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Insider’s Look

POSTED BY , ON May 18, 2015, Comments Off on Insider’s Look

James Rondeau 2015

James Rondeau, is the Art Institute’s Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and the exhibition curator of the recently opened Charles Ray: Sculpture, He recently spoke with our Member Magazine about some of his earliest artistic memories and why you shouldn’t be intimidated by contemporary art.

Do you remember when you were first drawn to art?

My mother was a Sunday painter, so I remember growing up with her paintings around the house, and I have strong memories of the occasional visit to Boston or New York museums for “blockbuster” exhibitions of Egyptian or Impressionist art. But it was not until college that I was alerted to art history as a discipline.

If you could pick one piece from the Art Institute’s collection for your office, what would it be?

Impossible. One of the great things about my job is that the quality and depth of our collection makes any such game of favorites truly beside the point. Yes, we are proud of our singular masterpieces, but our greatness comes as a whole that is more than the sum of its individual parts.

What were some of the installation challenges with “Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014″?

Every challenge presents an opportunity to learn more about the artist’s work and about our own museum, its incredible possibilities, and its occasional limitations. In this case, the extreme weight of some of Ray’s sculptures presented real challenges. Working with our colleagues in the Department of Design and Construction alongside a team of outside structural engineers, we were able to solve most every issue.

The Art Institute has been committed to collecting contemporary art since its founding. When the museum was first established, Monet was a contemporary artist. Do you feel any kind of pressure given this legacy, being responsible for finding the Monets of today?

Not pressure per se, but a great sense of responsibility. It’s useful to remember that all great art was once contemporary. To be sure, part of our mandate is to embrace the experimental and not to be afraid of risk. That said, we know who we are as an institution, we know our history, and we know the context we provide to artists and objects. All of this makes us different from many of our peer institutions that only collect contemporary art. Hopefully an understanding of these distinctions informs the decisions we make in the most positive sense.

You get to work with living artists. What’s one thing that would surprise people about the foremost artists of today?

Surprise? Not sure. But almost without exception, I am struck by the confluence of great artistic talent with incredibly agile, open, challenging minds and kind and generous personalities. That said, great artists can also be tough. They keep us on our toes.

You curated a major exhibition of the work of the artist and director Steve McQueen the year before he won the Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave. Is this a rare crossover or the shape of things to come?

Steve is one of the great artists of his generation working with the moving image. We have presented his work twice here, first in a small exhibition in 2002 and then again with the survey we organized in 2012. I am proud that we recognized his talent early and then showed it in depth. Increasingly, artists who work with media move between formats (film, video, digital) and modes of distribution (the art gallery, the museum, the movie theater, television, the Internet). This fluidity makes things exciting but also makes identifying the differences between “art” and the “everyday” more of a challenge, possibly even irrelevant.

Some people try but struggle with contemporary art. What is your response to that?

Go with your instincts, but most contemporary art emerges from a basic paradox: because it sometimes does not look like traditional forms of expression, we find it alienating or off-putting. But precisely the opposite is intended. The revolutionary freedom inherent in contemporary art—the expanded set of possibilities for what a work of art can look like, how it can function, who can make it, and for what purposes—is meant to be both liberating and welcoming. Hopefully, we can find such an open field exciting rather than vexing.

Which would go best—a hearty red or crisp white wine—with work by the following artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Ed Paschke, Jackson Pollock, and John Chamberlain?

At least one glass of each.


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Orange and Green and Everything in Between

POSTED BY , ON May 06, 2015, Comments Off on Orange and Green and Everything in Between

Musket

In March, Ireland: Crossroads of Art and Design, 1690–1840 opened at the museum. While the century and a half the exhibition covers is noted as one of relative peace and stability in Ireland, the era was not without its conflicts. About a hundred years after the Battle of the Boyne, an unexpected group of revolutionaries led a major uprising against British rule.

But first, some background. Despite the adage that nothing is black and white, when it comes to historical conflict, we tend to divide those involved into distinct oppositions rather than consider the innumerable subtleties. Such is the case with Ireland, where popular perception of the political and religious division is not black and white, but green and orange.

