Mastering the Modern Masters….

One Hundred Fish, 2005
One Hundred Fish, 2005

On Friday I went to the Art Institute of Chicago to listen to a fabulous all day lecture about modern artists.  Each lecture was 30 minutes in length about various artists given by professors, published authors, curators, and even other artists.  All in all it was as if I was sitting in a living room at a party listening to the crowd mingling while chatting up their friends.  The lectors were formal in their approach to the various artists, however their delivery of this information was held together by a ribbon of familiarity.  It was calculated coziness.

The first lecture was given by Whitney museum curator Donna DeSalvo talking about Charles Ray (whose artwork Hinoki is on display in the new AIC Modern Wing).  She talked mostly about Ray’s desire to recreate a fallen log that he found in his travels, which was on the brink of total decomposition.  Ray is the type of artist who spends much time thinking about the work he is doing.  Therefore he sought out the perfect type of wood to use to painstakingly recreate the log, using cypress wood because after 200 years of living it would remain in tact for 400 more years before it began a 400 year process of decomposing.   If you look closely at the log you will see it has been done in sections with each section being completed by a different artisan working for Ray.

Theodora Vischer spoke about Robert Gober’s room installations; including a wedding dress, large box of Kleenex with a metal pipe placed through it, bags of kitty litter, and unusual pastel wallpaper depicting various states in our country.  What I found provocative about his work is his ability to direct your eye and mood when you enter his space.

Joan Simon talked about Bruce Nauman, his video work, his influence on other vis-comm artists, and his neon light work.  The Modern Wing features his  Run From Fear / Fun From Rear piece which I admire because of the play on words that I find so interesting.  Joan spoke of Nauman’s influence from deKooning’s masterpiece Excavation. When you look at Nauman’s piece One Hundred Fish, 2005 you will notice the lines of filaments dissect space much as deKooning’s piece did for the canvas.  According to Simon, Nauman believed that to read is hard, to understand is harder, but to misunderstand is easy as it’s part of our world.  Nauman’s work is all too often discounted with too much weight being placed on the viewer’s initial reaction and color is also readily overlooked.

Briony Fer discussed the wonderful but all too short life of Eva Hesse.  I never knew that Eva Hesse felt her works of art were very temporary and fleeting; often giving them away to others.  She felt nothing really lasted, which is odd because she chose materials that did last such as fiberglass or latex.  Although these materials would be durable, they do have life as the colors change while the piece agea.  Briony said this about Hesse “imagine something on the verge of nothing or nothing on the verge of something”.  When taking in Hesse’s work, I understand that phrase with a deep sadness in my heart that she was only in this world for a mere 34 years.

Anna Maria Torres lectured about Scott Burton who died in 1989 of Aids. Burton believed in the form of function in furniture using his strong understanding of the design process.  He would see furniture possibilities in the strangest of objects, even creating seating from 2 odd-shaped slabs of granite or by cutting an angle in a large boulder.

Richard Powell from Duke University informed the group about the ribbon of jazz and blues music that glides through the artwork of Kerry James Marshall.  Marshall used collaged elements in his work along with exposed underpaintings and transparent layers to express the depiction of African American’s throughout American history.

While these were all so wonderful, my favorite was listening to Carol Dunham’s personal journey from seeing Jim Nutt’s Chicago Imagist work for the first time to finally meeting Nutt in person.  Dunham shared his feelings on the complicated relationship that exists between the Chicago Imagists and Outsider Art.  While Dunham was an apprentice in NY in the early 70’s he had seen and became curious about Nutt’s work and his interest grew when he went to see Nutt’s work in a mid 70’s Whitney Museum retrospective. He felt that Nutt’s work contained an interiority of consciousness” with the usage of interior spaces in the artwork.  What I found most interesting is Nutt’s insistence on being closed off to interpretation discussions about his work.  We share that philosophy. I often talk about my work because I feel it needs explanation and I do it out of self obligation.  Nutt would discuss process, material, and method; but not interpretation.  Dunham left us a jewel of information for all the artists in the room.  He spoke of artwork having ubiquitous presence; that today artists are known for the timing of the work they send out into the world.  It is of the utmost importance to make the work and release it to the world.

Another gem that I took away from the event was that each of the artists discussed, at one point in their early artist lives, was introduced to influential people who would provide opportunities or resources.  It became clear to me that this doesn’t seem to happen very much anymore and I wonder why not?  Has the art world become so tight fisted and over saturated that competition is becoming a factor?  Or is it because art is becoming so “indie”  and with lack of “movements” that its impossible to know who’s who?

4 thoughts on “Mastering the Modern Masters….

  1. Debi Adams

    Like music, I feel that art should not have to be interpreted by the artist because art is personal and universal. The expression is lost if that expression is “funneled” in any way. The source of the power of the art is that it was created.
    I do feel that the internet has been saturated with artists, but it also has brought a creative alliance. I think it’s important to remain true to your “source” that fuels your movement because an artist can become oversaturated with ideas. Have a clear path when so many paths are offered that you don’t get lost in the traffic. I do feel that art is being marketed in a corporate way now. The right corporate partner can provide opportunities of discovery for the artist, who then pairs with the social media for another avenue to heighten the awareness of that artist.
    Is this what you’re talking about?
    Sounds like you had an inspirational day. Great fuel!


    1. Debi…thank you so much for so eloquently explaining exactly what I had meant! When I first went back to school I was lectured on the foundations of art…color, format, balance, value and learned words like tertiary, contrasting, atmosphere, resonance. However years later when I finished, the method of teaching had changed to interpretation, theory, and concept. So often I try to not delve into the theory of one’s artwork, but instead enjoy it for the parts of it that I personally experience. Sometimes I enjoy work with a strong connection to what I feel is the theory of the work or enjoy what an artist’s theory is when they do talk about it, but I usually never interpret what I believe the artist was “going for” when it was created. That in mind, its funny now how unpopular I was in school as I finished up because during the critiques I wanted to discuss formal topics about the work when mostly people wanted to talk about their reasons for doing what they do.

      I have been trying to figure out what direction art will take in the future because it is so deliciously wide open. As much I enjoy the openness of artwork today I fear we have completely thrown aside formal issues relating to the work. That being said I feel that many people are becoming increasingly disconnected from new work being released in the world because of the lack of understanding of the work (whether formal or conceptual) and wonder if the new trend in the future won’t be a return to formalism as it becomes a commonality between artists and viewers. Opinions anyone?


  2. Debi Adams

    I personally believe that art should be about the emotion and a vivid aesthetic experience. I think that many tools in art present this. I believe for those tools to be evaluated that formalism must be present. Excellent blog , Catie. Keep it up! I have this bookmarked!


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