Last spring the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled its most significant acquisition to date. It was neither a painting nor a sculpture, but Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing. The 264,000 square foot addition was quickly hailed as a museum masterpiece, though in terms best fit for a cathedral—the New York Times’ Nicolai Ouroussoff called it a “sacred space,” while Ann Landi of ARTNews wrote of the building’s “light and grace.”
Piano’s monumental construction is not, however, a house of worship, but a museum of modern art—and the originality of the architecture only sets the stage for a more subtle innovation pertaining to the presentation of artworks inside. The galleries in the Modern Wing appear to exhibit a comprehensive selection of works from the Art Institute’s permanent collection. The third floor houses Bauhaus alumni along with the rest of European sculpture and painting from 1900-1950. On the second is Contemporary Art from 1945-1960, carefully separated from a much larger installation devoted to art from the Sixties onwards. It seems simple enough—the bulk of the collection is organized by date: 1900-1950, 1945-1960, 1960-Present. Yet these chronological groupings, with their curious overlaps, are revealing. Some, like the Times’ Roberta Smith, have read the chronology as a conservative tactic that misses out on an opportunity to disrupt “modernism’s linear thinking—falsely narrow to begin with.” But the apparent straightforwardness of the layout is part of a strategy that is far from conservative. In fact, the chronological curation does disrupt “modernism’s linear thinking”—by contextualizing it within a uniquely inclusive dialogue about what counts as “modern” art today.
One glimpse at the floor plan tips a visitor off to an unusual—and telling—omission. Outside of the Architecture and Design exhibition, there is not a single pre-twentieth-century work on view in the Modern Wing. The reasons for this may be acutely practical ones having to do with department interest or funds, or the recent renovation and expansion of the Impressionism galleries that sit atop the Women’s Board Grand Staircase. But the consequences are nevertheless substantial, speaking to the persistent problem of how to determine what counts as “modern” when the category is populated by works created well over a century ago.
Consider for a moment what is generally considered to be included in the category. Given the canonical history of Modern Art and the institutionalization of that history in museums like MoMA, it would seem for most contemporary museumgoers to include Manet and Cézanne in the nineteenth century—whose innovations are essential for understanding the paintings of Kandinsky, Picasso, and Pollock in the twentieth. Not here. Although the Art Institute’s impressive nineteenth-century collection is easily accessible from the new museum, the Modern Wing does not include any specific artworks from the period.
So what? Why care that twentieth-century works are presented here as severed from their precedents?
In no uncertain terms, what is at stake is the framework for our understanding of the “modern.” According to the critical scaffolding erected by Clement Greenberg in the middle of the last century and propagated by his students (most notably Michael Fried), “Modernist” art consists of a set of self-critical high art practices, whose origins can be traced to the emergence of a bourgeois social order in nineteenth-century Paris—a development which liberated artistic production from the confining demands of art academies and patronage. Different from both conservative (i.e. classical or academic) art and popular culture, these practices are now executed, not in conjunction with political, economic or social conditions, but out of an exclusive concern for artistic practice itself and, specifically, the problems of medium. “The essence of Modernism” lay, as Greenberg saw it, “in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself.” (For example, painting is no longer compelled by the illusion of dimensional space but by the material conditions of the medium—that is, its flatness.) The relevant challenges were those that had been identified by prior practitioners. Solutions to these produced new problems that were, in turn, handed down to progeny. A streamlined narrative therefore connected each member of Modernism to those who had preceded and others who would later follow. For instance, in “American-Type Painting” (1955), Greenberg describes how some of the very best work by Hans Hofmann—whose Blue Rhythm (1950) hangs in the 1945-1960 gallery—exhibited the Late Cubist tendencies of Willem de Kooning (who also has a painting there), but that in the even better part of his career, he was fully post-Cubist. And it is precisely this linear progress that constitutes Hoffman’s achievement. “Art is continuity—among other things—and unthinkable without it,” writes Greenberg. And Manet was the first Modernist.
In order for such an evaluation to make sense, the genealogy—and the discourse of the history of art developed around it—would have to remain intact. But here, in the Modern Wing, Manet and the other nineteenth-century origins of this Modernist history are left behind. Whether or not this omission was intentional, it indicates the repudiation, in the past few decades, of the genealogical Modernist paradigm—a paradigm whose relevant narrative is strictly one of cause and effect.
In its place, contemporary curators have generally employed a far more horizontal or “postmodern” model, best exemplified by the exhibition technique at the Tate Modern in London. There, galleries are organized not by period or style but by theme, such as (currently on view) “Environment” and “Text and Language.” Broad enough to accommodate work from any period, geography or medium, such installations facilitate the seamless transfer of work between categories, taking on a kind of collage quality. At its worst, this pastiche can be read as an anachronistic embrace of the contemporary over and above the historical. But as art historian Mignon Nixon has claimed, this exhibition strategy also has the potential to “cut across old hierarchies to make the museum a more popular public place.”
