Eating, walking, rocking, Chicago style


View from the 95th floor bar-lounge in the John Hancock Building.

The first thing I did in Chicago was get a drink. There for fun from last Thursday to yesterday, I took the elevator in the famed Hancock Building (at a clip of 22 mph), which was smack next-door to my hotel in the lake-kissed Gold Coast, and landed in The Signature Lounge on the 95th floor.


My hotel abutting Hancock Building.

It’s all about the eye-popping view. But after the hassles of airport travel, it was as much about a decompressing dram. Like the view, the drink prices were waaay up.

The catch: Going one floor higher to the official observation deck costs a smidge more than a Signature drink. So it works out: same view, less money, plus a cocktail and a seat at the window. My blackberry gin and tonic, mighty fine, cost a few cents less than $19, pre-tip. Ghastly, sure. But again, a better deal than what the higher (and dryer) chumps upstairs got.

It was a refreshing and dazzling beginning to the trip, which would take me on a three-hour walking food tour (very good, but too many sweets), Millennium Park, the International Museum of Surgical Science (shoutout to blogger Jessica — you would love this place), the Art Institute of Chicago (boo — no “American Gothic”; it’s on loan), Frank Lloyd Wright’s world-famous Robie House, an exhilarating play about teenage-girl soccer players called “The Wolves” (it was a Pulitzer finalist), an iffy concert of all-female punk bands at legendary dive bar The Empty Bottle, and a superlative array of eateries running the gastronomical gamut.

Yes, I did, as sworn, order and devour the fabled roasted pig face — and it was amazing. That was at the charming and bustling Girl & the Goat, where I also ate calamari bruschetta and grilled broccoli, all of it savory and spectacular.

Chicago is like a cozier New York with a tang all its own — a little Midwest, a little metropolis. It’s thronged and noisy, but contained and sleek, despite ragged edges any city worth its urban bona fides possesses.

The “El” trains will deafen you, while its uber-original hot dogs and pizza will soothe and sate. It’s got a lake so big it looks like an ocean and it’s steeped in cracked-leather tradition that makes so much of it seem early-20th century old school. Like Al Capone old school. Like lots of restaurants called Joe’s. But it’s also ever-changing, of course, with farm to table bistros, elegant bars, hip cafes and cutting-edge art. Its modernity is palpable.

It is, in its sneaky little way, deeply seductive.


Roasted pig face, succulent layers of meat with potato crisps under the runny egg. This signature dish at the adamantly popular Girl & the Goat was the highlight of the night, and perhaps the trip.


Calamari bruschetta (clam baguette, goat milk ricotta, goat bacon, green apples) at Girl & the Goat. Perfectly firm yet silky squid with the creamiest, velvet-like ricotta. Kaleidoscopic flavors, sweet, tart and savory — a tastebud tango.


Pricey drinks, priceless views, 95 stories high.


Anish Kapoor’s glistening Cloud Gate sculpture, aka the Bean, in Millennium Park. People swarm the ginormous orb, gazing at the skyline and themselves in its curved silvery skin.


Same, in the Loop district of the city, Millennium Park.


Butcher steak at the phenomenal Avec, a massively in-demand Mediterranean-tinged joint that hit every note just right, with music to spare. The must-have dish, which I had and almost wept over, is the chorizo-stuffed dates. Divine. Meanwhile, this steak, piled with tender fennel, was marvelously otherworldly.


Frank Lloyd Wright’s elegant Robie House was finished in 1910 and is part of the iconic architect’s Prairie period. It’s simple yet granular in its considered details that only Wright was doing at the time — from windows and furniture to lighting and rugs. It’s one of the most important examples of residential architecture in America. Undergoing renovations, it can be a little musty in some rooms, but the informative tour highlights what makes the building a grand marriage of form and function.


The sublime Art Institute of Chicago boasts one of the largest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world, as well as such masterstrokes as Seurat’s giant pointillist gem “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte,” Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist,”  Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and a flotilla of other indelible works by Degas, Magritte, Dali, Warhol, Giacometti, et al, not to mention exhibits of African and Asian art and a large spread of Chicago’s specialty, architecture. Huge and handsome, the venue is like a combo of NYC’s MoMA and The Met — a magnificent aesthetic amusement park.


The perfect classic Chicago-style hot dog, or “red hot,” that’s been, as they say, “dragged through the garden.” It overflows its poppyseed bun with celery salt, a dill pickle spear, peppers, tomatoes and onions. For three bucks at famed Portillo’s, it was a thoroughly delicious snack.


