Saturday, 14 November 2009

Chicago-hard and easy art

In Chicago the first weekend in November, SOFA, the sculpture, objects, and functional art exhibition, is a great place to see a lot of different objects in traditional craft media – wood, metalwork, fiber, mixed media, jewelry, mixed media, and glass - from dealers from around the country and the world. We go specifically to look at contemporary glass. This year the exhibition was significantly smaller than in the past and we noticed the absence of several of our favorite galleries. Nonetheless, there was plenty to see and we were exhausted by the time we were finished. It appeared that sales were rather good, although I believe the prices were lower than in the past and the lower priced objects were selling the best.

In retrospect, most of what we see at SOFA is pretty easy; the objects are often colorful, either of interest because of their color, shape, or function, or because of the narrative they include, which is generally quite easy to read because it is depicted either though pictures or pretty straightforward texts. Although some of the work there makes you laugh or smile, not much makes you struggle to deal with it.

I've been struggling a little with Liam Gillick, the British artist who occupied the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale this summer. We were completely uninterested in the nonfunctional wood cabinets he strung across the Pavilion spaces and we hardly noticed the animatronic cat perched on top of one. Learning later that the cabinets reproduced those of his kitchen did not engage my interest any further. But preparing to go to Chicago, I found that he had a small exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art there and the publicity indicated that it would juxtapose his work with that of minimal artists. So rather than think about the faux cabinets as non-functional woodwork, I felt compelled to consider them as neo-minimal and Tom and I discussed whether that works. Tom says "no" because the minimal artists reduced their objects to an essence that draws the viewer's attention to what is left. He thinks what is left is of interest because the artist has still been creative, just with much more limited media. I.e. there would not be non-functional cabinets, but wood sculptures that could never be imagined as cabinets, like Donald Judd's wood sculptures. I'm still wondering whether copying your kitchen cabinets as sculpture is sort of a minimal Pop activity, taking everyday objects and reducing them to less. But I must agree that the cabinets still would not attract my attention or inspire much reverie beyond what I've just written.

The exhibition at the MOCA included somewhat different installations. In one room Gillick replaced the frosted white ceiling glass panels with transparent colored ones, drawing one's attention to the ceiling and the fluorescent lights behind it. The label said this was supposed to make us see the space differently, and I guess the ceiling was different from the other galleries (a minimal response to the change). The colored ceiling seemed a rather obvious thing to do and was reminiscent of the bright colors Jorge Pardo had used in his retiling of the DIA Art Center on 22nd Street in New York several years ago. The same room at MOCA was subdivided with fence-like walls and each subdivision had a grey carpet. It looked somewhat like the pens you see at a cattle or horse auctions around these parts. I suppose a prison or school might also come to mind. We didn't look at the video in one of the subdivisions – it was kind of washed out.

The other space held a narrow vertical rectangular object and a large square-shaped object. Both had colorful bars shaping them and some transparent walls. The square one was very large, maybe 6 feet high and 10 feet on the sides. Both of them enclosed spaces that you could not enter and the label said we were supposed to think of them as somehow between architecture and sculpture. I thought they looked like colorful minimal sculptures. In the adjoining room there were Donald Judd works that underlined and seemed consistent with the minimalism of the Gillicks.

A few years ago I had a meeting with a rather famous headhunter. After asking about my interest in getting a job, he launched into an attack on minimal art, saying it's the Emperor's New Clothes and really not of any interest. Didn't I think so? I couldn't tell if he really meant it or if he was imitating a philistine museum goer. And I had no idea if it was a test or a way of continuing the conversation when he knew he had no interest in me as a candidate for any of the positions he controlled. But I thought the subject was interesting and I disagreed with him (politely, of course). I think the idea of reducing an art form to its essentials, seeing how little you can do and still have it be an art work, seems a worthwhile challenge. I've loved thinking about the space evoked by Karl Andre's metal tiles on the floor, the way a bi-colored painting by Brice Marden makes you look at the juxtaposition of colors and the textures and edge where the colors meet, not to mention enticing you to contemplate rather dull hues in subtle relation to each other. So minimalism can be fine. There is some question, however, as to how long one really wants to look at a minimal object and I question whether all minimal objects can hold anyone's attention, even if they are understood to be iconic masterpieces.

