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Virago in Chicago: My Irreverent Photo Essay on the Modern Wing

I don’t tweet (though some say I should). But I do twit.

As promised, here’s the illustrated, cheeky version of my serious Wall Street Journal article appraising (but not always praising) the new Modern Wing designed by Renzo Piano for the Art Institute of Chicago.

I was tempted to write (as Time magazine’s Richard Lacayo, in fact, did) that this is one of Piano’s “strongest American projects ever, his best since the superb little Nasher Sculpture Center in Dallas.” I’ve seen all of Piano’s American museum projects, except for his much praised Academy of Sciences facility in San Francisco, and this is the one that I admire most since the Nasher—for the beauty of the building-as-object, both inside and out.

But wait a minute! This was supposed to be an irreverent photo essay.

Form is one thing; function, another.

When empty, the delicate, suspended staircase in the entry court is stunning to behold:


But when peopled, it becomes a two-lane bottleneck, inadequate for its function as the main circulation route to the galleries above. Granted, I was there on opening day, when the crowds were overwhelming, but this could resemble the scene on any busy weekend:


More congestion awaits in the cramped two-abreast hall leading to the modern-art galleries on the third floor:


I admired the look of the latest in Renzo’s series of elaborate, expensive rooftop contraptions. He’s always got a fanciful description for these. This one he calls, “the flying carpet”:


I also admired the subtle, finishing touch of tapering the bottom of the supports for that brise-soleil:


From inside the galleries, the scrims filtering light admitted by the canopy gave a cleaner look than what I saw at Piano’s Broad Contemporary Art Museum in Los Angeles. Here’s the Chicago skylight on the day of the press preview, which was so inclement that light bulbs provided most of the illumination:


And here’s the skylight he used in LA:


As I noted in my WSJ piece, Chicago’s attractive flying carpet did not, on the gloriously sunny opening day, perform its vaunted function of providing “consistent” illumination by adjusting (through sensors) “to minute fluctuations in daylight.” It’s impossible for this amateur photographer to capture the nuances of these lighting differences with my amateur camera. But here’s Matisse‘s “Bathers by a River,” 1909-10, artificially lit (with no camera flash):


And here’s another view of that painting when the lights were turned off (except for spotlights on sculpture). Matisse’s masterpiece suffered death-by-inadequate illumination:


Even worse were rooms like this one, where the curators decided to block the distracting city view (but also the necessary illumination) by interposing a freestanding wall with Richter‘s “Woman Descending a Staircase,” 1965:


The above photo was taken on the rainy day when all the lights were on. But on the lights-off sunny day, three Richters installed on the wall to the right were plunged into darkness and unreadable. The museum’s director, James Cuno, later conceded to me that lighting adjustments were needed.

The oak floors were elegant and foot-friendly, and I enjoyed how they crept up the bench:


And this is my favorite space, although, again, my photo doesn’t do it justice:


It’s an oasis of repose—a sheltered outdoor garden with boisterously unmanicured plantings. This space is dotted with inviting spring-green chairs, nestled on a bed of sand and bordered on the right by a limestone wall bearing a painted aluminum sculpture, “White Curve,” 2009, commissioned from Ellsworth Kelly. It’s an attractive convergence of the airy, porous Piano pavilion and the solid limestone that characterizes the construction in the old building.

Cuno told me that the original plan had called for the garden to be viewed through the entry court’s windows, but not entered by visitors. It was his idea, he told me, to open a door from the entry court to the garden. Good idea…so long as people’s shoes don’t carry the sand into the building. Cuno told me that this potential problem would be solved by mats. All I know is that on opening day we were only allowed to venture onto the boardwalk buffer between the sand and the building. Cuno said that once the sand’s surface had been properly finished, it would be open to visitors.

Here’s my least favorite architectural moment:


This is the unlovely corridor (viewed here from the second-floor balcony) through which everyone must pass before entering the galleries. It’s called the Kenneth and Anne Griffin Court, so named for the Chicago hedge fund mogul of Citadel Investment Group who gave $19 million for those naming rights.

Something there is that doesn’t love this wall:


Can someone please put some art up there? Stranded in the center of this cavernous space, you can barely spot Cy Twombly‘s sculpture, “Untitled,” 2005.

Here, I’ll make it a little easier for you:


The press release called this a “slender, vertical piece that punctuates the horizontality” of the entrance court. I think it gets lost there.

The museum’s capital campaign encompassed not only the new wing but also the other renovations and reinstallations in the old building, including vibrant, Piano-designed galleries for Indian, Southeast Asian, Himalayan and Islamic works, located in a passageway bridging commuter railroad tracks, where arms and armor were formerly installed:


As of the May 16 opening day, the Art Institute had succeeded in raising $410 million for its capital campaign, with $15 million still to go. The fortunately timed fundraising was largely accomplished before mega-donors like Griffin were buffeted by the current economic downturn. Ken also contributed major art loans—his Jasper Johns, “False Start” (famously purchased in 2006 for $80 million) and his Giacometti “Large Head of Diego,” both now on view in the wing’s inaugural installation.

Here’s Griffin (on left) at the dedication ceremony with philanthropist John Nichols, for whom Piano’s bridge (from Millennium Park to the third floor of the Modern Wing) was named:


As he and I walked with him through his eponymous entrance court after the ceremony, Griffin indicated that he might eventually give the museum more than mere money. “One day, our art collection will be in a museum. I’d like to think it will end up here,” he told me.

One of the benefits of an attractive new art showcase is its pull on uncommitted collections.

an ArtsJournal blog