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Twentieth-century art makes the Art Institute a 21st-century museum

"The New Contemporary" isn't really new or contemporary, but it's a coup for the AIC.



This past December, the Art Institute of Chicago unveiled the largest gift in the museum's history in a new exhibit titled "The New Contemporary." What's being shown is part of the collection of Stefan Edlis and his wife, Gael Neeson, who in April donated 44 postwar artworks valued at around $400 million; the generous gift includes pieces by Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, and Roy Lichtenstein as well as more recent pieces by Cindy Sherman, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, Takashi Murakami, and others. Edlis and Neeson required their pieces to be immediately and lastingly displayed rather than put in storage for another time, as so often happens with museum collections—the AIC agreed to permanently feature the 44 paintings, sculptures, and photographs for the next 50 years.

"The New Contemporary" occupies ten galleries on the second floor of the Modern Wing. Jasper Johns's Target (1961) is a focal point, strategically placed in the center of the room that visitors enter. A wax-based rendering of a shooting target, the image unintentionally imparts the institution's excitement for the gift: "We hit the jackpot!" Other smaller works by Johns, Twombly, Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg are found in the same area, as is Hirst's Still (1994), a clinical vitrine made from glass, mirror, and steel displaying a series of surgical instruments, located on the opposite side of the wall on which Target hangs.

The adjacent room showcases ten of Warhol's works, including Liz #3 [Early Colored Liz] (1963), which unlike the other contributions will be exhibited only for eight weeks (it will return at some undisclosed point in the future). Continuing on, there's a space devoted to photography that alternates between six pictures by Sherman and six by Richard Prince. There's a superb transition from this section to a different one featuring Gerhard Richter's illusionist paintings—two from the 1960s and two from the 1980s—as well as Charles Ray's Boy (1992), John Currin's Stamford After Brunch (2000), and Eric Fischl's Slumber Party (1983). When I viewed "The New Contemporary," people were taking pictures and admiring the realistic skin and breasts of Koons's Woman in Tub (1988) in front of windows facing Millennium Park and the Pritzker Pavilion.

There's unimaginable potential for dialogue between the artworks in the exhibition with those in the museum as a whole. Experiencing Sherman in the permanent collection and Deana Lawson in "Deana Lawson: Ruttenberg Contemporary Photography Series"—a temporary exhibit that closes this Sunday, January 10—is just one example of the discourse that can be established within the context of the museum. However, I remembered that Sherman and Lawson have been prominently featured in two recent shows at two other institutions in Chicago: Sherman's work is currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of "Surrealism: The Conjured Life," and "Mother Tongue," a showcase of Lawson's oeuvre, took place at the West Loop gallery Rhona Hoffman in early 2014.

The competition between the MCA and the AIC becomes more apparent with "The New Contemporary." The MCA has faced the challenge of exposing new artists and being up-to-date with the rest of the art world while also bringing in larger, more conventional crowds (look no further than "David Bowie Is," which really only fulfilled the latter objective). With "The New Contemporary," the AIC is targeting the MCA's mission: " . . . to be an innovative and compelling center of contemporary art." Of course, the AIC has been collecting contemporary art since the museum's founding in the mid- to late 19th century, a time when impressionism was considered "contemporary." But Edlis and Neeson's gift and the popularity of the Modern Wing have completed the transformation from the 20th-century AIC into what Marc Augé calls a "supermodern" place—one that feels faster, in pursuit of bigger crowds and new money.  v

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