This exhibition focuses on distinct perceptions of time-phenomenological, empirical, political, and fictional. Contemporary artists from the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia map the show into five areas of multimedia installations that examine cultural differences in the construction of time.
Time Collapsed, the systemic and the random are interfaced in a cacophony of clocks, watches, and metronomes. Transgressive Bodies probes the metabolic processes and erotic drives exercised by the body. Liquid Time explores the ever-changing flow of time through images of water. Trans-Histories addresses issues of postcolonialism by engaging the viewer’s critical perception of the present through memory. Finally, in Mobility/Immobility, seemingly static video and sculptural pieces, actually in constant motion, destabilize the viewer’s perception of time.
Organized by Paulo Herkenhoff, Adjunct Curator, with the assistance of Roxana Marcoci and Miriam Basilio, Department of Painting and Sculpture. The exhibition catalogue is written by Herkenhoff, Marcoci, and Basilio. This exhibition is supported by Philip Morris Companies Inc. Additional support is provided by Agnes Gund and Daniel Shapiro and The International Council and The Contemporary Arts Council of The Museum of Modern Art. The accompanying educational programs are made possible by BNP Paribas. LCD monitor, plasma displays and DVD players courtesy of Hitachi America, Ltd. Travel support provided by Goethe-Institut Inter Nationes, New York.
Life Death Love Hate Pleasure Pain A Spectrum of Contemporary Art at the MCA, Chicago
Elizabeth A.T. Smith
“What attracts me is a certain awesomeness and presence which relates to the spirit of our time — to the human condition: the ups, the downs, the disruption, the chaos, the ambivalence.”
– Gerald S. Elliott, interviewed by Judith Neisser, 1987
The MCA Collection tells an ever-developing story of the ways art responds to and reflects the cerebral, emotive, and social aspects of human experience. Beyond its art historical significance, the Collection marks a commitment to preserve for posterity the most eloquent artistic expressions of what it means to live in our time. References to “life, death, love, hate, pleasure, pain” — a phrase borrowed from a work in the Collection by Bruce Nauman — emanate from and reverberate within the most compelling works of art from any era. Yet the art produced in recent decades resonates with much more ambivalence and ambiguity about these fundamental human states. Mirroring the uncertainties of our age and triggering our reflective responses, these works indeed embody the awesomeness and presence of human experience, as well as its disruption and chaos, as described by noted collector Gerald S. Elliott, whose 1995 bequest to the MCA forms a cornerstone of the Collection.
Regionally inflected yet national and international in its scope, the MCA Collection manifests notable strengths in historical examples of late surrealism, pop art, minimalism, and conceptual art from the 1940s through the 1970s; important holdings of work from the 1980s that can be loosely grouped under the rubric of postmodernism; and growing coherence within the plurality of directions in painting, sculpture, photography, video, installation, and related media today’s artists explore. While initially the Collection was lovingly if haphazardly assembled through the largesse of the museum’s early founders, increasingly it has come to reflect not only the passions of devoted patrons but also those of curators and directors who have strategically guided its focus in more recent years. Founded in 1967, the MCA built its Collection slowly and, during its early years, sporadically. While concentrating on generating an identity for the fledgling museum and on creating the stability to present a dynamic avant-garde program in contemporary art, the Board of Trustees did not officially vote to establish a permanent collection until 1974.1 Ten years later the MCA publishedSelections from the Permanent Collection, Vol. 1, the first catalogue of its major holdings, many of which were related to pioneering early exhibitions. Collective Vision: Creating a Contemporary Art Museum, published in 1996 to coincide with the opening of the MCA’s current building on Chicago Avenue, offered an updated treatment of key works in the museum’s growing collection. Yet a large number of gaps in the MCA’s holdings necessitated an alphabetical rather than a chronological or thematic organization of that catalogue.
Vast differences characterize the current volume, which reveals the Collection as an increasingly substantive and focused trajectory of the art of an approximately sixty-five-year period. Organized chronologically, it begins with works that prefigure developments in the post–World War II period, continues through the latter decades of the twentieth century, and concludes with recently acquired examples by some of the most outstanding of today’s artists. Early in its history, the MCA defined itself as a forerunner in the development of an avant-garde sensibility among American contemporary art museums; a continuing emphasis on the new and experimental stems from this spirit. Strengths established by earlier generations of patrons, foremost among them Joseph and Jory Shapiro and Gerald S. Elliott, continue to be consciously and thoughtfully expanded, refined, and realigned to reflect this vision. Moreover, the MCA’s innovative exhibition program, with its emphasis on the work of younger and mid-career artists, continues to provide a fertile point of departure for its curators as they build the Collection. This volume highlights approximately 190 works by 130 artists, selected from the museum’s complete holdings of more than five thousand works in all media, including artists’ books, that from today’s perspective are most significant to the art of the past half-century and representative of the way in which the Collection has evolved from the vantage point of the pursuit of the new in Chicago.
Foundations of the MCA Collection: Late Surrealism and Its Patrons
At the outset, the MCA Collection grew entirely from gifts that reflected the tastes of the vanguard of Chicago’s early contemporary art collectors, reflecting their predilection for surrealism.2 The phenomenon of Chicago collectors’ receptivity to surrealism beginning around 1950 has been cogently analyzed by a number of scholars including Katharine Kuh, a noted Art Institute of Chicago curator who wrote in 1985, “I have long wondered why Chicago collectors turn to Surrealism with such intense loyalty and why Chicago artists in recent years have specialized in highly subjective imagery… . Why, in this center of tangible industrialization, have Surrealism, Dadaism, and various peripheral forms flourished? Could it be that the city’s very materialism and overpowering vitality are responsible for driving some Chicagoans to psychic escape routes?”3 In an unpublished master’s thesis of 1992, Michele McCrillis offered a detailed and penetrating assessment of why Chicagoans gravitated toward surrealism, attributing it to the direct influence of artists Jean Dubuffet and Roberto Matta, who lectured and exhibited in Chicago in the early and mid-1950s, and to the desire on the part of independent-minded Chicagoans to distinguish their interests from those of East Coast collectors whose focus was the New York school.4 This legacy of independence persists in the attitudes of a current generation of Chicago collectors, but it has evolved substantially as the city has established itself as a leader in the contemporary art arena, due in no small part to the MCA’s generative role.
