Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective

It was over 90° in Chicago today. Climate change is making this incredible city more desirable with each passing year. But never mind that. Hot weather and the pop art king drew me to one of my favorite places on earth, The Art Institute of Chicago. I went with my older son and as we scaled the noble steps off Michigan Avenue, we looked at each other and realized we have been doing this for nearly 25 years together. Art binds like nothing else.

The main event was the Roy Lichtenstein Retrospective. It was the first show to examine his works since his death on September 29, 1997. The show was years in the making and I’m sure it was challenging to collect just the right pieces to do justice to an art pioneer. Indeed Mr. Lichtenstein was a major dude. Early on he took lots of criticism from all corners, but pressed on nonetheless. I’m so happy he did.

The show is beyond massive. It engulfs several galleries of the AIC, carefully arranged and choreographed so even the casual observer can enjoy. Over 160 works created between 1950 and 1997 that includes paintings, drawings and sculpture. Each time you turn a corner the senses are assaulted with dots and colors and explosions of primary colors. So much of what he created looks machine made, but all of it was crafted by hand. Perhaps he invented more than created. Borrowed more than others. But therein lies the power of Lichtenstein. Like Warhol, how it’s made is nearly as important as what is made. Both sourced from everyday objects. Lichtenstein invented a new easel that could spin, allowing it to keep pace with his mind and brush. The result feels somewhat slight of hand, but everything was pre-meditated.

I was completely taken aback by his landscapes. Most of my time over the years was spent studying the larger, more commercial works. But the landscapes were made for Lichtenstein. Dots turned into the line of a horizon or the deep blue of the ocean. These felt more meditative and focused and it gave him more of a chance to broaden his skill.

Lichtenstein once said in an interview in 1962:

I’m never drawing the object myself, I’m only drawing a depiction of the object—a kind of crystallized symbol of it.

About halfway through the exhibit there was a small room, painted a deep brown, displaying dozens of sketches and studies. Amazing to see how he brought things to life. Personal notes on what options could be explored from the shape and size of the dots to the color. Many of the studies were high fidelity, showing his deep need for quality.

As an accidental post-modernist I have deep appreciation for what Lichtenstein gave us. His work is an act of borrowing, decompiling, and rebuilding classic modern executions.

I believe many people dismiss Lichtenstein out of hand as cold or not professional. This is a mistake. If you can make the trip to Chicago you will see for yourself.

Images taken by Steve A Furman inside the exhibit.

Appreciation: The Art Institute of Chicago

I first visited the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1960’s as a young boy. I ascended the great staircase and entered the Impressionism gallery and was absolutely blown away. Instantly I was transformed into a hardcore museum goer for all time. I’ve done a rough calculation and believe I’ve visited the AIC about 250 times. Of course I’m a long time member and frequent contributor to this storied (over 130 years) institution. At times I’ve shared more about my personal life with certain paintings that adorn these gallery walls than I have with many of my closest friends. Occasionally I sketch them (badly), write about them (somewhat better), and photograph them along with the building (best of all). View my AIC flickr gallery here. Many times I would visit alone and spend time trying to understand the art and artist and ask them to understand me. They always did.


That experience given to me by my father was a rare moment, and so I felt strongly about returning the favor to my first son, Julian. He was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome at age 2, and as such processes information much differently than neuro-typicals. That’s a fancy word for people whose brain functions normally. For context, here’s the best definition of Asperger’s I’ve ever run across.

The dominance of specialized thinking and ability that prioritizes doing one task, one way, one step at a time with limited flexibility. This occurs to various degrees and results in strengths in the areas of focus (especially in the area of specialization), honesty, detail orientation, logic and original thinking. This tendency toward specialization also often results in challenges developing more generalized and complex skill sets such as conventional socialization and communication.

He was four years old when I first took him to the AIC and he had a perfect photographic memory as a result of his condition. His focus at that time was Impressionism paintings. He took ownership of my prized Big Book of French Impressionism and set out to memorize all the artists, their birth and death years and all the canvases they painted. He was a walking encyclopedia of the facts of this body of at the age of four!

In April of 1985, not long after we had moved to Chicago, we made our first AIC visit together. We entered the classic Beaux Arts building, climbed the grand staircase and immediately saw Gustave Caillebote’s Paris Street, A Rainy Day. There it was, bigger than life in the middle of the gallery. I’m a little fuzzy on this detail, but I think we both said “wow” at the same time. He too was instantly hexed with museum-going for the rest of his life.

