Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Modern Wing (The Art of Institute of Chicago)

I was in Chicago over the weekend and had a chance to visit The Art Institute's Modern Wing, a recently opened addition designed by Renzo Piano and built to house the museum's 20th and 21st Century collections.

Getting There (or at least inside).

To start (and from a purely logistical perspective), I'll mention that visitors can enter The Modern Wing from the north side of the Art Institute campus on Monroe street. I point this out because I expect the line might be shorter when you enter from there, and you also gain the advantage of being right in The Modern Wing upon arrival (i.e. you don't have to go find it). The Monroe Street entrance is one of the many little touches (along with a dedicated Modern Wing coffee bar, gift shop, and restrooms) that make a visit to The Modern Wing an event that's easily separate from a visit to the Art Institute proper (though admission happily gets you into both).

The Friendly Confines

The building itself is worthy of the accolades. Obviously, it's quite a departure from the style of the old building (see also the NGA and its East Building), but still integrates nicely into the campus. The foyer/main lobby is tall and light, creating the sense of having arrived someplace important. The fact that you've entered a museum though isn't readily apparent, and I think that has to do with the presumably deliberate decision to not have any large scale work on display in the main hall. There's plenty of room though, and perhaps this decision will be revisited. The galleries themselves provide diffuse, natural light whenever possible, and the navigation between them is fairly clear and simple.

The Collection

The collection was certainly impressive, but seemed geared more toward highlighting a few particular artists rather than providing a comprehensive selection over time. Gehard Richter, Jim Nutt, Phillip Guston, Bruce Nauman, Robert Gober, and Kerry James Marshall all enjoyed rooms of their own, while other artists seemed noticeably absent.

That said, personal highlights certainly included Vija Celmins' "Explosion at Sea", Jeff Wall's "The Flooded Grave" (which is weirdly vertigo inducing in real life!) and
Gehard Richter's "Little Landscape at the Seaside". Richter also gets special consideration for taking a stab at 9/11 while managing to be neither maudlin nor obvious. Balthus, Bonnard, and a Sol Lewitt wall drawing also helped to make this visit a real treat.

A Side Note on Exposition

I'm one of the visitors who appreciates those little expository placards that museums sometimes provide. I find that being able to learn a little background on the work and artist (albeit from one curator's perspective) adds value (ugh!) to the museum experience. The Modern Wing, to their credit, provides a lot of these!

I expect museum professionals and critics probably argue back and forth about whether or not work in a museum ought to be explained. T
he fact is though, we learn in a lot of different ways; by seeing, reading, hearing, and acting. Placards and text engage visitors in the learning process in a way that goes beyond the simple act of looking. I say kudos then to the Modern Wing for offering such clear, cogent, and easily accessible explanations. I read them, enjoyed them, and feel like I came away with a much better understanding of what I was seeing.

Pro Tips

Navigating those big glass doors: It took half of my visit to figure them out! If you approach a door and it has a single, vertical handle that runs from the floor to about waist height, grab it and pull. If you approach a door that has a handle that comes up from the floor and then makes a 90 degree turn toward the hinges, that means push.

Talking on cell-phones: Halls and lobby please, not in the galleries.

The giant, fallen tree sculpture: It doesn't have a rope or marking around it, but apparently you still shouldn't stand too close.

Also, be sure and check out the bathrooms, space-aged and mood lit.

And Finally

If you're a fan of modern and contemporary art, I'd recommend setting aside the better part of a day to take in the whole collection. If you have the time and inclination, look at it as a destination independent of the Art Institute. The autonomy of the building, the collections, and the way it's branded certainly invites it. You won't be disappointed.

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