Richard Hunt/Photo: Thomas McCormick
By Matt Morris
Two concurrent exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art and the Chicago Cultural Center crown the sculptor Richard Hunt’s eightieth year. To date, Hunt has produced more public sculpture than any other artist in the United States, with 125 currently on view, thirty-five of which are in Chicago. Hunt completed his studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957 at a time when other black artists were scarce and the approach to welded metal sculpture Hunt had started to pursue wasn’t supported by the school’s studio facilities. Footage playing at the Cultural Center’s exhibition shows a dashingly handsome young Hunt setting up shop in his parents’ basement. By 1971 he had been honored with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and his diligent efforts have been continually rewarded throughout his career. Taken together, the exhibitions offer audiences examples of early investigations, to-scale maquettes for larger outdoor commissions, and a breadth of two- and three-dimensional works that ground flighty abstractions in a gravitas tempered by the struggles and victories of modern life. Read the rest of this entry »
James Ensor. “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” 1887
James Ensor’s six-foot-tall drawing “The Temptation of Saint Anthony,” 1887, is the exhibition’s thematic and physical centerpiece, set like an altarpiece at the end of a dark, chapel-like corridor. It’s a dense tangle of scary figures and texts, and a teeming universe of references to the artist’s life. The Art Institute wisely bought it in 2006; it hasn’t been shown in sixty years. Composed of fifty-one separate sheets mounted on canvas, it’s a conservation triumph. Stylistically, it’s a cross between Northern Renaissance art and the cramped doodles of underground comics. Indeed, Ensor’s drawing-based art was expressed in almost every two-dimensional media, including the then-new manufactured color pencils. Read the rest of this entry »
Jack Tworkov. “Untitled (Reclining Figure),” circa 1955, charcoal on paper
Jack Tworkov is best known for his gestural paintings of the 1950s. But his work runs the gamut of mid-century American genres: from Social Realism to Abstract Expressionism to Geo-form to Minimalism. You might say he jumped on every new bandwagon, but he stayed away from the irony and pop-culture tropes of postmodernism. This first-generation American seemed less interested in pushing the boundaries of art and taste than in exploiting every new opportunity for expressing and valorizing his restless, rootless self in an ever-changing world. Life drawing, quickly executed, gave him many such opportunities, as he moved back and forth between observational detail and compositional dynamic. Read the rest of this entry »
Icon of St. Prokopios, 14th century. Byzantine; Greece, Veroia. Church of Saint Prokopios, Veroia.
The story of Renaissance painting begins with innovations in naturalism that were a welcome liberation from the schematic strictures of the Byzantine style. Or at least, that’s how the leading art historians of the last century, like Ernst Gombrich, told it. Perhaps that’s why this is the first special exhibition devoted exclusively to Byzantine art at the Art Institute of Chicago in 124 years. But as this exhibition proves, the best Byzantine figurative art in painting, sculpture and mosaic was no less fresh, expressive and exciting than subsequent art periods are known to be. Read the rest of this entry »
“Looking Into My Dreams, Awilda,” polyester resin and marble dust, 2012. Photo by Tom Van Eynde
Spanish sculptor Jaume Plensa designed his first gigantic head, “Dream,” in 2009 on the site of an abandoned coal mine to help a former mining town, as his website puts it, “fill the void left by the colliery since its closure.” Since then, similar heads have popped up in cities around the world, with four now installed in Millennium Park. All of them are derived from digitally modified 3D photographs of girls on the verge of puberty. All have their eyes closed, as if peacefully looking inward.