When we got our tickets for the Museum of Contemporary Art, the ticket person said something about Tino Sehgal, then said "Men Who Stare at Goats, BAAAA." We started a conversation with her about the movie and its reviews and about Tino Sehgal, who apparently had the ticket sellers choosing a headline each day to repeat to the visitors. Sehgal's art without objects has engaged my interest since the "guards" at the German Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2005 danced out singing "Oh, Zees is so conTEMPorary!" in a show of sculpture that really wasn't. Two years later we were at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt and wandered into a Tino Sehgal installation where people were standing around the room and all said something in German when we walked in. We didn't know what to do, didn't understand them, and made a hasty retreat. The next winter I saw the installation in New York, in English, and joined in the conversation, which reset every time a new person entered. I'm interested that his background is in theater and economics and that his art purposely avoids objects. But mostly I'm interested in the way his work encourages communication among strangers in art-based spaces. We don't normally talk much in art museums and galleries, except to our companions; Sehgal's work breaks down the distances among museum and gallery goers.

Another purpose of the trip was to visit the new modern and contemporary art galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. We detoured to see the very carefully presented Arts and Crafts exhibition, focusing on England and Chicago and drawn from collections in the Chicago area. It seemed a particularly good way to organize a reasonably priced exhibition that includes beautiful and unusual objects, presents wonderful ideas and coherent historical information, and connects to the specific community and its relationship to the world. The exhibition includes the expected furniture, textiles, book illustrations, ceramics and metalwork, and also includes photographs. Beginning with William Morris and ending with the Prairie School and Frank Lloyd Wright, it presented both familiar and unfamiliar works of art, most of them fascinating. We were interested in the progression from Morris's focus on the handmade object and rejection of industrialization to the later artists in Chicago embracing industrialization and proclaiming industry's important role in creating the simple clean designs embraced by the movement.

Entering Renzo Piano's addition to the Art Institute from the older museum building, you first encounter a huge white hall with plain walls and high ceilings, articulated primarily by the openings on one side that accommodate the stairs, the first floor gallery entrance, the open second floor hall, and by the lights that are suspended from the ceiling in a row that extends from one end of the hall to the other and that have cords that go diagonally from the lights to the ceiling corners; this ceiling is all that really distinguishes the space from any commercial building. Otherwise, it is a bright, white straightforward flat space. That it contains no art and no color reminds me of the Stephen Holl expansion of the Nelson Atkins Museum, but the Holl structure is significantly more sculptural. I also thought of the old expansion of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with its huge but uninviting lobby.

Piano is known for museums, from the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Menil Collection in Houston to the Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas and the Morgan Library in New York. It took me a while to like the Menil Collection building, which seems to imitate a beach house from the outside, but has the carefully balanced gallery proportions and natural lighting that, combined with extraordinarily sensitive placement of the objects, makes for an enlightening and often moving art experience. In the Morgan Library, Piano designed a large open atrium the turns a formerly intimate museum - that made the visitor feel privileged - into a more corporate and brittle interior. Galleries were not a major part of that project and the additional space is no doubt useful, but it makes the Morgan feel like everywhere else, except for the older spaces, which retain some of their domesticity and tranquility.

On a beautifully sunny day, the Art Institute spaces were bright with natural light. Some of the gallery areas have window walls with shades that reduce the sunlight, but permit one to see the skyline outside. The interior gallery walls appear to be flexible, and as configured they create rooms that accommodate a relatively small number of objects. The installation included several rooms devoted to one artist; for example, Robert Gober and Bruce Nauman each had two spaces, Robert Ryman had one, as did Jim Nutt. They are beautifully proportioned, simple white boxes, and the works all had enough space to be seen easily. So after you pass through the huge lobby, the building appears to serve its art well, in a neutral, anonymous way.

The exterior of the addition, facing Millennium Park, has glass walls, lots of white vertical ribs and a roof that seems to float. It's a pleasant-looking building, but without the impact of Aqua, the new high-rise I caught a glimpse of from a taxi. Designed by woman architect Jeanne Gang of Studio Gang Architects, it stands out in a skyline of amazing buildings. Chicago is still a great city to see contemporary architecture in the United States.

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