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A Look Back at a Brilliant Year

POSTED BY , ON December 31, 2012, 2 COMMENTS

An election, an Olympiad, and Gangnam Style: 2012 was a momentous year, especially for the Art Institute. Blockbuster exhibitions, shiny new galleries, and big technology updates were the talk of the town.

One of the biggest happenings of the year was Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective, which brought together nearly 170 iconic works like Brushstroke with Spatter (1966) and attracted nearly 350,000 visitors.

The new Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art also took shape around McKinlock Court. Designed by wHY Architecture, the new sun-drenched galleries now hold over 550 works from 4,000 years of life in the Mediterranean region. The location of the galleries—right at a crossroads in the museum—is definitely fitting considering the huge influence of the Greek and Roman world on Western art.

The Art Institute continued to go high-tech in 2012. Members can now show their member card on an iPhone, over 133,000 people like us on Facebook, and LaunchPads—specialized iPads chock full of info and fresh new perspectives on works—are now in two spaces (the Jaharis Galleries and the European Decorative Arts galleries).

As usual, the curators presented shows worthy of a blizzard of superlatives. Here’s just a small sample of the exhibitions that filled the galleries in 2012:

Rarely seen Renaissance and Baroque drawings showed the creative spark behind the work of prolific Italian painters.

A photography exhibition took a deeper look at the groundbreaking work of two highly influential surrealists.

1:1 scale copper replicas of pieces of the Statue of Liberty filled Pritzker Garden.

Moving, moving-image works by prominent artist Steve McQueen went on display in an innovative presentation in Regenstein Hall.

And exhibitions explored the cutting-edge designs of fashion houses Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund; as well as the impressive accomplishments of Chicago architect Jeanne Gang.

Yes, it’s been a big year for the museum, but 2013 promises to be even more grand. More news in the New Year, but for now, we’re off to toast a great year and to ring in the next. Happy New Year!

Image Credits:

Roy Lichtenstein. Brushstroke with Spatter, 1966. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Art Institute of Chicago, Barbara Neff Smith and Solomon Byron Smith Purchase Fund.

View of the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art.

View of LaunchPad technology in the Mary and Michael Jaharis Galleries of Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Art.

Giovanni Benedetto Castiglione, called Il Grechetto. The Creation of Adam, late 1640s. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of an anonymous donor; restricted gifts of Dr. William D. and Sara R. Shorey, and Mr. and Mrs. George B. Young.

Installation view of Entre Nous: The Art of Claude Cahun at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Danh Vo. Installation view of We The People (detail), 2010–2013.

Steve McQueen. Installation view of exhibition Steve McQueen at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Installation view of Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund at the Art Institute of Chicago, 2012.

Studio Gang Architects. Installation view of Building: Inside Studio Gang Architects, on view at the Art Institute of Chicago September 24, 2012–Sunday, February 24, 2013.

What Was Lichtenstein Doing on May 13, 1977?

POSTED BY , ON September 10, 2012, Comments Off

Extracted from the comprehensive exhibition catalogue, explore our new—and incredibly detailed—online timeline of Lichtenstein’s life and work. Some fun facts I learned from a quick perusal of Lichtenstein’s early life:

– In the Summer of 1937, he was hard at work on “romantic watercolors” of the forest and lake of his Maine summer camp.

– In 1940 he took Reginald Marsh’s painting class at the Art Students League.

– While stationed in Europe during World War II, he saw exhibitions about Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne. He also had a rather dashing photo taken in front of the Eiffel Tower.

– Lichtenstein taught at Ohio State University after finishing his BFA and MFA there. But in 1950, he was denied tenure due to lack of “substantial growth.”

– In 1951 he started bringing his paintings to gallerists in New York…strapped on top of his car.

Oh, and in case you’re still wondering, on May 13, 1977 he was awarded doctorate of fine arts from the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia.

Image credit: Lichtenstein, age eleven, at Lake Buel, in Massachusetts, 1933. Photographer unknown. The Roy Lichtenstein Foundation Archives.

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Lichtenstein of the Week

POSTED BY , ON August 31, 2012, Comments Off

The dots are rolling out after an unforgettable summer at the Art Institute. Over the past several months, we’ve come to see Roy Lichtenstein as far more than the creator of comics-inspired paintings such as Whaam! and Ohhh…Alright… We’ve discussed the artist’s wide-ranging explorations (Chinese landscapes, American presidents, and Art Deco-influenced sculpture), told you what the dots are made of, and heard from a very tough critic. But, as Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective enters its final days in Chicago, we return to the iconic War and Romance paintings for which Lichtenstein is best known.

Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But… captures a generic-looking blonde in a melodramatic moment. The painting succinctly conveys the anguish of that phone call, albeit in a distant, matter-of-fact way. While from a distance it may look mechanically produced like many comic panels, a closer look reveals just how much  thought and skill went into hand-painting each line and benday dot. The painting seems to be both everyday and timeless, familiar and entirely new. These qualities—familiarity and surprise—are not unique to this piece, but are characteristic of many of the works we’ve discussed the past few months.

For those of us who’ve had the pleasure to be a part of the Art Institute’s presentation of this exhibition, we feel conflicted like the blonde in the painting: we love works like Oh, Jeff…, but we know it’s time to share Lichtenstein with the rest of the world.

Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective closes on Monday.

Image Credit: Roy Lichtenstein. Oh, Jeff…I Love You, Too…But…, 1964. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Collection Simonyi.

Hangin’ with Nick Barron

POSTED BY , ON August 30, 2012, Comments Off

What could be so hard about hanging paintings on a wall? More than you think! A huge amount of meticulous work went into installing each and every piece in Roy Lichtenstein: A Retrospective—all 163 of them. I took some time with Nick Barron, Departmental Specialist in Contemporary Art and 29-year veteran of the museum, to talk about the intricacies of hanging this exhibition, as well as what it’s like to get up close and personal with the masterpieces of our time. And who knows, you might pick up some pointers for your home!

Katie: When you are getting ready for an exhibition of this size, when and how do the works start arriving at the museum?

Nick: You know, meetings begin way before the art is set to arrive to talk about the procedure—when the art is coming, how many trucks are arriving, what’s on each truck. They try to arrange the schedule so that certain works come first or come around the same time so the curator can start working once the art is unloaded, unpacked, and conditioned. You often can’t get going until all the players in a certain gallery have arrived.

I know that [curator] James Rondeau works with a three-dimensional model to lay out exhibitions. But did the model just provide a general idea of where things were going to go or did you see a lot of changes once the art was actually in the space?

The model was very close to what the show actually looks like. But of course, once you get in a room and you put the art there—once you see the art in person—it has a life and energy of its own, which you can’t always tell in the model.  And sometimes it carries over to a whole other room, because when you move something in a doorway, you can then see it in the next gallery. Sometimes it’s visible two or three rooms away, so it’s an evolving process.

When did you begin installing this exhibition?

We had three weeks, 16 working days. And actually, three weeks is really tight. People think that three weeks is a lot of time, but it’s not because you have to take into consideration unloading trucks and moving crates and then moving the art and laying it out. And you haven’t even started hanging yet. So when you have a show of over 160 works, it’s not like you can go quickly through. It went right down to the wire.

And there are always obstacles that we aren’t aware of that need to be fixed. Once we had one of the sculptures here, we saw that the pedestal we built was too low. So another one had to be built right away. Then you have to wait for the paint to dry, so that kind of stops that room. Issues like that generally come up along the way.

What was the first work installed in the exhibition?

Actually the first two works we installed were these two works that we’re standing in front of [see one example above].

The entablatures?

Yes. Since they’re so long (ed. note: 20 feet), we used two electric lifts with a large platform in between, so there was a solid base that the works could rest on. We didn’t want to lift them that high just holding them because the works could torque, which would obviously be really, really bad. We stayed on the lift with the paintings the whole way up.

Like the entablatures, quite a few of the paintings in this exhibition are very large. How did you go about installing them? How many people did it take?

Sometimes the larger paintings are lighter and not as bad as you think. And then sometimes the smaller paintings are actually much harder because of the weight and the thickness of the frame. You can’t grab it well. Then you have to decide if you need equipment to lift it up. Sometimes we use an electric lift with a base on it where we can lift the picture to the height necessary instead of people actually trying. But most of the large ones need 4 people for hanging and measuring.

What sort of tools to you use to ensure that everything is level?

Levels, mostly. But often paintings aren’t exactly square or rectangular because of the stretchers, so it might read as level on one side, but another side shows that it’s higher on the right. You have to go to your eye eventually, but sometimes two or three people will all see it differently. One person will look at it and say it’s a little high on the right and another person will look at it and say no, it’s a little high on the left.