Needless to say year after year we visited, taking in the traveling exhibits and re-connecting with our favorite masterpieces.

Fast forward to the year 2004. After a new offspring drought spanning 23 years I was blessed with a wonderful second son, Connor. Completely normal in every way, and turning into quite a negotiator. Last weekend was his first visit to the AIC. We took the same path that I took when I was a lad, and again when Julian was four. Photos from both moments were captured. The juxtaposition of these images solidifies my connection with the Art Institute.

AIC 1984 and 2009
Me with Julian in 1984 and again with Connor in 2009

The AIC is a priceless gem as well as the second largest museum in the country, thanks to the opening of new Modern Wing. You can read my impressions of this new showcase here. Year in and year out, despite challenges in my life or the mood of the world, the AIC is a constant. Always there for me, for us, whenever we need to escape the press of the day and roam the boundless spaces of creativity.

Here is a select list of exhibits that have stood out in my memory and hold a special place in my heart.

  • Edward Hopper – 2008
  • William Merritt Chase: Modern American Landscapes – 2000
  • Mary Cassatt: Modern Woman – 1999
  • Charles Rennie Mackintosh – 1997
  • Degas: Beyond Impressionism – 1997
  • Claude Monet – 1995
  • Gustave Caillebotte: Urban Impressionist – 1995
  • John James Audubon: The Watercolors for The Birds of America – 1994
  • Magritte – 1993
  • Marc Chagall: The Jewish Theatre Murals – 1993
  • Master European Paintings from the National Gallery of Ireland – 1992
  • Degenerate Art: The Fate of the Avant-Garde in Nazi Germany – 1991
  • High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture – 1991
  • Andy Warhol: A Retrospective – 1989
  • John Singer Sargent – 1987

If you have never visited the AIC, do so as soon as you can. Get information from their web site here. Follow them on Twitter here. Fan them on facebook here.

The Modern Wing Takes Flight

WelcomeSignThe completion of the new Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago adds an additional 264,000 square feet of gallery space to this already impressive museum. It’s now the second largest in the country, trailing only The New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. I had the good fortune of being at the AIC on Wednesday, May 13th giving a talk on Customer Experience, so I took advantage of the opportunity to tour the new Modern Wing. As a museum member I was allowed in on a self-guided tour ahead of the opening on May 16th.

Designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano, the wing has it’s own entrance on Monroe street, placing it squarely in the cross hairs of the The Great Lawn, raking down from the Jay Pritzker Pavilion of Millennium Park (designed by Frank Gehry). From this view you can’t see a trace of the familiar Beaux Arts building that’s been in residence on Michigan Avenue for more than 130 years. It feels as if you may even be in a different city as you approach the glass rectangles and massive cantilevered grid roof. Perhaps Los Angeles, sans palm trees. The design has a transformative power filling one with anticipation of what’s to come.

The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance
The Foyer looking to the Monroe St. entrance

The main foyer is narrow and deep like a pure white slot canyon. The offset, light oak floor planks deliver you into the space like a moving sidewalk. Your eye is drawn up to the sky pouring in through the stainless steel and glass grid ceiling. The stairs off to one side float up and into the more approachable squarish gallery boxes that array the museum’s stunning collection. A wonderful geometric compliment to the extreme main hallway.

You are however swarmed by the sameness, almost monotony of the structure; white, chrome and glass. But the space overall is workmanlike and the design is kind and courteous to the artist. Once you are inside any of the galleries, the building clears out of the way and allows the art to take center stage. It’s early days, and so, the curators still have work to do. But overall, the experience is splendid.

View of the Modern ceiling
View of the Modern ceiling

The museum’s collection is expansive and inspiring. Modigliani, Picasso, Johns, Pollack, Warhol, etc., they’re all here to be rediscovered under the eye of the Modern. It works best if  you go immediately to the third floor and wind your way down. At first you see classic galleries. As you descend you slowly begin to notice variations on how the space is shaped. One section contains 30 shadow boxes by Joseph Cornell, appropriately lined up in their own cubbies. At the north end of each floor is that constant view of Millennium Park where city goers gather and mingle among evening concerts in the warm Midwest summer nights. Taken together it’s an oasis of culture and reflection. Both are welcome in these tough times.

