Unlike many of the shows mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago’s Architecture & Design department, The City Lost and Found: Capturing New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, 1960–1980, doesn’t deliver a huge visual impact—at least on its surface. The objects in the show—primarily black and white photography, video, and works on paper—present themselves more quietly than the acutely detailed architectural models, large-scale images, and sleek, shiny design objects you are accustomed to seeing in the department’s galleries.
But what the exhibition lacks in flash, it more than compensates for in rich content and fine scholarship. It offers deep insight into the forces that shaped American cities in the 20th century and the cultural products that emanated from urban areas, illuminating the connection between the seismic changes in those cities and the simultaneous emergence of new art forms.
The City Lost and Found portrays the American urban condition during the 1960s and 70s in the nation’s three largest cities which, despite the many differences among them, shared common developments in response to the various challenges they faced during that period: urban decay, invading infrastructure, social unrest, and sprawl, among others.
The curators outline three overarching themes that resonated in each place: support for preservation of buildings and neighborhoods, the role of public protest in bringing about change, and an overall goal of urban renewal. They argue that the common thread connecting them were the media and methods that evolved to portray urban life and issues. The ascendance of new media and practices—photography, documentary film, community activism—from utilitarian activities to art forms is inexorably linked to an awareness of urban problems and potentials. Among the conclusions suggested is that much of what we consider “contemporary art” today is a result of or reflection of the urban experience.
This is not simply because so much significant artwork was made in urban environments, but because the subject matter typically reflected urban issues and contexts. While by the early 1960s the work of many photographers (Adams, Stieglitz, Steichen, Weston) had achieved “high art” status, the socio-political climate of the time created an ideal environment for the acceptance of new horizons for photography: The show includes street photography by Martha Rosler, Garry Winogrand, and Helen Levitt, plus more journalistic documentary work—notably the Ebony magazine spread on Chicago’s famed “Wall of Respect” (an excellent illustration of the power of community involvement in creating public art), and various documentations of the unrest, which accompanied the 1968 Democratic convention. Architectural photographs by Richard Nickel and Julius Shulman offer an additional take on why photography became such an important medium.
Collage—in the form of Romare Bearden’s The Block—illustrates another emerging form of photographic expression. An essay in the fine catalog accompanying the show describes it as “a metonym for ‘the city,’ of which the block is a part, and a synecdochic reference to urbanism, with which city blocks are associated.”
The show also indicates how, even in more rarefied settings, photography proved a powerful vehicle for the growing field of conceptualism such as in Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky et al., Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real Time Social System, as of May 1, 1971, a straightforward delineation of all of a particular slumlord’s Manhattan holding, and also in Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, an early, brilliant example of an artist’s book.
Works like Kenneth Josephson’s 33rd and LaSalle (about the demolition of a building in the Chicago neighborhood of Bronzeville) represent the use of experimental film and video techniques in art making. It also stands for the proposition that if there’s a downside to the exhibition, it’s the proliferation of film and video—there’s just too much of it to take in. The catalog manages to reference every piece that’s exhibited in the galleries, but it can’t reproduce the films; all the more reason to see this illuminating, edifying show in person.