Coming Events Events Archive Home
Current Newsletter Newsletter Archive Links
Members Contact Info Members Bios

The C.A.C.A. Review
An occasional publication of the Chicago Art Critics Association
June 2005, Volume 6, Number 1

Since its founding (and even before), the
Museum of Contemporary Art has been a favorite topic of lively, often contentious conversation among artists, critics, dealers, collectors, and everybody else who pays any attention to contemporary art in Chicago. In this issue of The C.A.C.A. Review, a few of our members weigh in on this perennial issue.

Table of Contents:
Museum Disappears, Public Slow to React, by James Yood
The Scourge of Second City Syndrome, by Claire Wolf Krantz
What Happened to the Sculpture Garden?, by Jeff Huebner
Overwhelmed by the Vastness of Space, by Janina A. Ciezadlo
Lilling Them With Kindness, by Victor M. Cassidy


Reported by James Yood

(CHICAGO)  The sudden disappearance of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago has many neighbor-hood residents puzzled and confused. “One day it was there, or at least I think it was,” noted an accountant from nearby E. Delaware St., “and now there’s this big hole in the ground—I hope this means that Eli’s Steak House can expand across the street.”

A big hole in the ground marks the site of the former Museum of Contemporary Art. Signs stating
“Poker, not Polke!” were posted nearby, causing speculation as to the cause of the museum’s sudden disappearance.

City officials are similarly mum—“It’s like what happened with that there Terra Museum,” commented Mayor Daley. “If the public don’t want to go there, you can’t make them.” The mayor sidestepped the rumor that the site will become a land-based casino, though the simultaneous appearance of posters stating “Poker, not Polke!” and “Slots and Roulette or Post-Structuralism and Neo-Conceptualism—you make the choice!” seemed orchestrated.

Police officials plan an investigation of the museum’s disappearance right after they finish cracking down on gum-chewing in Millennium Park. “We got our priorities, just like everybody else,” a police spokesperson commented.

Outrage appeared restricted to the local academic community. “Where are future generations going to go to study the architecture of Josef Paul Kleihues? Nobody since Albert Speer could design a staircase like that!” sniffed Spent Graybeard, author of “The MCA and New Comiskey Park: Chicago’s Missed Opportunities of the 1990s.”

The Chicago Art Critics Association circulated a mimeographed press release noting: “We’ll miss it—the bathroom on the ground floor was often very helpful and we liked to watch the fish swim around in that pool.” But nationally the disappearance of the museum was received with mixed reactions: “Chicago had a Museum of Contemporary Art?—that’s news to me!” offered Seymour Trendy, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The concurrent disappearance of the entire curatorial staff of the MCA was greeted with similar aplomb. “Oh, they’ll probably turn up one of these days, they always do,” noted artist Ghada Lovett. “As long as there’s a fiber artist in Romania short a retrospective or some-body swinging a camera around in Fiji there will be a need for these curators.” 

“They brought us tomorrow’s ephemera today,” added critic Nessuno Importante, “and that’s a real skill."

The Scourge of Second City Syndrome
Claire Wolf Krantz

Although my dual roles as artist and critic enhance each other, I choose to separate them in practice to avoid the perception of a conflict of interest. However, my reflections as an artist on the general curatorial practices at the MCA are particularly relevant to the spring exhibit there, “Universal Experience: Art, Life, and the Tourist’s Eye.” These curatorial practices are entrenched in city-wide visual-arts institutions that promote their own agendas rather than the culture of art in Chicago. I think that this situation is unfortunate for everyone. The following personal incident is neither about my individual pique nor criticizing the curator, but is illustrative of the problems that all but a handful of Chicago artists face in this city.

The MCA exhibit deals with ideas regarding “the art, history, and culture of places, spaces, and identities from the point of view of the tourist.” This is a subject that I have been exploring in my artwork for at least 15 years, since I began living for extended periods of time in foreign places. Staci Boris, a curator at the MCA, told curator Francesco Bonami about my work and my interest in the subject. At Staci’s suggestion, and knowing that he was curating this show, I sent him an email asking him to look at what I have been doing. He emailed me back, saying that Staci had talked to him and that he would contact me at an appropriate time. Needless to say, Bonami never contacted me: he did not discuss my work with me, nor did he ever look at it—in an exhibit or in my studio.

My experience is not unique; the MCA’s curatorial practices affect many of the city’s artists in similar ways, particularly those in mid career. With rare exceptions, the curators do not look at local artists’ work, either by visiting shows or studios. They are not interested in issues generated in Chicago, unless they are directly tied to concerns formed elsewhere. Their token support for very young artists in the monthly 1"2 x 12: New Artists/New Work" exhibits amounts to building a farm team for other cities: these artists know they will not get further support here, so they move away and enhance the art scene elsewhere.