SolitudeOnce you are back at ground level an architecture gallery second to none (sorry Met) awaits you. Chicago is after all the home of the skyscraper, our payback for enduring the Great Fire. And so, this gallery is filled with elegant drawings and detailed models tracking the growth of structures and modern design of all types. Photography and video galleries round out the first floor. If you still have enough energy to take in more, you can exit the Modern foyer opposite of where you entered and violà, the rest of the Art Institute awaits.

On my tour I followed a senior gentleman with his daughter for a short while. He was in constant awe and I caught a sound bite as he gazed out of the third floor northern facing window. He said, “It sure is a modern world.” A fitting comment.

Chicago is a city of dreamers and doers. The Modern Wing has found a home.

Photos: Steve A Furman. To see more Modern Wing photos go here.

Improving the Customer Experience Begins with Active Listening

This is an expanded version of a presentation I gave at the Customer Experience Summit on May 13, 2009 at The Art Institute of Chicago. The event was hosted by TeaLeaf and OpinionLab.

Feedback, Voice of the Customer, whatever you want to call it is not new. It was born with that first comment or letter to Customer Service, store manager or the President of the company expressing outrage or praise over a recent experience. Today most large firms have formal processes in place for collecting feedback across numerous channels. Collecting information is easy, organizing it is harder and making changes based on feedback sometimes requires Congress to act. We are seeing Voice of the customer getting more attention these days for a number of reasons.

  • Increasing use of the Internet by consumers
  • Renewed focus on digital marketing in this economic downturn
  • Explosive growth of social networking

As someone responsible for the online customer experience of a large site, I am very interested in customer feedback. We get bits of it through usability testing prior to launching features and functionality, but those events are spaced out over the course of the year and part of a specific feature of function of the site. It’s critical to monitor what customers are saying about their experience on your site on a more regular basis, like daily.

If it’s your site on the screen this young woman is confused about on her laptop then you very much need to know what she’s thinking.

Is this your site on this laptop?
Is your site on this laptop?

Your Customer is talking, so listen

You should be collecting customer voices from multiple channels across the company. This feedback falls in one of two classes:

  • Internal Voices
    • Ratings and comments submitted on the site
    • Inbound e-mails
    • Call center discussions
    • Mail / executive letters
    • Surveys / research
  • External Voices
    • Blogs
    • Video sharing networks
    • Twitter streams
    • Media sites

Within all that feedback are rich clues you can mine to improve the customer experience. But if you are a large company this will mean an overwhelming amount of data and pose collection and processing challenges. You must leverage technology to help you make sense of all this feedback and weed out the noise. There are dozens of firms that can help with this. Which one you choose will depend on your objectives.

Practice Active Listening

We’ve all heard about active listening through a psychology class, team building exercise or during one of those individual development discussions you’ve had with your manager. It’s half of effective communication. The SIER hierarchy of Active Listening was developed in the mid 1980’s by communications researchers Steil, Watson & Barker. They were responding to data that told them humans immediately forget 50% of what their are told and an additional 25% after two days.

SIER Hierarchiery of Active Listening
SIER hierarchy of Active Listening

By practicing active listening on your customer feedback you will be taking important first steps to improving your customer experience. I’m thinking about going so far as to changing the term customer feedback to active listening for my team. Here are techniques we use:

  • Collect Voice of the Customer on
    • Most visited pages
    • Highest business value pages
    • Most complex interactions
    • Customer service sections
    • Sensitive areas (pricing, policy, etc.)
  • Track and compare site sub-sections
    • Aggregate scores can be a false friend
  • Look for commonality in feedback across channels
  • Categorize feedback and link directly to a measured business value
  • Take action on changes you can make within your role
  • Recommend enhancements your partners can champion

This establishes a series of filters and brings into focus the most meaningful customer feedback. By meaningful I mean important to the customer and valuable to the business. You must demonstrate an intersection of customer feedback and business value. Without that no one will take you seriously and you will end up frustrated. But that’s only the beginning. From there you need to create a process that works in your organization with an end goal of actually making changes to your site, or marketing practices, even policy. Here is a simple, but very effective model.


