A Vacation Day in Chicago: Visiting the MCA, Art Institute, and Wandering Downtown

Though I’ve been on vacation the last two weeks, it’s been busy. I’ve done a lot of demo, and hauled out a lot of debris.

I decided that today, I would use one of my last remaining vacation days to simply wander around downtown. I had in mind wanting to visit the MCA, and check out some art. Which, to be quite honest, is an a-typical thing for me.

In hindsight, the day ended up being full of small little coincidences, small little bits of serendipity. It made me wonder if this day truly was filled with those moments, or if every day is full of those moments… and I just happened to notice. Because I was moving at a slower pace than everyone else, and less concerned with my destinations.

I took the train in to work with Liz, as is our usual workday routine. But then I veered off and started going out on my own. First photo I took was outside the Art Institute.

I felt like a tourist, and it was glorious.

I wasn’t certain where I wanted to have breakfast. Wandering down Michigan, I came across Le Pain Quotidien, and decided to venture inside for an omelette. Even when eating out, I’ve been trying to adhere to our South Beach Phase 1 rules as much as possible.

Ended up getting a mushroom and goat cheese omelette, with pesto, bacon, and side salad.

The coffee cup threw me a bit, as it resembled a small bowl. Like a rube, I had to ask the server “Is this my coffee cup?”

The view from my table.

In my head, I got the notion to look up “Meditations” by Marcus Aurelius. Which… was really weird, because I’m… totally not someone who thinks often about Marcus Aurelius. It just kind of popped into my head, and I began Googling his name/work.

I was remembering some fictional character who read this, and got to wondering if I should track the book down. I did some digging, and found a suggested translator (Hays).

Sadly, most of the bookstores near me were not opening for a few hours yet. So finding this book today became a backburner thing.

Afterwards, I decided to head over to an Intelligentsia coffee shop that I sometimes pass. The draw for me is that most days, I’m rushing by this spot on my way to work. And some days, I wished I had the time to linger, order a cup of coffee, and just sit.

And so today, that’s exactly what I did.

Random little historical thing: this is the same Intelligentsia store that I visited, when my friend Matt was making coffee (and this was shortly after he won the 2006 United States Barista Championships).

Lingered outside with my coffee. On my left, there was a steady stream of cars moving down Randolph; on my right, the ebb and flow of pedestrians, walking to/from Millennium Station.

I thought a lot about everyone else, with their vectors and travels and appointments. And then at times, I didn’t think of very much at all, and just stared off into the distance.

I remember thinking about how today was a day where I wasn’t necessarily rich with money, but was rich with time. The luxury of time as a currency: you can waste a lot of it, if you want to.

After my coffee, I stopped over by the site of what once was Eitel’s Old Heidelberg Restaurant (now housing an Argo Tea).

There’s a huge clock on the side of the building that chimes at the top of each hour, and I wanted to capture the cuckoo-clock action on video. Some days, it’s chiming as I’m walking past… and I had never stopped to really watch and observe it.

Today, I got here a little before 10AM and decided to just stand and wait.

Sadly, I didn’t see anything moving – but at least I was able to capture the sound.

My main goal in coming over here though was to see if I could find a way behind the clock – to find a way to peek behind the scenes. Because I’ve learned you should always ask.

I went inside Argo Tea and asked some of the servers – and learned that they didn’t have access to that area of the building. And in fact, the building itself was owned by the theater next door. When I explained that I wanted to see if I could look behind/inside the clock, one server said “I don’t think you can get up there.” Then paused. And then said “But there must be a way…” and I could see his face light up at the idea of exploring the clock.

Next door, the doors were locked. No dice. Oh well.

Wandering North, I happened across a film crew for Chicago Fire. As far as I could tell, it was not a real emergency.

Looking down on Columbus.

A stern and oddly polite note left for Jarrod.

Balloons, Northwestern Hospital.

Outside the MCA.

I should take a moment and explain something here. I’m not a big art person. I know little of art history, and don’t know that I’m someone who I would say really “enjoys” art.

But I find myself intrigued by modern art. I’d say that 95% of what I see goes over my head, or annoys me, or elicits a shrug at best. I’m not someone who delves into the context of a particular piece, or the back story of an artist – nor am I someone who cares about that sort of thing.

Similar to poems, I prefer a work to stand on its own. A greater/deeper understanding can come from knowing history and context, but in my opinion these things shouldn’t be prerequisites.

I think the reason I’m drawn to modern art (and perhaps “Contemporary” art is the more appropriate term here), is that once in a while – maybe there’s 1 piece out of 50 that really causes me to think, that really moves me. And so I keep wanting to find those pieces.

During my museum visits today, I kept asking myself – why did I choose to spend today here? And the answer I came up with was: to change my point of view. To try to see if I could look at the world in a different way.

