Avant-Garde Under the Microscope

POSTED BY , ON April 14, 2011, Comments Off on Avant-Garde Under the Microscope

The upcoming exhibition Avant-Garde Art in Everyday Life will feature over 300 objects created by central and eastern European artists who believed that art’s role was to revolutionize the habits of everyday life. They were influenced by urban culture and mass media, and many created both one-of-a-kind pieces and commercially-produced objects.

While the exhibition is organized by the Department of Photography, it includes a wide variety of media extending outside the photographic realm. In order to compensate for this, we had to devise a system to identify the processes and simplify our media categories to make easier comparisons. Some identification remained the same: gelatin silver prints were left as gelatin silver prints; porcelain was still porcelain. However, identifying the commercial printing processes used for posters, periodicals, and books in the exhibit proved tricky, as I was trained in photographic processes and only had limited knowledge of printmaking techniques, let alone commercial ones.

With a list of objects, I enlisted the aid of Kristi Dahm, Assistant Conservator of Prints & Drawings to light my way through the maze of medium identification. Kristi provided invaluable information, explaining the techniques, terms, and methods used to identify the various types of printing processes used. She also pointed me to a book entitled, How to Identify Prints: A Complete Guide to Manual and Mechanical Processes from Woodcut to Inkjet by Bamber Gascoigne, an outstanding visual guide I used liberally during the identification process.

With Kristi’s instruction and Bamber Gascoigne’s text, we decided on identification terms to identify all the commercial processes: letterpress, lithograph, and gravure. Below are the microscopic examples to help you identify the differences and impress your fellow visitors.


Letterpress is a colloquial term for commercial relief printing processes including halftone letterpress and line block processes. To make the print, the printer inks a metal printing block with the letters and images rendered on a raised surface. The metal form is then pressed into the paper, making the excess ink squish to the edges and creating indents in the paper. The effect of the indents is often referred to as planar distortion. Under the microscope, the excess ink around the edges and the planar distortion (circled in the image immediately above) from the printing block provides the clues needed to easily identify the technique.


Patterns of the Wind

POSTED BY , ON March 30, 2011, Comments Off on Patterns of the Wind

How do you make something that’s invisible visible? If you have walked through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court lately you may have noticed an installation called Shade by London-based Dutch designer Simon Heijdens, which illustrates this idea. The piece, which is visible both from Griffin Court and inside the second floor galleries, translates the speed and direction of the wind outside the museum into a play of light in the space inside. (A rendering is above, but you can view a video of it from inside the gallery here and another video with a view from outside the exhibition here.) Heijdens describes Shade as “a responsive skin to the windows… that translates the ever-changing natural timeline of the outdoor to the static and perpetual indoor space.” Although a building’s internal environment can change with the outdoor light and climatic conditions (especially in mostly glass buildings like the Renzo Piano-designed Modern Wing), this installation makes subtle outdoor changes more apparent to those inside.

To understand how this complex artwork was installed in the museum, I spoke to Kevin Lint, Executive Director of Telecommunications & Network Services, who explained more about how the piece works. Shade is made from a new material developed by Heijdens that uses liquid crystal technology. A film made from this material is divided into triangle-shaped cells, embedded with electrical wiring, and applied to the window. Then an electric current is passed through the cells, changing them from opaque to transparent and back again based on information from a sensor that measures current wind patterns. The wind sensor is located on the roof of the Ferguson building (the museum’s administrative wing), and it sends data recorded outside to a laptop in the gallery through the Art Institute’s wireless network. The laptop is located out of view on a hidden shelf in the gallery, and runs a custom application created by the artist that interprets and reconfigures the data and sends signals to the individual panels on the window. The wiring embedded in the film carries electricity that can then energize individual panels, making them opaque. The result is an ever-changing array of flickering shapes projected onto the floor, walls, and ceiling of the gallery. There is only a very short delay, so the piece basically reflects real-time information coming from outside. The installation of this piece involved many staff members in the museum including the departments of architecture and design, museum technology, information services, and physical plant.