The strange lure of Toulouse-Lautrec’s red-haired muse

Toulouse-Lautrec, the supreme dwarf artist of late 19th-century France, created my current favorite painting, a moody, sullen portrait of a downcast prostitute titled “A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge.” The woman, standing/slumping, face in a clenched-jaw profile as if looking stage left at nothing in particular, is the Rosa La Rouge of the title, and she is a sight to behold: beset, bedraggled, strangely beautiful.


“A Montrouge — Rosa La Rouge” 1886-87 at the Barnes Foundation, Philadelphia

I recently saw the medium-sized but imposing painting in its permanent home at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia — my third visit in a short period of time. It might be the outstanding canvas for me at a museum so clogged, so Louvre-esque crammed, with modern masterpieces it makes your head twirl. Lautrec isn’t my favorite painter, but this is my favorite painting by him.


Barnes Foundation, one of a zillion art-jammed rooms.

Like so many great works of art, something ineffable defines the portrait of Rosa (Lautrec painted several pictures of her in varying poses and moods). She’s just there, her white blouse loosely buttoned, lank red hair pulled back but shagged out in front, mouth tight (is that lipstick?), eyes completely obscured. She’s like a specter, a little petulant, maybe resentful, not entirely pleased to be there. She looks almost bratty, and scandalously young.


Another portrait of Rosa.

She probably had good reason to cling to a sour mood. Life was surely hard — she was also a laundress — though posing for one of your johns may have been a smidge better than sleeping with him. Lautrec died of alcoholism and syphilis, which, it’s said, he contracted from Rosa.

My appreciation for “Rosa La Rouge” — the rouge is for her red hair, of course — is hardly unique. The picture is a verifiable masterstroke and it’s one of the most reproduced paintings in the Barnes gift shop (I got a nifty bookmark of lovely, enigmatic Rosa). Google it and it pops up like crazy — a repetitious gallery of Rosa in various shades of reproductive quality. (I took the picture of the painting on this page at the Barnes last month.)

But while the image is abundant, almost nothing is written about its subject. What I’ve noted here is all I know about Rosa and her life. On canvas, she’s enshrined in mystery, maybe incensed, maybe indifferent, glancing determinedly away from our enthralled gaze.

Coruscating culture quotations of the day

These are a few quotes about the arts that I’ve carried around for a while. I believe they’re intellectual gold:

On art:

“Art, love and God — they’re dumb words, and probably the dumbest is art. I don’t know what it is, art. But I believe in it, so far.” — Damien Hirst


 “The last hope is that art may transmute the disappointments of life into something more radiant and stable; the lasting bitterness is that although art may guide ‘what pangs there be/Into a bearable choreography,’ it does not repair the original life-rift.” — Helen Vendler, with excerpts from poet James Merrill



On theater and art:

“The new generation of theatergoers are suburban know-nothings dumbed down to the point of expecting art to be some kind of inclusive, fraudulently life-affirming group-grope, instead of what it is: arrogant, autocratic, and potentially monstrous!” — David Hirson, “Wrong Mountain”


On acting:

“If you intend to follow the truth you feel in yourself — to follow your common sense, and force your will to serve you in the quest for discipline and simplicity — you will subject  yourself to profound despair, loneliness, and constant self-doubt. And if you persevere, the Theatre, which you are learning to serve, will grace you, now and again, with the greatest exhilaration it is possible to know.” — David Mamet



On writing:

“One must be drenched in words, literally soaked in them, to have the right ones form themselves into the proper patterns at the right moment.” — Hart Crane


“What writers hear when they are trying to write is something more like singing than like speaking. Inside your head, you’re yakking away to yourself all the time. Getting that voice down on paper is a depressing experience. When you write, you’re trying to transpose what you’re thinking into something that is less like an annoying drone and more like a piece of music.” — Louis Menand


“More than ever, critical authority comes from the power of the critic’s prose, the force and clarity of her language; it is in the art of writing itself that information and knowledge are carried, in the sentences themselves that literature is preserved. The secret function of the critic today is to write beautifully, and in so doing protect beautiful writing.” — Katie Roiphe

Turned on by Turner

Two of my favorite J.M.W. Turner paintings reside in museums not far from me: the harrowing “The Slave Ship” at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and the thrashing, splashing “Whalers” at The Met in New York. Both are masterworks by the 19th-century British artist, who began his career on a crest of acclaim only to come crashing down, relegated to solitary ignominy.