My experiences living in other cities indicate that this need not be the case. I just returned from South Africa, where I investigated the art scene there, reporting on its various aspects for both American and South African publications. South African collectors and institutions have the self-confidence to support their artists. Their money, exhibitions, and publicity do not go to supporting foreign shows, foreign artists, or foreign issues. With very little governmental support for the arts, corporate and private institutions as well as museums encourage wealthy collectors to provide the funds to promote local production. They believe, rightly, that examining local interests and local methods of production—by means of competitions, exhibitions, collecting, financial support, and an active public press—will encourage the most compelling and creative work to be made.

The resulting dialogue has proved to be interesting, and often relevant, globally. Since the official advent of democracy in 1994, when apartheid collapsed and the cultural boycott ended, this support for the arts has paid off. Exhibits of South African art take place all over the world. Issues pertinent to local work are being discussed globally. International museums and collectors are buying it. Tourists are discovering cities such as Cape Town and Johannesburg. It has brought financial support to the arts and the local economies, and broadcast the social and political changes that are occurring there. The South Africans are defining issues that are being paid attention to elsewhere, rather than being passive followers of those introduced by supposedly more important art centers. Thus, the support of South African institutions for their local artists has, in only ten years, put that art scene on the map.

In Chicago, the mayor’s office is doing its best to publicize Chicago as an interesting place to visit. Local architecture, theater, and music are publicized and are attracting attention. Where are Chicago’s visual arts? Chicago is not a second city. Only Chicago’s major institutions, like the MCA, think so.

What Happened to the Sculpture Garden?
by Jeff Huebner

Other than temporary exhibitions in public or semipublic places, there are precious few sculpture parks or gardens in Chicago that display large-scale contemporary works. One has to practically take a day trip out of the city to visit, say, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park or the Skokie North Shore Sculpture Park. The lack of appropriate, accessible spaces in which local, in some cases internationally known sculptors, can showcase public works on a permanent or rotating basis is one of our town’s most glaring cultural shortcomings.

Which is why the situation at the Museum of Contemporary Art is so perplexing and troublesome. There was supposed to be a sculpture garden there, remember? Instead, what we have is a rear grassy and gated space that seems to be used more for social functions than for exhibiting sculptural objects and installations. (It’s also a largely private space, as one has to pay or donate to gain entry.) A couple of long-standing pieces aside, the terraced garden has never lived up to its potential, whether due to unimaginative or overworked curators, unassertive or unadvised artists, or load-bearing issues (oddly, it sits atop the underground parking garage) or a combination of all the above.

The MCA once had grand plans. Recently, I dug through my files and found the press package from the new museum’s July 1996 opening. I was astonished at the degree to which the institution’s identity was tied in with its outdoor exhibition area: time and again, it’s referred to as “the building and sculpture garden,” as if the two were a single yet distinct entity. Interestingly, each is square in plan and measures 184 by 184 feet, or 34,000 square feet. At the time, late architect Josef Paul Kleihues said he intended there to be “a dialogue between garden and building,” adding that he planned the garden “with different areas in which the curators can integrate the sculpture.”

If only that were the case. Jene Highstein’s Floating World (1986), a work in Norwegian Labrador blue granite, and George Rickey’s Two Lines Oblique (1968), a stainless-steel kinetic piece, have accented the garden’s edge foliage almost since the MCA’s inception. (Both were gifts—the Rickey came courtesy of the Lannan Foundation, in ‘97.) There are also now two environmental Sol LeWitt pieces, including Lines in Four Directions, an installation made of gravel embedded directly into the open grassy area. Both date from the exhibition “Sol LeWitt: A Retrospective,” staged at the museum in the summer of 2000.

There have been temporary pieces from time to time. Louise Bourgeois’s 11-foot-tall, 1600-pound bronze Spider added a welcome touch of heft and whimsy to the garden in 1997. Soon after, in winter, Andy Goldsworthy assembled a cairn on the ground (because it never got cold enough to freeze the stone pile to a concrete wall). There might’ve been something I missed. Still, the point is: why aren’t we seeing more stuff there?

The MCA may have a paucity of sculptures in its collection that are suitable for weathering the elements; it may have a limited budget to exhibit, much less purchase, other artists’ pieces. Or its curators may be more preoccupied with identifying or commissioning works intended to humanize its severely ceremonial front yard—to blunt Kleihues’s excesses. But in trying to bring its art-on-a-spiritual-plane entrance more in line with the level of the street and daily life, more in sync with its purportedly populist aims, the museum has practically ignored its responsibility to elevate visitors with sculptures in its back yard: to mine Kleihues’s virtues.

