Friday, December 25, 2015

The New Contemporary at the Art Institute of Chicago

Gerhard Richter, "Venice (Staircase)", 1985

It’s worth 400 Million dollars, but is the Edlis/Neeson donation of post modern art valuable in any other way?  The answer might begin with what the museum calls the “heart of the collection”, the ten pieces by Andy Warhol. Gallery signage proclaims:  “his pointed diagnoses of superficiality and consumption continue to resonate”.  But don’t  these now familiar works feel as dated as old magazines?  They are suitable for nostalgia or historical analysis, but hardly provocative.  Similarly,  Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman present sharp commentaries on gender perception in  twelve photographic prints.  It’s entertaining to see Prince’s biker-babe bimbos side-by-side with Sherman’s pensive femme melodramas, but it’s no more profound than B-movies from earlier generations.  Can anything in this show connect us to something more  important than what was once trend-setting and now achieved blue-chip  branding in the auction market?

Breaking free from post-Renaissance pictorial techniques, as well as social responsibility, the contemporary art of postwar America exemplified the national ideal of personal freedom. But  in some ways it was quite restrictive.  It forbade recognizable imagery, eschewed both Classical and Popular culture, and held tightly to a flat plane within the confines of a rectangular frame.   Many artists wanted to break those rules while still be recognized as contemporary. They established the “New Contemporary”, the title of  this exhibition.   In 1955, Robert Rauchenberg wantonly broke all of them, and then some, in a conglomeration called “Short Circuit”, acquired by the Art Institute in 2007.   Indeed, the museum has already collected twelve of the sixteen rule-breakers in this show, some quite substantially. Rauschenberg (320 pieces),  Warhol (160), Johns (109)

As a temporary installation, this exhibit is best when it’s the most slapstick humorous, as with Damien Hirst’s cabinet of painful medical instruments or Jeff Koons’ happy brainless bather.  But jokes wear thin over time.  Considering the limited space in the Modern Wing and the limitless variety of human creativity, it’s dismaying that all 44 pieces must remain on display until 2065. Big money is the only explanation. Though I wouldn’t mind if one of Gerhard Richter’s landscapes stayed on the wall forever.  It gives quirky new life to a very old genre.  It envisions how life can be lived and loved.


This installation was also reviewed by two other New Citizens., Elliot J. Reichert, the Art Editor of the New City, and Stephen F. Eisenman, an art historian, and Elliot's former professor at Northwestern.

Reichert welcomes the Edlis/Neeson donation, but regrets that it needs to be displayed by itself over the next 25 years, instead of incorporating each piece within the museum's entire collection of post-war art.

Eisenman, going further,  questions how that entire collection has been chosen and sorted (even though on the Museum website "New Contemporary" refers only to the Edlis/Neeson donation rooms)

Eisenman asks: "Where are Smithson, Hesse, Golub and Serra? And why erase from view Fluxus, Conceptual, Video and recent activist art associated with the term “social practice”?

Good questions!

But can't we also ask why so many other kinds of contemporary art have been excluded?  Where are the best examples of portraiture, landscape, public sculpture, and religious works?

Apparently, these are the kinds of questions that the museum stopped asking about 40 years ago, back when they were terminating the annual  juried exhibitions of both local and national contemporary art.  In subsequent decades, wealthy donors, like Edlis/Neeson,  have been allowed to make those decisions for them.

Initially, the  Chicago Tribune celebrated the new donation, especially noting its dollar value.
But four months later, the Chicago Tribune published a scathing criticism by Lori Waxman;

What follows in "The New Contemporary" is nothing short of a cosmic disaster. In the dozen galleries that fill the second floor of the Modern Wing and showcase the museum's collection of art from 1945 to the present, hardly an artwork manages to escape the gravitational pull of lifeless pairings, caged displays, insubstantial wall texts, and what can only be considered total curatorial betrayal"

Though she does stop short of criticizing the art itself, or the deal that exchanged 500 million dollars worth of art for 50 years of exhibition space.

(BTW - coincidentally, this long essay about contemporary art at the Met just ran in the New Yorker.  The Met is building a new contemporary wing. As Philippe de Montebello once said : “Something like ninety-nine per cent of all collectors—the rich, those who are interested and will support museums in the future—are collectors of contemporary art,” )

Friday, September 11, 2015

Charles Ray at the Art Institute of Chicago

New, but traditional, classical figure sculpture has intermittently been fashionable over the past two millennia. Formality (Maillol) followed melodrama (Carpeaux) in it’s previous two iterations. An intensely expressive Romanticism (Rodin) spun off between them. In the intervening century, the human figure was first excoriated, and then celebrated, as kitsch. But now, aided by digitized tools of photo-fabrication, a new version of timeless, idealized naturism has emerged through the application of a kind of three-dimensional photography. Thanks to the camera’s instantaneous capture of image, the sculptor can accurately record brief gestures made by anyone, including children and other non-professional models. The artist can then develop a kind of formal style through software manipulation, leading directly to mechanical fabrication.

