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Art

I’m posting this out of frustration with the bland, dated advice in yesterday’s New York Times Travel section. A couple celebrating their 25th anniversary plans to spend a few days in Chicago in early December. What to do, where to go?

Agreed. It will be cold.

Let’s review the reasons to visit Chicago any time of year: food, art and architecture, shopping, theater and improv and blues, Lake Michigan and its beachfront paths, neighborhoods, sports. Chicago is a world-class city, a splendid place to spend a few days. Without kids, even better.

Stay at a hotel on or near Michigan Avenue. Don’t rent a car. You’ll be able to walk, cab, bus or take the “el” easily, day or night.

Arriving late? Many restaurants serve until 2 a.m. Cozy up at the The Purple Pig (500 N. Michigan Ave.) for small-plate Mediterranean fare. Slurp oysters at Shaw’s Crab House (21 E. Hubbard St.)

In the morning, stroll through Millennium Park (Randolph St. at Michigan Ave.) Its wonders are obvious. Walk its southern bridge to enter the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 S. Michigan Ave.) Duck into the Cultural Center to marvel at the world’s largest Tiffany dome (78 E. Washington St.)

For lunch: Park Grill, Henri, and The Gage are excellent choices nearby. For quick and casual, natives flock to Potbelly Sandwich Shops. If you must sample deep-dish pizza, Uno’s is authentic, and always crowded (29 E. Ohio St.) Rosebud serves Italian food and my favorite hamburger.

The world comes to Michigan Avenue to shop and you should, too. From H&M to Perla, this street has the Champs Elysees’ energy, with better stores. Side streets offer boutique shopping.

Massage? Urban Oasis (12 W. Maple St.)

Dinner! Chicago is a mecca. Topolobampo, Blackbird, Mexique, Naha, MK, Keefer’s, Piccolo Sogno, Takashi, Spiaggia: all great choices for a special meal. Nightcap — for the stupendous view — at the Signature Lounge, 96th floor of the John Hancock Center.

Take breakfast or lunch in a Chicago neighborhood. In Lincoln Park, try Toast, Floriole, Perennial, Twisted Sister. In Wicker Park, head to Hot Chocolate or Big Star. Logan Square, savor Lula’s Cafe or Longman & Eagle. Foodies will head to Hot Doug’s for duck-fat fries and foie gras dogs.

Wander residential streets or ride the “el” — you don’t need a tour guide to experience Chicago’s glorious architecture. If the weather is agreeable, walk the lakefront path south towards Oak Street. Endless lake, the beach in winter, Chicago’s skyline. There’s nothing like it.

Readers: where would you send a couple visiting Chicago?

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I had three days in New York and did what I always do in a great world city: eat well and see art.

First stop: John’s Pizzeria (278 Bleeker St.) Baked in a coal-fired brick oven, it really is the world’s best thin crust. John’s is two small rooms; a line trails down Bleeker Street most evenings. Go for lunch.

Next: The Morgan Library & Museum (225 Madison Ave.) for “Pages of Gold,” art cut from medieval msm619v_21manuscripts (through Sept. 13). Exquisitely illustrated scenes from the lives of the saints, often in gold. Many look like intricately woven tapestries. Also at the Morgan: “Acquisitions Since 2004,” a thrilling hodgepodge of letters, manuscripts, drawings, watercolors (through Oct. 18). Among the treasures: a handwritten manuscript of Oscar Wilde’s “The Selfish Giant,” a Beethoven score (messy!), an Arthur Getz inked-up notebook opened to ideas for Fourth of July cover art.

During a short film about the Morgan’s history, this question was raised: Why collect, preserve, display original works on paper? Because they’ve been touched by the artist’s hand. (www.themorgan.org)

The next day we dined on croissants from City Bakery, (3 West 18th St.) Who says New Yorkers are rude? The clerk made sure our croissants were hot from the oven, instead of the ones already cooled.

vu_srgm2_crop_205More art, though not what I’d planned. I wanted my 10-year-old daughter to experience the Guggenheim Museum (1071 Fifth Ave.) inside and out. (www.guggenheim.org)

She did, sort of: a show devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright’s work — mostly architectural renderings, on paper — hogged the curlicue hallway and many adjoining galleries (through Aug. 23). As Alex said later in the day: “It’s better to go see the Robie House, or one of his other buildings, because then you’re in it and you understand why he built it that way.”

Day three (prosciutto and fresh mozzarella panini, ingredients from Zabar’s, 2245 Broadway) trumped all others: my sister insisted we go to the Neue Galerie (1048 Fifth Ave.) to see its collection of German and Austrian art and crafts, and its prized possession: Gustav Klimt’s “Adele Bloch-Bauer 1” (1907).

imagesRegardless of the work’s rich backstory, standing in front of this portrait gave me the chills. A daring composition, I was awed by its scale, kaleidoscopic imagery, and beauty. It’s the Mona Lisa of its time. See it. (www.neuegalerie.com)

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My sister had more time than I to tour the new Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, and stopped into the Cy Twombly show (through Sept. 13.) The next day, she had to go back, and wanted me to see the Twombly show, too. She even persuaded her “love art, dread museums” 10-year-old niece Alex to come along. It’s a brief show, she promised, held in a few rooms: no more than half an hour.