This cut and dried dichotomy is embodied in Ireland’s national flag (first introduced in 1848), with green representing republicanism, or the tenet that all of Ireland should be an independent republic, and orange representing the supporters of William of Orange and those who felt Ireland should remain subject to Great Britain. Similarly but less militantly, green is also tied to Irish nationalism—the advocacy of a united Ireland and the promotion of Irish culture and language—and orange to unionism, or the belief that Ireland should retain political ties to Great Britain. Each color is also associated with the majority religion on either side—green for Catholics and orange for Protestants. The white at the flag’s center signifies the hope for lasting peace between the two groups.

Green versus orange, republican versus loyalist, nationalist versus unionist, Catholic versus Protestant—these are the dualities that have come to define Ireland’s divisive past, but as the Irish Rebellion of 1798 demonstrates, no conflict is so straightforward.

The 1798 rebellion was a major bid for Ireland’s independence first set in motion not by the Catholic majority but by a group of liberal Protestants who sought to “abolish the differences that had long divided Irishmen.” Founded in Belfast in 1791, they were fittingly called the Society of United Irishmen, and their membership crossed religious and class divides to include Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, and even some members of the Protestant Ascendancy (those Anglican aristocratic families whose authority in Ireland was solidified by William’s victory at the Boyne).

Inspired by the recent revolutions in France and America, the Society’s main ambitions were radical reform of the Irish parliament and Catholic emancipation. The British government—at war with France and increasingly concerned with the prospect of invasion—felt the United Irishmen’s progressive principles and brazen veneration of the French posed a dangerous threat. Society membership was made illegal, and the United Irishmen were forced underground where they began to plan an armed revolt for independence with French support.

Fighting broke out in May of 1798, but due to a series of mishaps and divided leadership, the rebellion was swiftly and ruthlessly defeated. In response, the Act of Union was passed in 1800, which officially united Great Britain and Ireland, closed Irish parliament, and returned all governing decisions to Westminster in London..

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was very much a “green”—i.e. republican—cause, but its leaders were almost entirely Protestant; a fact that was obscured for many years in Ireland to suit popular versions of history. Several men of this period who defy the color categorization appear in our exhibition:

Cornwallis copy

Charles Cornwallis was a decorated British general who was appointed lord lieutenant—the highest post in Ireland —in the wake of the rebellion. Cornwallis helped pass the Act of Union but pushed King George for Catholic rights. He resigned when his requests went unheeded, but his actions laid the groundwork for future emancipation movements.

Grattan copy

Henry Grattan was a Protestant aristocrat, Irish politician, and renowned orator who devoted his career to Irish legislative freedom and Catholic emancipation.

Visit the exhibition to see these men’s likenesses and learn more about the whole spectrum of Ireland’s colorful history.

—Anna Decatur, Assistant Director of Principal Gifts

Image Credits:

Dublin, Ireland. Dublin Castle Pattern 1769 Short Land Musket with Bayonet, 1770-75. Walnut, iron/steel, and brass. Private Collection.

Hugh Douglas Hamilton. Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, 1772. Pastel and chalk on paper. Private Collection.

Peter Turnerelli. Henry Grattan, 1820. Marble. Private Collection.


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Conservation FAQs

POSTED BY , ON April 30, 2015, Comments Off on Conservation FAQs

Picabia Conservation

Earlier this week, painting conservator Allison Langley began working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl in full view of the Art Institute’s visitors. And as you might imagine, our visitors have LOTS of questions. So to ensure that Allison can get some work done over the next few months, we’ve included some FAQs below.

Please feel free to add any additional questions you might have in the comments and click here for details about the conservation of this monumental painting.

Q. How many conservators are there at the Art Institute?

A. It’s a large department, in part divided by categories of artworks. There are 17 conservators, 3 conservation scientists, and a team of interns and fellows. The conservators are spread across 6 different areas: paintings, objects (sculpture), works on paper, photography, books, and textiles. They examine, research, and restore the works in the collection, and generally monitor the condition of the artworks in the museum’s galleries and storage to ensure their long-term preservation. The conservation scientists work across all the departments, and they study the materials, processes, and techniques used by artists, right down to the analysis of individual paint samples and particles. It’s helpful to think of the conservators as surgeons and the conservation scientists as the pathologists. Of course all of the conservators and conservation scientists work closely with the curators on the research and treatment.