Ray’s “Huck and Jim” demonstrates both the advantages and limitations of this process. Overall, the piece has the natural elegance of young bodies. It’s surrounding spaces have been as carefully measured as the dynamic Chicago skyline that stands behind it in this Modern Wing exhibition. It invites a calm meditation on the relationship between these iconic figures of American literature , effectively conflating the two prominent moral concerns of the academic humanities: gender identity and racism. But in detail, it has no more aesthetic impact than the anthropological displays at the Field Museum. Ray has focused his attention on the surface. His forms have no inner life.

A similar sense of peaceful naturalism, measured space, and cultural dialogue is found in Ray’s other monumental standing figure, “Boy with Frog”. Originally commissioned for Punta Della Dogana in Venice, the figure’s boyish curiosity nicely complemented the dragon-killing St. Theodore high on a column across the Grand Canal. But like jokes, editorials, and academic essays, it’s impact does not extend into multiple viewings. It’s not surprising that the City of Venice removed it from one of the world’s greatest public spaces.

Ray’s crouching or reclining figures are far less stimulating, though, like his monumental double-portrait relief in tribute to Alex Katz, they still proclaim a new Classicism, while engaging the tropes of the contemporary artworld in one way or another. Hardly an improvement or compelling interpretation of the originals, his monumental still lifes are grandiose exercises in futility. They serve as metaphors for our moribund civilization, as they meticulously copy enormous decaying objects. Such pessimism has been  standard fare in museums of contemporary art ever since they first opened.

But the institutional success of Ray’s standing figures may be ushering in a new wave of classical sculpture. If only other artists will have the desire, and then the ability, to make the new tools of fabrication serve a more dynamic sculptural expression.



This is the cover of the  May/June edition of the Member Magazine of the Art Institute of Chicago.

It is probably the first time that images of anything like contemporary classical sculpture have appeared anywhere in that publication for at least fifty years. .

The museum also created a promotional video for the show.

Why have museum officials  promoted this exhibit so  strongly, and kept it on display for nearly 5 months ?

Perhaps because they believe that it might reconcile the contemporary with the classical.  Calvin Tomkins, the New Yorker's long-time chronicler of iconic contemporary artists, tells us that "Few artists have mined the history of sculpture more deeply than Ray.  He wants to renew traditions, not  just to borrow from them".. while in the video mentioned above,  Ray himself tells us how he wants to makes surfaces that are timeless: "everything I've said is going to be washed away, and what's going to be left is the art part".

But as Tomkins also relates, a pivotal mentor in Ray's art education once told him: "That sculpture you made today was very interesting spatially.  But those wheels - they looked like flowers in a still life. It shows me you want to make something, instead of discovering something.  Don't ever do that in my class again" -- and  Ray took this lesson to heart : "It changed my life -- I've thought about it ever since, the difference between making and discovering"

When all contemporary ideas have been washed away by time, can such an approach to art-making ever leave anything behind worth looking at?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

One Hundred Faces of War

No Statement

One Hundred Faces of War, at the National Veterans Art Museum, through May 1


As it speaks to both national and personal destinies, this exhibit of 100 portraits at the National Veterans Museum makes most  postmodern art seem frivolous.   Lives change,  nations change, and this exhibit seems to have put its finger on the pulse of both kinds of transformation as America enters the fourth century of its experiment as a non-sectarian, democratic,   nation state. It shares the solemnity of the permanent exhibit at the Elks National Veterans Memorial – but there’s less bluster and  more honesty.  There’s more reason to be sad, because you’re connected to  actual  people who were killed ,  injured, or transformed.   But there’s also  more reason to be hopeful, because you meet people who  stood up for our country, right or wrong, and now are moving on with their lives.


It was an ambitious project.  One hundred life –size , waist-up portraits, accompanied by un-edited testimonials “about themselves and their experience of war.”  The flat, brownish,  monochrome backgrounds create the ambience of a military facility, and the straight-ahead, waist-up, poses of the veterans feel like soldiers rising up and  dutifully responding to a summons.  They all feel quite alive and present, except for the dead ones whose posthumous portraits depict them as distant and other-worldly.

You can’t really expect any artist, even Rembrandt, to paint 100 portraits in nine years and make them all masterpieces.  This artist, Matt Mitchell,  was apparently attracted to young women, as he usually paints them cute and flirtatious.   But otherwise, the identity of the artist recedes behind the profundity of the subject matter, and how often does that ever happen? Since exhibition material does not identify Mitchell himself as a military veteran, he probably is not, so this exhibit might  fall outside the mission of the N.V.A.M. to " exhibit art inspired by combat and created by veterans." But an outsiders point of view is not necessarily any less valuable.

Sometimes the unique,  enormous task that Mitchell gave himself seems too much for him to bear.
Some pieces feel like awkward pastiches of generic faces and torsos, begun separately and never joined well together.  But at least ten of them are real masterpieces of character expression in sharply, economically executed oil painting. 

The testimonials may disappoint those who are critical of American military  culture and the  Middle-Eastern wars it is still fighting.  Some of the veterans are still on active duty or serving in a civilian, supportive role.  They can’t really be expected to threaten their careers.  Others are  obviously far more concerned about putting their new lives together than with debating foreign policy.  But if you read between the lines, they all seem to be defensively answering the question:  “why the hell did you enlist?”.  And one of the most compelling portrait/testimory combinations of all is the young, troubled looking security guard who had “No Statement”.