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The Windy City Polishes Its Scene

October 18, 1987|WILLIAM WILSON

CHICAGO — Burly city. Grips the shores of Lake Michigan like a suave weight-lifter pumping pig iron. Out on the water white sails scud, graceful as linen handkerchiefs. On land granite buildings parade like drum majors in gray tunics lined with brass buttons.

Up Michigan Avenue, down State Street, into the suburbs, a pop-up encyclopedia of modern architecture: Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, Major Jenny, Holabird and Roche, Mies van der Rohe. Helmut Jahn's new State of Illinois Center curves up, a twinkling high-tech tower of Babel. They say modern architecture was really invented here after Mrs. O'Leary's cow kicked over the lantern than burned the town down.

People who move to Los Angeles from the Midwest have a standard story about kid-visits to Chicago. Grandmother took them to the Art Institute and that was how they learned to love art. People who come to Los Angeles from somewhere else allow as how Chicago seemed like an interesting place once when they missed their connecting flight at O'Hare and had to stay overnight. Like to go back some time. Met a smart blond from Detroit in the bar at the Palmer House. She'd never been to New York. For her this is still The Big Town.

We tend to forget about Chicago. Used to be the undisputed Second Greatest City in the United States but then Los Angeles got bigger and Manhattan cranked up its panache to candlepower that must glitter all the way to Mars. Chicago doesn't seem to mind. It has a kind of square-shouldered stubbornness trudging to the tune of two-beat jazz. The reigning sensibility is a vinegary combination of be-bop American black and transplanted om-pah German that have to have added up to some form of Expressionism, gritty and sophisticated, dedicated guardian of myth.

The Loop, the legendary old downtown, looks a little dog-eared but the icons are still in place, Marshall Field, Carson Pirie Scott. The garish marquee of the Chicago Theater has the lettering right. The name should never be written except in fat capitals, CHICAGO. Billie Holiday's voice hangs around the lobby. The El still defines the Loop, clattering around on bolted green girders. If an automobile comes fast around a corner at night the visitor has a laugh on himself for wanting to duck the invisible gangster machine-gun poking out the window.

A lot of folklore is backed up here and you can see the layered decades like a geological map from the great fire to the Democratic Convention riots in '68. Sometime after that we started forgetting about Chicago and Daley Center and the city's monster Picasso sculpture.

Meantime the town toddled to its own drum, sprouting a remarkable art scene. A large art expo attracts attention and buyers, but the most official symbol of this renaissance is the expansion and remodeling of the Art Institute of Chicago. A big, new three-story building behind the old neoclassical pile on Michigan Avenue will open in '88 featuring cavernous galleries for special exhibitions. Significant omen.

It whispers plans for the kinds of special changing shows that pull people from out of town. The last Institute show a California critic felt unconditionally obliged to visit was a superb Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective. That was in 1979. (As he checked into his hotel, the American Embassy in Tehran was besieged.)

It will not be another eight years until we are tempted back. As a harbinger on Dec. 1, the Art Institute will open the first American retrospective of the painting of Anselm Kiefer, the only German artist of the Neo-Expressionist generation generally regarded as possessing depth and sticking power. Artniks are salivating to see it. Luckily it will eventually come to Los Angeles' Museum of Contemporary Art.

Last spring the AIC unveiled its restored and refurbished paintings galleries, a $6.6-million project carried out by New York's Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. The Beaux-Arts building actually looks more traditional than ever. Local architect John Vinci got busy restoring the lobby and grand staircase to something like its original 1893 glory with handsome decorative detailing that suits Post-Mod taste. He also installed an elegant, melancholy show in the loggia. Called "Fragments of Chicago's Past," it includes architectural details from vanished masterpieces like Adler and Sullivan's Stock Exchange.

Some 30 remodeled galleries tend to be white and sky-lit, blending the purist plaster-cast leanings shared by modern and neoclassical schools. Architects and curators made two crucial changes. Old period-style galleries were neutralized and the collections were re-hung to emphasize artistic quality rather than historical completeness. The Institute can afford to do this. El Greco's "Assumption of the Virgin" does not need a lot of extras hanging around holding spears. Neither does Tiepolo's airy, breathtaking "Rinaldo and Armida" cycle.

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