Review: “The City Lost and Found” at the Art Institute of Chicago

Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago
Review by Katie Morrison
Issue No. 6 – December 2014


In the midst of acts of civil disobedience and rebellion in Ferguson, Missouri and throughout many other American cities, “The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980” at the Art Institute of Chicago presents the potential for contemporary exhibitions to act not simply as social currency, but as significant sites of understanding, hope, and healing. The show, in all its archival glory, provided a strange sense of comfort against the recent exposure of our cities’ long-standing fractures in highly publicized reactions to racist police brutality. On the one hand, the exhibition demonstrates that these spaces of violence have persisted in multifarious ways for many decades. On the other hand, “The City Lost and Found” also shows that these dissonant moments provide some of the most thrilling, authentic, and important scenes for art as social practice. This is not to aestheticize the pain of racism, poverty, crime, and other themes in twentieth-century American urban history, but to argue that art has offered and can offer still the most comprehensive, emotional, and ethical lens with which to view these significant issues. If anything, the show’s vastness proves just how much artists care about and engage with American cities and their citizens. The Art Institute’s curatorial contextualization, for its part, proves the historical significance and appropriateness of these engagements. The limits of this context, however, raise interesting questions about the limits of historical usefulness.

Let me emphasize my positionality in this review: by pure coincidence, this exhibition was pretty much made for me. Nothing interests me more than the expansive visual language with which American cities were described in the 1960’s and 1970’s. The show includes photography, drawings, mixed media, film, and documents of visual culture. Featured artists included Romare Bearden, Martha Rosler, Gordon Matta-Clark, Allan Kaprow, Bruce Davidson, and dozens more icons (and should-be icons) of 20th century art. The result is a constellation of works across these cities and years. Although each city was given a distinct narrative, from a distance the lines between New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles were unclear. Although when taken from a detailed historical perspective this may appear problematic, it does speak to a larger aesthetic (and, indeed, historic) theme connecting these points in space and time.


Art Sinsabaugh. Chicago Landscape #117, 1966. Art Sinsabaugh Archive, Indiana University Art Museum.

The “look” hinges on documentary realism. Photography features most prominently in the show, and per usual the Art Institute does an excellent job providing the art form the dignity and intellect it deserves. Bruce Davidson’s significant contribution to documentary photography, a two-year (1966-1968) portrait of a single block in East Harlem, is described as “[offering] the public a complex image of urban life and experience while also allowing architects, planners, and journalists to imagine and propose new futures for American cities.

This statement from the Art Institute parallels much of the language used currently to described art in American cities — most notably, Detroit, Michigan. Although the New York, Chicago, and L.A. trio makes most geographic sense from a curator’s point of view, Detroit could have been included in a major way to even further develop the show’s contextual framework. Photographs and artwork made surrounding the 1967 Twelfth Street Riot should have at least been mentioned alongside images of the Watts Rebellion of 1965, Chicago’s uprisings at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and New York’s 1964 Harlem race riot. After all, the riots in the summer of 1967 (most notably Detroit and Newark, New Jersey) gave magazines such as LIFE, which featured heavily throughout the show, some of its most provocative images and stories. Perhaps, though, images of Detroit would have fit too soberly in the Art Institute’s vision. “Architects, planners, and journalists” are certainly proposing “new futures” for Detroit right now, but that immediately references the “blank canvas” trope of the blasted city. New York, Chicago, and L.A. are not framed as grimly in contemporary imagination (interpretations such as “Chiraq” notwithstanding). Detroit’s omission is not necessarily a fault of the exhibition; rather, it speaks to the motivations of the show. The exhibit is hopeful overall, emphasizing city as a space for aesthetic (re)imagination.

“The City Lost and Found” is simply too large to summarize in a written review. It stands alone as its own narrative, and the book publication of the show is ambitious in its duplication and expansion of materials included in the museum. Perhaps the most touching and emblematic piece to summarize the show is Romare Bearden’s “The Block” collages. These two-dimensional assemblages are tremendous and take up a large portion of the New York section’s wall space. With his characteristic spirited application and arrangement, Bearden uses photographs, drawing, and bits of paper to lovingly create an entire Harlem block. Vignettes of individual apartments suggest the multitude of interwoven, yet individual stories — stories of hard work, heartbreak, success, struggle, and love—that characterize the urban landscape. The layered materials only further drives home this seemingly infinite complexity. At the Art Institute of Chicago, “The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, 1960-1980” begins the vital act of capturing this complexity and narrating it for the public today.


Decoy Gang War Victim, 1974. Photograph by Harry Gamboa Jr.

Exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago
Chicago, IL
October 26, 2014-January 11th, 2015

Katie Morrison serves as Visual Arts Editor for Buffalo Almanack. She received her M.A. in Art History from the University of Colorado and is presently trying to make a stable living with said degree. Her research tracks issues of race, violence, and urban identity in American photography. She is an avid cat enthusiast and possesses a deep passion for iced coffee.

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