Q. What sort of training and background do museum conservators have?

A. Very extensive and very technical! Conservators are first required to have studied studio art, art history, and chemistry at the undergraduate level as a pre-requisite for entering a graduate program to study art conservation. There are 3 such programs in the United States and several in Europe and Canada from which conservators receive a postgraduate Master’s degree. The programs are small—5-10 people per year—and it generally takes 3 or 4 years to complete the degree, depending on the program. Multi-year internships, and hands-on experiences, are the critical last steps for a conservator’s training.

Q. How do you decide which artworks need to get treated?

A. These decisions are the result of an ongoing dialogue among the museum’s conservators and curators in which a variety of factors come into play. Treatment priority is generally given to stabilization and structural treatments to extend the life of the artwork. In other instances the decision to treat a painting may be driven by aesthetic issues.  The schedule of the work is often determined by exhibition priorities, such as another institution requesting the painting for an exhibition (as is the case with Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl).

Q. How long does the treatment of a painting usually take?

A. The time of treatment varies widely and really depends on the size and condition of the work of art and the type of treatment needed. For example, research on and treatment of Henri Matisse’s Bathers by a River took a few years, as is our current work on a medieval Spanish altarpiece. Sometimes simple treatments last just a few hours or days, like the work on Magritte’s Time Transfixed. The cleaning of Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, which was done in preparation of that painting’s loan to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. lasted for about a year.

Q. How often are paintings treated and/or cleaned?

A. The goal is to treat a painting as infrequently as possible. And we do lots of upkeep—for example, we regularly dust the works in the galleries, just as you would dust the objects in your house. But anything more than that is done on an as-needed basis. When a work is cleaned and treated, we aim to have the treatment last 50-100 years, or more.

Q. Where do you take the x-rays and other technical images?

A. We actually have an x-ray unit—just like at the hospital—here at the museum, and conservators using it stand behind lead screens. We also use medical and industrial x-ray film that we process and develop in-house. We then scan the film and make composite images as a road map for the treatment of a particular work. The Picabia painting, for example, required 96 sheets of 14×17 x-ray film and 5 hours to complete. Many additional hours will be required to digitize the images and assemble a seamless mosaic composite.

Q. Do the x-rays harm the artwork?

A. No, they don’t. The x-rays have very low levels of radiation.

Q. What is varnish?

A. Varnish is a clear resin coating applied to the surface of a work of art. Artists from the medieval era through the 19th century have used varnish on their paintings. Medieval artists used an egg mixture as a “finishing” layer; and resin-based (and now synthetic resin) varnishes came into more common use in later eras. The Impressionists were among the first artists to stop using varnish regularly, though collectors and dealers often varnished their works afterward. Varnish is applied mainly to achieve a particular aesthetic effect. It deepens and intensifies colors and usually adds gloss to the surface.

When it comes to Impressionist and Modern paintings, much of the work of the conservator is focused on removing varnish from paintings that were never meant to have it. Varnish can change color and contrast relationships, throwing them out of balance and subverting the artist’s intentions.  Removing varnish in these cases helps to re-establish the correct relationships and returns the surface to a more matte appearance. This is especially important with large paintings because a less reflective surface enables the viewer to see the whole of the painting without the interference of reflections.

Q. Isn’t the daylight bad for the painting?

A. It’s actually the UV light in daylight that is the most harmful for paintings, as it is for your skin. As a result, we use UV-blocking film on the windows throughout the museum to filter out the harmful light, and actively monitor light levels throughout the museum.

Q. How long will the painting be in this gallery?

A. We estimate that the work will be done in late September.

Q. Where will it go when it is finished?

A. When Allison has completed the painting’s treatment, it will return “home” to the third floor galleries of the Modern Wing. In the summer of 2016 it will travel to Zurich and then New York City as part of a major Picabia retrospective exhibition.

