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,” )