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.