Joseph and Jory Shapiro were foremost among these intensely committed early patrons and founders of the MCA. They formed an extensive collection of surrealist and related works, many with a figurative emphasis, by predominately European artists. With an unparalleled passion and enthusiasm for the art of his time, Joseph Shapiro played a key role in educating other Chicagoans — often opening his Oak Park home to individuals or groups — and inciting the interest of those who would go on to become major collectors and patrons in their own right. Describing his commitment to the work of such artists as Max Ernst, Victor Brauner, Matta, Yves Tanguy, René Magritte, Joseph Cornell, Balthus, Francis Bacon, Dubuffet, and others, Shapiro stated of his and his wife’s interest, first established in the 1950s: “We like poetic, metaphysical works expressing the unseen inner self instead of visible reality. We like art of inherent ambiguity and complexity. The lure of the fantastic, the enigmatic, and mystery of the poetic vision brought us into the orbit of Surrealism.”5 Among the late surrealist works collected by the Shapiros that later became gifts or bequests to the MCA are Ernst’sLoplop Introducing a Bird (1929/1957), Hans Bellmer’s La toupie (The Top)(1938/1968), and Brauner’s L’objet qui rêve II (The Object that Dreams II) (1938). These, together with various benefactors’ gifts of postwar examples of late surrealism — Wifredo Lam’s Anamu (1942), Matta’s A Grave Situation (1946) and Let’s Phosphoresce by Intellection #1 (1950), Dubuffet’s La verrue sous le nez (The Wart under the Nose)(1951) and Magritte’s Les merveilles de la nature (The Wonders of Nature) (1953) — provide an underpinning for later developments represented in the Collection, especially with regard to the evolution of contemporary art in Chicago. Not only did surrealism directly influence many Chicago-based artists from the 1950s onward, particularly the imagists, with their emphasis on fantasy, figuration, humor, and scatology, but a surrealist sensibility also resounded in works created in the 1960s by such artists as Marisol and Claes Oldenburg, affiliated with the “neo-dada” strain of assemblage and pop art, respectively. More recently, affinities to surrealism can be discerned throughout a wider spectrum of work in photography, film, and sculpture by artists ranging from Cindy Sherman to Matthew Barney to Maurizio Cattelan.
A notable collection of works by Alexander Calder further distinguishes the MCA’s collection of art created at or around mid-century. Brass in the Sky (1947), Snow Flurry II (1951), Polychrome and Horizontal Bluebird (1954), and Cascading Snow (1961), along with fifteen long-term loans of key works by Calder from the Leonard and Ruth Horwich Family, have been displayed at the MCA for a significant portion of each year since 1996 and are visitor favorites. This rich amalgam of mobiles, stabiles, figurative works, and drawings straddle surrealism, abstraction, and related tendencies that emerged in this transitional era between the late modernism of mid-century and the early contemporary period. These works underscore Calder’s importance as a major innovator in bridging figurative and nonfigurative references to create a highly distinctive language of abstract form.
While the MCA Collection holds a plethora of key works from the late 1930s to the early 1950s, it contains fewer examples of the New York–based movements abstract expressionism and abstract imagism. Among its exceptional works from this period are Franz Kline’s Vawdavitch (1955), a signature painting that exemplifies this artist’s vocabulary of rigorous, dynamic abstraction. Ad Reinhardt’s Abstract Painting (1962), the language of which is considerably more reductive, prefigures the minimalist sensibilities of many artists who came of age in the 1960s and beyond; a 1998 exhibition project at the MCA by artist Byron Kim, for instance, used Reinhardt’s painting as a specific point of departure. These works by Kline and Reinhardt represent two poles of abstraction — action painting and the abstract “sublime” — American artists of the New York school explored during the immediate postwar period; both are highly important examples of these artists’ approaches, which were fundamental to the development of later directions in painting. Yet their singularity in the MCA Collection reveals how the collecting interests of Chicagoans in this period ran counter to the prevailing tendencies of their counterparts in New York or Los Angeles. From the 1950s through the 1970s, many Chicagoans sought opportunities to collect in ways that were distinctive and even maverick. Even today, only a handful of private collections in the city emphasize works associated with the New York school.
