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Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Wing: Beautiful and Challenging

By Steven Rosen · July 15th, 2009 · The Big Picture

Over the July 4 weekend, I visited the Midwest’s hottest visual-arts destination this summer — the Art Institute of Chicago’s new Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing, which opened in May.

In Chicago, a town that takes architecture very seriously, the building is being hailed as a masterpiece. Although it’s three stories high, it feels light, intimate and low to the ground, the result of using lots of glass, accented by steel mullion strips, to give the limestone-cladded facade an open and inviting spirit. The roof is a sleek, horizontal “flying carpet” that seeks to coexist rather than compete with other buildings.

While the Art Institute has traditionally been focused toward Michigan Avenue, the new wing can be entered directly by a pedestrian bridgeway from Millennium Park. This aligns the wing with that hip and artful public space that has transformed Chicago into one of the great American walking cities since it opened in 2004.

From spaces inside the Modern Wing, one can gaze out the windows and see Frank Gehry’s super-post-modernist Jay Pritzker Pavilion in the park — a great counterbalance to Piano.

I can’t imagine many people not liking the building. But the initial display of the contemporary artwork within it is liable to be more controversial. (The wing also houses 20th-century modern art, architecture and design and photography.)

It’s a radical new way for an encyclopedic collecting museum to present “the art of now.” It splits it into survey-like “classic contemporary” and galleries dedicated to showcasing challenging individual artists and still-unsettling post-1960s movements like minimalism and conceptual/political installations.

My guess is this approach is a statement by the curator in charge, James Rondeau, that contemporary art’s real meaning and vitality come from constantly engaging us in a fight with ourselves over what art is. Once it becomes accepted or feels “pretty,” it’s old hat. So make it difficult.

The downside of that approach is it can lead a museum to stress newer work of transitory interest, or even of little interest, over far more enduring work. It also favors bigness — not necessarily a virtue in these recessionary, downsizing times.

Some of the “classic contemporary” artists of the 1950s and 1960s who fill other museums — Pollock, Warhol, Rothko, etc. — go by quickly; it’s shocking how little of their work is displayed compared to the “classic” Impressionists in the Institute’s older building.

In their place, whole rooms are given over to artists whose work, shall we say, is still engaged in confronting us. Some of these I love — the watery, cataract-like visions of Gerhard Richter’s paintings find beauty in unexpected places.

But others surprise me with the space given over to them: The art world loves Bruce Naumann’s intellectualized, mixedmedia pieces far more than the public, so it’s striking for him to have two full rooms. And very quickly, the moans emanating from his “Clown Torture” video start to annoy.

And the point of an installation by Robert Gober escapes me. I just don’t see how cat litter on the floor of a room with a wedding dress in the center and wallpaper depicting lynchings adds up to the outrage at social injustice that his posted artist statement claims the piece to be.

Art Institute of Chicago, of course, sets standards for encyclopedic museums, so it will be interesting to see if others follow suit in the way they display contemporary art.

CONTACT STEVEN ROSEN: srosen@citybeat.com



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