There are some works in here that I’ve battled for a long time. Every time I walk past that room, I feel like it doesn’t look right and I’ll check it with the level and it’s like no, it’s level.  But eventually by the end of it, I have to change it because every time I came, I said that doesn’t look right and that’s what the visitors see. Even though the level said it’s correct, you don’t see it that way. And so I asked other people in the department and they all agreed, yeah, it looks a little high on the left. So we lowered it and it looks fine now, even though it’s not technically level.

How do you know exactly how high to hang something?

The curator will designate a hanging height. And different curators will hang at different heights. In a space like this with such a high ceiling, if you hang the picture low, you see all the space above it. In the European galleries, though, with a lower ceiling, they hang a little lower. Another reason to hang a little higher is that is a lot of these pictures are very large. So if you hang the smaller pictures at a lower center height and then you have a bigger one that climbs the wall really high, the one that’s lower can feel awkward. So the curator picks the center line and almost every picture in the show will hang on that center line. In the Lichtenstein exhibition, it’s 64 inches. So every picture in here is centered on a 64-inch height except for the very, very large paintings or paintings like the Entablatures, which have been positioned up high for other reasons. The larger ones are hung 20 inches off the floor to stay away from the baseboard.

What were some of the most difficult works to install in this exhibition?

The Entablatures were very hard, both because of the height involved as well as their length and the difficulty associated with unpacking them. We had to ensure there was minimal risk of them twisting or bending at any point. And then once you’re dealing with height, it’s always a little bit nerve wracking, but you just make sure you handle everything with great respect and care. These aren’t just some objects. They’re great, great works of art. And if anything ever happened, I don’t know how you would deal with that.

How do you hang pieces if there’s one on top of the other, like in the Landscapes gallery?

Of course, you never hang above another picture. If you had to, you would take the bottom one off, hang the top one, and then hang the bottom one again. Sometimes we’ll even remove pictures off to the side if we need extra room around a painting. Or if we’re creating any vibration in the wall. In fact, we didn’t use any nails in the show. We tried to use all screws and predrilled the holes.

And are they all centered on the walls?

No. It’s funny—usually if you see a painting adjacent to a corner, it looks like it’s centered, but typically it will be a couple inches out of the corner.

What does “out of the corner” mean?

Well, normally you might have a painting on the wall and 20 inches on either side. But if there’s a corner, we’ll take it out a few inches and have 21 or 22 inches on that side and 18 on the other. But you have the illusion that the work is centered.

As an artist it must be exciting for you to come in such close contact with these pieces.

Oh, it’s unbelievable. Unfortunately, Roy Lichtenstein is no longer alive, but here at the museum I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of the greatest artists alive—like Jasper Johns and Ellsworth Kelly—and some of the artists that I think will become the greatest artists alive. Even if they’re not at that status yet, it’s still so great to meet these people and see them interact with their work. That, as an artist, is one of the greatest pleasures of working in the field of contemporary art.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Well, one of the things I really love that I don’t know if a lot of people think about is the sculpture at the front of the show. Placing that was one of the moments when James worked really closely with us. He walked all around the balcony as we moved it around. It’s just one example of James not easing up until he got that sculpture placed exactly where it should be. I love that the brushstroke is pointing you towards the show. See how perfect it looks to have the shape silhouetted against that column? There was really nowhere else that you could get that. Everywhere else the words [on the title wall] ate it up or the dark wall ate it up.

It draws you in.

It tells you that you’re in the right place. A lot of people don’t notice that stuff, but it’s what I love about working with James or working with artists. You see how they think and how they make these decisions. It helps me as an artist actually.

Image Credits:

Roy Lichtenstein. Entblature #8 (detail), 1972. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Private Collection.

Roy Lichtenstein. Galatea (detail), 1990. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Private Collection.

Art Scene Investigation: What’s in the Dots?

POSTED BY , ON August 29, 2012, 1 COMMENTS

When you come to see our Lichtenstein exhibition (And hurry if you haven’t! The show closes on September 3.) you’re likely to be swept away by the bold colors, crisp lines, and strong visual power of the imagery of this exciting show. But what about the labels? Most people just take a quick glance, if at all.