Instead, the figurative emphasis of artists like Dubuffet, Matta, and Francis Bacon, whose Study for a Portrait (1949) is an outstanding work by this important British painter, attracted the patrons whose tastes formed the cornerstone of the MCA Collection and appealed to the nascent sensibilities of artists beginning to make their mark in Chicago in the 1950s. Among the earliest works in the Collection created by a Chicago resident are paintings by June Leaf, whose work, presented in a 1978 retrospective at the MCA, would continue to evolve in the 1960s and 1970s with a distinctive focus on eccentric, carnivalesque images of women. A pronounced figurative emphasis also distinguishes the sculptures and drawings of H. C. Westermann, of whose work the MCA holds sixteen pieces, the largest collection of Westermann objects in a public collection, spanning the 1940s to 1979. Westermann’s work has been the subject of two MCA-originated exhibitions, one in 1969 and the second, a 2001 retrospective that toured extensively within the United States, which was accompanied by a catalogue raisonné constituting the definitive scholarship on the artist. Westermann’s alternatively deadpan and heartfelt treatment of a wide range of subjects, from Hollywood films to the symbolism of home to the horrors of war, manifested in his idiosyncratic, exquisitely crafted sculptures and incisive drawings, is exemplified by such key pieces as Mad House andMemorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (both 1958). Highly influential for a generation of younger artists, his work appealed strongly to the sensibility of Chicago collectors. While works by Leaf, Westermann, and others active in the 1950s reveal affinities with the ideas of artists such as Dubuffet, Matta, and Bacon, they were grounded much more strongly in an American sensibility rooted in time, place, historical circumstance, and the personal experiences of each artist. Their reception to and reworking of images from popular culture and the vernacular also foreshadowed developments that would emerge in a more pronounced way in the 1960s.
Art of the 1960s: From Mass Culture to Minimalism
A number of seminal works in the MCA Collection indicate the pervasiveness and growing influence of mass culture that began to emerge strongly in the art of the early 1960s. These include Jasper Johns’s In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara (1961) and Robert Rauschenberg’s Retroactive II (1963), both of which exemplify the transitional idiom of “hand-painted pop,” in which expressive painterly techniques are conjoined with a more controlled approach as well as with imagery of everyday life and the mass media, and in the case of Johns, as an homage to his friend the poet Frank O’Hara. These paintings and Andy Warhol’s Troy Diptych (1962) and Jacqueline Kennedy (1964) — the latter a promised gift to the MCA — mirror the nature of American culture during a period of economic and political hegemony marked by the complexities and uncertainties of societal change. Reflecting artists’ fascination with and responses to the explosive societal events and technological innovations of the era as well as the increasingly prominent culture of celebrity, these works are iconic examples of art in which images from popular culture and the mass media were increasingly central.
Developments in sculpture of the 1960s probed the transformative potential of the common object, the everyday, and the ostensibly banal. A group of notable works with roots in the tradition of assemblage includes pieces by the artist Marisol, who in 1968 donated the first work to the MCA — Six Women (1965–66) — even before the official establishment of the Collection. This work and her Jazz Wall (c. 1962) exemplify Marisol’s unique approach to figurative sculpture that centered in a humorous, expressive way on portraiture. Claes Oldenburg’s Green Beans (1964) and Sculpture in the Form of a Fried Egg (1966/1971) are equally witty manipulations of banal objects that exploit scale and materiality to disjunctive, surreal effects. Man in Bar (1969) is a prime example of George Segal’s casts of human forms in ghostly white plaster, positioned in eloquent tableaux to evoke the loneliness characteristic of contemporary urban life. Christo developed a startlingly original approach to the assemblage and installation tradition by using fabric to transform and transfigure the common object as in Orange Store Front (1964–65) and Museum of Contemporary Art Packed (Chicago) — Project for January – March 1969 (1968). He developed the latter as a study for an exhibition in which the entire MCA building was wrapped in canvas — an event that stands out as a highlight in the MCA’s early history of experimentation with innovative, avant-garde practices.
An exhibition of works by Dan Flavin at the MCA in 1967–68 was another of the most controversial exhibitions in the museum’s early history. While audiences at the time struggled to comprehend Flavin’s use of simple neon light tubes as material for art, his experimental use of light as a medium, interest in industrially fabricated materials, and rigorously reductive aesthetics were formative contributions to what became known as minimalism. Developed as a counterpoint to expressionist and pop tendencies and reflecting an urge toward pure abstraction and objecthood, prime examples of minimalist painting and sculpture in the Collection include Robert Ryman’s Untitled No. 25 (1960), Flavin’s the alternative diagonals of March 2, 1964 (to Donald Judd) (1964), Robert Irwin’s Untitled (1965–67), Carl Andre’s Zinc-Lead Plain (1969), and Donald Judd’s Untitled (1970) as well as several other examples of his work spanning 1965 to 1984. The emphatic geometric simplicity, insistent seriality, and mass-produced appearance of Judd’s objects, together with his extensive body of writings on such issues as materiality, wholeness, and illusion versus illusionism fundamentally redefined the theory and practice of art in this decade.
Additional works of the 1960s in the MCA Collection reflect the more expansive, expressive vocabulary of what would become identified as postminimalism. Robert Morris’s Portal (1965) is grounded in minimalism but employs a form with multiple associations, from the vernacular to the more broadly cultural and historical. Lee Bontecou’s untitled 1966 sculpture is a major abstract work by an artist who came to prominence in the early 1960s and whose sculptures and drawings from that decade onward increasingly reflected her complex responses to the interaction between nature and culture. Throughout the 1960s Richard Serra and Robert Smithson pioneered radical ways of working with industrial materials and with ideas about the meaning of time, site, and the very action of art-making. Serra’s Prop is joined in the Collection by Smithson’s A Nonsite (Franklin, New Jersey), both from 1968, as well as additional major pieces by Smithson including Mirror Stratum (1966) and a film documenting the artist’s monumental landscape sculpture The Spiral Jetty (1970). These works, as well as Vito Acconci’s Stretch (1969) and his later House of Used Parts (1985), are exceptional examples of these artists’ innovations in the genres of large-scale installations and interventions directly within the physical landscape that established them as leading figures of their generation. A number of these artists have been the subject of exhibitions at the MCA; Vito Acconci: A Retrospective in 1980 and Robert Smithson: Sculpture in 1981 included several of the works now in the Collection, while Bontecou’s work was presented in an early survey of 1972 and will be the subject of an MCA-organized retrospective in 2004. Richard Tuttle’s Purple Octagon (1967) probes the nature of nongeometric form and the painterliness of a nonpainting material, conditions the artist continues to explore. A younger generation including Tom Friedman, Arturo Herrera, and Richard Rezac, who work in both two and three dimensions, display similarly improvisational attitudes in their sculptures, installations, and drawings, building upon precedents established by Tuttle.