You must speak your business partner’s language and invite them into the customer circle. By speaking their language I mean connecting customer feedback to what matters to your partner including the associated business value. If you run your web site you should know exactly how much money you save or revenue you create (or both) with each and every log in. Customer comments are easily rationalized away and marginalized without this monetary value attached to it. The The steps in the process are:

  • Collect: Leverage technology, automate communications and practice active listening
  • Connect: Link feedback to the customer experience (moments of truth) and monetize
  • Inform: Convene regular cross-functional meetings, report findings and make recommendations
  • Act: Translate recommendations into projects with associated business value

It will be tough going at first, which is why you need a process that ties back to business value. Once you make changes you will need to collect the feedback to demonstrate progress, again with business value attached. That reporting coupled with the tracked business results will take you places you never thought you could go. Your customers will thank you and you will be rewarded by the business.

Photo Credit:

Edward Hopper – Sunlight on the Side of a House

It was gray today with periods of showers. Perfect for spending time in the Art Institute of Chicago viewing an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s works. Hopper is a mild obsession of mine. But you have to understand that mild for me is probably equal to an off the charts extreme for most people.

Hopper chooses ordinary scenes; houses, streets, rooms, lobbies, buildings, seashores. They are dominated by shapes of color and bathed in light. Squares, rectangles and trapezoids, decorated at times with ornamental curves. Sometimes people are present, sometimes the space is completely empty, save for that Hopper light. If he includes people they strike routine poses, but what they are thinking is omitted. Usually we are peering into their private spaces as we pass by on light rail, or simply looking out the kitchen window. Nature frequently finds its way into Hopper’s works.

House at Dusk, 1935

I’ve spent hours looking at and thinking about House at Dusk. You can read my in depth study of this painting here.

Mark Strand, a recent poet laureate, has studied Hopper at length. In his 1994 book entitled Hopper, Mr. Strand makes these observations.

Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narative of what came before. They engage us when the idea of passage cannot be far from our minds—we are, after all, either approaching the canvas or moving away from it… Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness. They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of a life lived as by the time before life and the time after. The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point.

The exhibit was beautifully staged on the second floor of the Rice building. Early works on paper through to the final canvases. At about the half way mark we encounter New York Movie. This is Hopper immersed in the urban environment of a meteoric America. On the left side of the canvas is a crowded movie theater, elaborately decorated in the palatial style of the old grand movie houses. People escaping their daily problems through the newly discovered art form of cinema. On the right side is a lone figure. A blonde usherette, leaning against the wall of a simple space completely detached from the emotional rake of the movie theater. She works in a house of escape, but is tortured by something very real in her life. Perhaps she could use her flashlight to illuminate the answer to her problem. We can see that Hopper’s characters always ponder, we just never know if they are making progress. He floats space on one side, and fixes it on the other. This is classic New York Hopper, showing a dense city that feels completely empty.

New York Movie, 1939

Naturally, Nighthawks took center stage in the exhibit. The Art Institute recognized this masterpiece immediately after it was painted in 1942, and acquired it for $3,000. It has been one of the museum’s gems ever since. The image is iconic, so much so I don’t even need to post it and everyone reading this can close their eyes and easily conjure up a detailed picture of it in their mind. Art is power.

There was a glass case in one of the galleries that displayed two of Hopper’s personal journals. He would make a small pencil drawing of the painting just completed and then scribe notes beneath it. Fascinating to get a brief glimpse into his thoughts. The journals were inexpensive hardbound ledgers. He did not require an overabundance of creature comforts and lived in a 4th floor walk up at Number 3 Washington Square North in New York. He and his wife Jo frequented small, locally owned restaurants.

The last canvas in the show, and one of my favorites was, Sun in an Empty Room. Although not his final work, it came less than four years before his death in 1967. There is always an emotional undercurrent to Hopper’s work. More imagination than observation. So much so that it’s easy to forget the work is very personal. When he was asked what he was after with this painting he responded, “I’m after ME.” A truly American response by a pure American.

Sun in an Empty Room, 1963

Hopper once said,

All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.

This once in a lifetime opportunity ends in Chicago on May 11th. If you missed it in Boston or Washington, D.C., or here in Chicago, then you have truly missed something. But you can see Hopper all over the country. Go see it.

Link to The National Gallery of Art’s interactive web site on Hopper here. They have a very interesting timeline of Hopper here.

Note. Images of Hopper paintings taken from web searches for Public Domain images.