The American Folk gallery has long been a favorite of mine here at the Art Institute. I find there’s plenty of room for the imagination to roam, as many of the objects and their creators remain obscure. Recently, I became intrigued by the mention of an “elastic chair” patent in the wall text to the deceptively simple Side Chair by Samuel Gragg. After contacting our American Art department, I learned that the furniture maker was based in Boston at the turn of the 19th century, and received his “elastic chair” patent on August 31, 1808. The document was signed by none other than Thomas Jefferson and James Madison! Though the exact technological process has not been fully identified, Gragg definitely used steam to bend the wood, and then cured it in an oven. In this way, he could make the structural components of his chairs out of single strips of wood, sometimes crafting the back, stile, and leg of a chair out of just one piece. Gragg must have been aware of the imported European trends of the day, as evidenced by the painted peacock feathers gracing the crest rail and back splat. Neoclassical style was all the rage in those days. Gragg derived the design of Side Chair from the ancient klismos chairs often depicted in Greek pottery. For all their contemporary chic, however, Gragg’s elastic chairs still bear the hand of a true innovator in American furniture design. Few extant examples of his work remain today, but the few that exist can be found in the permanent collections of museums across the country.
I think the funniest artwork in the Art Institute’s collection is Robert Ryman’s Charter series. I hear people laughing in front of it all the time. In 2008, at the annual Speyer lecture held here at the museum, Ryman himself made a little joke about his four decade-long career as an artist who uses solely white paint. Snow—that was Ryman’s preemptive answer to a question not asked by the audience. The crowd chuckled in knowing agreement; an artist like Ryman must have to employ a readymade counter to the incessant question, why white?
Ryman’s artworks are not paintings of snowscapes, but they sometimes do prompt an icy response from viewers. “Pictures of nothing” is what former MoMA curator Kirk Varnedoe might call them. “Icons of silence” is another poetic description, coined by art historian Barbara Rose. The Modern Wing gallery featuring Ryman’s five fiberglass panels, painted white and bolted to the gallery walls, is installed in the manner of the Rothko Chapel (Houston, 1971) or Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross (1958-66). It is a total environment for the slow contemplation of painted objects.
On a recent walk through the Modern Wing, I counted thirteen white monochromatic paintings and sculptures on display, not including the several that have been recently rotated out of the galleries. The large number of all-white objects in the museum’s collection means that white monochromes are not an aberration in the history of art, at least, not any longer. They are a genre, like landscape or still-life. A nude painted by Picasso is very different than a nude by Matisse. Likewise, not all white monochromes are equal.
There is a spectrum of monochromes in the Art Institute’s collection, from Yves Klein’s shocking blue to a rainbow of Ellsworth Kelly panels to Ellen Gallagher’s tar black—but it is the white monochrome that seems to most persistently jar viewers. Where an art masterpiece is perhaps supposed to be filled with great substance and generous artistic insight, a white canvas rejects this assumption. A white canvas connotes a blank canvas. In a sense, the white monochrome offends because the artist seems to be withholding something. But what?
White monochromes have come to signal, in the history of art, the death of painting. The artist collective General Idea extended the death metaphor into their 1992 painting White AIDS #3. On this canvas they painted the word AIDS in the same style as Robert Indiana’s iconic LOVE design, with the letters stacked into a square. Then, they whitewashed their message with gesso so that AIDS became obscured, with only the empty spaces inside the letters (in typography this empty space is called the “counter”) showing through the painted surface in a slightly different shade of white. The message here is visibly buried. Unlike Ryman’s flat, cool panels, General Idea’s canvas sucks you in for a close inspection. The prognosis is indeed death; the pallid painting has been bloodlet. If viewers are already provoked by white monochromes, then General Idea steers their anger toward a specific, political provocation.
Painter Judy Ledgerwood similarly exploited General Idea’s method of using various shades of white to reward perceptive, and perceptually sensitive, viewers. Ledgerwood’s white painting, So What (1998), unlike Ryman’s, does actually seem to be a picture of snow. It was exhibited in a show titled “Cold Days” at The Renaissance Society in the winter of 1999. Ledgerwood used a mix of white paints, and some shine with pearl and iridescence. When hit with the museum’s strong lights, the painting can pain one’s eyes, just like the experience of staring at fresh snow. Explaining the way she builds up layers of paint on her canvasses, Ledgerwood wrote, “I hope [there are] rewards for the people who are willing to spend more time in the process of looking at them.” For a painter of white monochromes, this is a generous offering.
