The New Contemporary
Sanctuary for the Edlis/Neeson Collection, The Art Institute of Chicago
While record crowds make themselves at home in the Art Institute of Chicago’s exhibition of Van Gogh’s Bedrooms—examining three versions of this iconic painting—other visitors looking for a more recent avant-garde may be drawn to the museum’s reopened contemporary galleries, now billed as The New Contemporary.
The title refers to a total reinstallation of those galleries on the second floor of the Modern Wing. Highlighted in the central galleries is the donation of 44 major contemporary works by prominent Chicago collectors, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson.. Unlike the Van Gogh exhibition which ends May 10, you will have 25 years to view the core of this new installation.
The Edlis/Neeson donation of $400 million is unprecedented in value, though museum leadership is quick to place the donation within a long history of transformative gifts by patrons over the museum’s 136-year history. Part of the exhibit’s implicit message is the reliance of museums upon the extraordinary generosity of wealthy “guardians of our culture”, to quote artist Eric Fischl’s tribute to Edlis in the celebratory catalogue.
Patronage and education are tandem themes. A cute faux-Kodachrome slideshow of the exhibit on the museum’s webpage, complete with the whir of the projector fan and click of the slide carousel, sets up a mini-lecture titled “Contemporary Art 101”. When the slide show ends with the slogan, “Icons of the 21st Century,” I wondered if those icons were the artists or the collectors.
The Art Institute claims their newly expanded collection of contemporary works represents “the strongest of any encyclopedic art museum in the world.” If some artists’ names on the Edlis/Neeson roster are less familiar household brands, most visitors will instantly recognize Andy Warhol’s neon Elizabeth Taylor. She acts as the face of the collection on new finding aids throughout the museum.
Works by eminent New York artists are especially notable. Several bear an intertwined provenance. A Robert Rauschenberg painting in which a sock and a parachute are embedded, was previously owned by Jasper Johns. The influence of this painting can be seen in Johns’ own work in a nearby gallery, where strings suspended across the canvas echo the dangling parachute strings.
The Warhols command an entire room. Exuding glamour, they set the stage for the pop culture references on parade across the Edlis/Neeson galleries. For the museum to acquire the Warhols alone, including two self-portraits, would be inconceivable by any other means.
For a collection seemingly compiled as a portfolio of infallible investments—Johns, Rauschenberg, Richter, Twombly—Edlis and Neeson have cultivated a narrative of Pop Art that is distinctly personal. Their catalogue interview talks about their learning process and acknowledges the limits of a collector’s attention. Edlis explains that their strategy limits their focus to 40 artists and 200 artworks at a time. If something new came in, something else went out. Edlis explains, “We would sell some to pay for the others.”
A Marilyn can be sold for a Jackie or a Liz. Or so Edlis claims in his account of selling works he collected early on to raise funds for the next conquest. By entrenching their new contemporary galleries around this mode of collecting, the Art Institute perpetuates the patriarchal halo bestowed on works by a system of pure exchange value.
Edlis’ frank definition of a collector’s parameters is admirable. However, a major concern within the reinstallation is the museum’s lack of attention to situating this new donation into a broader art historical frame. Explicit connections between the new works and the permanent collection are limited and unremarkable. The surrounding galleries are arrayed as vivid, but disconnected, appendages.
It is dangerous to sequester this major donation apart from other important objects in the museum, as if to sanctify the Edlis/Neeson touch. As one of the greatest teaching collections in the world, the Art Institute risks aggrandizing a form of value creation left solely to the good taste and deep pockets of the collecting elite.
There are leanings in this collection that need to be addressed by the curators. The representation of women in particular (as subjects, as artists) reflects a troubling history of commodification and biased market valuation of art made about and by women. To travel across the Edlis/Neeson galleries–from Warhol’s glamazons to Koon’s absurd bather by way of Prince’s and Sherman’s Centerfolds–tells a complicated story of women, but it is too subtle in this context. Vulnerable, powerful, sexualized, innocent, violated, even grotesque—there is no getting around the focus on the selling of women’s bodies.
In this setting, John Currin’s Stamford After Brunch (2000) is an interesting addition. A wall label points out the three women depicted were Currin’s gallerists at the time it was painted. As influential art world mavens, the women stand in for the usual cigar-smoking boys club. Our eye is trained to judge such cartoonish cronies, but moral evaluation is roiled by the slumber party-like atmosphere of the scene. Perhaps not coincidentally, Warhol’s diptych of Pat Hearn (1985), one of the most striking pictures in the installation, also depicts a gallery owner. These are women who wield power by way of selling art—a skill recognized as quite different from making art.
Cindy Sherman is the pivotal feminist on view. The decision to intersperse Richard Prince’s work with Sherman’s stages them as willing or unwilling bedfellows. Whereas Sherman serves as director, designer, makeup artist, model and photographer in her “archetypes”, Prince is known as an appropriation artist. He crops and enlarges found images, as if to prove the simplicity of success available to the exploitation of stereotypes.
In the exhibit catalogue’s forward, then museum director, Douglas Druick (since replaced by the curator of The New Contemporary, James Rondeau) reminds us of Bertha Palmer’s famed donation of Impressionist art. Championing these artists, Druick notes, was, at the time, “radical, even controversial.”
By contrast, the Edlis/Neeson artists have already etched their names into the canon. Perhaps this fact is a defining difference between the Pop Art and Impressionist movements, or perhaps it reveals more about contemporary art’s role in advancing one’s reputation for spending money on beautiful things.
Kate Hadley Toftness
Kate Hadley Toftness investigates collection-based programs at museums and alternative spaces with permanent archives. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and an M.A. from the University of Chicago.
Volume 30 number 5, May / June 2016 pp 24-26