At the cafe, I was delighted to see the Cortado was listed on the menu.

With us being on South Beach, alcohol is kind of off limits. So my indulgence went towards caffeine. I started to get a little jittery near the end of this, but it was quite tasty.

Sadly, I missed my chance to take a selfie with Felix.

Robert Irwin, Untitled, 1965 – 67.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled, 1969.

I took this photo as an example of a piece that I didn’t quite get or like.

Reading the description didn’t help me much either. Specifically:

Though this drawing does not have an identifiable subject, the quality of the lines and colors brings to mind the tension between freedom and rules, as well as between work and play.

I guess? It made me think of trying to describe wine and how impossibly subjective that act can be.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled #2, 1973.

One of several punched paper pieces by Pindell that I admired. At first glance, they seemed like textures… but on getting closer…

Placard above a small collection of numbered hole punches.

I stared at this for a good while, I have to confess. Partly in awe at the meticulousness, and partly wondering whether this pile of numbered punches justified its own case/exhibit.

Howardena Pindell, Untitled stencil, 1970.

Detail – Untitled stencil, 1970.

Work in progress.

I forgot to note the artist’s name, or the name of the piece here.

This note made me laugh. And actually – it made me want to design an installation piece that encouraged the public to sleep. Rather than keep people off, how interesting would it be to create a space designed specifically for patrons to nap/sleep?

I’m sure this has been done before. But this note made me want to see such an exhibit. It also reminded me of some random quotation I remember from a book on urban design – that successful public spaces encourage people to sleep? Something like that.

A closer look at the Picture/Fiction work.

Work in progress, continued.

Otobong Nkanga, Anamnesis, 2018.

I wasn’t sure what to make of this when I first saw it. The wall is utterly massive, and takes up almost the full width of the room (which itself was pretty big).

Looking down, I saw this note.

It caused me to immediately laugh. And then it got me curious. And then I started to explore.

There were exposed parts of the wall on all sides, with each section offering up different scents: coffee, tobacco, tea, spices, soil.


As you moved from one area to another, different elements appeared.

Coffee beans.

// Edit: After posting some photos of this piece on social media, my friend Matt replied later in the evening, saying “Pretty sure I supplied both roasted and green coffee for that.” On asking him for more details, I learned that “They cold called and I was able to broker a deal. Originally they were going to get tea from us too but I guess they got it elsewhere.”

How awesome is this? Looking back at my stop at Intelligentsia earlier, it made me feel like I was following all these tiny little threads around, all day. Small city.

By and far one of my favorite pieces at the MCA. It was unexpected, and forced me to interact by using a sense other than sight. I really loved the whole experience – the initial laughter, discovery, and subsequent exploration.

I was reminded of a very moving piece I saw at the National Portrait Gallery in DC, by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. In both instances, I was pulled from my passive role as an observer, and became a participant in the piece. It’s been eight years since I saw that piece by Gonzalez-Torres, and it’s something I think of still when entering museums.

Felix Jung, “I Stand Alone,” 2018.

Wandering around outside, I came across some stacked chairs. I decided to create my own installation piece by moving one chair to the side.

Walking along the museum perimeter, I happened across this sign. I’m guessing it was some kind of “Stay off the grass” sign, but I couldn’t see what it said.

Given that I was at the MCA, I briefly felt like this could have been a piece of art.

Looking back at the museum.

Inside the gift shop, I happened across a book on Isamu Noguchi. It reminded me of Helen T Glenn’s poem, and of my search for the Noguchi fountain outside of the Art Institute.

I don’t think I had yet seen it working, and was wondering if maybe today was the day. I decided to wander over.

Heading back up Columbus, I decided to walk through lower Wacker on foot.

Still confusing, even outside a car.

To my surprise – I found it working!

There was a small rope fence keeping people at bay, but a part of me wanted to wander in for a closer look.

It was getting on in the afternoon, and I decided to stop for lunch. Got some sashimi, and got a bit more energy.

Hidden bunny.

Despite it being late in the day, I decided I’d pony up the cash and go check out the modern wing at the Art Institute. I was tired, but figured I should push a bit more on this last day of leisure.

Pablo Piccasso, Nude under a Pine Tree, January 20, 1959.

Man Ray, Chess Set, 1927.

I recall seeing this set in some kind of computer chess game, ages ago. Perhaps it was Chessmaster 3000?

Raymond Duchamp-Villon, Horse, 1914.

I wasn’t particularly taken by this piece. And in fact, I found it kind of off-putting, and a little grotesque. But I was mesmerized by it, and walked around it several times, trying to imagine how one would go about creating/carving this piece.

Fernand Léger, Composition in Blue, 1921-27.