—Jason F., Department Coordinator, Prints and Drawings
Robert Ryman. The Elliott Room: Charter II, 1987. Lascaux acrylic on epoxy-edged fiberglass with aluminum with four unpainted round steel bolts. Gerald S. Elliott Collection, 1990.132b.
© 1985-87 Robert Ryman, Courtesy Pace Wildenstein.
Ellsworth Kelly. White Curve, 2009. Painted aluminum. Commissioned by The Art Institute of Chicago in honor of James N. Wood, President and Director, 1980–2004. Charles H. and Mary F.S. Worcester Collection Fund; Emily Rauh Pulitzer; Frederick W. Renshaw Acquisition, Mary and Leigh Block Endowment, and Ada Turnbull Hertle funds; Wirt D. Walker Trust; Joseph Shapiro, Helen A. Regenstein Endowment, Marian and Samuel Klasstorner, and Gladys N. Anderson funds; Getty Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. Charles C. Haffner III, Mr. and Mrs. David C. Hilliard, and Susan and Lewis Manilow; anonymous gift; Mr. and Mrs. John H. Bryan, Stuart D. and Nancie Mishlove, Julius Lewis and the Rhoades Foundation, Margot and Thomas Pritzker, Burt and Anne Kaplan, Frances Dittmer, Marilynn B. Alsdorf, and Mr. and Mrs. Maurice F. Fulton; Robert Allerton Income Purchase and Director’s funds; Claire and Gordon Prussian, and Nancy A. Lauter McDougal and Alfred L. McDougal; Capital Campaign General Acquisitions Endowment; Polk Bros. Foundation; Marjorie and Louis B. Susman, Patricia A. Woodworth, Mrs. Robert B. Mayer, Mrs. Jetta N. Jones, and Mr. and Mrs. Gordon I. Segal., 2008.398. © Ellsworth Kelly.
General Idea. White AIDS #3, 1992. Gesso on canvas. Object 2036450.
James Bishop. Untitled, 1980. Oil on canvas. Through prior bequest of Marguerita S. Ritman; Flora Mayer Witkowsky, Ada S. Garrett, Max V. Kohnstamm, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan, and Laura Slobe Memorial prize funds; restricted gift of Judith Neisser., 2007.67. © James Bishop. Annemarie Verna Gallery.
Robert Smithson. Chalk-Mirror Displacement, 1969. Sixteen mirrors and chalk. Through prior gift of Mr. and Mrs. Edward Morris, 1987.277. Art © Estate of Robert Smithson / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
Judy Ledgerwood. So What, 1998. Oil on canvas. 1999.225. Mr. and Mrs. Frank H. Armstrong Prize Fund, 1999.225.
Agnes Martin. Untitled #12, 1977. India ink, graphite, and gesso on canvas. Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund, 1979.356.
 A. James Speyer Memorial Lecture on Contemporary Art. May 7, 2008.
 Neal Benezra, Robert Ryman: The Charter Series (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987).
 Judy Ledgerwood, “Speakeasy,” New Art Examiner 23 (January 1996): 15.
The large geometric Sol LeWitt piece in the new temporary exhibition Lewis Baltz: Prototypes gave me an idea for yet another puzzle. This one tests your research and math skills. You can (and should) complete this puzzle online, although I strongly encourage you to come see the Baltz exhibition, and the LeWitt piece, in person. The puzzle:
1. Sol LeWitt’s Nine-part Modular Cube consists of a three dimensional grid of cubes 9 squares high, 9 squares wide, and 9 squares deep. How many different cubes of any size can be found in the piece?
HINT: Figure out how many cubes there are of each possible size 1x1x1 (729 cubes) through 9x9x9 (1 cube), and add them all up. An additional hint may be found near the end of this document.
2. Taking the answer from Question #1 (let’s call the answer “n“), find the name of the artist associated with the nth piece acquired by the Art Institute in 1922 for its permanent collection.
3. Taking the answer from #2, find the number of pages in a 1992 book about that artist in the Art Institute’s library.
HINT: The museum’s Ryerson and Burham Libraries have an online catalog.
4. Taking the answer from #3 (let’s call the answer “x”), find the title of xth piece acquired by the Art Institute in 2008. Finally, for the win, who is the lead actress in the 2004 movie of the same title? Leave it in the comments!