A selection of twenty works spanning 1965 to 1989 by Bruce Nauman distinguishes the MCA as the largest institutional home of works by this pioneering figure in postminimal and conceptual art. Nauman’s restless experimentalism, which has spanned many media and areas of inquiry, continues to be central in the thinking of today’s artists. The Collection encompasses a suite of eleven photographs of 1966–67 documenting a series of quasi-sculptural, quasi-performative actions testing ideas about the function and purpose of making art; sculptures, including the iconic Henry Moore Bound to Fail(1967/1970), Three Dead-End Adjacent Tunnels, Not Connected (1979), and Hanging Carousel (George Skins a Fox) (1988); and video installations such as Rats and Bats (Learned Helplessness in Rats II) (1988). The neon work Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983) is among Nauman’s most defining explorations of the relationship between language and image. Its powerful simplicity of form and medium, conjoined with its circularity of linguistic reference to fundamental states of human existence and emotion, renders this work an incisive, emblematic, and complex contemporary artistic statement.
Like Nauman, Sol LeWitt advanced the understanding of what can constitute a work of art beginning in the 1960s. A founder of conceptual art, he articulated ideas about seriality and concepts as generators of form, privileging the rational over the emotive and the systematic over the arbitrary in theoretical writings and works ranging from the three-dimensional Serial Project, Set D (1966) to Wall Drawing No. 358 (1981). Conceptual art is unquestionably the most significant contemporary development to have emerged in recent decades; many of today’s most compelling works of art depend on a fusion of conceptual practices first established in the 1960s with far more intuitive attitudes and responses to various cultural, social, and emotional stimuli, resulting in works that are simultaneously rigorous and evocative. The MCA’s presentation of major exhibitions of LeWitt’s work in 1978 and 2000 reflects his continuing significance as a conceptual artist as well as the impact his wall drawing technique has had on the work of a younger generation interested in the idea of site and reproducibility as a generator of form. Joseph Kosuth, also a pioneer of conceptual art with a focus on language, is represented in the Collection with No Number #6 (On Color, Blue) (1991) exemplifying the commitment to the conflation of language and image he first explored in the 1960s.
Unmasking, Deconstructing, Provoking: Art of the 1970s
The 1970s marked the beginning of a period of pluralism in contemporary art, characterized by the coexistence of numerous tendencies rather than the dominance of a single movement. Works in the MCA Collection by artists ranging from Europeans Marcel Broodthaers, Joseph Beuys, and Dieter Roth to Americans Richard Artschwager, Claire Zeisler,John Cage, Jackie Ferrara, Ed Paschke, Jim Nutt, and Christina Ramberg intriguingly reveal the multiplicity of interests and vocabularies that developed during this transitional period. Broodthaers pioneered a hermetic visual language that commingled literary and mass-cultural references in works such as 1833……Le manuscrit (1833……The Manuscript) (1969–1970), while Beuys’s Filzanzug (Felt Suit) (1970) exemplifies this artist’s visionary engagement with materiality and symbolism in a quest for social, cultural, and philosophical regeneration. A large group of 1970s artist’s books by Roth formed the subject of an exhibition at the MCA in 1984 and were donated by the artist to the Collection. Artschwager’s Polish Rider I (1970–71), a prime example from within this artist’s eclectic oeuvre in which he ambiguously recasts historical subject matter in contemporary terms, joins Ferrara’s Stacked Pyramid (1972), which refers to elemental geometric forms with a range of cultural associations.
An energetic group of artists working in Chicago, including Roger Brown, Paschke, Nutt, and Ramberg, began to capture the attention of the collecting community in the late 1960s and 1970s. The MCA produced important early shows of these artists’ works, notably Don Baum Says “Chicago Needs Famous Artists,” curated by artist Don Baum in 1969, and Chicago Imagist Art in 1972. Significant early paintings by Paschke, including Japanese Cowboy (1969) and Adria (1976), are standouts from among the sixteen examples at the MCA that chronicle his contributions to imagism in Chicago. The subject of Paschke’s painting Adria is Chicago historian and collector Dennis Adrian, who has long championed work by Paschke, Nutt, Westermann, and others working in a figurative vein. Likewise, fellow Chicagoan Nutt enjoys significant representation in the MCA Collection. His work has been the subject of two exhibitions at the MCA: Jim Nutt Retrospective in 1974 and a later show of his portraits in 1999.Summer Salt (1970), a gift of Adrian, exemplifies the artist’s insistence on fantasy, scatological humor, and references to popular culture in his characteristic figurative style. While also grouped with the Chicago imagists, Ramberg diverged from their interests with her images of women drawn from popular cultural sources; her Sleeve Mountain #1 and #2 (1973) is an important example of the highly charged approach that set her apart from her male peers and allied her concerns more closely with artists exploring feminist themes in the early 1970s.
A group of photographs from the Silueta series (1973–77/1991) by Ana Mendieta reflects her engagement with performative activities centering on feminist concerns but also encompassing landscape, ritual, and issues of ephemerality. Equally innovative and site-specific work of a very different type was produced by artist Gordon Matta-Clark in Chicago in 1978 — the subject of an exhibition for which the artist made radical physical interventions within the space of the MCA itself, profoundly altering the building by making deep cuts within its walls. Matta-Clark’s actions were documented in films and in photographs that he often collaged, as in Circus or the Caribbean Orange(1978). His approach to what he termed “anarchitecture” — a combination of anarchy and architecture — rethought conventional ideas about site-specific interventions combining architecture, sculpture, and performance to create political and social commentary.
