Museum Hours

I stayed on the Cottage Grove bus an extra stop and got off at 57th Street. Steering clear of chunks of ice on the sidewalk, I tried all the doors nearest the street and found them all locked. I went all the way around to the side facing Washington Park and found a door open. Inside the lobby the ticket guy couldn’t break a $20, so he charged me the $5 student rate rather than the $8 Chicago resident one. Aside from him and a security guard, sitting to the other side of the door I entered, the only other employee I encountered during my half hour at the DuSable Museum of African-American History was a clerk in the gift shop who never even looked up from her phone to acknowledge my presence. My original plan had been to go to the Smart Museum and catch the Expressionism show before it closed, but then I remembered the DuSable. I’ve lived in Chicago about 25 years and had only been inside once, and that was just to see a movie.

I linger in the lobby to admire Thomas Miller’s mosaics of the ten founders of the museum. Mosaic is such an archaic art form, but Miller has used it to make snapshot-like portraits. They will be the only things from my visit which I remember fondly. Past the lobby is a room of African artifacts, followed by one half-filled with photos and relics from various wars. The other part of this gallery is closed while, what’s promised to be an exciting new exhibit, is being installed; there’s no evidence of any activity behind that sign, exciting or otherwise. In the last room there is a timeline of Harold Washington’s political career, the centerpiece of which is a slipshod diorama of the man’s office with a creepy mannequin Harold behind a desk. There’s a flat-screen TV to his left which will broadcast highlights from his ascent to power but I don’t press the button to start the video. Down a flight of stairs I enter the new wing of the museum—the part with the auditorium and the locked doors—and take in an exhibit charting the progress of African-Americans from slavery to the election of Barack Obama. This is where I encounter two of the six other museum-goers I see during my entire time here. There are no guards or employees of any other kind to be seen in this part of the museum at all.

The Smart Museum a few blocks away isn’t much better attended this day, but unlike the DuSable it doesn’t feel like being inside a neglected tomb; this place is obviously well-funded and in no danger of shuttering. The missions of these two museums are different, to be sure; the former houses part of a private university’s art collection, while the latter is a grass-roots repository of artifacts meant to celebrate an entire race. Taking in the beautiful Expressionism show at the Smart, the empty rooms of the DuSable lingered on in my mind. Back when I was in art school at SAIC, I visited the Art Institute a few times a week. The fact that it was free and nearby played no small part in my regular attendance. Back then admission for regular visitors was by suggested donation, but for the last decade or more the rates have become mandatory and have steadily risen. The museum is free from 5 to 8pm Thursday nights. That’s the only time it’s open after 5pm and costs less than $22 to enter for city residents. On a recent Thursday night young people wandered through the galleries chattering and recording what they were taking in on their phones. The feel was that of a singles mixer rather than a cultural or educational outing. The artwork served as posh window dressing for socializing. Perhaps that’s preferable to the exclusionary and rarified nature inherent in such an institution. Maybe on a break from flirting or updating Instagram a few of these young people will be stopped by something on one of the walls. A painting from 50 years ago or a statuette from a 1000 years ago will trip a trigger and they’ll see their world a little differently.

As a society our relationship with museums is contradictory and inconsistent. Public funding is harder and harder to come by, yet crowds flock to populist gimmick shows like the MCA’s attendance-record-shattering David Bowie exhibit last year. Appealing to the lowest common denominator can work, but how many Bowie fans will ever visit the MCA again unless there’s a similar pop culture hook? How can the DuSable attract more than the random visitor who decides to stop in on the spur of the moment, while passing by? We get the lion’s share of our information from screens these days so how can we compel people to shut off the blinking lights and experience the fruit of human endeavor first-person? Whether woebegone like that sad Harold Washington diorama or tasteful like the Smart, museums take us out of our everyday routine and attempt to widen our worldview. As depressing as my visit to the DuSable was, my life would be poorer if I hadn’t gone. For all of our sakes I hope we can find a way to keep places like it open and perhaps even find a few bucks to keep the sidewalks shoveled and the lightbulbs burning.

2 Hughes Reviews

A few months ago a copy of The Spectacle of Skill by the late Robert Hughes showed up on my doorstep. It was delivered at the behest of Bookslut, the literary site for which I’d be reviewing it. A month or so later, after finishing the nearly-700-page tome and sending off my review, it occurred to me that I had a bit more to say about it. So I pitched a review to the Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row journal. Bookslut doesn’t pay contributors, so I would not be getting paid twice, but even if they did, I had no intention of cannibalizing or copying my own work. Keeping the file of the first review open to make sure not to repeat myself, I wrote a new piece for the Tribune. Both have now been published and I have yet to hear a question from anyone about what I did. Does this mean no one reads both these publications? Or maybe, as I believe, there is no conflict in writing two reviews of one book. You be the judge. Read the original Bookslut piece here. Then continue to the Trib one, which I’ve helpfully included below to save you scaling their paywall:

Robert Hughes (1938-2012) was perhaps the best-known art critic of the second half of the 20th century. He was also the last in a lineage of art historians, beginning with Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) and continuing to Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), who introduced the art and culture of the Old World to the New.