Sol LeWitt. Nine-part Modular Cube, 1977. Ada Turnbull Hertle Fund. © 2008 The Estate of Sol LeWitt.
POSTED BY Guest Blogger, ON July 30, 2010, Comments Off
Things are always changing in the contemporary galleries. Recently a new room of paintings by Chicago artist Roger Brown (American, 1941–97) was installed in gallery 296, on the second floor of the Modern Wing. Brown was a student at the School of the Art Institute in the 1960s and later became the most well known of a group of local artists called the Chicago Imagists. His clear, bold paintings depict stylized human figures, comic book-like narrative scenes, and surreal architectural constructions that reflect the contradictions of contemporary urban life.
Hands down my favorite work in this installation is that pictured above, Museum without Ceiling, a painting that must have been inspired by Brown’s many visits to the Art Institute. Recognize the façade?
The title plays on the phrase “Museum without Walls,” coined by French art critic André Malraux in the 1940s to describe the infinite institution that is created in one’s mind by viewing art reproductions. In his work, Brown depicts a museum that has solid walls but a transparent roof, suggesting the sense of freedom and possibility that looking at art can provide even within the boundaries of a brick-and-mortar building. The tiny figures in Brown’s museum express awe, delight, and surprise in response to sculptures resembling the work of Constantin Brancusi, Alexander Calder, and a many-armed Hindu deity, among others. By lining up silhouettes of human figures and art works side by side, Brown also suggests that visitors are often just as interested in observing other people as they are in contemplating the art works on display.
There’s a lot out we have to say about Roger Brown! Here are a few more resources:
–Art historian Sidney Lawrence compiled a list of Roger Brown’s favorite works in the Art Institute, including paintings by Giovanni di Paolo, Giorgio de Chirico, Georgia O’Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, and Edward Hopper. Here is a selection.
–In addition to the Renaissance and modern paintings he saw at the Art Institute, Brown was inspired by various aspects of visual culture including signs, billboards, folk art, and flea market junk. He amassed an amazing collection of objects from around the world, a collection on view at his former home and studio on Halsted Street and run by the School of the Art Institute. It’s a great place to visit if you want to learn more about Brown’s art. Visitor info is online here, and you can also read a bio of Brown here.
–There is also an exhibition of his work at the Hyde Park Art Center through October 3.
An artist who constantly mined the museum for inspiration, Roger Brown’s work always makes me see new connections between art works in the collection that I would never have imagined.
-Grace M., Department of Museum Education
Source: Sidney Lawrence, Roger Brown. New York: George Braziller, Inc., 1987.
Images: Roger Brown, Museum without Ceiling, 1976. Oil on canvas. Restricted gift of Ruth Horwich; Ann M. Vielehr Prize Fund.
Roger Brown, False Image Decals, 1969, Color silkscreen decals, commercially manufactured, Gift of the Roger Brown Study Collection of the School of The Art Institute of Chicago.
One of the things that I love about being a lawyer at the Art Institute is the exposure to a wonderful variety of copyright issues springing from the museum’s diverse collection. An interesting example is Peter Blume’s 1944-48 painting, The Rock.
United States copyright law has several quirks depending on when and where a work was created and published. Until recent decades, artists had to comply with certain “formalities,” or risk losing copyright protection. For example, if a painting was “published” (e.g. in a book or on a poster) prior to 1978, then the artist was supposed to “renew” the copyright term for the work at the Copyright Office during the 28th year following first publication, or the work would fall out of copyright in the United States and into the public domain. Without a good calendar app, few artists remembered these deadlines and renewed their copyrights. In 1992, U.S. copyright law did away with the renewal requirement, but that did not save non-renewed works first published in the United States before 1964, which lost copyright protection 28 years after they were published.
It can be challenging to determine when an object of fine art was legally first “published” to start the copyright clock ticking: Not every painting is depicted in a book or newspaper review and even the public exhibition of an object is not always considered sufficient. But, somewhat ironically, Blume established the first publication date and triggered the start of The Rock’s initial copyright term by painting a copyright notice directly onto the painting: “© Peter Blume 1948.” (See if you can spot it, in Gallery 262.) Thus, Blume should have renewed the copyright for the painting around the year 1976 (28 years after 1948). To the best of my knowledge, that did not happen, so the work is no longer protected by copyright in the United States.
In this day and age, it should go without saying that the foregoing does not constitute legal advice and is offered for your edification and amusement only, with no representations or warranties as to accuracy, etc., etc.