Q. How long has the treatment been going on?

A. Since the fall of 2014. The first phase, which required a ventilation system for the use of cleaning solvents took place in the conservation labs from September 2014 to March of this year. In April we moved the painting to its current location.

Q. Why is the conservator not here all day long?

A. Conservators have many projects and the Picabia treatment is one of several that Allison is currently working on.  She also performs regular preventive care for other works in the collection.

Q. How will the conservator reach the top half of the painting?

A. We will turn the painting upside down. We promise that Allison will not be suspended from the ceiling to work on the painting!

Q. What are those weird glasses on her head?

A. They are magnifying glasses that are referred to as “head loupes,” like a jeweler would wear.

Q. What is the small machine with nozzles and vents next to her?

A. That’s an air purifier to ensure that the solvents and pigments that she’s using do not spread beyond the workspace.

Image Credit: Painting conservator Allison Langley working on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (Ecclesiastic), 1913. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Armand Bartos.


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On the Move: Picabia

POSTED BY , ON April 29, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

Painting conservation usually happens in the museum’s conservation studios, but this spring and summer, museum visitors are in for a special treat. In a first-of-its-kind public demonstration, conservation work on Francis Picabia’s Edtaonisl (pronounced ed-town-easel) will be performed in full view of museum visitors at the base of the spiral staircase in the Art Institute’s Morton Wing.

Now don’t get us wrong, we love making our visitors happy, but that’s not why we’re staging conservation in this location. Rather, this step of the extensive conservation treatment calls for natural light—lots and lots of natural light. So the painting moved today from the Modern Wing to one of the museum’s most sun-drenched spaces, Gallery 135, just outside the gallery of Indian art of the Americas.

We’ll have much more on the conservation of Edtaonisl in the coming weeks, but for now we wanted to take you on the painting’s journey through the museum as it moved to its new temporary home.

It began its trek through the Modern Wing’s Griffin Court. . .

photo 12

then carefully rolled through the Alsdorf Galleries of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art. . .

photo 7

made its way through the Asian Art galleries. . .

photo 6

until it reached its light-filled home in the Morton Wing.

photo 1


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Now Open—Chatter: Architecture Talks Back

POSTED BY , ON April 24, 2015, 1 COMMENTS

IM002526_002

Chatter: Architecture Talks Back, open now in the Modern Wing’s Architecture and Design galleries, explores the work of five contemporary architects and their responses to the history of the practice. As you explore the exhibition, you’ll discover the compound meaning of its title: first, and most presently, chatter describes the impact of modern communication on the practice of architecture. Architects are using (and trying to make sense of) Twitter, Instagram, texting, Yik Yak, Snapchat, Whisper, and Yo* just as much as the rest of us. The open-ended conversation they create is what’s featured in the exhibition (you won’t find too many of the standard models and plans you might expect to see in an architecture exhibition here—come to see video, drawings, photography, and application design instead). Chatter documents the exploration of these modes of communication as they impact and interpret current architectural thought.

The next meaning of chatter describes how these practitioners respond to the history of architecture—a conversation across generations. For instance, Jimenez Lai of Bureau Spectacular uses cartoon-like drawings to directly reference the content and style of legendary Chicago architect Stanley Tigerman. Erin Besler confronts unorthodox methods of representation by interpreting Peter Eisenman’s seminal Fourteen Transformations using robotic drawing and 3D modeling. A number of works from the Art Institute’s holdings of Architecture and Design are on display to emphasize and illustrate this dialogue with the past.

The Chatter galleries also house an installation by Iker Gil of the journal MAS Context, featuring the work of a global array of design thinkers. Visit the exhibition on Saturday, May 16 to participate in a roundtable discussion of how we communicate about architecture. I.e., chat about Chatter.
*Full discosure: Yo, Yik Yak, Snapchat, and Whisper are not actually mentioned anywhere in this exhibition. Full disclosure, part 2: I am not sure what all of these services do.


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