The Art Institute is a collection of collections, each compelling on its own terms yet capable of telling richer, more extraordinary stories when brought into focused and compelling dialogue. This past December, they unveiled just such a conversation in the galleries of contemporary art. Featured among this revelatory exhibition are more than forty iconic works gifted to the museum by Chicago collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson. These new paintings, sculptures, and photographs transform the museum’s presentation of contemporary art, bringing new depth and perspective to the Art Institute’s already strong holdings; and this exhibition is a powerful celebration of the remarkable collection considered to be one of the strongest of any encyclopedic art museum in the world.
First, I’ll say that this exhibition is big – like irresistibly, devastatingly, gargantuan big. Around every wall there are countless pieces to take in, and every artist you expect (and want) are represented: Mark Rothko’s stained canvas Untitled (Purple, White, and Red) begs to convey the artist’s metaphysical aims of the spiritual and emotional; Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.) by the incomparable Felix Gonzalez-Torres captures the joy of love and the heartbreaking sadness in loss with his individually wrapped, multicolored cellophane candies (pictured here); and Cindy Sherman’s, Untitled #92 (pictured above) dares me to look away – go ahead, try. By the time I get to Katharina Fritsch’s playful and colorful Woman with Dog (Frau mit Hund) I am gratifyingly giddy, visually spent; and entirely mentally overwhelmed. It is clear that the point of the exhibition was not just to highlight the monumental gift of Edlis | Neeson, but to give a full overview of contemporary art through many disciplines, movements, and decades, so this should have come as no surprise; but I didn’t realize just how overpowering it would be to see all of this at one time. But I did. See it all. In one viewing.
As I wandered from one cavernous room to the next, I found myself (on a few occasions) squeal with joy as I found new works I had never seen by some of my favorite artists and gasp in surprise as I discovered new artists for the first time. The substantial presentations of works by Gerhard Richter and Cy Twombly alone encapsulated my entire experience, both earning entire rooms to their work (Twombly a bit more).
To say that Richter is a painter is a disservice to both the artist and the genre – he is so much more than either the title or the media suggests. His ability to conjure such dramatic responses to his reserved photo-paintings of ordinary images get me every, single, time. Davos, an intoxicating yet alienating painting based on an image from his Atlas series, is formal and composed and unbelievably subtle. There is an ease felt when viewing this work that I can’t explain – its not a calmness, but rather a knowingness that passes between myself and the image. I cannot stop thinking about it.
Untitled, noted as one of Cy Twombly’s earliest and best-known sculptures, reflects his ability to avoid categorization within any movements of the twentieth century; but instead he chose to make his own world of self-created talismans, histories, and legends. Here, Twombly wraps bands of canvas around eleven uneven sticks, each stained and dotted by holes, staples, and wires, a few nails still remain. This fence-like structure is then mounted atop a constructed platform of equally exhausted wooden blocks, all leaning slightly backwards. Part artifact, part omen, this small icon becomes what I consider to be the three-dimensional manifestation of the importance of “the line” so prevalent in his paintings; as he once described when talking about his process: “Each line is now the actual experience with its own innate history. It does not illustrate – it is the sensation of its own realization.” The line (Twombly’s reflection of the self) here becomes an object: conjured, realized, idolized.
An entirely new find was the text-based painting, Stranger in the Village #13 by Glenn Ligon: a visual and oversized, quoted passage from author James Baldwin’s 1953 essay of the same title, rendered in paint and black coal dust. The text itself is nearly illegible, only the peaks and valleys of the built-up letters catch the light to indicate a letter and a word are present. As I am unfamiliar with Ligon and his work, the provided information indicates that his work questions the themes of authorship, history and identity. And specifically, that he created this work in response to Baldwin’s written experience as an African American living in a remote village in Switzerland, once commenting, "The gravity and weight and panoramic nature of that work inspired me . . . and the addition of the coal dust seemed to me to do that because it literally bulked up the text." It is an interesting proposition that the inclusion of text, but only in a manipulated protruding format, begins to address language’s inability to fully articulate experience; and I am drawn to his constructed physicality of words. and I can understand the supposition of using another’s words within the confines of examining history, language, and identity; however, I am struck by Ligon’s choice to utilize another’s thoughts and ideas and I find myself wanting the words to be his own. Regardless, Ligon’s work decidedly warrants more research on my part.
Just opposite Ligon’s dense black painting is Grater 2 by German conceptual artist Rosemarie Trockel, also a new discovery. It is monumental in its size, a common, machine-made kitchen utensil becomes a glossy, platinum, handcrafted clay wall relief – reflecting both the viewer and everything that surrounds me. Borrowing from the domestic arena and referencing objects associated with housework, Trockel magnifies the female role in society by linking the handmade with an object traditionally considered as part of women’s work to an object of the masculine domain of industrial production. The most interesting part of the work is, of course, the evidence of Trockel’s hand left in the surface of the tiles – the gouges and scratches make this about her; and in making it personal, I feel more connected to the work and to the artist.
One of my most favorite works was 50 Fragments of Ear by Tomio Miki, a Japanese performance/ avant-garde artist who later developed a practice known as “Obsessional Art.” Abandoning all other forms, Miki focused exclusively on the ear form, sculpting hundreds of ears – always fragmentary, not only severed from the body but also often cut up into pieces. Most of these cast aluminum chunks are still recognizable as ear segments, others much less so, becoming discarded body parts or artifacts of the modern human experience. It is an odd object to select for such dedicated lifetime fixation, but is loaded with connotation: a surrogate for the body, the power of sound, reference to the voice and hearing and subsequently language. When asked once why he chose the ear specifically as his sculptural subject, Miki answered quixotically, saying that it originated in an “experience in a train, when, for no reason, I suddenly felt myself surrounded by hundreds of ears trying to assault me. This personal episode, however, wouldn’t be any precise answer to why I make ears. I can hardly say I chose the ear. More precisely, isn’t it, that the ear chose me?” Undoubtedly so.
It is an enormous undertaking and challenge to chart the course of some of the most adventurous art movements since the 1950s, from Abstract Expressionism to Pop Art, and to document their legacies on artists in-between and after. From Jackson Pollock’s revolutionary abstract painting Greyed Rainbow (pictured here) to Richard Prince’s sexy Untitled (girlfriend) to Andy Warhol’s dueling Pat Hearn silkscreens (pictured below), many of the works were and are audacious, provocative, and often controversial. This theme carries through nearly ever room of the exhibition, including the prominent placement of Still by the ever polemic Damien Hirst and the petite collection of works by the divisive Jeff Koons, punctuated by the gaudy and ornate mirror titled Christ and the Lamb. There are no silent memes here, every piece stirs strong and vocal responses now, just as they did at the time of their debuts; and I am surrounded by lively debate of their legitimacy, reason for inclusion, and supposed intentions. As I exit the exhibition, my mind reeling, I revel in the fact that this is the whole point, of this exhibit and of art in general. I heartily encourage you to join the dialogue.
The New Contemporary is open now in the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago, located at 111 S Michigan Avenue, Chicago.