A Los Angeles Artist’s Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Art Wing

An Abstract Expressionist painting, Modern Art Wing, Art Institute of Chicago

More than a year has passed by since the début of the new Modern Art Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago.  (Let me state now that I am an alumnus of its art school’s department of painting.) The Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern and Contemporary Art collections rank somewhere between the second and third most important in this country, either before or next to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which has not only has many of Brancusi’s major works, but it also the place to see the work of Marcel Duchamp, Conceptual Art’s Ground Zero. These collections join one of the five or six major centers for the study of Modernism, which would rank MoMA and then the Pompidou Center in Paris, followed by the Tate Modern and the American art museums. It’s remarkable to see American museums become dominant in any field of inquiry, outside of those in New York, yet Chicago has done just that. I have read that Chicago plans to issue a three-volume document on their own History of Modernism, which no doubt will be derived from world-class exhibitions being planned today. What is great about this is that it gets Chicago into the art history writing game, and it give’s Chicago the chance to discuss the issues brought up by art critic Roberta Smith in her New York Times review of the Modern Art Wing’s collection when it opened in 2009. Her review made the claim that the Modern Art Wing was presenting no more than the standard view and place of who and what is Modernism. Certainly the Art Institute is up to the task of not only answering this  – but providing new and unique insight into the history of Art of the last hundred twenty years, and it can do a great deal of this by enforcing its world view of Modernism with its own ultra prestigious collections.

The surprise good news about the most encyclopedic art museums in America is the opening of entire departments for Modern and now Contemporary Art over the past few decades. The Philadelphia Museum of Art is considering building a 68,000 square foot space for the art of Modernism and of today. The Metropolitan museum has expanded into the current artworld’s works of art. And of course Chicago has opened this phenomenal new wing for the study of Modernism and Contemporary art. This means there is greater support for art in this country made by artists in this country than at any time in its history. No more is there a need for the Whitney Museum of American Art to come into the world again to showcase, admire and exalt American Artists in a way equal to American artist’s global counterparts. I recently read of how the Art Institute of Chicago went on a contemporary art world spending spree, with the example of their current survey show of LA artist Richard Hawkins, whose work has made into Chicago’s collections.

Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Art Wing - Box - photo by Pentagram.com

Ariel view of the Art Institute of Chicago's Modern Art Wing and existing museum space

The Modern Art Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago - entrance - Photo by Pentagram.com

The museum building’s new wing of course is stellar, as Chicago would have nothing other than the best. Chicago remains the city to visit in America to study American architecture, from the birth of the skyscraper, to the Prarie School architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright in suburban Oak Park, Illinois. The building is as heady an experience as I’ve encountered in any American art museum, from its design to its weighty and special collections that are both fabulous and deeply considered. What many people don’t know about the museum is that it is also the home of the Poetry Center, the Cinematique, and of course the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

When I was a student in the school’s painting department in the mid 1980’s, having transferred in from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, there was still in place a Chicago versus New York City contest, whereby Chicago believed it did not have to follow New York or any of its artistic ideas, as Chicago had its own way of doing things and had its own identity. The Chicago Imagist painters of the 1960’s had made their own mark without New York’s help or appreciation; so Chicago was not about to back down or turn to New York and ask to be let into its artworld. This was during the middle of the 1980’s. By the mid-1990’s the Art school had changed its mind about New York, as Los Angeles’ artworld had come out of total darkness and was already then being lauded by the international art circuit for its embrace of Conceptual Art. I recall flipping through a recent history of Art made in Chicago, back in the late 1990’s, while living here in LA after my having taken my MFA degree in Fine Arts Painting, in a four-year program at Art Center College of Design that was simply loaded with French and Critical Theory and Philosophy. The program was considered to be the most intellectually rigorous in the country. At the back of the book was a statement about what had happened in Chicago’s artworld over the decades, followed by a statement about the rise of Los Angeles“the laboratory of Conceptual Art.” When I returned to the museum for the second time in 3 years, but after having been away for a couple of decades while living in Los Angeles, it was like visiting an old grand good great friend. As I began to walk through the galleries, I was again astounded by being in rooms full of works by artists from Gauguin to Van Gogh, before making my way to the Modern Art Wing.

I recall now that it was the weather that drove us away from Chicago to move to Los Angeles in 1986, as much as it was the lure of the fictions in our heads about Los Angeles and California in general. During my time in Chicago’s program, I spent untold hours in the school’s cinematique, in its private film screening rooms, and in its auditorium, which also screened films to students for free back then.  I noticed that one of the Chicago filmmakers works from that era were being screened during my visit this time to the museum. I smiled as I realized the museum was recognizing one of the school’s film faculty from years long gone by. Yet the artist being featured in this Chicago museum’s video gallery was yet another superstar LA Artist, John Baldessari, who now has a career retrospective on at the Metropolitan museum of Art.

i wrote an extensive review of Baldessari’s career in an earlier post entitled John Baldessari, the painter who turned to Conceptual Art returns. The other main reason for us moving to Los Angeles, was that we had just lived in Brooklyn, and had been blitzed by New York’s artworld with art ideas and so much amazing energy, yet New York at that time for us and many others was uninhabitable because the quality of life was so poor in those days. Now of course New York City is a dream city – with Mayor Bloomberg calling New York “the luxury city.” What used to be terrifying neighborhoods are now just cool historic names of places to hang out in, like Hells Kitchen, the Bowery – which has transformed itself from being the lowest of the low to being the Coolest of the Cool , with the nearby Lower East Side art galleries making it New York City’s newest destination to see art. I recall that I had begun reading the Los Angeles Times on Sundays, so that mean I was reading Chicago’s papers, the New York Times, and the LA Times to keep up with developments in LA’s then promising new art scene. At that time the Getty Museum was just in formation,  the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art had just opened its Grand avenue downtown building when we moved into LA. There was much excitement about this as well as the planned dance gallery. (Note – I have written at length about this in my post entitled Three Billionaires walk into an LA Art Museum. That post is also on the Rubell Family Collection’s website .) I recall having a one-on-one public conversation with Leon Golub, who was also an alumnus of the school. I said to him and to the audience in the auditorium that LA seemed like an exciting new possibility to be an artist. He said that from what I had described about what was happening there did seem to show that LA would be an interesting alternative to the then overwhelmingly dominant New York artworld scene. Of course I had no idea that as early as 1990, that there would begin to be a buzz about the LA Artworld that would continue to grow into a thunder-clap.  Twenty five years after moving to LA, with thirteen years since I went to graduate school in the mid-1990’s at Art Center College of Design, where I studied with Mike Kelly, Stephen Prina, Chris Williams, Liz Larner, Jack Goldstein and theorist/musician and former member of Art & Language Mayo Thompson and theorist/painter Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe and theorist Sylvere Lotringer (who brought the major French theorists to America), LA has been catapulted into the top ranks of art production cities on the planet. This to me remains a virtual miracle considering the lack of art world infrastructure as compared to New York and Berlin, the other white-hot city for artists to live and work in today.

Sculpture in the Modern Art Wing

Charlie Ray's "Hinoku" in the Modern Art Wing

Chicago born Charles Ray “Charlie Ray” is one of the most important artists working in Los Angeles today. I knew about the work from its being shown in LA prior to it becoming a key work in Chicago’s contemporary Conceptual Art collections. How the work came into being is well-known in artworld circles, and is described quite poetically on a wall text. Ray found a felled tree that he decided to have fabricated as a sculpture. Ten years later the Japanese craftsmen who carved the work were done with their end of the bargain, and the Charley Ray sculpture was born. In this instance and in many others like it, Charlie Ray, a Conceptual Artist in Los Angeles, worked in the role of the Artist as Producer. When this mode of production is motion, the artist delegates creative tasks to others who are often specialists in fields as disparate as sign painting and car painting to furniture and cabinet makers. By working in this way, artists are able to produce works of art that no one person could produce because of the degree of skill required to be in control of in so many areas. Ultimately the Artist as Producer is more like a chief architect who causes everyone from structural engineers to project architects and designers to combine forces to create every major building project in the world today. This is why artists such as Jeff Koons have over a hundred persons in their studios, from engineers and scientists to craftsmen and studio artists. What has happened because of this is that there is often a higher regard given to works made in this way than by works made by an artist working alone in their studio. This is especially the case with artists who are not trained to work Conceptually. This bias is greatest in the Los Angeles artworld, less so in New York City, where there is not only a market for painting that is not influenced by Critical Theory, but there remain historic art programs that still teach 19th century European painting and drawing techniques.

Robert Overby's Concrete Steel Doors, 1970 sculpture in the Modern Art Wing. I enjoyed being impressed by the sheer weight and mass of this work, which seemed to recall the most primal elements of humanity, while at once feeling as if were a part of our everyday contemporary life.

John Baldessari video of him reading Sol Lewitt, Modern Art Wing. I smiled when I saw this work, mostly because it reminded me of how when I was a student in the Art Institute there were faculty members who were completely against Appropriation Art and any other bogus art coming out of that city. Of course as we all well now know, Conceptual ART has taken control of the US Artworld and the International Artworld, no different from the was Abstract Expressionism came to dominate New York by the end of the 1950's.

Sculptor George Segal's Couple on a Bed in the Modern Art Wing.

Solitare, a 1943 painting by Balthus

Magritte's 1938 painting Time Transfixed

Henri Matisse's Bather's by a River, 1909-1917. The painting is 8.5 x 12 feet in size.