The shining white, thirty-nine foot “Looking into my dreams, Awilda” serves well as the Madison Street gateway, inviting the public into what is essentially a contemporary art amusement park. Read the rest of this entry »
“Daffodil House, Greendale, Wisconsin,” archival pigment print, 2009
Shooting in lucid color and adopting a no-nonsense straight-on documentary approach in his project “New Deal Utopias,” Jason Reblando has taken contemporary photographs of the three Greenbelt Towns—Greenbelt, Maryland; Greenhills, Ohio; and Greendale, Wisconsin—that were planned, built and owned by the federal government in the early years of the Franklin Roosevelt administration in order to “resettle” unemployed American families in pleasant community environments during the Great Depression. Their original residents were chosen to reflect social diversity (though not racial), and they were laid out to encourage neighborliness. The towns represented progressivism at its cutting edge, and the movement that inspired them had lost its momentum by the mid-1930s, a victim of political pragmatism. By the 1950s, the government had divested itself of the towns, but they have continued to exist as parts of burgeoning suburban landscapes. Read the rest of this entry »
“Drunken Devil,” oil on panel, 2013
“Wow! That’s wild,” seems to have been the thought behind each of Jeff Britton’s oil paintings. It could have been provoked by a huge construction crane parked outside Britton’s studio window, or by Peter Paul Rubens’ painting of “Saturn Devouring His Son,” or by the ragged edge of a weather-blasted field in winter. The artist doesn’t seem to be pursuing any particular direction other than a need to depict whatever has grabbed his attention. He likes to be grabbed—and then aggressively push back with a brash, expressive, gutsy expression in oil paint. Nervous, spontaneous dabs of paint are more dramatic on smaller panels, so several of these pieces are less than ten inches on a side. Read the rest of this entry »
“Montcalm Pool, Los Angeles,” 1980, oil on canvas
Is David Hockney a major international contemporary artist? Apparently not major enough to yet merit a retrospective in Chicago over the past five decades of his career, and he has been a celebrity art-star from the very beginning. Since the 1980s, though, Chicagoans have gotten to see some of Hockney’s pieces for sale at the Richard Gray Gallery. The painter often depicts contemporary life, but like a painter from the Italian Renaissance, it’s the fashionable life of the highly privileged. And like all famous paintings from earlier centuries, his works of art “announce themselves as such, which can only be done by what we call sensual beauty and grace,” as Goethe put it in 1798. As fresh and brash and spontaneous as Hockney’s paintings feel, his mimetic pursuit of those delightful qualities sets him outside the dominant discourses of contemporary art, and he hasn’t been shy about advocating his position. He’s always experimenting with materials, techniques and patterns, but he doesn’t push the conceptual boundaries of art or meaning. Instead, he uses the traditional subjects of portrait, still-life and landscape to celebrate the ecstatic possibilities for a wonderful life on planet earth—just like a high-end fashion or interior designer. Read the rest of this entry »
“Ada with Blue Scarf,” 2012
I have been looking at Alex Katz paintings for nearly fifty years, but mostly as page-size reproductions in contemporary art magazines, where they stand out as rare attractive depictions of the real world, but this is the first time I have seen a roomful in all their original, full-sized splendor. Well, perhaps splendor is not the right word, even if these paintings are very well made.
Katz displays a well-studied discipline for design and execution. You can see the instantaneous pull of his brush through paint, as well as the dynamics and scale of the design within which it operates. The resulting decorative effect is almost like an eighteenth-century Japanese screen, except that its beauty is more like off-the-rack, ready-to-wear casual fashions from a mail-order catalog than a precious, unique kimono. Read the rest of this entry »
Installation view. Image courtesy of the artist and Tom Van Eynde
For decades, Gaylen Gerber has rendered conspicuous the assumed neutrality—both perceptual and rhetorical—of exhibition spaces and the institutions that house them, through gray monochromatic paintings and wall-sized supports upon which other artists’ works are displayed. Expression is outsourced, and Gerber’s parenthetical interventions make note of the factors that contribute to an audience’s experience of the discrete works shown therein. In recent years, he has transitioned into sensory riots of color and light, such as the project now on view at the MCA. Bracing tangerine and sweltering yellow blast over the gathered artworks, recalling earlier MCA installations such as Rudolf Stingel’s “Untitled (Orange Carpet on Floor)” in 2007 and Olafur Eliasson’s hallway of intense yellow light in 2009. Remembrance and art-historical play are apropos here as Gerber has included works produced over the past fifty years by other artists living and deceased, men and women, drawn from the MCA’s collection and on loan. Read the rest of this entry »