More conventional in their three-dimensionality are sculptures from the late 1970s and early 1980s by artists Martin Puryear, Richard Hunt, Magdalena Abakanowicz, and Jackie Winsor. Puryear’s Untitled (1975–78) and Hunt’s Farmer’s Dream (1980) typify these artists’ rigorous experiments with predominantly abstract forms in wood and Corten steel, respectively. In contrast, Winsor’s Cheesecloth Piece (1981) is among her preeminent explorations with the admixture of geometric form and an experimental array of often delicate, organic materials. Cage (1981) is a highly characteristic work by Abakanowicz, who has consistently abstracted the figures within her work to reflect political and psychological meaning. Her disquieting sculptures were the subject of a solo exhibition at the MCA in 1982, as was Puryear’s work in 1980.
Leon Golub has been similarly emphatic in his commitment to communicating political and social ideas in painting, insistently foregrounding the human figure. His 1979Mercenaries I presents menacing, larger-than-life renditions of gun-toting mercenary soldiers who boldly confront viewers. With a long history in and significance to Chicago, Golub is additionally represented in the Collection with the classically inspiredReclining Youth (1959) and other early examples from his extensive series of paintings of heads. His work was the subject of a retrospective presented at the MCA in 1974. Figures from marginalized or subcultural groups populate Larry Clark’s photographic series including Tulsa (1961–1971/1980) and Kids (1995), and John Ahearn’s portrait sculptures, such as Clyde (1981). While Clark documents the activities of teenage drug addicts in his native Tulsa, Oklahoma — a group of which Clark himself was a part — Ahearn’s work seeks to honor and dignify members of a lower socioeconomic community within which he himself has lived and worked but from which he remained apart.
Art of the 1980s: From Banality to Hyperbole
Artists working during the 1980s pursued an astonishing variety of directions in their work. The dualities of banality — the mass media, consumerism, and everyday life — and hyperbole — associated with both the bombastic aspects of neo-expressionism and the intense theoretical ruminations of postmodernism — bookend a large spectrum of related ideas and endeavors. Beginning in the 1970s but not becoming fully defined until the 1980s, postmodernism took many forms and manifested widely diverse sensibilities relative to the self-conscious use of appropriation and imagery from the media, the impact of which was becoming increasingly pervasive in the culture at large.
In 1975 Cindy Sherman, then a young artist, made five photographs modeled on the familiar genre of black-and-white head shots in which she posed with various facial expressions and props to present an array of characters. Untitled, A, B, C, D, and E are the earliest in an extensive group of works by Sherman in the MCA Collection that initiated her explorations into the fluidity of identity. Her Untitled Film Stills are among the defining works of postmodernism in which the artist, chameleon-like, adopted a variety of female roles drawn from B movies, using the standard genre of the eight-by-ten inch film still. Sherman’s works of the 1980s undermine conventional assumptions about beauty and children’s literature, using fashion photography and fairy tales as points of departure. Brilliantly parodying social and cultural mores with her simultaneously grotesque and seductive images, Sherman is one of contemporary art’s formative figures, whose work continues to be crucial to a generation of younger artists. Her work was the subject of a major retrospective co-organized by the MCA and The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 1998.
Richard Prince’s Untitled (Sunset) (1981) is a definitive example of the adoption of readymade advertising imagery taken out of context to call attention to the way it carries meaning. This emphasis on the multivalence and ambiguity of meaning and an awareness of its constructed nature are foremost aspects of the postmodern thinking that shaped art in the 1980s. Jeff Koons is another of the leading artists of this generation to appropriate and recast imagery from mass culture. The MCA holds several major sculptures by Koons from the mid-1980s — widely considered the period when he made his most crucial innovations — some of which were included in an influential early exhibition of his work presented by the MCA in 1988. New Hoover Deluxe Shampoo Polishers … (1981/87), Lifeboat (1985), and Pink Panther (1988) have been recently joined by another notable sculpture from this decade, Rabbit (1986). These works embody and extend the spirit of engagement with mass culture first pioneered in the contemporary period by the pop artists and consummately expressed by Andy Warhol, but that also stems from the work of early twentieth-century figures such as Marcel Duchamp, who used objects from non-art contexts to investigate the nature of what constitutes art itself. In a related vein, Sherrie Levine’s intimately scaled Untitled (Gold Knots: 1) (1985) poses Duchampian questions about the nature and meaning of art, originality, and interpretation, while provocative sculptural approaches to similar issues are found in other representative three-dimensional works spanning the 1980s: Tony Cragg’s Red Bottle (1982) and St. George and the Dragon (1985), Haim Steinbach’sUntitled (cabbage, pumpkin, pitchers) #1 (1986), and Tony Tasset’s Button Progression(1986) and Abstraction with Wedges (1990).
The MCA Collection encompasses several key monumental paintings of the 1980s by American and European artists who used heroic scale and subject matter ranging from history and culture to the body, sexuality, and identity as a counterpoint to the reductive urges of the preceding generation of minimalists. Reintroducing iconography into painting by an emphasis on the figure or on psychologically charged references to the human subject, this tendency, labeled neo-expressionism but also stemming in large part from the subjectivity and hybridity of postmodernism, was a pronounced feature of painting during the 1980s. Major examples at the MCA include Julian Schnabel’s Aorta(1981), David Salle’s Din (1984), and Anselm Kiefer’s Banner (1990). Sigmar Polke’s large-scale Ashes to Ashes (1992), while not linked specifically to neo-expressionism, similarly probes hybrid approaches to distinct visual motives within the same painting. Chuck Close’s monumental painting Cindy (1988) presents this artist’s characteristically larger-than-life focus on the physiognomies of his art-world friends — in this case, a portrait of artist Cindy Sherman, who herself has become an emblem of the shifting, mutable nature of identity through her own work.