But if you are one of those who did, I want you to know that at the Art Institute we take great care in everything we do, including museum labels and what in museum-speak is called the media description. And no, we are not talking about social media. A medium is an artist’s alphabet: the stuff the art is made of. For many of the paintings in the show, the media description reads “oil and Magna.” Now, we all know oil paint, but Magna? If you have some Italian in you like me, you will know magna means “eat up.” But that’s not the point here, and I suspect the name has more to do with the Latin word for greatness anyway. Magna was the first acrylic paint developed by pioneering colourman Leonard Bocour, who worked with artists to develop a new medium for them. Acrylic paints, so ubiquitous these days, were developed as artists’ paints only in the late 1940s. Magna, a type of acrylic paint thinned with solvents (like good-old, smelly turpentine), was the first to appear, and since the heyday of its marketing it was touted as “the first new painting medium in 500 years.”

Magna paints acquired rock star status with many artists, but Roy Lichtenstein was so loyal to it that he once said “I could paint with something else, but I’d have to learn to paint all over again.” Magna produced the smooth, matte, commercial, pop-art look he liked. With it he could emulate mass-produced, popular art like advertisements or comic books, abandoning the thick, expressive brushstrokes and nuances of Abstract Expressionist painting that held premier position at that time. So, when Magna went out of production, Lichtenstein immediately seized up all the available stock and contacted another paint manufacturer (Golden artists colors) to talk them into making a paint of similar formula. So that’s why if you look at those museum labels in the show, we don’t say oil and acrylic, but, more specifically, “oil and Magna on canvas.” But why both? Well, differently from the latex emulsions you can buy today at the store, acrylic paint remains soluble if you go back to it with a loaded brush and the appropriate solvent. Also, acrylic paint dries fast, much faster than oil, and Lichtenstein needed an alternative medium to paint his famous Ben-Day dots. Lichtenstein used a stencil and either rolled or dabbed the oil paint over it to create the dots. Had he done it with just Magna early on when he was using an aluminum stencil, the paint would have dried up immediately and would have pulled away when removing the stencil. Later on, though, Lichtenstein started using paper stencils for the dots, and masking tape for the lines, and so perhaps he could use both oils and Magna for the dots and lines, or just oil. Or maybe there are even some works where he experimented with different media.

So that’s when the art detective got curious. Yeah, we say that the solid areas of colors are Magna, and the dots are oil, but is it really true? We write it on the labels and in the catalogues because this is the 20th century and we have photos and interviews and radio and television and Lichtenstein himself told us it is oil and Magna…but what’s REALLY in the dots? And this is where science can come to the rescue. If we want to be 100% sure where the artist’s brush laid down oil or Magna, we do not need a time machine, but only some tech toys. In the past, in order to answer the question we would have had to take a small surgical scalpel and, under a microscope and with a steady hand, maybe from an edge of the painting where nobody would ever be able to see, we’d have to chip away a small fragment of the paint and bring it to our CSI-style lab to be analyzed. But now, thanks to our technological world that never sleeps, we can take a miniaturized instrument with a small source of infrared  light inside, shine a little beam of light on the surface of the paintings and…bam! We know the answer, incontrovertibly, for sure: oil is in the dots here, Magna on the solid areas of color. And thus we are able to note it correctly on the labels.

To add to the thrill, we have to do all of this early in the morning, when the museum is still closed. Like Pierce Brosnan in The Thomas Crown Affair, we wheel our instruments in, silently disable the elastic rope of the stanchions and…this is where the analogy ends, because we then very legitimately and carefully start to analyze the paints under the watchful eye of one of our security guards.

As the instrument buzzes, I cannot help but think that here’s something magic and moving—being here in the galleries alone, in deep silence, in front of these monumental paintings. Red dot…done, yellow stripe…done, blue triangular wedge…done. It’s 10:20 a.m. and time to pack up. The room echoes with the click clack of our black cases, and then we smoothly wheel them out. A staffer gets into position at the podium at the entrance of the exhibition; we nod politely, and off we go. As if we were never there. Another mystery solved.

—Francesca Casadio, Andrew W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist

Image Credit: Roy Lichtenstein. Mirror #3 (Six Panels) (detail), 1971. © Estate of Roy Lichtenstein. Anstiss and Ronald Krueck Fund for Contemporary Art, facilitated by the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation.

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