Charles Ray sculpture at the Art Institute: Statues that speak to you

The stunning sculpture exhibit currently on display at the Art Institute of Chicago is one of those quiet landmarks that art critics will talk about for years. The difference between this and some of the mass exhibits like Monet or Van Gogh is that you don’t have to sign up for a time slot, pay an extra fee or wade through masses of humanity to glimpse the work. Charles Ray is a major artist and one of our most important contemporary artists and this is your only opportunity to see this exhibit in the U.S. Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997-2014 is on display in the Modern Wing through October 4.

The works are all fascinating in their attention to detail (car parts, toes and veins). The figurative ones have an eerie sentience, as I said in my review. They are all modeled on or copied from an actual person and it seems that Ray has captured the essence of the person in each work.

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The 19 pieces in the main exhibit (two others are elsewhere in the museum and outside in the South Garden) are simply and elegantly displayed in three galleries. Each figure lives in its own ample space so you can walk around and muse about what it’s saying to you. And I guarantee, some of them will speak to you.

Two of the pieces have controversial backstories. See my review to learn why the Whitney Museum rejected “Huck and Jim” for its new location near the High Line.

(If you think you’ve read about this before, it may be that you saw my Gapers Block review posted on Facebook and Twitter. You can also read my review on All photos by Nancy Bishop, except as noted.)

Speaking of art: The work is what it is

Some musings on the nature of art and the artist…and letting the artist’s work stand on its own.

Finding Vivian Maier—and viewing her work

Yesterday I saw the new documentary about photographer Vivian Maier: Finding Vivian Maier, directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof is one of the three major owners of Maier’s work and probably holds the greatest number of images (negatives and undeveloped film) and her ephemera. I’ve written about Maier before and her work has had lots of attention in the last two years.

The new film was interesting and well done (although Maloof, who is not a film director, inserted way too much of himself in the film). In deciphering the mystery of Vivian Maier, the filmmakers did some good research, including going to Europe, where she had traveled. They also sought out the now-adult children for whom she cared as a nanny in the Chicago suburbs 50 or 60 years ago. Some of them discussed “Vivian” at length and told stories of her cruelty; others talked about her strange habits and her hoarding.

You know what? I didn’t want to know those things about Vivian Maier because I want to appreciate her work for what it is. Brilliant, engaging images of humanity. The fact that her work was never shown when she was alive is a sad story and in fact, she might not even approve of the current Maier-mania.


A Rolleicord: My first real camera

But the work is there and it’s magnificent. If you haven’t seen it, get to the Chicago History Museum or check it out online. The work stands on its own.

A technology aside

Maier shot with a Rolleiflex, a twin-lens reflex camera (my first camera, a college graduation present from my parents, was a Rolleicord, the amateur-photographer model) and that meant she could be more discreet in photographing subjects. With a twin-lens, you hold the camera at chest-level and frame the image by looking down into the viewfinder; you don’t hold the camera up to your face, which may seem more intrusive to the subject.

The art is what it is

Today I went to the Art Institute because I didn’t want to miss the retrospective of Christopher Wool’s work. (More below.) It is fascinating, beautiful and interesting as it has changed over time. I don’t want to know if the artist was going through a bad divorce or drinking too much or living in exile. The work is the work. It stands on its own.

You may be thinking of Woody Allen about now. Some of you may believe that he is a perverted, child-abusing horrible person. And he may be. The evidence about that is confusing and contradictory.

But even if he is all those things, his work is still outstanding. He’s one of the finest American film creators of our time. His work deserves to be viewed on its own merits. His art is what it is.

The abstract expressionism of Christopher Wool

The retrospective of Christopher Wool’s work is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago until May 11. It’s in Regenstein Hall in the American modern art wing (not in the new Modern Wing). His early work is probably best known. He used letterforms to create word paintings, using language as image. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)

One of the best-known works of this period is Apocalypse Now, which Christie’s sold at auction in November for many millions. See an interesting discussion of this sale here. My favorite wall in the current exhibit is Untitled (Black Book Drawings), a series of 22 pieces in which negative character types of eight or nine letters are primly stacked.

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In the 21st century, his paintings take on a new expressionistic look in abstract forms of tangles of black lines, shadows, dots and swashes of paint and ink.

His gray paintings in the last rooms of the exhibit are large-scale works in enamel on linen.

Finally or firstly, the bronze Wool sculpture at the entry to the exhibit transforms his two-dimensional creativity into three dimensions. My photo shows the sculpture with the works of Ellsworth Kelly peeping out behind the tangle of metal.

On the horizon

The exhibit titled Mecca Flat Blues at the Cultural Center is not to be missed. I’m writing a feature about it for Gapers Block and will post a link here soon.