Not sure what it was about this piece, but I lingered. I liked it.

Francis Picabia, Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), 1913.

This piece was massive. I looked at it briefly on walking by, and then read the placard:

This painting relates to Francis Picabia’s experience aboard a transatlantic ship in 1913, on his way to the Armory Show in New York.

Picabia was amused by two fellow passengers – an exotic dancer, who practiced with her troupe on deck, and a priest, who could not resist watching the rehearsals. The tumbling shapes in this work suggest fragments of dancing bodies, nautical architecture, and even the rocking motion of a ship moving through rolling seas.

Edtaonisl is a title made by alternating the letters of the French words étoil[e] (start) and dans[e] (dance), a process analogous to Picabia’s shattering and recombining of the composition’s forms.

He subtitled the work Ecclesiastic, thereby emphasizing the juxtaposition of the spiritual with the sensual.

I do have to admit that after reading this, I went back and stared at the piece for a while longer. The placard and back story did help.

Constantin Brancusi, Two Penguins, 1911-14.

Last time I saw this was maybe sixteen years ago.

Pablo Picasso, The Old Guitarist, 1903 – 1904.

I found a framed print of this piece at a thrift store while in college. And one night, decided to break it open wondering if it was the original. I want to say that drinking was involved, but the main culprit there was my stupidity.

Jo Baer, Brilliant Yellow #9, 1964-65.


Struggled with this one.

In this room, the center contained various sculptures by Cy Twombly. They didn’t really do anything for me, but my eyes shifted to the ceiling.

Around the room, there were these events and dates. I wasn’t clear how they connected with the sculptures. The wording was dark enough to read, but light enough to be glossed over if you weren’t really looking.

Some events seemed benign, and others seem to be of a historical nature.

The words/events lined all four walls in the room/space.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres, “Untitled,” 1989 – present.

I realized that the words on the wall were a separate piece, and different from the sculptures. The placard reads:

“Untitled” is a self-portrait made of words and dates. This unique and deceptively simple device exemplifies the quiet, conceptual nature of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s work. Interweaving personal milestones with communal events of our own historical era into a friezelike text near the ceiling, the artist did not limit the inscriptions to events that occurred between his birth and death.

In fact, the Art Institute, as the co-owner of “Untitled,” is compelled to add (and subtract) events, thereby granting it, and the artist himself, a form of renewable life. This work reminds us that all human identity is mutable and open-ended.

I thought it was utterly fascinating that the Art Institute co-owned the piece, and is “compelled” to alter it.

// Edit: After looking up old blog posts, I realized that the incredibly moving piece I saw at the National Portrait Gallery was also by Felix Gonzales-Torres! Another huge coincidence.

Art student.

Max Lamb: Exercises in Seating

More seats.

The fact that there was a museum bench in the background made me chuckle. I thought this was hilarious.

More instructions.

Marc Chagall, America Windows, 1977.

Again, hard to believe that the last time I saw this was over sixteen years ago.

Wandering around into the empty Chicago Stock Exchange Trading Room.

Pre-event setup.


I was getting pretty tired, but wanted to explore a little more. Happened across another random bit of coincidence…

A bust of Marcus Aurelius. I guess I really should track down a copy of that book soon.

I found this very, very small alcove that featured a few vases.

Opposite the display was a small video, which I found absolutely fascinating.

The space was only slightly bigger than a closet/hallway, and I think I surprised the few people who wandered in by my presence. But I stood here a long while, watching this video on restoration.

Outside, walking across the Nichols Bridgeway.

Looking East on Monroe, towards the lake.

Looking west on Monroe, towards the city. My legs were pretty wobbly, as even here… my fear of heights was getting to me.

On the other side of Monroe, peeking down to a storage area.

Spotted two beehives, in the hidden area outside Lurie Garden.

Shortly after this, I got a Lyft ride home. My phone was draining pretty badly all day, but remained alive just long enough for my ride to arrive, and died on our way home.

A long day, but a fun one – lots of walking, lots of exploring. It felt nice to be out and about, with no real agenda to adhere to.

What I’m reminded of today is how drastically the world changes when you slow down. The city was a very different entity today for me, compared to the busy to-and-from work days I normally have.

I’m glad I had the luxury of slowing down, and could spend a day in this manner. Vacations are not necessarily about travel, as much as they are states of mind.

DC Vacation, Day 2: Wandering Down King Street, Dinner at Carluccio’s
Paris, Day 3: Modern Art at Centre Pompidou
The Mystery of the Dry Noguchi Fountain, Located Outside the Art Institute of Chicago
Photographs of the Art Institute, Taken 119 Years Apart (1893 – 2012)
The Best Barista in the United States
Wandering Around, Ukranian Village
Bucktown/Wicker Park
WH Visit, Part II

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