Conceptual Photography: An Emphasis Spanning Decades
In 1995, with his bequest of 105 major works including the entire group of Bruce Nauman holdings, collector Gerald S. Elliott catapulted the MCA Collection to a new level of substantive engagement with major movements and directions in contemporary art from the 1960s to the 1980s. In addition to the works by Nauman, his gift included many other outstanding examples of minimalism, conceptual art and photography, and neo-expressionism by both American and European artists, redefining the MCA Collection. Stimulated initially by the presence of key works from the Elliott bequest, MCA curators have increasingly focused on conceptual photography in exhibitions and in subsequent collection building to reflect the genre’s expanded status in the art world since the 1960s from its flowering in the later 1980s to its continued importance today. Notable early conceptual photographs bequeathed by Elliott include Ed Ruscha’s documentation of the Sunset Strip in photographs (1966; the MCA also owns this work in book form) and Dan Graham’s Bedroom Dining Room Model House (1967). These works take vernacular culture and architecture as their subjects, foreshadowing the approaches of artists such as Catherine Opie, who came to prominence in the 1990s and whose work often focuses on architecture as the basis for social and cultural commentary. Many of the aforementioned works by Cindy Sherman from the 1970s and 1980s also entered the Collection as part of the bequest, as did a series by the parent figures of conceptual photography in Europe, Bernd and Hilla Becher. Cooling Towers(1983) embodies their systematic approach beginning in the 1950s to documenting architectural typologies, particularly those that have both historical and formal significance.
The genre of conceptual photography has continued to develop in new and more complex directions. Particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, many artists used conceptual art and photography as a means of examining assumptions about racial or sexual identity, building on premises explored and articulated in postmodern theory. A number of important works revolving around the subject of identity from the 1980s include Gilbert and George’s Winter Pissing (1983), an example of the duo’s celebratory emphasis of gay identity from the outset of their work in the early 1960s. Jenny Holzer’sTruisms (1983), a work in the form of an LED sign, and Barbara Kruger’s Untitled (We construct the chorus of missing persons) (1983), raise questions about meaning through manipulations of text and imagery from the mass media. Adrian Piper’s Cornered(1988) confronts assumptions about racial identity by directly addressing the viewer, whereas Flipside (1991), She (1992), and Bio (1992) by Lorna Simpson provocatively juxtapose photographs and text to challenge viewers’ readings of imagery associated with race. John Baldessari’s use of found imagery from movie stills, as in Fish and Ram(1988), functions in similar ways, as do Louise Lawler’s Between Reagan and Bush(1989) and David Robbins’s Talent (1986). In this latter work, a variety of headshots of artists from the 1980s are configured and titled to evoke comparisons to the status of celebrities, playfully suggesting their commodification as media stars during that era.
The Bechers have been highly influential teachers to a generation of German artists including Thomas Struth, Andreas Gursky, and Thomas Ruff, whose larger-than-life-sized frontal portraits begun in the late 1980s demonstrate a related strategy of objectivity and formalism. Ruff’s portraits in the MCA Collection formed part of his first experiments with startlingly large scale, an element with great influence on the work of his colleagues and contemporaries who gravitated to a similar use of this device for its vivid, dramatic impact. Ruff’s hallmark portraits of the late 1980s, striking in their sharpness and clarity emphasized by their overblown scale, are joined in the Collection by a more recent example of his work — d.p.b.02 (1999), from a series of images of important works of modern architecture by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, in this case a softly focused, almost atmospheric view of the re-created 1928–29 German Pavilion at the Barcelona Exposition. These works reveal aspects of the profound shifts that have occurred in Ruff’s oeuvre, both in subject matter and style, as he continues a ceaselessly investigatory pursuit of the possibilities of the photographic medium.
Several important photographic works spanning more than a decade by Struth are also featured in the MCA Collection. Struth’s intensive, probing focus on the meaning of social spaces such as cathedrals, museums, temples, and other sites of historical and cultural importance is exemplified in his Kunsthistorisches Museum I, Vienna (1989 – 1990) and in the later Todai-Ji, Hall of the Great Buddha, Nara (1996) and Milan Cathedral (Interior), Milan (1998). Likewise, Struth’s early views of streetscapes and the family portraits he has made throughout his work, a number of which are also in the Collection, further manifest his preoccupation with the intertwining of conceptual and formal approaches with social issues as he seeks to define the character and psychological implications of specific places or groupings.