Also at the Cultural Center, the exhibit 35 Years of Public Art is just one of many reasons to stop by the building that used to be the Chicago Public Library. It’s a city treasure for many reasons.




Lit pick: Nana, Emile Zola and Second Empire Paris

I just finished reading Nana by Emile Zola, a deliciously risqué novel about Paris and the demimonde at the end of the 1860s. I haven’t read anything by Zola since college but I was inspired to read it by the current exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago.

210px-NanaZolaAfter touring it or the second time, I’m totally under the spell of Impressionism, Fashion and Modernity. As everyone who has written about the exhibit has said, it’s a delectable feast of paintings of the Impressionism period by Manet, Monet, Renoir, Degas, Morisot, Tissot and others, drawn from the Art Institute’s own excellent collection, and featuring exceptional works from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The art is enhanced by beautifully displayed archival gowns and accessories of the period. Most important, the exhibit signage weaves a compelling story about societal and cultural change of the period from the 1860s through ca. 1890 and its impact on women’s apparel and lives.

At one of the Art Institute lectures on the exhibit, the speaker talked about other artists of the period and mentioned the writings of Emile Zola and especially his novel Nana, which features lavish descriptions of the costumes, décor and customs of the Second Empire in Paris.  (Image: Cover of the original French edition, courtesy of Wikipedia.) 

I had never read Zola’s novel, so I downloaded it to my Kindle when I got home that day. From the first chapter, I was amazed at Zola’s attention to detail of women’s costumes and the décor of the period.

The protagonist, Nana, is a young up-from-the-streets courtesan who becomes famous as “la blonde Venus” playing the lead in a fictional operetta, where she appears clothed only in a head-to-toe veil. She can’t act and can’t sing. But she is beautiful, voluptuous and charismatic. Nana is irresistible to wealthy Parisian men of all ages. In the beginning, she wants to find a man who can help support her and buy her suitable gowns and jewelry. But her tastes expand to include mansions, horses, servants – all requiring more and richer men.  She becomes more and more grasping, profligate and promiscuous and ruins each of the men in turn until finally creating her own downfall.

The story is vivid, dramatic and quite erotic (without X-rated detail). Most of the chapters in the book detail the happenings at a given event. The opening night at Théâtre des Variétés. A midnight dinner party at Nana’s home. A day at the races, when a filly named Nana owned by one of her admirers miraculously wins the race despite early odds against it. An engagement party for the daughter of Nana’s chief “sugar daddy,” who is about to go bankrupt.  The crowd scenes–masses of fashionable people gossiping, chattering, flirting—are especially noteworthy. The first half of the book is a little slow but the second half is full of energy and speeds to the denouement.

You could say that Nana prefigures the celebrity culture of the 21st century. The book is about wealth, sex and society and shows us how the fashionable set lived in Paris in the last few years of the Second Empire. The book was a huge success when it was published in 1879.

Nana on screen

Does Nana sound like a movie? It’s been made into movies four times. I started to watch the one that was available online (streaming on Netflix) and decided I’d rather finish the book. It is the 1982 Italian version (everyone speaks English) directed by Dan Wolman. This Nana is very racy (lots of female nudity) and very loosely based on the novel. I would like to see the 1926 version by Jean Renoir; I’m looking for a DVD.

Also by Zola

Zola, a prolific writer, wrote another book that’s related to the Impressionism/fashion exhibit. Titled Au Bonheur des Dames or The Ladies’ Paradise, it’s set in the world of a department store, an innovation of the 19th century as detailed in some of the Impressionism/fashion displays. The store is modeled after Le Bon Marché (still in business today and owned by LVMH Luxury Group) and details the operations of the department store. Retailing is a part of my business background and so these stories fascinate me. I’ve written about my retailing life in this article about Mr. Selfridge, the PBS series that has a strong Chicago connection. Season two will be showing in 2014.

And one more reading suggestion

Julia Gray, a Chicago writer, has written an excellent article on the strange copyright issues connected to the photography of Vivian Maier, whose work has become famous since her death in 2009. Check out the article at Gapers Block. Gray’s article also describes how Maier’s film, negatives and other photographic possessions were bought in rental storage locker auctions, mainly by three people who have profited from her work in various ways.

Inspired public art

You’ve probably seen the posters and promotion pieces for the Picasso & Chicago exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago.  They’re everywhere and I’ve admired the graphic from the first time I saw it.  I admired the exhibit too and I’ll add comments on that and the AIC’s Picasso lectures later. Here’s the graphic.


I was charmed to see the typography in lifesize living color last week on the Daley Plaza. I stopped to watch and take some photos and to see how passersby reacted to it. (Click each photo to enlarge.)



daleyplz eastview


Some people sat on benches in the cold and looked at it.  Some climbed on it. And a gaggle of college girls posed for a group photo on the S. It was a perfect example of how public art should be consumed.