Wednesday, October 31, 2012

At the Art Institute of Chicago

Modern Wing, View of Chicago Skyline from Modern Wing Gallery, The Art Institute of Chicago
Photography Charles G. Young, Interactive Design Architects

I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to visit the extensive collection of postwar American painting, and what held me there was the (relatively) recently completed extension. It’s the first time I have been to Chicago since the Renzo Piano designed extension was unveiled in 2009, and I was amazed. It was stunning. I can’t think of another exhibition space that would compare, most notably for the comfort of moving through it, for the privilege it gives to the art works, and yet, simultaneously, is able to integrate them into the city outside. Not only is it a delight to be in the space, but the creative design of the building and exhibition of the art works invites us to see both in a whole new light.

As we walk through the entry hall, the three level space is so voluminous that it lifts us upwards and forwards, inviting us to move through the spaces without effort. But it is the spaces along the north side of the museum, and in particular, those that face Frank Gehry’s Pritzker Pavillion, that are the most exciting to experience. Because the floor to ceiling glass panes require that we see the city and the art as being in relationship to one other. Unlike the 6th floor view over the city of Paris from the top of the Centre Pompidou, or the Tate Modern’s windows onto the River Thames and beyond, we are never enticed to stare out the window and admire the view when we look out from Piano’s extension to the Art Institute of Chicago. Rather, we are constantly reorienting our gaze to embrace both city and paintings, city and sculpture, in an attempt to understand the vibrant communication that is struck up between them. 
Alberto Giacometti, Walking Man, 1960
Among the most striking of the displays is that of Giacometti’s familiar elongated bronze figures in motion. When I last saw the sculptures (at the Centre Pompidou retrospective) I remember being focused on the fact that they were caught between the motion of their bodies and the fixity of their feet, as if permanently bound to the ground by the pedestals from which they could not break free. On display in the new modern wing of the Art Institute, the figures all face outwards, and they stride with determination into the city outside. They are completely transformed, given a lightness and purpose that they cannot quite reach when cemented to their pedestals in other exhibition spaces. And even more exciting is the way our relationship to them is reoriented by their relationship to the opened out space. We are naturally encouraged to stand, even move, together with them, side by side looking out at the city, rather than standing still looking at them.  This encouragement to join together with sculptures in their purpose, rather than to see them as objects to be looked at, within a museum space was powerful.
Gerhard Richter, Ice (1), 1989
The galleries likewise transform Twombly’s driftwood sculptures, surrounding them in a world that is as peaceful, serene and gentle, as that of the Giacometti’s is energetic. It is as if Twombly’s sculptures belong on the seemingly infinite expanse of Lake Michigan to the west; together with the space, they create an oasis of calm in the middle of a city that is built up all around them, outside of the windows. All of the spaces that face the city not only have a whole wall as window, but they are open – where art usually appears enclosed by a space, the paintings for example, in the north galleries reach off the walls and into the city. An abstract Gerhard Richter series that I was not previously familiar with, Ice (1989), not only speak to the blur of the Woman Descending the Staircase (Frau die Treppe herabgehend), 1965 to their left, but their colors, and moods echo the steel sculptures, the blue, grey and smattering of colors that are the general tone of the city outside. A strip of green above the underground parking in front of the Gehry Pavillion stands out and catches the attention as we see the green on the canvas.

Gerhard Richter, Woman Descending the Staircase, 1965
 It’s not simply the building that gives the visitor a whole new experience of the works, but the curatorial decisions are equally outstanding: the works’ organization is as important to the experience. As is, of course, the city of Chicago.

I want to describe downtown Chicago as harmonious, a city defined by a balance not usually found in urban environments. The expanse of Lake Michigan makes Chicago what it is: as Mies van der Rohe insisted all those years ago, Lake Michigan defines the city, and so, he designed the skyscrapers such that they speak to the water. The water is transient, ephemeral, reflective, the skyscrapers are forceful, stalwart, reaching up into the clear sky of the gorgeous October days that I was in Chicago. The water is about movement and harmony and it lifts the city out of its concrete fixity, emphasizing the glass and steel, not the cement of the structures. Thus, as the water gives balance to the city, so the new wing of the Art Institute creates a balance between the art and a city built around Lake Michigan.

This is so unique that it is worth the pilgrimage to the mid-west.

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