Museum visitors I’ve spoken to have been fascinated by the piece, which Heijdens was inspired to make based on Chicago’s reputation as the “windy city.” Many are mesmerized by the patterns of light even if they’re not sure what is causing them. People have told me that it reminds them of triangular pieces of a quilt, or the movement of waves across a beach, or pixels on a computer screen. One high school student told me that he could almost hear the song “Colors of the Wind” from the Disney movie Pocahontas as he looked at it. Another visitor wondered what the installation might have looked like during the recent blizzard, with winds gusting up to 60 miles per hour. (Kevin says that it wouldn’t have been moving at all because the sensor was likely covered by snow).

Click here to read more about the Hyperlinks exhibition (on view until July 20) and to find out more about Simon Heijdens and his work, visit his website. I especially like the images of two of his previous installations, Tree of 2005 and Lightweeds of 2006, which—like Shade—consist of moving and changing light projections on buildings. What I find inspiring about Heijden’s installation in the Modern Wing is that it draws people into the museum, activating the space both inside and outside the galleries and generating conversation, while also connecting the art inside to the natural environment beyond.

99 Ways to Paint Snow

POSTED BY , ON November 10, 2010, 8 COMMENTS

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.[1]  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).[2] 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.”[3] 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.

[1] A. James Speyer Memorial Lecture on Contemporary Art. May 7, 2008.
[2] Neal Benezra, Robert Ryman: The Charter Series (The Art Institute of Chicago, 1987).
[3] Judy Ledgerwood, “Speakeasy,” New Art Examiner 23 (January 1996): 15.

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Green Design as a Teaching Tool

POSTED BY , ON September 16, 2010, Comments Off on Green Design as a Teaching Tool

Tens of thousands of school children visit the Art Institute every year, and they are served by the museum in part by programs for educators. In our workshops, K-12 teachers learn strategies for engaging their students with original works of art at the museum and integrating art across their curriculum back at school. One recent teacher program was the three-day workshop Exploring Green Architecture and Design, which used the architecture of the Modern Wing as a starting point for broad-ranging discussions about sustainability, design, and education. The group consisted of educators from Chicago Public Schools and other local school districts, with subject area specialties ranging from art to technology and foreign language.

In this workshop, we asked: How can learning to think like a designer build skills for problem solving and critical thinking? And what exactly is sustainable or “green” design? Over the three days we explored what sustainability means in terms of objects, buildings, and cities. Teachers examined designed objects in the Modern Wing galleries and learned about the green features of the building, which received a Leadership in Energy Efficient Design (LEED) Silver Rating from the US Green Building Council. You can see a video about that here.

After looking at the Modern Wing and some of the design objects in the collection, the group visited the Lurie Gardens in Millennium Park with a landscape architect and toured the Chicago Model City exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation to consider the role buildings and landscape design play in the city as a whole. They also visited the Chicago Center for Green Technology to see even more green building strategies in action, and left inspired by the green roof, rain barrels, alternative energy sources, and permeable pavement that we saw there. I’m happy to say the group left abuzz with ideas for implementing some of these features in their own homes and schools.

On another day of the workshop, the group was joined by architect Linda Keane of the School of the Art Institute, who has developed a fantastic K-12 design curriculum called NEXT. Linda led the group in several activities; they created models of architectural pavilions based on natural forms and developed plans for greening their existing school campuses by adding features such as green roofs, gardens with native plants, stormwater management systems, solar panels, and recycling facilities. Teachers then created digital versions of their designs using Google SketchUp, a free online three-dimensional modeling program. Some examples of the projects they created are here and here:

From the museum’s perspective, one of the most satisfying things about a workshop like this is how teachers react to what they learn and make plans to incorporate it into the classroom. These teachers have big plans to make art with recycled materials, help students formulate ways to be more responsible with energy and resources, and teach creative thinking in terms of the environment. We’re excited to see what they do!

New Roger Brown Installation

POSTED BY , ON July 30, 2010, Comments Off on New Roger Brown Installation

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.

— Be sure to check out more works by Brown (including the cool decal above) in the Chicago Stories exhibition on view in the Prints and Drawings galleries through August 15th.

–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.