The New Contemporary at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Reopened December 2015.
Galleries 288, 290-299 in the Modern Wing.
For a museum that bills itself encyclopedic, the Art Institute of Chicago was long lacking a comprehensive contemporary section to complete its smorgasbord of the world’s greatest art. Last April, plastics tycoon Stefan T. Edlis and his wife Gael Neeson changed all that with a gift of forty-four pieces by such recognized names as Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and several others. These works are currently on display in the Modern Wing of what TripAdvisor has dubbed “the world’s best museum.” The Institute’s pledge to display the works rather than pack them away was “an offer I could not refuse,” Edlis stated, leaving him and the general public equally happy. Edlis, although still in good health, wanted worthy homes for his extensive collection while still alive. These forty-four works now rest comfortably on the “Big Shoulders” of his adopted hometown.
Prior to the gift, the Institute boasted only one major picture by Warhol: a 1970s portrait of Mao Zedong. Also absent were early works of Johns and anything by Damien Hirst. The addition of these and other pieces now enables the museum to show how Pop Art’s precursors led to its explosion, and how Pop Art in turn gave birth to the trends of today. This is precisely how James Rondeau, the Dittmer Chair and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Institute, and his colleagues have conceptualized the arrangement.
A visit begins on the fringe of figuration and abstraction with Willem de Kooning’s Excavation (1950), inspired by a scene of women working in a rice field in the neorealist film Bitter Rice. This highly wrought composition of eerie but pleasing colors provokes all the right questions about art and where it’s headed in the second half of the twentieth century. The title alludes to de Kooning’s meticulous care for the desired effect. Of equal interest is his Interchange (1955), a compelling experiment in motion and form in paint.
De Kooning’s spark ignited Jackson Pollock, whose Number 17 (1948) and Greyed Rainbow (1953) offer a powerful introduction to Abstract Expressionism. The latter has been in the Institute’s possession for some time and exemplifies Pollock’s under-appreciated sense of color and his ability to tame the violent movement inherent in his action paintings.
Cy Twombly manages to notch up the provocation in a less violent way with The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus (1961) and Untitled (Bolsena) (1969). The former, a sparse presentation of numbers, forms, and grids, loosely conveys the art, science, and eros coming forth from the Mountain of Apollo and the Muses.
The weightiness of de Kooning, Pollock, and Twombly is wonderfully balanced by the playfulness of Jasper Johns. Edlis’s search for a Johns led him to Sotheby’s, where he acquired Target (1961) for $31.5 million. Unlike Pollock, Johns was after the essence of things rather than himself, prompting a fresh look at everyday objects. This Target, the largest and last of Johns’ groundbreaking series, is a superior example of encaustic technique and effect, all too often taken for granted among the media now accepted as commonplace. Target is on the cusp of Pop Art, but there is an elusive depth to this and Jaspers’ other works that was subsequently blunted by Warhol. The interplay of object, artwork, and symbol still engenders a joy unencumbered by monotony and cynicism. Also present are Flag (1960) in Sculp-metal, a defunct suspension of aluminum powder in vinyl and resin highly favored by Johns due to its versatility.
No contemporary collection would be complete without Rauschenberg and Lichtenstein, and the Edlis/Neeson gift included these as well. Rauschenberg’s combine Short Circuit (1955) sets off the security alarm every few minutes as visitors, although resisting the temptation to touch Judy Garland’s autograph, take the word “OPEN” in the middle of the painting as an imperative, reaching out to peel back the panel above. More meditative is Jaspers’ Untitled (c. 1955), a hybrid of painting and sculpture made up of random materials and images echoing the three-dimensional experiments of Alexander Calder. Lichtenstein’s Woman III (1982) boldly jests Willem de Kooning’s feminine monstrosities with swaths of bright color: a wonderful didactic opportunity to contextualize the various strands of contemporary art and their tendency to quote and crossover.
An entire room is dedicated to Andy Warhol, not so much as a testimony to his superiority as to the hinge he is in twentieth-century art. Twelve Jackies (1964) offers an outstanding introduction to silkscreen and the aesthetic questions it poses. One such question comes to the fore in the Institute’s decision to catalogue the diptych portrait of Pat Hearn (1985) as two separate works. Liz #3 (1963), the “face” of the New Contemporary, is only a “partial” gift to the Institute so Ms. Neeson can enjoy it for a while longer. These works, in addition to Big Electric Chair (1967–68), Mona Lisa Four Times (1978), and others by Warhol advance the Institute’s encyclopedic aims significantly.
