CHICAGO — The Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, which opened in 2009, has reinstated its contemporary collection after giving over most of the space in 2015 to a much-lauded retrospective of the American sculptor Charles Ray. Rather than just reinstalling everything that was there before, the contemporary galleries are now centered around 44 works donated to the museum by Chicago collectors Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson, touted by the museum as “the largest gift in the Art Institute’s 136-year history.” The new collection was curated by James Rondeau, today appointed as the director of the museum.
The Edlis-Neeson Collection consists mostly of work by American Pop artists from the 1950s and ’60s, with smaller sets of works by Pop art–influenced artists from the 1970s through the ’90s, plus a few works by artists at either end of that time period. So there are seminal works by Robert Rauschenberg (an early collage, mixed-media painting from 1955); “number” and “alphabet” paintings by Jasper Johns from 1959; and a selection of some of the most iconic silkscreen-on-canvas paintings from the early 1960s by Andy Warhol. His “Twelve Jackies” and “Little Race Riot,” both from 1964, represent some of his earliest statements about the effects of mass media upon our capacity for empathy. By taking an image of Jackie Kennedy at John F. Kennedy’s funeral, or a moment of racial violence, and silk-screening the image again and again on a series of canvasses, Warhol recorded his own inability to respond emotionally to televised tragedy. As the artist himself said about the Kennedy assassination (in an interview quoted in the book POPism: The Warhol Sixties):
I heard the news over the radio when I was alone painting in my studio. I don’t think I missed a stroke. I wanted to know what was going on out there, but that was the extent of my reaction.
Mixed in with the irony of the artist’s vision is the additional historical irony that these works are now taken as signifiers of historical value — hence their central position in the collection of a mega-rich donor.
The presence of several photography-inspired paintings by Gerhard Richter from the 1960s and ’70s, chromogenic prints by Cindy Sherman from the 1980s, and more recent works by Richard Prince, suggests that the collection was put together mainly with an eye that has followed the influence of Pop Art Irony on succeeding generations of artists. Richter’s “Hunting Party” begs the questions: did the painter blur the source image when painting it, or was the original photo blurred? The latter usually indicates lack of skill — so does Richter’s skillfully painted rendering of blurriness solicit our praise, or is it an ironic commentary on the idea of skill in painting?
In Sherman’s Untitled series from 1981, which shows the photographer posing in various female guises, the lighting and staging of each image automatically has the viewer searching for visual references — stills from old movies, magazine images of reclining women, classical chiaroscuro paintings. She shakes our perception that a photo depicts a real event or a real emotion (even if Sherman’s work, ironically, often evokes real pathos). Richard Prince’s Girlfriends series seems to say that even irony needed to be reinvigorated as an artistic response. His appropriations of images of semi-nude women posing next to motorcycles might be ironic commentaries on sexism (“I am showing you this because I am amused that someone would attach value to these displays”) or they might just be too unchanged from their source material to be anything other than a bunch of trashy pictures of unclothed females. Either way, the presence of so many of them in this collection reinforces the “story” that is being told here: the attempt to make meaningful art out of irony, appropriation, banality, quotation, and self-reference is an enduring strand in late 20th-century art.
In numerical terms, the museum has received much larger bequests. The world-class Impressionist and Post-Impressionist collections, for example, are the result of two donations in the 1920s. Four hundred works by early 20th-century American artists, such as John Marin and Marsden Hartley, were given by Georgia O’Keeffe in the 1940s, from her and her husband Alfred Stieglitz’s collection. After a brief pause to dig around in the publicity materials, it soon becomes apparent that “largest donation in the museum’s history” actually means “largest in terms of current market value.”
It’s probably best not to dwell on the fact that one gilded and carved wood-framed mirror from 1988 by Jeff Koons is probably worth more dollars than half of those Monet and Degas paintings. Better just to appreciate the latest bequest on its own artistic terms, which are that it comprises a formidable expansion of a museum collection that was already telling a well-illustrated story of post-WWII art.
The New Contemporary featuring the Edlis-Neeson Collection is on permanent display at the Art Institute of Chicago (111 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago).