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Best exhibition design in the last year

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Art Institute of Chicago

The reigning champion of exhibition design—last year, its Magritte show took this title—returned with another year of bold moves in interior art-display design. For its exhibition on the Belgian eccentric James Ensor, the Art Institute matched its wall colors with the brilliant turquoise and gaudy orange of his disturbed palette. For a solo show of the American sculptor Charles Ray, they opened up the second floor of the Modern Wing to exhibit a sparse showcase of monumental works set against unobstructed views of Millennium Park.

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Best of Chicago 2015

Best new tool for Impressionism nerds

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The Art Institute of Chicago’s online scholarly catalogues on Monet and Renoir

Working with the Getty Foundation, the Institute has released two of their five planned digital catalogues that include intensely detailed entries on every work by the featured artist in its collection. Curator’s notes, x-ray scans of paintings and interactive components give free access to deep scholarship around some of the museum’s most loved paintings.

Best of Chicago 2014

Best exhibition design

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Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926–1938, Art Institute of Chicago

Brooding blackish walls, benches that recalled a psychoanalyst’s couch and subtle details like the floor switching from wood to carpet in order to denote Magritte’s moves from Brussels to Paris and back all conspired to make a space as cerebral and strange as Magritte’s surrealism would have felt in the 1920s and thirties. The exhibition’s pièce de résistance was the architectural corridor that gave shape to Magritte’s return to Brussels in 1930. We’ve never been in an exhibition so like an actual dream as this long, dark gallery.

111 S. Michigan, 312.443.3600,

Best of Chicago 2014

Best art exhibit in the last year or so

Audience Choice, Culture & Nightlife No Comments »

Amalia Pica, Museum of Contemporary Art
This past spring and summer, MCA visitors were introduced to an artist they’ve probably never heard of, with a large career survey of the Argentinian-born, London-based Amalia Pica. It was a treat to see so many of her artworks in one exhibition; they made sense as a body of work by an artist with a vision. Pica’s work is a friendly type of conceptualism. She abstracted the way we communicate, from secrets to media outlets, and asked viewers to piece them back together, in our minds. Maybe we never reassembled her puzzles perfectly, but that may have been the point.

AUDIENCE CHOICE: “Picasso and Chicago,” Art Institute of Chicago

Best of Chicago 2013

Best enigma of an exhibition

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The “Parcours” exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago last fall, by artists Liz Deschenes and Florian Pumhösl, was a sparse, elegant exhibition that at first pass left viewers wondering what they even saw. Curator Matthew Witkovsky included several of the duo’s own works alongside several photographs they selected from the museum’s permanent collection. But even the walls built within the space were a designed part of the project, and an online forum allowed visitors to become involved in the collaborative conversation. Where the art stopped and life resumed remained mysterious and titillating.

Best of Chicago 2013

Best art exhibit in the last year or so

Audience Choice, Culture & Nightlife, Loop, Wicker Park No Comments »

Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective at the Art Institute of Chicago
Belying the work’s widely recognized surface appeal of glorious color and deceptively simple composition, the Art Institute’s career-arc-spanning Roy Lichtenstein retrospective revealed to all who came to see it the true breadth and depth of the artist’s career. Within his early abstract expressionist work one could see the frame being laid for “Brushstrokes,” and the black and white of his early pop is the spine upon which his definitive, pulp-appropriating masterpieces were built. Shown were his most famous works, and with good reason; “Whaam!” and “Drowning Girl” are legendary, and seeing them up close, pornographically saturated in color and texture and screaming from the walls, they are the center of the viewer’s world. But the show’s greatest feat was continuing on, beyond the comics page, to Lichtenstein’s “Perfect/Imperfect” series, his nudes, his interpretations of classic works; all proved something fans of the artist have already known, namely, that Lichtenstein was about more than Ben-Day dots.

Audience Choice: I CAN DO THAT at Variable Space

Best of Chicago 2012

Best digital tour through a museum’s collection

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Escape from Thorne Mansion

The Art Institute’s collection of sixty-eight Thorne Miniature Rooms is one of those forever-present idiosyncratic marvels that most of us tend to take for granted. Especially since a busy gallery full of high-energy tourists and attention-challenged children make pensive contemplation unlikely. But the AIC has a virtual tour on its website that manages to take this old familiar and give it a fresh injection of imaginative vigor. Sure you can study photographs of each and every room if you want, but it’s far more fun to play Escape from Thorne Mansion, a take on the old-school RPG style of clicking around a room to find hidden passages in search of a prize or destination. While not likely to vex Zelda masters, it manages to create a bizarre sense of congruity between the otherwise stylistically incompatible rooms.

Best of Chicago 2011

Best thing about the Art Institute’s new Modern Wing

Audience Choice, Culture & Nightlife, Loop No Comments »

Elbow room

All that new space allows the museum to trot out some rareties and gives free rein to sprawling installations. The galleries just seem to go on and on in this labyrinth of modern art. But big isn’t necessarily better; there are several moments when small-scale and subtle works get their time in the light, too.

Audience choice:
The architecture by Renzo Piano

Best audience comments:
“How it adds to the insane confusion that is navigating that labyrinth of a museum”; “Clown Torture!”; “Someday it’ll be an eerie reminder of how close we came to our potential after our civilization crumbles and is replaced by apocalyptic anarchy / the vending machines still really picky about dollars.”

Best of Chicago 2009

Best art show (in the last year or so)

Audience Choice, Culture & Nightlife, East Garfield Park, Loop No Comments »

Gerhard Richter at the Art Institute of Chicago
One of the most moving paintings to grace the walls of the Art Institute could be found at the end of this comprehensive flood of artifacts from the 70-year-old German artist. “Reading,” from 1994, is a smallish canvas, oil on linen. If you stand close, the painting seems hardly there, implausible that such illumination could come from such minimal matter. The texture of the fine fabric soaks up the numinous, blatant homage to Vermeer, shimmering with technical fastidiousness. It has a photo-realist edge yet it is incandescent with mystery. Light falls onto the neck, hair and hands of his wife, the woman he loves, as she reads a newspaper while standing in profile. Simple mastery, as if mastery is ever simple. Simple sentiment: the wisdom of age.

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Audience choice: (Tie)Chihuly in the Park: A Garden of Glass at Garfield Park Conservatory through November 4/Van Gogh and Gaugin: The Studio of the South at the Art Institute of Chicago
Garfield Park Conservatory, 300 North Central Park Avenue

Best of Chicago 2002