I was glad to get to see this work, especially as it is a seminal painting in Matisse’s career. Matisse himself considered this to be one of the five most pivotal paintings in his career. The Matisse exhibition used this work to showcase the transformations that occurred in Matisse’s aesthetic inventions. Every time I think of Matisse I am reminded of what one of my theory professors said to us: Duchamp had won the art ideas war of the 20th century, having defeated Matisse and the idea of pure painting. Conceptual art has a stranglehold on the Artworld, and painting is derided, even if it has a huge market in New York and Europe. Conceptual Art is the indisputable most advanced form of art, and I see now that the Los Angeles Artworld has held to this in a way that is remarkably similar to the way New York advanced Abstract Expressionism over all other art forms, when it was New York’s turn to take control of the world stage for art the first time, after some three hundred years of control by Paris. What is different now than when I was a student in Chicago, is that instead of all the Chicago students taking their degree and immediately moving to New York, those of them who can pass through the eye of the needle and be accepted into one of the major art schools in LA, move here with the greatest expectations of career and stardom I’ve ever seen in an art student in this country. The world really has changed this time.

"Henri Matisse painting Bathers by a River, May 13, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn. Courtesy of George Eastman House, International Museum of Photography and Film, Rochester"

Matisse's 1909 watercolor sketch of Bather's by a River

Matisse on a ladder in his studio - painting Bather's on a River

“In preparation for this Matisse exhibition, art conservators removed old varnish and inpainting from Bathers to unearth a phenomenal surprise.  Some areas which were considered damaged were instead areas in which Matisse scratched, scraped and incised this

Henri Matisse painting Bathers by a River, May 13, 1913. Photograph by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

transformative work.  These “modern methods of construction”, as Matisse labelled them, had been virtually obscured, and marked a radical departure from the European notion of smooth painted canvases lacking any trace of brushwork. Instead, Matisse’s paintings in this era show him exploring and finding form on canvas as he worked, leaving a brushwork trail of reworked areas.

Matisse initially started Bathers by the River in 1909 at the request of Russian businessman Sergei Shchukin.  This patron, whose collection of famous paintings by Matisse would later form the core of the Hermitage’s extensive collection, had earlier commissioned two Matisse paintings, Dance and Music, to hang in his Moscow home. Shchukin wanted a third art painting for his home, but rejected Matisse’s initial conception for Bathers; it shows a 1909 naturalistic watercolor of five nude woman, two of whom were bathing in a waterfall.  Shchukin’s rejection may have spurred Matisse to experimentation — in doing so, he revolutionized the history of painting.”


Bathers,” we now know, was Matisse’s sketchbook of sorts. He painted it and repainted it, stripped areas of it bare and painted them again. And all the layers tell stories.

Matisse never sold the painting after his commission fell through. It stayed in his studio and, as D’Alessandro says, “it became the thing that he experimented on, for which he devised what we call in our show the ‘methods of modern construction.'”

“By scraping back his own surface layer of paint to reveal under layers, Matisse began to inscribe his creative methods into his finished art.”

Chicago Tribune, 3.20.10

A cubist portrait

A Brancusi sculpture of a head

A German Expressionist picture

A massive Picasso Madonna and Child painting from 1921

A 1924 painting by the architect Le Corbusier titled Still Life filled with space

A Max Beckmann self-portrait

An all business Max Beckmann self-portrait. I once heard that when he taught at Washington U. in St. Louis, he would snatch the brush from student’s fingers, then with the brush he would say “Like that!” as he laid down a stroke of paint.

Brancusi's "White Negress"


Griffin corridor connecting the main museum with the Modern Art Wing

There was a survey of LA Artist Richard Hawkins in the Modern Art Wing when I visited it a few weeks ago. I had missed Hawkins last show in LA, being busy with my own projects, so I was happy to catch this spirited survey of what he’s been up to recently. I was most seduced by his doll house sized sculptures, which contain images and texts that are to scale versions of what was on view in the museum’s galleries. Each of the doll houses had a magical, fantastic quality to then that truly fulfilled a need in me for fantasy and dreams.

Richard Hawkins Bordello on rue St. Lazare

LA Artist Richard Hawkins sculpture

Richard Hawkins survey

Fox & Obel is a great gourmet market in Chicago

Fox & OBel in Chicago - a gourmet paradise

Fox & Obel has seven kings of prosciutto, mango liquorice and much more

Vincent Johnson is an artist and writer in Los Angeles.


El Chubasco, Los Angeles (2010) by Vincent Johnson

Koreatown Los Angeles restaurant (with images of political figures)(2010) by Vincent Johnson

One thought on “A Los Angeles Artist’s Visit to the Art Institute of Chicago’s Modern Art Wing

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