Some Giacometti figures strolling in front of a Chicago backdrop. Giacometti feels like the man of the hour, since someone recently paid $104,300,000 for one of his sculptures, the most money ever paid at auction for a work of art. I'm sure every tourist visiting the Modern Wing will take some variant of this snap showing the city skyline.
I went to Chicago yesterday, to visit family and see a photo show.
The show was "In the Vernacular" at the Art Institute of Chicago. Not to keep you in suspense...well, what's the opposite of "blockbuster"? Is there a word for that? Besides "lame," I mean. If you define "blockbuster" as a big, ambitious show organized around a good idea that is well-realized and fecund, this show...well, wasn't any of that.
There were only eight—count 'em, eight—photographs in the show I'd never seen before, and it wasn't even a show of vernacular photography—just art photography that was inspired by vernacular photography, which could be, hell, just about any photography that isn't conceptual or constructed. And it didn't even make a very strong case for its premise; the idea seemed like just an excuse to trot out a motley of treasures from the vaults. And not even a very generous motley.
Only two of the eight pictures that were new to me were pictures I'm glad I've now seen. It could be that I'm being suggestible in light of our recent discussions here on TOP, but I took one of the two to be a photograph of a model car. It's possible it's actually a real car. The SAC* in the case of this picture is an extremely long title that gives every possible detail about the car; it starts with the word "Model," so maybe that's what made my brain want to think it was a model. In any event, it might not be a model, but that's how I wanted to see it, so that's how I saw it.
Maybe I just couldn't see it well enough to tell. It's a real shame, but the Art Institute of Chicago must be running out of money, because they can no longer afford to turn the lights up all the way. The entire show was bathed in a dispiriting dim murkiness, as though you had missed a barrier and stumbled into an area meant to be off-limits to the public, like where the janitors store stuff. (I might have exaggerated it here, in this picture. I have been known to exaggerate.) I can't wait until that curatorial fad fades into its well-deserved oblivion, and museums go back to lighting their damn shows properly. Curmudge, curmudge.
To complete my bad reporting, I forgot to snap a picture of the wall label, so I can't tell you the photographer's name. I think it's Christopher Williams, but all I'm really sure of is that his name is Christopher Willi-, because that's all I can see in the first picture.
To give you an idea just how bored I was, I enjoyed the big color pictures the most. I should write it "Big Color." Normally I think Big Color is pretentious and pushy when it's mixed with a lot of small monochrome, but the pictures by Tina Barney (A Big Color pioneer whose work is now medium sized in comparison to the Even Bigger Color which has followed it) and Martin Parr and Larry Sultan were the best things here, injecting a little life into the generally limp proceedings. Especially the two Larry Sultan pictures. I've seen reproductions of both before, but I'd never seen original prints, and they had depth and presence and carried the wall even in the funereal gloom. I came away with a new appreciation for him and a desire to see more.
To complete my dyspeptic grump (things are about to improve, though, for both of us), I wasn't carried away by the artspeak on the walls. The older I get, the less patience I have for being told how I'm supposed to feel about what I'm looking at.
Don't get me wrong, it was nice visiting some old friends in this show—it's never exactly bad to see Winogrand and Brassai and Friedlander or the Tod Papageorge baseball picture we talked about here a while back, or what appeared to be a contact proof of a Lartigue frame with crop marks in pen on it—there were even some Warhol Polaroids—but the experience left me really wanting to see newer photography. I suspect that museums just have not sorted out yet how to deal with the very changed, and highly charged, new world of post-digital-revolution photography. Ignoring it will not remain a viable strategy forever, of course, and I look forward to seeing it begin to spill into the hallowed low-lit halls of the muse-mausoleums.
The best thing to see is usually what you see if you turn around and look the other way
So, not very satisfied by the photography and looking for something else to look at while I was there, I discovered that, if the AIC actually is out of money, there's a very good reason for that: it has just built a huge and lavish new "Modern Wing." The architecture is outstanding—unlike some recent museums it is actually subservient to the purpose of housing and showing art. The ceiling on the third floor, where the early- and mid-20th century treasures are kept, is translucent, so the light on sunny Valentine's Day was magnificent (although, strangely, there are a few galleries on the third floor without natural light, and in those, you're plunged into curatorially fashionable murk again).
I even found a black-and-white photograph on the Third Floor, in this Gino Severini still life from 1916!
If the galleries are wonderful, the art, on the third floor certainly, is even wonderfuller. Early modern art is becoming classic now, and the third floor of the Modern Wing is just chock-a-block with splendid things—stone masterpieces at every point of the compass, so much that it makes you feel like a lottery winner.
Two men being told what to think of Picasso's "The Old Guitarist," a painting which now must be worth much more than $104.3 million. There are treasures like this at every turn on the third floor of the new Modern Wing at Chicago.
I suspect that you, like me and I think many visitors in the crowds I thronged among, might not be quite as enthralled by the second floor, where the more contemporary, post-1960 art is on offer. I have to wonder about some of the curatorial choices. The interest for the eye in some cases takes a nosedive and the anxiousness of the artspeak in the wall placards ratchets way up, making highflown claims for some stuff that just ain't that good to look at. I spent some time on this floor observing not the art, but the patrons. One room, filled with plain white panels by an artist whose name has already flitted beyond the recall of my aging neurons, was getting a lot of people taking a quick glimpse at the entrance and turning right back around again. And a repetitive film showing in a darkened room was getting similarly shunned by the crowds; as I stood back and watched, people would sit down on the bench and then get right back up again and hightail it. In the Museum Store, a bit later, I noticed a book called Do Museums Still Need Objects? In places, the art on the second floor seemed to be making the point that sometimes, even museums that have objects still need objects. I'm probably just fifty years behind the times.**
There are some great things on the second floor as well, of course, including, for instance, one of the most interesting Roy Lichtensteins I've ever seen, which I spent a lot of time standing in front of. And, in fairness, I didn't do the second floor proper justice—it was my third stop and I was getting tired by then.
In any event, there's no question in my mind that the new Modern Wing is a spectacular success and a worthy addition (literally and figuratively) to one of the best museums in the world. The trend in recent museum architecture around the world has seemed a bit errant with regard to function, I think—the Quadracci Pavilion of our own Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, is a work of art in its own right and is quickly becoming a symbol of local civic pride, and both those aspects of it have great value. But my problem with it is that it's not all that great a space for showcasing art exhibits—the galleries seem like an afterthought and have little to do with the most distinctive features of the structure. The Modern Wing of the AIC, by contrast, is a beautiful space, an enjoyable place to be, but it's also an effective and tremendously satisfying place to view art. This is architecture to enjoy, and that I'm sure will instill civic pride in Illinoisans, but it's also architecture that works. If you ever find yourself within striking distance of Chicago, the new Modern Wing is well worth a visit. Strong work, and bravo.
*Stupid Arty Conceit
**A reference to the art critic who said that the public is always sixty years behind the times when it comes to avant-guard art. I'm being conceited and claiming I'm ahead of the public...just not by that much.