April may be the cruelest month according to T.S. Eliot, but after a long winter, April, and then May, are gratefully welcomed in Chicago as spring returns to the United States.
The fragrant hyacinths have flowered along with colorful tulips, and the trees have burst into bloom and put out their first tentative leaves. I imagine the West Coast has gone from its winter months of mere good weather to perfect weather now. As T.S. Eliot points out in The Wasteland, the transition of winter to spring is, of course, totally transformative, reminding one of the significance that the seasons have held in art for millennia and continue to have.
Spring means the return of plant life and animal life to the upper United States. The migratory birds return to the Midwest, filling to once quiet air of winter with their songs heralding the new season. Birds are not the only animals returning to the outdoors, the most complex and dangerous animal also leaves its den to return to the wild: humans.
The behaviors of this top predator can be uniquely observed in Chicago from the Elevated Train lines (just called the El in Chicago) that cris-cross the city. A casual commute to work allows brief and unavoidable views into people’s backyards and their private lives, as these areas abutting the train lines become semi-private spaces subject to the gaze of the hundreds of commuters passing by. We see our neighbors and fellow citizens go about the universalizing human activities; as soon as it is even remotely warm enough we fire up the grill, invite friends over and eat; our young play in the outdoors and we facilitate them with blow-up pools, playgrounds and toys; we spruce up the den, doing home improvement projects that are now possible in warm weather or we rake the leaves that we should have raked in the fall.
In Chicago, like many cities, the backyard is an amalgam of supposed wilderness and civilization. The backyard is property, it is land, and with a nicely manicured front lawn, it holds a special place in the myth of the American Dream. The backyard, its mythos and its place in art were the subject of a 2008 survey at the Museum of Contemporary Photography here in Chicago, titled “Beyond the Backyard.” Curated by Karsten Lund, the exhibition gathered together work from artists all over the United States and the world to explore the significance of this space. I loved the exhibition when I reviewed it for ArtSlant in 2008 and I still think about it often. I didn’t make a “Best Of” list this year, but I would without hesitation say that it was one of the best exhibitions I saw in the last decade. The arrival of spring has brought the exhibition and one image in particular back into my mind.
Colleen Plumb. Magnolia. 2005. Image courtesy of the artist.
One of the most spectacular events of spring is the blossoming of the magnolia trees that are all over Chicago and, from the El, one is given a canopy-level view. For two weeks the blossoms grow to very large size before the leaves sprout. The flowers open for only about two days before their petals drop to the ground. Colleen Plumb’s photograph Magnolia, which appeared in “Beyond the Backyard,” captures this transitory event showing a magnolia tree in full bloom, dropping petals over a child’s playset. As I wrote in 2008, this image seems to question memory through presenting an idealized image of childhood, or conversely raising children, especially when compared to other images in her Toward the Sky Again series. Plumb’s image is one of perfection and beauty that highlights transitory moments, but ones that loom large in our memory. I certainly have had this image on my mind the last few weeks, as the magnolias have bloomed, flowered, and yielded their glories to other plants.
“Beyond the Backyard” did in fact go on, to posit city parks as the "yard" of the city and high-rise dwellers. This is a true comparison, we can think of the importance of Central Park to New Yorkers as a rare green space ringed in by tall walls of stone, glass and steel buildings. Frederick Law Olmstead designed New York’s Central Park (with Calvert Vaux) and also Chicago’s Jackson Park, located on the South Side.
Chicago is fortunate in that the 1909 master plan for the city stipulated large areas of parkland, in keeping with the “City Beautiful” movement. In fact, Chicago’s Latin motto is “Urbs in Hortos,” meaning “City in a Garden.” But Chicago’s true analogue to Central Park is instead Grant Park, seen at right, located along Lake Michigan in the heart of the downtown area and is commonly called Chicago’s front yard. Grant Park is host to the Art Institute of Chicago (just as Central Park hosts the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and now hosts Millennium Park, Chicago’s highly popular and highly successful sculpture park.
As spring settles into its full zenith, Chicago returns to its parks. Millennium Park is proving to be the single favorite spot for Chicagoans, as a place to visit, play or just to eat lunch in during a workday. Millennium Park hosts rotating contemporary sculpture exhibitions and permanent sculptures from Anish Kapoor and Jaume Plensa, Plensa's Crown Fountain is seen immediately at left (photo: Patrick Pyszka). Emphasizing Millennium Park’s success as a site of community, Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs wisely decided to install Dan Peterman’s Running Table (1997, seen below) across from Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate. Peterman’s work is a 100-foot long picnic table made from the equivalent of two million recycled milk bottles, prompting questions of recycling, consumption and sustainability, as the energy required to transform the plastic into its final form as table surely had its own environmental impact. Like the other artwork in Millennium Park, the serious implications lie under the surface of work and most visitors simply enjoy the surface effect, as they should, after all one should be able to eat a sandwich without suffering an existential crisis.
Millennium Park is actually built on top of a very busy train station, replacing train tracks with green space and apparently making the park the world’s largest green roof. The park comes at a high price though; the final cost was around $500 million. However it’s not just human s that take advantage of this new green space, animals and plants call Millennium Park home. Lurie Garden, situated within Millennium Park, takes up the historical landscape architecture tradition of Frederick Law Olmstead and others. It was also explicitly created to pay homage to Chicago’s “City in a Garden” motto. Designed by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd, Piet Oudolf and Robert Israel, the garden contains both formal elements, straight and clear pathways that function as lines, and natural elements of fields of flowers ringed by evergreen trees. The overall effect is a kind of cross between an English and French garden, but instead of a chateau or manor house looming in the background, there is Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavilion, a music venue also located in Millennium Park.
In addition to plant life Lurie Garden also hosts animal life. I spotted a bird’s nest in one of the trees near the entrance (eat your heart out Fritz Haeg) and over the last few weeks a pair of ducks seems to have taken a special fondness for the garden’s stream. Spring is celebrated and welcomed by whatever experiences it, plant and animal, the world over. While Chicago returns to its parks on the other side of the world, Japan celebrates the cherry blossoms. Birds nest and so do we, planting flowers and otherwise beautifying our homes. Art enhances our human experience of spring, whether it’s picnicking outside with others, enjoying the experience of an expertly created garden or park, or the image of spring as presented in a photograph. In our experience of spring, art can unite us across artificial boundaries that increasingly threaten to divide us.
--Abraham Ritchie, ArtSlant Editor, Chicago
(All photos by Abraham Ritchie unless otherwise noted.)