One of the central issues raised by the encyclopedic approach is that of taste. The selection and arrangement of the pieces in the Institute’s Contemporary section allows viewers to reflect on their own tastes and the role they play in experiencing contemporary art. Some patrons are noticeably disturbed, upset, or repulsed by what they see, and that is how it should be. Yet the question of taste is all the more poignant when it comes to the works donated by Edlis and Neeson. When you take a moment to reflect on the fact that these pieces once belonged to them, it causes you to think, even if for a moment, on their taste(s) and yours.
Most of us do not have the luxury to shop for multi-million dollar artworks, but if we did, what would we buy? In some ways, it seems Edlis and Neeson took the same encyclopedic approach to collecting privately as the Institute does publicly. Part of the charm of this exhibit is that the majority of the Edlis/Neeson works were acquired for private viewing in an apartment setting. It is fascinating to see how well this fits with Renzo Piano’s magnificent architecture in the Modern Wing. The galleries are plain and spacious but almost imperceptibly warm and inviting. There is no clutter, even in rooms dedicated principally to sculpture, much of it Twombly’s. Yet the Edlis/Neeson gift also includes Damien Hirst’s Still (1994), a glass cabinet over six feet tall and eight feet wide containing an assortment of surgical instruments and laboratory equipment, indicating that the donors were after contemporary art in general, and a wide representation of it (where do you keep a piece like Still?). There is nothing wrong with this, but it does throw the question back at us more forcefully: what do we like? What would we buy?
All this leads me to a rather harsh assessment of Jeff Koons, an artist I have tried to appreciate again and again to no avail. My problem lies precisely with taste. It’s fair to say that the standard by which we judge contemporary art can no longer be solely craftsmanship, let alone draftsmanship. But if that heightens the importance of taste, it does so not only on the side of the observer, but also the artist. To make art well, an artist must have formulated some “philosophy of taste,” and Koons’ philosophy of taste continues to baffle me. One thing is for sure: it has something to do with kitsch. Exactly what, I don’t know, but, unlike Warhol, his kitsch doesn’t seem to convey a dose of sarcasm. We are not only supposed to like Koons’ work as kitsch, we are to revel in it, soak in it, even drown in it, because, after all, kitsch is about the best we can expect from life.
That bothers me. But if it doesn’t bother you, take your time to revel in Woman in Tub (1988), Bourgeois Bust—Jeff and Ilona (1991), and Christ and the Lamb (1988). Every time I take another shot at appreciating Koons, I wonder if my vision has been clouded by his pornographic Made in Heaven series. I would like to think not, but I am not sure. I can appreciate, along with Mr. Edlis, the heart-shaped elegance of Bourgeois Bust, its baroque allusions, its conscious insertion into the history of sculpture, but in the end it still screams: “Kitsch! Love it or leave it!” And I would just as soon leave it if I can go back and soak in Johns’ Alphabet (1959).
I use this delightful arrangement of paper on hardboard as a point of contrast for a reason. It seems to me that Johns invests everything in the object rather than the artist. This artful presentation of the basic building blocks of the English language triggers my memory of learning the ABCs and literally frames that memory so that I can contemplate it in an object rather than in my head. The more I think about my subjective experience, the more the object pulls me out of it. The highly reworked surface attunes me to the movement of color almost, but not quite, at the expense of the progression of the letters. This, I think, mirrors visually what happens linguistically in poetry when we delight in the tension caused by offsetting line and syntax in enjambment.
Koons, it seems to me, tosses all such subtlety aside. The presumed profundity of his sculpture initially pulls us in, but we suddenly realize it’s only superficial—at least aesthetically. Johns’ Alphabet initially seems superficial, but we gradually realize it’s more profound, and the profoundness is not in my thoughts about the object, but in the object itself. Notice that I have not entered the minefield of the monetary worth of these artworks since that only muddles the issue.
