To mark the Renaissance Society’s centennial, the Art Institute installed John Knight’s “Museotypes,” a series of sixty commemorative plates ostensibly honoring the museum. Hung in three stacked rows of twenty each, each gold-rimmed bone-china plate (the hue is just warmer than gallery white) sports the silhouetted footprint of a high-caliber museum in black glaze. Altogether, the abstract similarity shared by the graphics condenses art-housing architecture into minimalist logos that are less salable than museum facades, but no worse at making an icon of an institution.
Knight’s pieces indicate the obverse side of modernist techniques toward purity: seriality is leveraged to make collectibles and insufficient surveys; minimalist design coincides with unusable utensil. The plates are representations of the museum both by their status as art-cum-collectible and as clean, corporate trademarks. Cannily, the curators lodged these plates in the hall prefacing rooms full of Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns and some Abstract Expressionism. This decision seems to align Knight in a genealogy of institutional critique that uses the sites of museums, galleries and art discourse as material. All this is in striking opposition to the Ab-Ex work, with their wall text lauding individual expression with tinges of hermeticism. The Museotypes are also located across from the cafe, where a different sort of branding, selling and minimalist dishware is put to work.
As they are arranged, the plates give an air of archeology. Indeed, Knight’s trenchant critique was bought by the AIC the year after its 1983 commission by the Renaissance Society, and only occasionally unearthed since. But whereas archeological display stresses circulatory histories of how and where a thing was used, the Museotypes emphasize the way design tendencies homogenize and commodify our viewing experience. By gridding the work—in their first showing in 1983, a single strand of plates wound the rooms—the curators have hailed this archeological tendency, but defanged the critique that comes with slow seriality and contemplation. But perhaps this just performs the work of the piece again by distilling their forms and presenting them in one compact, salable form. (Paul Smith)
Through November 29 at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 South Michigan.
Elliot Josephine Leila Reichert is a curator, critic and editor. She is the inaugural Curator of Contemporary Art at the Eskenazi Museum of Art, Indiana University. She was formerly Curatorial Fellow at the Chicago Artists Coalition, Art Editor of Newcity and Assistant Curator at the Block Museum of Art, Northwestern University.