The Modern Wing evidences a similar “popular” impulse with its mid-museum coffee bar and magnificent floor-to-ceiling views of Millennium Park, but it does not forego the old Modernist narrative. Instead, it puts it on display. In fact, what we as museum visitors are looking at in the 1945-1960 exhibition space is precisely that paradigm exhibited, but without any of the critical armature delineating it.
This self-contained genealogy is highlighted by the fact that the ’45-’60 galleries break the Modern Wing’s otherwise rigorous insistence on chronology. (The emphasis on chronology is made transparent on the third floor, where the northernmost doors into the gallery space alert visitors that the “chronology begins in Gallery 391,” and so suggest visitors move down the hall and enter into the galleries through other doors.) This space re-exhibits the five years from 1945-1950 already covered in the 1900-1950 galleries on the third floor. This is a crucial period, both for Greenberg and American art. It is during this time that the epicenter of the art world relocates from Paris to New York. Here, the overlap makes this point of transition visible. (And, indeed, nearly all the work that fol- lows is American.) But it also puts on view the set of practices that are paradigmatic of this version of Modernism. Accordingly the installation, isolated from the rest, does not refuse Greenberg’s story but acknowledges it through exhibition.
Chronology thus emerges as a productive curatorial tool. The simultaneity allowed in this instance exemplifies its ability to sustain divergent tendencies and their respective logics. The galleries do not hold discrete groupings of Modernist -isms (fauvism, cubism, surrealism, to name a few), but neither do they arrest artworks from their historical context. Instead, the chronological method generates a more flexible matrix capable of displaying the complex, and often contradictory, logic of twentieth-century art. Rather than stylistic or thematic development, it is incidental temporal progression that threads the exhibition rooms together, producing a space in which an open-ended conversation is carried out between different modes of the modern.
There is clear precedent for rhetorically employing chronology in recent art literature. In 2005, four kingpin art historians—Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin Buchloh, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss—published Art Since 1900, which proposed a new narrative for the history of modern art. Like the Modern Wing, this history was organized strictly according to dates. Each chapter of the book was dedicated to a different year and a particular event, exhibition or publication produced during it. In the preface, the authors call attention to the “dialogical” nature of their presentation, in which the tensions between various perspectives on modern art are “dramatized” rather than “masked.” The artworks in the book are offered as the “pieces of a puzzle that can be transformed into a great variety of images.” Their method is contrasted with that of Greenberg and Fried, whose criticism, the authors claim, has represented a “manifest attempt at writing history from the perspective of victorious interests.”
In the book and at the museum, the chronological approach reproduces familiar categories, but not divorced from their historical context. Minimalism, for instance, is introduced in Art Since 1900 by way of the 1966 exhibition “Primary Structures,” held at the Jewish Museum in New York. The show, which served as something of a coming- out party for minimalism as a movement, featured work by Robert Morris, Donald Judd, Richard Artschwager and Carl Andre, among nearly forty others. Artschwager’s Table with Pink Tablecloth, shown there, is now on view in the Modern Wing, a short way across the room from Andre’s Steel-Aluminum Plain. Though the Andre sculpture, a six-foot by six- foot checkerboard that lays flat against the floor, wasn’t made until 1969, the text panel that accompanies it explains it as exemplary of the work he had been making since 1966. Articulated as such, the pairing works to invoke not just the minimalist tendency but also the exhibition event that incited it.
But this gallery also includes a shaped (rather than rectangular) Frank Stella canvas, as well as an Agnes Martin painting. While the exhibited works of Stella, Martin, Artschwager and Andre show certain formal similarities—a repetitive use of strict and straight line, for instance—these artists’ contemporaneous practices occupied very different realms within the field of 1960s art. While Fried wrote Stella into his history of modern art, Artschwager’s and Andre’s works were vehemently banned from it as “nothing more than objects.” This is where the Modern Wing’s chronology really exceeds the facul- ties of the textual format— not only does the exhibition incorporate divergent histories of art, it visually juxtaposes them in space, thus transgressing the categories to which they’ve been ascribed without discarding them altogether.
It is at moments like this when the chronological organization is most effective—that is, when it is used to exhibit the multiplicity of modes that have populated the history of art. Not only do they occupy adjoining spaces but also contiguous sightlines. Formal similarities are explored without their differences being collapsed. The Andre and the Artschwager visually cohere with the Martin and the Stella. Their sculptures both engage qualities characteristic of modernist painting—flatness in the case of the former, mono- chrome color blocks in the latter—clearly exhibited in the 1945-1960 galleries. But because this engagement betrays the properties of the sculpture medium as defined by Fried’s preferred Modernism, the Andre and the Artschwager stand in sharp contrast to the hanging canvases. So while visual resemblance is explored and thematized, it is not reduced to sameness.