There are dozens of emerging and renowned sculptors working in studios throughout Chicagoland (and beyond) who would welcome the opportunity to exhibit their pieces in the garden, even if only on a short-term basis—the space shortage has become even more acute with the demise of Pier Walk as the city’s premier showcase for local talent. A few years ago, the MCA instituted its 12 x 12: New Artists/New Work" project series in a second-floor gallery. Why not a similar “184 X 184” series for sculptors?

Overwhelmed by the Vastness of Space
by Janina A. Ciezadlo

Although I can’t imagine Chicago without the MCA and the exhibitions that keep us in dialogue with the contemporary art world beyond our town, the building has not really improved over time. The monolithic foyer still dwarfs the viewer: we feel tiny against the painted walls in the entrance; not small in comparison to religion or politics, but small in comparison to art. An ironic or perhaps simply twisted situation, as if the institution is brandishing our own human creations against us, reminding us that artists whose progress though the marketplace has been successful will attain a grossly magnified state. The asymmetry between the viewer and the art, in what otherwise might be a democratic space, designed to a human scale, exhausts the art. Often the work in the foyer seems absurdly overblown.

There have been times when the largeness of the gallery space works very well: Lee Bontecou, for one, was able to dominate the space with the grace and power of her large-scale work. Large paintings and photos often look good. Catherine Opie and Thomas Struth held their own in the space, and Gursky's large photos were perfect. Unfortunately, in my view, Gurskey's success exemplifies what is wrong with the space. There is a kind of opportunistic big-box flexibility that, like Gursky's photos, exists in a space that is no space, a place that is nowhere and forever “elsewhere.” I am borrowing the term from Robert Smithson, who refers to a “universe of elsewheres,” which diverts us from grasping the nature of our actual location on the earth.

It follows that exhibits which completely transform the hollow, cavernous space work well: the tumult and dangerously titillating chaos of postmodern capitalism so carefully recreated in the gallery for the fashion exhibit worked. William Kentridge’s huge film likewise overcame the weight of the excess of dead space. While these exhibits thrived, Edward Ruscha’s work was drained of much of its vitality. Some of his paintings were crunched by the space dividers. H. C. Westermann’s and Kerry James Marshall’s work was likewise injured; it ended up looking scrappy and sparse. Certain work — Ruscha’s and Westermann’s for instance — gains power by undermining bourgeois interiors; in  the gray nowhere of the MCA’s barn, there was nothing for  these witty pieces to play off of.

More money and more time for planning — a more thorough reconfiguring of the space for each exhibit or committing to a stable identity and location (after all, this is Chicago), despite the economics of quick-change retail space, might overcome the limitations of galleries that seem to have been misconceived as limitless.

Killing Them With Kindness
by Victor M. Cassidy

All artists want to exhibit in museums because this validates their place in art history. Some contemporary artists, like Lee Bontecou, have produced such an extensive body of strong and varied work that they can fill a museum. Bontecou’s exhibition at the MCA was completely absorbing.

Because it exhibits only contemporary art, the MCA takes particularly great risks. In fairness, we must expect a certain level of failure. But the MCA fails more often than it should because it kills artists with kindness—giving them more space than they are capable of filling or exhibiting very young artists whose work still belongs in a less demanding setting.

An example of the first kind of misjudgment is the disastrous Kerry James Marshall show. Marshall makes attractive paintings and he could have acquitted himself nicely if the MCA had given him one third as much space as it did.

Marshall simply did not have enough strong work to fill the MCA’s first floor galleries—and the curators should have known this. Marshall solved his space problem by inviting four unimpressive artists to show with him—does anyone remember their work? Marshall exhibited his paintings, which were okay, and added in pointless, visually empty photographs and sculptural constructions. This latter work communicated so little that the artist had to provide explanatory labels. I came away feeling sorry for him.

In order to show the latest “thing” in art, the MCA’s curators seek out very young artists, conceptualists especially, who have created some effect that does or does not work at alternative-space scale. Invited to exhibit at the MCA, the delighted artists either show the work as made—and have trouble establishing credibility in august museum surroundings—or so expand the scale of the work that it loses its bite. In either event, the MCA has killed the artist with kindness. Better to leave them alone for a few years.

Some years ago, the MCA had a series of smallish shows (called Options, I think) by mid-career artists. These were generally successful because the curators chose artists who had several bodies of work under their belts and could handle a small museum show. The MCA should move back in that direction.

Back to top of page
C.A.C.A. homepage