Chicago’s Top 40 Artistic Breakthroughs

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Chicago’s great artistic breakthroughs

To celebrate our magazine’s 40th anniversary this December, we name the 40 best records, restaurants, movies, and more

30. Fall 1937 The filmmaker, photographer, and graphic designer László Moholy-Nagy flees Nazi Germany for Chicago and, on the recommendation of his former collaborator Walter Gropius, begins teaching Bauhaus principles in a mansion that was once owned by Marshall Field. The New Bauhaus—which is later reorganized and renamed the Institute of Design in Chicago (now part of IIT)—strongly influences the genre of abstract black-and-white photography: Notables such as Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, Wynn Bullock, and Frederick Sommer all pass through its doors.

29. May 1972 Chicago cashes in on its reputation as a petri dish for antimainstream art with a large-scale exhibition of three generations of Chicago imagists, starting with the postwar painter Leon Golub and moving through Karl Wirsum and Jim Nutt. The massive Museum of Contemporary Art show is timed to coincide with the publication of the Franz Schulze book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945, which finally gives a name to the color-splashed pop-meets-surrealism movement that flourished here. Fourteen galleries host companion shows, and the citywide push renews public interest in the visually arresting genre.

28. October 1995 Plagued by financial troubles and its near dissolution after the death of its founder, Robert Joffrey, the Joffrey Ballet cuts ties with New York and comes to Chicago seeking refuge and reinvention. An active women’s board embarks on a high-profile fundraising effort. Over time, audiences grow, proving false the notion that Chicago only supports modern and contemporary dance.

27. June 1993 Curators at the 11-year-old Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (now the National Museum of Mexican Art) assemble an exhibition of socially and politically charged works by 20 contemporary Mexican American artists—think Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa reinterpreted as the Virgen de Guadalupe (Mona Lupe, by Cesar Augusto Martinez). After Chicago, Art of the Other Mexico travels to New York, California, and three cities in Mexico, and the Pilsen museum becomes a prime example of “first voice”: an ethnic institution leading the interpretation and presentation of art from its culture.

26. September 1975 The Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert partners with the Chicago Tribune reviewer Gene Siskel for a TV show on WTTW that will eventually be called Siskel and Ebert. The contentious pair demonstrate immediate onscreen chemistry—and influence. In their thoughtful, if adversarial, style, they popularize the erudite art of movie reviewing, champion independent films and first-time directors, and tackle issues such as film colorization, the MPAA rating system, and product placement. For some hilarious Siskel and Ebert outtakes, watch the video below:

25. January 1938 Refusing to be a “polka dot”—her term for the one or two black dancers in a majority white company—Katherine Dunham throws her artistic energy toward choreographing full-length works for African American dancers. Inspired by a trip to Haiti and the Caribbean while a student at the University of Chicago, she debuts a ballet called L’Ag’Ya at the Great Northern Theater in the Loop. The blend of Afro-Caribbean dance and theatre is a sensation—and offers audiences the first real glimpse of Dunham’s anthropological technique, which inspires more than 90 of her own dances as well as generations of dance makers. To watch Dunham dance, watch the video below:

24. April 2002 Wilco releases its masterpiece, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, on the Nonesuch label. The album is hailed instantly as a classic—sweet vindication for the band, which only a year prior had been told by its previous record label that the music was not commercially viable. The album sells 55,000 copies in its first week and lands a coveted spot at the top of the Village Voice critics’ list for recording of the year.

23. November 1954 Known to the American public only through recordings, Maria Callas makes her United States debut at the Civic Opera House with the new Lyric Theatre of Chicago. Her chameleonic performances in three dramatically different operas—Lucia di Lammermoor, Norma, and La Traviata—cement her as a star and put the fledgling Lyric on the national map.

22. July 2004 Despite multimillion-dollar cost overruns and visual anarchy (the result of allowing large donors to drive aesthetics), the new Millennium Park introduces the masses to interactive public art and reignites the city’s design scene. Of particular note is Cloud Gate, by Anish Kapoor. Under contract to produce a work that could last for 1,000 years, Kapoor collaborates with a structural engineer on the 110-ton polished steel jellybean, which, in reflecting the city, offers observers a sweeping view of a century of architectural brilliance.

21. March 1913 For 24 days, the Art Institute of Chicago hosts 634 works from New York’s Armory Show, a presentation heavy on cubism, futurism, and French postimpressionism. The exhibition—particularly the work of the cubists—is met with vitriol and concludes with a group of art students trying to burn a figure of Matisse in effigy. Yet the event draws 188,000 visitors and introduces many prominent Chicago critics, artists, and collectors to 20th-century art.

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