Art of the 1990s: Reflections in the Mirror of American Culture
Partially in response to the stimulus of readying for its new building, the MCA Collection enjoyed unprecedented growth during the first part of the 1990s, most spectacularly through the aforementioned Elliott bequest. Escalating this momentum in the second half of the decade, the Lannan Foundation’s 1997 gift to the MCA of eighty-five works of contemporary art included eleven examples by Cindy Sherman, twenty-three by Jim Shaw, and seven by Chris Burden, among other important pieces, profoundly enriching the Collection’s scope in the realm of very recent work. A standout from among the Foundation’s gifts is The Other Vietnam Memorial (1991), a major sculpture by Burden, who had undertaken a controversial and memorable performance at the MCA in 1975. This powerful, large-scale sculpture refers to the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial in Washington, D.C., but it does so from the perspective of the “other” — an implicit critique of U.S. policies and attitudes that link this work to others by Burden from the 1990s that address the theme of war as an institution. Further investigations of recent history and cultural episodes — especially a fascination with the antihero — emerge in works that treat these subjects in ways ranging from the specific to the broadly allusive and ambiguous. Cady Noland’s Chainsaw Cut Cowboy Head (1990) treats the fabled figure of the American cowboy as an amalgam of disparate and discarded parts, while Jack Pierson’s Scarface (1991) similarly uses industrial castoffs to create a text-based portrait of a legendary American antihero. Matthew Barney’s The Cabinet of Frank Gilmore (1999) is derived from the story of Gary Gilmore, the subject of the 1979 book The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer. This sculpture functions as a portrait of Gilmore’s father Frank, a character in Barney’s film Cremaster 2 (1999), by employing references to materials and symbols that recur throughout the film. Many of these works, and others focusing on the complex nature of social and cultural memory, were presented in the 1999–2000 Collection-based MCA exhibition Age of Influence: Reflections in the Mirror of American Culture, which centered on artists’ various responses to a wide spectrum of issues stemming from the spread of American influence in recent years.
Additional works addressing instances of social conflict include Jeff Wall’s Pleading(1988), which presents an ambiguous, yet highly charged scene from the urban landscape — an altercation between individuals on a city street — in the artist’s characteristic use of backlit photographic transparency. Alfredo Jaar has also repeatedly used lightboxes in his work to underscore and dramatize his images of human subjects in third world contexts. In his haunting installation Geography = War (1991), photographs of a geopolitical disaster in Nigeria suspended above metal barrels filled with water glow with the appeal of advertisements, their reflections appearing to float. Other works in which visual beauty and wrenching political and social commentary coexist in exquisite tension are two major animated films by William Kentridge — Felix in Exile (1994) and History of the Main Complaint (1996) — together with fourteen drawings related to the latter film, that address the tenuous nature of personal and historical memory in the artist’s native South Africa. Many of these works formed part of a landmark retrospective of Kentridge’s work coorganized by and presented at the MCA in 2001.
Several major pieces in the MCA Collection by artists Glenn Ligon, Kara Walker, and Kerry James Marshall provocatively refer to episodes in African-American history and cultural memory. Ligon’s series Narratives and Runaways (both 1993) and his paintingWhite #11 (1994) probe historical treatises from the era of slavery as well as more recent literary works by authors addressing the subject of the invisibility of the African-American male. Like Ligon, Walker employs and slyly undermines a familiar historical genre — the cut-paper silhouette — to make pointed references to slavery and the condition of victim and victimizer as a troublesome, ambiguous psychological phenomenon that persists in our culture. Her epic work Presenting Negro Scenes Drawn Upon My Passage Through the South … (1997) presents a dazzling, seductive panorama in which acts of violence and degradation reveal themselves in a sinister, quasi-narrative format. Less strident than Walker but equally ambivalent, Marshall’s Souvenir I (1997) draws on the tradition of history painting to simultaneously honor and critique the legacy of the Civil Rights movement in America, addressing its meaning and relevance from today’s perspective.
Social and cultural issues pertaining to identity and phenomena including the pervasiveness of AIDS-related deaths stimulated the production of key works in the 1990s by such artists as Felix Gonzalez-Torres. His Untitled (The End) of 1990 is an ephemeral piece in which visitors can take away components of a renewable stack of paper, memorializing the loss of life to AIDS by symbolizing the ebbing away of life and the generosity of enrichment to those touched by that life. This theme of loss and anguish resounds in Jim Hodges’s The end from where you are (1998), created for and presented in a 1999 exhibition of the artist’s work at the MCA. Arturo Herrera’s Behind the House III (1999), Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographic series Time Exposed (1991), and Tatsuo Miyajima’s sculptural installation Counter Circle No. 19 (1993), convey related ideas encompassing the passage of time and the circularity and ephemerality of existence. Jin Soo Kim’s sculpture Wall (from imprints) (1994–98) updates the concerns of an earlier strain of postminimalism in her emphasis on process to create evocative objects of delicate wire forms, while Ann Hamilton’s (the capacity of absorption • video),(dissections … they said it was an experiment • video), (linings • video), (aleph • video), a group of works from 1993, revels in ambiguous ritualistic bodily actions.
Another notable sensibility of art of the 1990s is the use of a deliberately raw, crude, or childlike technique to suggest abjecthood and anomie. While in certain respects this approach also characterizes that of the earlier Chicago imagists, it has manifested itself in distinct ways throughout the work of a number of predominantly American artists who first began to make art in the late 1970s and 1980s. Mike Kelley’s sculptural installationCraft Morphology Flow Chart (1991), Ken Warneke’s painting The Tyranny of Everyday Life (1990), Tony Oursler’s sculpture/video installation Guilty (1995), and Raymond Pettibon’s idiosyncratic drawings juxtaposing fragmentary images and text, spanning 1978 to 1995, offer humorous but quirky, antiformal, and even crude representations of the pathos and drama of everyday existence. A related sensibility marks the photographic and video work of Jeanne Dunning, which is extensively represented in the Collection. Dunning’s The Pink (1996) presents a seductive yet highly repellent field of what appears to be organic matter, while The Toe-Sucking Video (1994) is a patently absurdist endurance test of quasi-infantile, quasi-erotic activity.
