Art at The Aviary: Five Questions for the Man Behind the Signature Painting in the Nation’s Hottest Bar
Flight is the only painting that hangs in Grant Achatz’s new bar, The Aviary
Just hours before my first unofficial visit to The Aviary (955 W. Fulton Market)—you know, the little cocktail lounge from Grant Achatz that opened next door to Next this past Saturday—a painting by the Chicago artist and gallerist Thomas Masters and his collaborator, Adrian Leverkuhn, had been installed in the main room. This was a couple of weeks back, when the place was still in test mode, filling up every seat, night after night, with friends and family who ate and drank everything on the menu for free as an army of cooks, mixologists, and servers obsessively practiced their craft.
Our group—The Creative Director and I had been invited by a close friend of Achatz, making it a purely social, no-reporter’s-notebook kind of evening—was the first to arrive, and we all stood back and regarded the painting, titled Flight. “We worried it would be too big,” Achatz’s friend mused. “But it’s kind of perfect, actually. Do you guys think it’s too big?”
TCD, for whom talking about art is a favorite pursuit, weighed in: “I’d be skeptical if you told me you were hanging a large painting like that on a mirrored wall, but the use of line really knocks it back into the space.” All nodded in agreement.
We adjourned to a banquette across the way and tasted every last cocktail, all the while staring at the painting as those aforementioned lines became squigglier and squigglier—especially after we polished off the already famous In the Rocks, a newfangled Old Fashioned that requires breaking open a bourbon-filled ice egg via slingshot. Whew, boy. That drink is strong.
Now that The Aviary is open for business, drinkers from around the world will no doubt use the painting—the only piece of art in The Aviary, and, at roughly eight feet by seven feet, a bona fide statement—as their own ice-breaker. I caught up with Masters in the middle of his preparations for this weekend’s Art Chicago to ask how he ended up making the biggest conversation piece in America’s most buzzed-about watering hole.
The Aviary’s In the Rocks
The Chaser: I’ve heard you curate the art at Alinea, too. How did your collaboration with Achatz come about?
Thomas Masters: We found each other though Grant’s business partner, Nick Kokonas. He saw me walking through Lincoln Park one day—he and his wife had been to the gallery a couple of times—and he walked up and said: “I have this restaurant. Do you think you’d like to do the art for us?” I said we don’t usually do restaurants, because not much comes out of it. But Nick said, “Just come have dinner and see what you think.” And, of course, I loved it. We’ve become great friends since then, and hanging work at Alinea is like hanging it in an international art fair.
TC: Where did the title Flight come from? Were you thinking “flight,” as in a sampler of wine or bourbon?
TM: There is that. But I wanted to make a painting that works on multiple levels. I wanted it to have a sense of flight, as in falling through space. But it’s also about the word “aviary,” which is a place where birds nest or gather. And if you look carefully, there’s a reference to the cagelike quality you see when you walk into The Aviary [cooks and bartenders work behind a metal scrim, in view of the lounge’s patrons]. We wanted to play on that, ever so subtly.
TC: How does it work, collaborating with another artist on one painting?
TM: I’m primarily an abstract painter, and Adrian is mostly figurative. So I create an atmosphere in which his figures can be suspended.
TC: Have you done a painting of this scale before?
TM: This might be the largest. We wanted to do something with enormous scale but quiet. Like Grant. He’s a thoughtful guy. This painting really is for him. He gave us total freedom to do what we wanted, and we hoped to convey our understanding of him. I think we got it. I think it’s his kind of painting.
TC: What’s your favorite Aviary cocktail?
TM: I like the ginger one [called, simply, Ginger]. It’s so good, first of all. And then you finish it and you realize you’re a goner. You want another, but you’re like, “Should I?”
Photography: (painting) Agnieszk Ziemacka; (drink) Christian Seel