That aside, my main point is that the New Contemporary justifiably provokes the question of taste and allows us to wrestle with that question alone or with others. Simply put, the Institute’s newly reopened contemporary galleries have suddenly made it an ideal laboratory for learning about contemporary art as “objectively” as possible. If only John Hughes could shoot Ferris Bueller’s Day Off all over again…
Granted, the gallery is heavily and unapologetically saturated with the work of American artists. But one must not overlook the exceptional samples of foreign art in Takashi Murakami (Mr. Pointy, 2011), Shozo Shimamoto and Saburo Murakami of the Gutai Art Association, and Chinese artists Xu Bing and Ai Weiwei (Wu Street, 1993). The last of these is fine example of the how the Institute achieves the right balance between giving enough information to allow the viewer to think through the issues of contemporary art.
Bing and Weiwei came up with an elaborate and ingenious joke to challenge the presumptions of the art establishment. Having salvaged a few discarded abstract canvases along a New York street, they cleverly translated an article about Jonathan Lasker into Chinese, changed the artist’s name, and attached it as a fake description of the paintings, all of which they then published in a prestigious Chinese art magazine. You can only imagine the tacit consternation it caused. Xu Bing explains that Wu Street “poses serious questions concerning the contemporary art system, the often arbitrary nature of critical language, and the basis for assessing the value of art.”
This is precisely what we novices and dilettantes want to hear. It reassures us that our ambivalence toward contemporary art is not only acceptable but justified. It challenges artist, viewer, and critic alike to step back and reassess the objective standards we use and the evaluative judgments we make about what we like and why we like it. This subtle touch to an outstanding collection not only helps to complete the encyclopedia, it pushes us to examine what we include in the encyclopedia and why.
The encyclopedia gets quite large when we include installations, but no encyclopedia would be complete without one. Hence Robert Gober’s Untitled (1989), an entire room covered with a wallpaper pattern alternating a white man sleeping comfortably and a black man hanging from a tree. In the middle of the room is a lengthy, gold wedding dress surrounded by bags of cat litter placed evenly along the base of the walls. What is this work about? Well, from the description, just what you think it is. The horror of racism, the promise of marriage, and the litter absorbing the “stench” from the walls in order to protect the nuptial hopes and dreams signified by the dress. If you must include an installation to round out the picture of contemporary art, then Gober’s fits the bill. If you would rather go straight to the pictures, exit right and find the photographs by Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman—but leave your kids with Jasper Johns.
Overall, the newly reopened New Contemporary only enhances an already exceptional world-class museum. The Institute has a clear goal and sticks to it, but it also shows enough flexibility to recognize the various ways that goal can be achieved. Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson are to be congratulated for recognizing the importance of keeping these works in the Windy City, and the Art Institute of Chicago should be recognized for knowing just which works to select from the private collection and how to arrange them.
A final word on “taste”: I do not intend to challenge the taste of the donors nor impose my own taste on the reader, but this fine collection shows how taste emerges as perhaps the key issue in assessing contemporary art. Tastes, simply put, are subjective, but they have an objective basis. Immanuel Kant’s attempt to understand this seeming contradiction has bequeathed an industry of philosophical and aesthetic speculation. We neither need to expect all artworks to be beautiful, nor do we need to rework our definition of beauty to appreciate them. There is pleasure to be had in thinking about these works and not simply in looking at them.
Yet to think about them is somehow to want to get to the “truth” about them. We have Theodor Adorno to thank for drawing our attention to that. But not even he gave enough weight to the fact that the judgment of taste is ultimately about the object we look at and not our state of mind. Anything I say about the object when it comes to taste is about the object, not about me. At the same time, the only way I can make a judgment of taste is to experience the object itself, not studying what others have said about it.
In an ideal world, I would walk into Sotheby’s or Christie’s knowing nothing about the artists whose works I am bidding for nor the identity of fellow bidders. Discussions of value and worth are by no means peripheral to understanding contemporary art, but, like wine, they are peripheral when it comes to forming well-grounded judgments of taste.
And, just like a respected wine-maker, the best a museum can do is attach a helpful label, crack open the bottle, and give the consumer as much time as needed to fill the senses and make his or her own, personal, objective judgment. The Art Institute of Chicago, true to its encyclopedic roots, has done just that.