Through some dozen books, two multi-part documentaries, as well as various other televised programs, Hughes’ booming basso championed what he thought to be the pinnacles of human accomplishment, narrated his travels, and sometimes obliterated that which he judged to be worthless. Unlike the vast majority of art writers, Hughes refused to use jargon or obtuse or unintelligible language to describe his subject matter or advance his ideas; that — the clarity of his prose — may be his greatest contribution, rather than any critical judgment he made over his long career.

“The Spectacle of Skill” is a collection of short articles originally published in Time magazine, where he was art critic for some 30 years, excerpts from his books, as well as a 100-plus-page fragment of an unpublished memoir he was working on at the time of his passing. At more than 600 pages the book is a feast rather than an hors-d’oeuvre platter of the man’s writing. Hughes was born in Australia and began his art writing career there in the ’60s. We get a partial portrait of his homeland in an excerpt from “The Fatal Shore” (1986). Later there are travelogues through the Barcelona, Rome, and Long Island of the past and the present. All the places that occupied Hughes throughout his life are described from both a historical and a personal perspective.

He tells how an encounter with a print by Francisco Goya changed what he thought art could be. Growing up far from any of the world’s art centers Hughes had to seek them out. As principal art writer for Time he was given carte blanche to write about whatever he wanted and an expense account to travel as he pleased. These days, that writer’s life would seem a fairy tale, and Hughes was very aware of his fortunate position. Unlike exalted art personages like Clement Greenberg or Henry Geldzahler, he did not believe it to be his place to influence art movements or art prices with his words. The cravenness of the art world appalled him, and he spared no venom in attacking the opportunists and interlopers endemic to it.

He was horrified at the effect the ballooning art auction market was having on taste in the ’80s, saying, “What strip mining is to nature, the art market has become to culture.” In fact, he found little to love in contemporary art from the ’80s on. He did not believe it was the critic’s job to predict the future and found much of what he saw in the present wanting and tenuous. Thus his best, most passionate words are about the art of the past. “Newness as such, in art, is never a value,” he writes.

A couple hundred pages of the book are devoted to Hughes’ memoirs. We get accounts of the horrible 1999 car crash that nearly ended his life, behind-the-scenes glimpses of his TV productions, early rough bohemian life in Soho, as well as a more comfortable later time on Long Island. The last few pages show him coming to grips with his only son’s suicide. The blessing and the curse of an anthology is that it is both too much and not enough. There are no editorial notes in this volume, aside from an index of terms and an introduction — more accurately a tribute or appreciation — by the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik. It is a book to dip into and out of rather than to be enjoyed as a continuous narrative. In the best-case scenario it will inspire a few readers to track down the books Hughes published during his lifetime. Art writing is rarely readable and hardly ever done well. Few did it better than Robert Hughes.

I don’t do many readings these days, but when my friend, Irvine Welsh, asked me to take part in the Worldwide Reading in support of poet Ashraf Fayadh, who has been condemned to death in Saudi Arabia for renouncing Islam, I couldn’t say no. It’ll be at the Two Hearted Queen coffeeshop in Lakeview on Thursday, January 14th, at 6pm. I’ll be reading something from my new book and Irvine and Bill Hillmann will be reading as well. Hope to see you there.


Trips back to Brookline over the last few years have largely been spent in and around my mother’s kitchen. When we’re not eating there, food is being prepared for the inevitable guests. Then there is clean-up and dishwashing after they’ve left. I’ve drawn and painted bits and pieces of this room many times. This time the wall of knives caught my eye. So many tools, implements, time, and serving-wear are required to host the parade of visitors which comes through my parents’ home. It’s quite a contrast to how I’ve lived over the last year. Lop off a couple fingers and you could still count the number of people who’ve darkened my doorstep on one hand.

I took the Chinatown bus to New York City for a day and spent most of it walking. From Chinatown I went up Bowery to Union Square for coffee with a friend, then turned west and walked all the way to the new Whitney. The building didn’t make much of an impression, but I shared the elevator with Sarah Jessica Parker and a couple minutes of the Frank Stella retrospective with F.Murray Abraham. Seeing Edward Hopper’s “Early Sunday Morning” again was worth the price of admission, even without the celebrity Jew sightings.

After a forgettable slice of pepperoni pizza somewhere on 9th Avenue, I continued uptown to MoMa for the Picasso sculpture show. I’ve disliked his work for as long as I can remember. The reasons are too many to bore you with, but suffice it to say that I find most of his pictures airless and so glutted with his ego that there’s little room to breathe or to feel much of anything. This show, however, is a knockout. As with his 2-D work, the best stuff was done in the teens during his Cubist period. But there are things worth looking at in nearly every room and the fact that there’s little extraneous wall text enhances the viewing experience immeasurably. The galleries were packed, yet unlike the Matisse cut-outs show which was nearly unviewable because of the flood of guided-tour zombies, somehow there was both room and time to linger. His metal and wood riffs on guitars and violins in the Cubist room were my favorites. On my second time through that room a young couple came up next to me and the guy told his girl in his grave Russian voice, “So…this is how the man sees a guitar…”

I walked to the Lower East Side for dinner with friends at Veselka, then back to Chinatown to catch the bus to Boston. 

—Before my trip I binge-watched the new Netflix documentary series Making a Murderer. If you haven’t seen it I’d highly recommend it. So much so that I wrote about it for the Chicago Reader.