Various works in the MCA Collection from the late 1990s to the present evince the vibrancy and pluralism of directions within the most recent manifestations of contemporary art. Photography and mediated imagery remain central to the practice of many artists working today. Andreas Gursky is a foremost practitioner, known for his use of digital manipulation to enhance the qualities of large-scale photographs that in many respects approximate the properties of painting. Gursky’s spectacular image ofChicago Board of Trade II (1999), which treats the landscape of global capitalism with startling visual impact and conceptual resonance, has become an emblematic work for the MCA; he is represented in the MCA Collection with several additional works including the coolly minimal Prada III (1998) and Avenue of the Americas (2001) as well as an example from the late 1980s. Other recent photographs by artists such as Sharon Lockhart, whose work was the subject of an MCA-organized exhibition in 2001, rely on the traditions of conceptual art and cinema but are also characterized by a keen attention to formalism.
The MCA’s holdings continue to expand in the area of sculpture and three-dimensional work. Recent examples that have entered the Collection display an astonishing stylistic variety, yet have in common their embodiment of a multiplicity of cultural and contextual references and, in some instances, an almost surrealist sense of the absurd. Dan Peterman, who explores the possibilities of recycled materials and functionality in his sculpture and installations, produced Accessories to an Event (plaza) in 1998 as a commission from the MCA to stimulate activity on the museum’s front plaza. Also incorporating recycled or found objects as a major component of his work, David Hammons recombined Thai Buddhist figures with the humble materials of a safety pin and string in Praying to Safety (1997) to suggest an interplay of related ideas and cultural connotations. In Alien Obsessives, Mum, Dad and the Kids (1998), Yinka Shonibare probes cross-cultural readings not only of the concept of “alien,” but also the origin of the cloth that covers the figures — which conventionally signifies Africanism — to humorous effect. The absurd also functions as a profound component of the work of such sculptors as Tom Friedman and Maurizio Cattelan. Constructed of cardboard and Styrofoam balls, Friedman’s Untitled (1999) suggests a giant childlike robot, while Maurizio Cattelan’s Felix (2001) draws on the tradition of pop art in its exaggerated scale and overt humor, as well as its site-specific implications — a hallmark of much of Cattelan’s work that recalls the earlier pop artist Claes Oldenburg.
Several important recent video installations by artists including Shirin Neshat and Doug Aitken populate the MCA Collection, indicating the growing prominence of this medium as a compelling way to convey meaning and imagery at a cinematic scale. Stan Douglas’s video installation Evening (1994) extends the investigations of earlier artists’ fascination with the media, exploring its contradictions and its shaping of our perceptions about the society in which we live. Pipilotti Rist’s video projection Sip My Ocean (1996) oscillates between haunting beauty, tedium, and a jarring sense of angst-ridden depravity. Experimental approaches to harnessing the properties of video, photo-based, and digital media occur in the work of Mariko Mori, whose Birth of a Star (1995) combines sound and photographic imagery of a half-alien, half-human female for which the artist herself modeled — an approach that owes much to the example of Cindy Sherman — to comment on cultural and psychological phenomena of hybridity. Likewise, Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s video and sculptural installation Le Baiser (The Kiss)(1999) incorporates the artist’s own image, transformed in relationship to an iconic architectural work by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. Juxtaposing video projection and music within a large-scale sculptural framework, Le Baiser blurs the boundaries of media and exploits their hybrid possibilities to create an evocative three-dimensional environment in which multiple references to aspects of the human condition emerge. An additional example of combinations of media is Donald Moffett’s What Barbara Jordan Wore, developed for a 2002 exhibition at the MCA in which abstract painting merged with video projection and sound for an unprecedented treatment of the subject of a leading late twentieth-century political figure and the ethical dimensions of her thinking.
As this book goes to press, the Collection continues to grow with recent acquisitions of work by younger and mid-career artists who are extending and provocatively redefining the language of art. During the past two years the MCA’s acquisitions have encompassed examples of photography by Beat Streuli, Thomas Demand, Catherine Opie, Giuseppe Gabellone, Dawoud Bey, and others, including a notable collection of seventy-five photographic works from the 1960s to the present from Howard and Donna Stone that deepen and extend the already-established emphasis on conceptual photography in the Collection; paintings by Gary Hume, Judy Ledgerwood, and Laura Owens; video installations and projections by Paul Pfeiffer and Jason Salavon, and sculptures by Gary Simmons, Helen Mirra, James Angus, and Damian Ortega. Many of these works have been featured in recent MCA exhibitions.
Building on the precedents established by an earlier generation of patrons and curators, the artistic program of the MCA continues to emphasize research into the most compelling and substantive new developments in today’s art and how it conveys meaning about the times in which we live. Through an emphatic strategy of acquiring works from exhibitions, the curatorial vision for the ongoing growth of the Collection is continuously to enhance and underscore the vital relationship between these intertwined branches of its artistic program. Over time, this strategy will continue to result in a unique identity for the MCA Collection, highlighting the museum’s ongoing dedication to originating innovative, thought-provoking, and substantive exhibitions that reflect the spirit of our time — “the ups, the downs, the disruption, the chaos, the ambivalence” of the human condition. Interrelating recent history with the emerging tendencies that are themselves continuously becoming historical, the MCA Collection embodies a living, vital resource in which the present continuously inflects and informs our understanding of the past, in a dynamic and mutable framework that mirrors the shifting nature of contemporary art itself.
1. This decision is documented in the minutes of an MCA Permanent Collection Committee meeting, June 26, 1974.
2. For more on this, see Joseph Randall Shapiro’s introduction to The Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Randall Shapiro Collection, exh. cat. (Chicago: The Art Institute), p. 9.
3. Katharine Kuh, “An Appreciation,” in The Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Randall Shapiro Collection (note 2), p. 14.
4. Michelle M. McCrillis, Matta in Chicago: A Reexamination of the Career of Roberto Matta Echaurren in the 1950s (Master’s thesis, The School of The Art Institute of Chicago, 1992).