The reviews are in, and it looks like Renzo Piano’s Modern Wing for the Art Institute of Chicago is a big hit. (And thank God it’s not too revolutionary!) But to at least one viewer on opening day, it felt cramped. Not from the outside, with that majestic approach from Millennium Park, and the simple, towering, palatial façade, fit for a Saudi prince, but on the inside, where the high, long, narrow, box-like central hallway feels like an airport terminal, only smaller, even claustrophobic. Its single, narrow stairway certainly could not handle the opening-day crowds, but more than that, what is there to tell us that this is a destination fit for the greatest achievements of the human spirit?
Despite Director Cuno’s claim that “the Art Institute is a museum about all people and for all people” (Tribune, May 15), it just feels way too small and severe for that. Yes, the façade is not as painfully intimidating as that of the MCA, but still the message is the same: this space has been provided by and for a few. (A wealthy few, as critic Alan Artner explained in the last review of his career.) The Tribune’s architecture critic, Blair Kamin, noted “the conflict between the introverted act of looking at art and its extroverted views of the skyline and Millennium Park,” but that’s been resolved by window screens which, according to New York Times critic Nicolai Ouroussof, gives the galleries a “soft, ghostlike quality.” Which is to say, they’re dark, and way too dark for sculpture like Charles Ray’s “Hinoki,” the thirty-foot copy of a log that’s eventually going to trip somebody.
This is not a salon to celebrate life with Impressionist paintings, but a columbarium to ponder the enigmas of twentieth-century high culture, and as Roberta Smith of the New York Times noted, “it is dismaying to see modernism’s linear thinking” instead of a “fuller, more mixed-up story.” Where, for example, is the modern classical torso by Maillol that used to stand in the grand stairway? And what about all the traditional portraits, still-life, or landscapes that have been painted over the past hundred years, that the Art Institute has yet to collect? (artists like Pietro Annigoni, Claudio Bravo, or Hovsep Pushman). Don’t any of them qualify as what Director Cuno has called “objects of beauty” with “which we adorn ourselves and the places we inhabit”? A greater emphasis seems to have been placed on top brand names in an environment best fit for Minimalism. But at least buildings last longer than fashion, so who knows how all this new space will eventually be used. The entire room given to the narrative, decorative, life-affirming work of local artist Kerry James Marshall offers some hope that the museum’s selection of modern/contemporary art will eventually become more diverse. (Chris Miller)