Although a series of broad retroactive classifications might have made the art on view in the Modern Wing more accessible, the chronological approach preserves diversity of practice as a historical condition of art making and, arguably, reception as well. There is a particularly successful example of this in Gallery 391, the first gallery of the third floor section exhibiting painting and sculpture from 1900-1945. Here, ushering in the modern, are cubism and fauvism flanking the entryway. The concentrated, bold hues of fauvism stand out against the earthy, dull cubist ones. And the sharp edges that make up the latter’s complex surely contest the former’s undelineated color patches. Two of Braque’s paintings are on view: one, Landscape at L’Estaque (1906), grouped with the other Fauves, and the second, Little Harbor in Normandy (1909), immediately next to a Picasso. Though only a few works are exhibited as exemplary of each tendency, Braque is prominently included in both. This here and there alerts a keen-eyed viewer to a more fluid and flexible exchange between familiar genres than might be expected. Fauvism and cubism no longer appear discrete, isolated categories but rather mutually informing and constitutive ones.
For all the advantages of the chronological curation, it is also responsible for a more problematic aspect of the installation—the stringency of the prewar/postwar divide. Twentieth-century art has often been historicized along such a split, effectively treating World War II as a kind of year zero. This has been theorized most vociferously in the German context, which was the site for immensely influential pre-war practices, most notably those in painting, dance, film, photography, design and arts education that emerged from the Bauhaus. Despite the fact that it is today regarded as increasingly misleading, this notion of a decisive breaking point continues to organize the field.
The installation betrays clear symptoms of its insufficiencies. This is most apparent towards the end of the third floor chronology, in a gallery housing Picassos, Giacomettis and Dubuffets. This cluster does good formal work, juxtaposing the gritty dimensions of paint on Dubuffet’s canvases with the sculpting techniques of Giacometti’s tall, slender figures. But upon closer inspection, it becomes apparent that these paintings and sculptures were made at very different moments, Dubuffet’s in the mid-Thirties and at least one of the Giacometti’s, Walking Man II, nearly 25 years later in 1960. Similarly, the Picassos, Nude Under Pine Tree and Marquette for Richard J. Daley Center Monument, are from 1959 and 1965 respectively. It is certainly possible that the pieces were grouped in such a way to exhibit the persistence of certain aesthetic tendencies across time, but even if it does highlight these tendencies, the grouping ends up by simplifying them.
The solution would not be to pick another divisive year to arbitrarily split the collection, but to allow Giacometti and Picasso to also inhabit the postwar domain instead of relegating them to the prewar avant-garde. It was, after all, in the late Sixties that the latter decorated Chicago with The Chicago Picasso, the monumental untitled sculpture that still sits outside of the Daley Center.
At the very same time that Picasso was carrying out Daley’s commissions, Jim Nutt was painting his surrealist-inspired Imagist pieces. A graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, an entire room in the Museum has now been dedicated to his work. The monographic Nutt gallery is only one in a cluster of rooms on the second floor devoted to individual artists. In addition to Nutt, there is a room devoted to Gerhard Richter, another to Ellsworth Kelly, one for Bruce Nauman, and yet another for Robert Ryman. It’s an odd assortment that initially appears as an effort to flex the collection’s muscles. But, as the accompanying text panels indicate, what it affects is a skeleton of the conceptual models that have propelled art history since the Sixties.
A different line of approach is used to introduce each room’s dominant artist. Richter, whose work is represented by paintings including Mrs. Wolleh with Children (1967), which resembles a family portrait, and Woman Descending the Staircase (1965), a reference to Marcel Duchamp’s painting of a similar name, is considered in terms of his interest in history and memory. Jim Nutt’s preoccupation with mass and popular culture is emphasized through an installation of his comic book-inspired canvases. Kelly’s color-fields are considered by way of a discussion of formal strategies. And Ryman’s self-criticality is mentioned in a room next to Nauman’s experiments in perception. Taken together, historical memory, popular culture, formalism, self-criticality and experimental perception comprise many of the tools necessary for thinking about art of the past half century. It’s a remarkably clever curatorial device, one that does service both to the strongest pockets in the museum’s collection and to a visitor’s desire for terms to assess a body of art devoid of representational aspiration.
But the museum’s curators refuse to do all the work. After being introduced to these essential terms of contemporary art, visitors are thrown into a room of Land and Process Art. There, amidst an installation of rocks and glass, another of a concrete and cast steel door, it is not terminology that imposes itself but rather tactility and the base materiality of flatness (Sol LeWitt) against sculpture (Robert Smithson). Most of this work hinges on the relationship between art and the world beyond the museum. Vito Acconci’s Estimations, for instance—a 1970/87 set of chalked photographs—was conceived by the artist as part of his effort to get “off the page and into real space.” What this meant, for Acconci, for Smithson, and for many of the others here was that the resources for production were no longer limited to those supplied by practices of self-criticism. “The poet also needs culture,” Greenberg once wrote. “He must leave New Jersey.” For Greenberg, writing in 1942, this culture— the self-critical one— could only be found in New York. For Acconci, working thirty years later, the priority was not culture but “real space.” Smithson showed in his Monuments of Passaic that New Jersey was as good as any other such space. Today, in Chicago’s Modern Wing, Greenberg’s culture is on view—but it is not the only view.
Image credit: FHKE, Flickr (CC / BY)