The changing physical, cultural and political landscape – preservation, demonstration and renewal — is the subject of “The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 1950-1980” at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) through January 11.
In these urban epicenters, policymakers, artists, journalists, wage-workers and protesters had varied perspectives on the directions in which these cities were headed. Developed by the AIC and the Princeton University Art Museum, the exhibit highlights the work of documentary photographers, urban planners, architects and filmmakers as well as performance artists focused on the artistic and social potential of urban places.
The first two decades saw shifting demographics and political upheaval as well as the aftermath of urban renewal. Correspondingly, photographic and cinematic practice shifted away from sweeping panoramas to close-range studies of streets, which in turn compelled a new generation of architects and urban planners to challenge long-held attitudes about inner city neighborhoods. The Chicago section, for example, features Allen Kaprow’s “Moving,” (1967), which showed the photographer and his collaborators moving among three abandoned apartments.
The exhibit’s most compelling material is journalistic. In the section on Los Angeles, newspaper clippings and recordings from the Watts riots of 1965 (which followed a scuffle between two white policemen and a black motorist) offered a striking contrast to the 1960s Golden Era of Hollywood. In the New York portion, archival footage and writing form magazines such as “Life” depict Harlem alongside Romare Bearden’s “The Block 2,” an abstract rendering of one city block in the neighborhood. The New York section also features original city planning maps and architectural blueprints.
One of the only sculptures in the Chicago section of the exhibit is Barnett Newman’s “Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley:” a sarcastic critique of the mayor’s heavy-handed response to the protests at the Democratic National Convention of 1968. The DNC of 1968 is the exhibit’s most captivating subject. Photos and accounts from underground newspapers like “Rising Up Angry” and “Skyline” show a city of protesters clashing violently with the public servants paid to protect them.
Images like these show cities that let the world in architectural and infrastructural innovations falling short of their duties to protect the basic civil liberties of their people. This is what makes the exhibit so engaging: after viewing photos, videos, maps and blueprints nearly 50 years old, it isn’t what has changed that leaves its mark, it’s what hasn’t.
by Austin Sanchez