Marc Chagall's America Windows in their new setting at the Art Institute
Marc Chagall's America Windows in their new setting at the Art Institute Credit: Andrea Bauer

Back in 1974, when his Four Seasons mosaic was installed in what was then the First National Bank Plaza, at Dearborn and Monroe, Chicago was crazy for Marc Chagall. Mayor Richard J. Daley made the Russian-born French artist an honorary citizen of the city, a group of aficionados induced him to undertake another project here, and the Art Institute cleared a spot for it, designating the spacious area overlooking the west side of the McKinlock Courtyard—the busy terminus of the museum’s east-west axis—as the Marc Chagall Gallery.

Chagall’s new Chicago project became the America Windows, a tribute to the country’s bicentennial, the arts, and Daley, who died five months before it was installed. The completed piece—a 32-foot-long, floor-to-ceiling triptych consisting of 36 stained-glass panels dominated by Chagall’s trademark dense blues—stood at its high-profile intersection from 1977 until May 2005, and became one of the AIC’s iconic treasures. Then it was taken down temporarily, to avoid damage during construction of the Modern Wing.

Two months ago, Chagall’s windows reappeared, but not in the Marc Chagall Gallery. An AIC press release announced that, “following an intensive period of research and conservation treatment,” the windows would return to public view as “the stunning centerpiece of a new presentation of public art in Chicago on the east side of the museum’s Arthur Rubloff building.”

If you haven’t seen that “new presentation” yet, you might want to brace yourself. Tucked into an alcove adjacent to what used to be the museum’s back door, the celebrated America Windows now function as lobby art for the Rubloff Auditorium. The foyer of the recently shuttered Columbus Drive entrance—a zone defined by a bank of locked glass doors, an oppressively low ceiling, and a sterile, high-gloss white floor—is the new setting for what the museum still refers to as “Chagall’s masterpiece.”

Worse, the new digs feature a set of stout, boxy pillars that prevent an unobstructed view of the windows from any distance greater than about 12 feet. And although the Chagall is positioned, as before, on an east-facing wall, there’s no exterior view of it and no natural light hitting it. In spite of the fact that Chagall’s collaborator, French stained-glass master Charles Marq, came here to study the light before making and positioning the windows, the AIC has concluded that Chicago sun is insufficient. The illumination is now entirely artificial.

There are benefits to that. The windows (which got a scrupulous cotton-swab cleaning while they were down) are now unvaryingly brilliant at all times and in any weather. Also, the fact that you’re in such cozy proximity to them here opens up a world of detail: finely traced images, precise shadings.

But couldn’t we have both the close-up and the panorama? Wasn’t it important to retain the sense of something organic and alive that came with the play of natural light on glass?

As it is, lit up like a Christmas tree, the windows are static and as supersaturated as HDTV. In this age of technological wonders, you have to ask whether the AIC could’ve installed an auxiliary light source that would augment nature only when necessary—on gray winter afternoons, say, or after dark. And whether that could’ve been done at the windows’ original site.

AIC spokesperson Erin Hogan says the answer to both questions is no, there was no good way to do artificial illumination in the original location and they didn’t want to leave the work exposed to the problems of condensation and grit that accompany installation on an outside wall.

Still, in his 1979 book, Chagall by Chagall, the artist wrote that in working with stained glass “the material is light itself . . . something mystical that passes through the window . . . the light of heaven.” Context mattered to him, too. He so disliked the claustrophobic Hadassah Hospital Synagogue, where his Jerusalem Windows were installed in 1962, that—according to Sidney Alexander’s 1978 biography, Marc Chagall—when he first saw it he went into a rage, throwing furniture around and breaking several chairs. It’s hard to know for sure what he’d make of this installation. But if it were possible to ask him, I think I’d clear the furniture first.

Chagall was collaborating with the sky, and what we have now is a light show in a cave.

Flanked by the AIC’s American galleries and new Modern Wing, the Marc Chagall Gallery space sits at the very heart of the museum. Especially now that the western approach to it, the old Gunsaulus Hall, has been transformed into the Alsdorf Galleries (the arms and armor are gone, replaced by Asian art, and what used to be a long, dark corridor has been opened up to natural light) it’s the crossroads of the institution. It’s also a sharp contrast to the obscure corner to which the America Windows has been banished, where the only museum visitors sure to walk by are those headed for the cafeteria or the Stock Exchange Trading Room.

But maybe the Chagall was displaced from its original perch because the AIC had some compelling alternate use for that prime piece of museum real estate? Well, yes. The Marc Chagall Gallery is now home to the Asian Shop, where you can buy decorated boxes from Kashmir, carved-wood sculptures from Beijing, and umbrellas decorated with images of the America Windows.

Will the relocation draw more people to the back of the building? Probably. Will many others miss the windows entirely? No doubt. In a video on the reinstallation that’s available online, AIC director James Cuno says of the windows that “by bringing them back on view after conservation, to specially built galleries for them, we can restore the circumstances in which they were first installed. That is, they were installed with walls coming perpendicular from the windows that concentrated the glow of light within a defined space.” He doesn’t explain why that couldn’t have been done where they were in the first place.

Hogan says there may have been a desire to get more light into the Chagall Gallery area after architect Renzo Piano put windows in the Alsdorf Galleries. “People spent years considering what would be the best place for them,” she says. “Where they’d be most visible and most true to Chagall’s original structural intent.”

The AIC mounted a small exhibit in the Rubloff lobby to accompany the reinstallation. It consists of models of three familiar pieces of mid-20th century public sculpture—the Daley Center Picasso, Alexander Calder’s Federal Plaza Flamingo, and Joan Miró’s Chicago—plus a Dubuffet maquette alluding to that artist’s work at the Thompson Center. All of them are big, bold, and better known as popular icons than as fine art. Unlike the America Windows, they all remain firmly rooted in their distinctive original locations.