be walked across in a day, can be, with effort and diligence, comprehended by a studying person.


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A moment later, I came to one of the museum’s edges, where it looks out over Millennium Park. Everything was gray, but clustered at the center was the vitality of roads, traffic, the living though not visibly inhabited city, and above there were the rectilinear outlines, the gray buildings fogged at the gray sky.


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In this room, there are Giacomettis, studying and participating in the city.


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They were made in 1947, 1948, 1949, 1960. After the war, before and after the Joan Mitchell. All of their cities have struggled.


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The gray around, the extreme density of the interior. In the new year, we will learn more.


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