The disgrace was a direct result of Turner’s artistic magnificence. His unyielding depictions of roiling landscapes and maritime dramas revealed a radical stylist, whose fevered visions and intoxicated abstractions alternately pleased and repulsed.

Turner’s credo was “Never settle for the charming or the pretty,” says historian Simon Schama in his BBC series “The Power of Art,” a master class of lyrical, mind-stretching erudition that I cannot recommend more.

“This is what drives the very greatest art  — contempt for ingratiation,” Schama notes in the episode about Rembrandt, a sentiment that clearly applies to Turner.

Early on, Turner could do little wrong, producing glittering, golden landscapes composed of, says Schama, “fairy dust.” The tableaus are electric storms of color — earth of blazing blood-reds, skies of bedazzling golds. Technically unconventional, his scribbly, smeary works were a bridge to Impressionism, a vital crossing between the Romantic and the modern.

He enjoyed early hits like 1812’s crowd-pulling “Snow Storm: Hannibal and his Army Crossing the Alps,” which I recently saw at the Tate Britain. The picture is so epic, it’s almost literature.

But Turner felt the tug of the pure artist. He wanted more. Ambition hurled him forth into novel spheres of creativity and he evolved into a “painter of chaos, conflagration and apocalypse, wild and ambitious,” Schama says with a barely veiled grin.

This later period culminated with what Schama calls “the greatest British painting of the 19th century” — the dreadfully majestic “The Slave Ship.” Awash in horrors, the picture, based on a historical episode, depicts a ship in the distance and, closer to us, its human cargo — African slaves who have been thrown overboard — bobbing in the sea.


“The Slave Ship” (1840)

Critics hated the painting, controversial for its divisive subject and flamboyant technique, though Schama considers it Turner’s “greatest triumph in the sculptural carving of space.” It is a masterpiece.

“Whalers,” from 1845, was also not an immediate hit, though it’s one of the works I most seek out at The Met. Its violent subject matter, rendered with aggressive abstraction, proved slippery to viewers. At first blush — squint your eyes —  it’s difficult to figure out what you’re looking at. I see a ship, but what’s that dark glob?


“Whalers” (1845)

Allow novelist William Thackeray, Turner’s contemporary, to clear things up:

“That is not a smear of purple you see yonder, but a beautiful whale, whose tail has just slapped a half-dozen whale-boats into perdition; and as for what you fancied to be a few zig-zag lines spattered on the canvas at hap-hazard, look! They turn out to be a ship with all her sails.”

Yes! Of course. And this sudden clarity irradiates what is already a clear, uncontested tour de force, a painting that may have baffled for all its surpassing beauty.

The playful elegance of Irving Penn’s photos

I’ve recently done some traveling to Washington, Philadelphia, Boston, Montreal and London, art-encrusted metropolises boasting drop-dead, world-class museums, from D.C.’s National Gallery to London’s twin Tates and the mighty Philadelphia Museum of Art. I was spun around (picture Mary Tyler Moore giddy and agape in the big city) by the sheer voluminous quality around almost every corner, be it the say-what size of the magnificent Turner collections in London or the rare “Chagall: Colour and Music” show in Montreal.

Yet, for all that sublime perambulation, meandering among masterpieces, the best art show I’ve seen in a spell, hands-down, is the Irving Penn photography exhibit at The Met in New York. “Irving Penn: Centennial” features over 200 photos — glamorous portraits of writers, artists, actors, dancers and other outsize personalities; insane food still lifes; leonine fashion divas; and worlds more. It’s an exhilarating joy.

Avers the show catalog: It’s the “most comprehensive retrospective to date of the work of the great American photographer,” who, after a sensational stint at Vogue, died in 2009. “Penn mastered a pared-down aesthetic of studio photography that is distinguished for its meticulous attention to composition, nuance, and detail.”

Yes, but there’s so much more than that clinical description suggests, and you can see it in the work itself. (Time is of the essence: the exhibit closes July 30. The Met has posted a nice video preview of the show here.) A smoky elegance and playful naturalism imbue the hugely influential pictures — hello, Richard Avedon and Annie Leibovitz — whose complexity and sophistication are on full display, if rarely peacocky.

Below are a few of Penn’s famous black and white celebrity portraits — some of my favorites — lucid, lush, deceptively simple images that pierce into the personalities to become indelibly iconic. (Try and identify the subjects.)


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