We stayed longer than that, on the insistence of said 10-year-old, who kept circling back to Twombly’s oversized, intensely colorful “peony” paintings. Her priceless observation: “Now I won’t be afraid to make a mess when I make art.”

untitled_secsplsh Twombly’s art is messy: paint drips, phrases scratched into the painted panels are in a shaky hand’s block-print scrawl. Words are misspelled…or are they? A haiku is repeated, carried from one painting to another, to another.

I pictured Twombly’s art as black and white, somewhat bleak. (That’s his earlier work, from the 1950s.) These works, created from 2000-2007, offer a kaleidoscope of color. Peonies are fire-engine red in one work, maroon in another: each are set against intense yellows.

Some peonies are white puffs, like huge cotton balls, the white paint left to drip down over panels of sea green. Alex thought these peonies looked like jellyfish, with their trailing tentacles. I thought the puffs looked like the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion. Either way, it reminded me that even something we see as horrific — jellyfish count — can also be beautiful.

In the final room, deep green panels are overwritten with looped letters in a ghostly white paint. It’s not graffiti; rather, it’s a painterly technique that dates back to the “automatic” writing of the Surrealists (1920s).

Twombly (b. 1928, American) created the monumental works in this show as an old man; he’s 81 this year. What struck all of us was the physical strength one would need to paint on such a high, broad scale. The peonies and looped letters are huge; you can see their wide brush strokes.

Chicago is the sole venue for this Cy Twombly show: The Natural World, Selected Works, 2000 – 2007. See it. www.artic.edu

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The New York Times ran a breezy piece recently about summer reads aimed at women. I turned to it excitedly: I’m a girl, I love to read. Surely there’d be something on the list for me. Nope.

What to read during the summer? Do we really seek out “lighter” reads in the warmer months? I don’t.

512j2j57yjl2Here’s a list of books I love that are by, for or about women.

  • The Makioka Sisters, by Junichiro Tanizaki, translated from the Japanese by Edward G. Seidensticker, (Vintage, $15.95). Nothing and everything happens in this big read set in Osaka after World War Two. Clinging to ancient ways, two sisters try to place Yukiko in a proper, aristocratic marriage — increasingly difficult as she ages. Another sister brazenly takes on lovers. Lovely descriptions of various regions, and ways of life, in postwar Japan.
  • Anne Sexton: A Biography, by Diane Wood Middlebrook, (Vintage, $17.95). The poet Anne Sexton (1928-1974) was celebrated in her time for her confessional poetry. Middlebrook knows poetry and poets; her “reading” of Sexton’s poems is smart and digestible. This is a deeply affecting life story that reads more like a novel than the scholarly work that it is. (Recommended by my friend Jennifer.)
  • Vita: The Life of V. Sackville-West, by Victoria Glendinning, (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, buy used). Vita’s gardens, homes, marriage, lovers, and writings made her a legend in her own time (1892-1962). Virginia Wolff was among her lovers, and Vita’s Sissinghurst Castle is said to be the most visited garden in all of England. I didn’t want this book to end: what a life! (Pressed on me by my friend Suzanne, lent in a plastic bag, bound by a rubber band.)
  • The New Yorkers, by Cathleen Shine, (Picador, $14). An ensemble piece set on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. People, and dogs, get together, fall in love, and fall apart. A rich read, with a surprisingly sweet, and fitting, end.
  • The Great Man, by Kate Christensen, (Anchor, $14.95). A textured story of the women left behind after a famous artist’s death: his widow and their autistic son, his mistress and their twin daughters, and his sister, who’s also a painter. A window into the New York art world, and a rare depiction of older women. (Thanks, Jennifer, for recommending.)

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A quiet wing of the Louvre is devoted to Flemish and Dutch painting: landscapes, portraits, still lifes. When I visited recently, my friend Deborah kept referring to lines from a book she’d read — and loved — about a single Dutch painting, “Still Life with Oysters and Lemon,” by Mark Doty, (Beacon Press, $13.)

When we returned home to Chicago, she pressed a fresh copy into my hands. So slender! A handsome cover, a mere 70 pages, now dog-eared and double-dogged by me, marked pages that hold a word or phrase or truism to be revisited.

books How could a thin book be so rich?

Doty nabbed me on the first page, with his hurly-burly description of a part of Manhattan I know well. On the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, pigeons are a gang, and even in the sharp cold people huddle in groups, eating hot pretzels, sipping warm coffee, smoking. He, too, is cold and weary, his back hurts. Why is he there?

. “…I have fallen in love with a painting.”

It is a small painting, the size of school boy’s notebook, by Jan Davidsz de Heem (1606-1684). Its subject is the everyday, captured: oysters, a peeled lemon, green grapes, a glass of wine. Objects on the brink of time, Doty writes. To look at them, and look at them again and again, to be pulled into a painting, is a kind of love, he says, an intimacy.

And intimacy, he argues, is the finest human condition: to be separate, but also connected.

Doty is a poet; his language is lush. The book is both a meditation and a memoir: he takes us into the homes of his childhood, into the first home he owns and where his lover dies, and to Amsterdam for — you guessed it — a museum’s blockbuster show on Dutch still lifes.

At times I had to put this book down: it was too much, too filling. But it is a balm; its language and subject elevates. it would be the perfect book to keep in your bag, taken out and savored when you’re stuck at an airport, or riding an over-peopled bus. www.markdoty.org

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