Snubbing the Icons

Nightlife by Archibald Motley

Sometimes, when I go to a famous museum and enter a room that houses an iconic painting, I feel sorry for the other paintings. Take the Louvre. What other paintings are in the Mona Lisa room? Is it in a room by itself? I can’t remember seeing anything but her face, a foot-thick piece of bulletproof glass, and dozens of tiny views of her face through digital cameras that were capturing it.

I felt the same twinge when I visited the Art Institute in Chicago last week and saw Grant Wood’s “American Gothic." This was my second visit and viewing of the icon, and this time I walked past it to look at the other works in the room. Two of the other paintings in a corner of the room are Archibald Motley’s “Nightlife" and “Blues." The reproduction does it no justice. The movement captured in “Nightlife" vibrates as you look at it. It’s an awesome piece of art, whether or not you know anything about the social or political motivations behind it. I spent five undisturbed minutes in front of it.

It’s hard for me to enjoy going to a museum where they instruct you what to look at as much the Art Institute does. Images of “American Gothic" and their other superstar paintings—“Sunday on La Grande Jatte," “Nighthawks"— are everywhere. They’re behind the coat-check counter, on maps, gift shop bags and signs. Taking the time to look at “Nightlife" made me feel like I had discovered a gem in the museum’s basement, even though it was right next to one of the world’s most famous paintings.

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