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by Victor M. Cassidy
|"A kunsthalle with a permanent collection." This is the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, says David Mickenberg, its director.
An 18-month, $8.5-million construction project has added a second floor and expanded the museum from 8,000 to 20,000 square feet. Located on the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., just north of Chicago, the Block re-opened in September.
Constantly changing shows
"Suddenly we had a collection," says Mickenberg. "Since it was mostly works on paper, we collected that. Now we have roughly 4,000 pieces dating from Dürer to the present day -- and about 1,000 more coming."
The Block achieved museum status in 1998 and took its present name. By then, Mickenberg had already prepared an expansion plan. "We wanted to complement, not duplicate, what is available at other regional art museums," he says. The new Block will collect works on paper, house traveling shows, exhibit faculty and student work in all media and serve the university and surrounding community as a teaching museum.
On its second floor, the Block has a 3,600-square-foot main gallery for traveling exhibitions. It also has a library; a smaller classroom gallery equipped for sound and digital art; and a study center for prints, drawings and photography with the permanent collection in open storage.
The first floor has a 1,300 square-foot exhibition gallery and a 160-seat auditorium equipped to show film and online art. "Our space is technologically up-to-date," says Mickenberg.
Built straight up
The museum is part of a crowded arts complex on the Northwestern campus that includes a 1,000-seat concert hall, a smaller concert auditorium and four theaters. "The Block had to harmonize visually with these structures, so we built straight up from its foundations," says Demetrion. "We added glass on the second floor to lighten the structure."
The Block's basement contains mechanical equipment that serves all buildings in the complex. The machinery had to run during construction, so it was impossible to dig. "To make the second floor structurally sound, we used micropiles," Demetrion explains. "They are clusters of pipe, which were pneumatically driven into the soil, filled with concrete and capped. Placement depended on loading. Building columns went on top of the micropiles."
The main gallery has flexible lighting and temporary walls that can be rearranged to accommodate a variety of exhibition layouts and installations. Lighting levels are low for the current drawing exhibition, but the window shades can be raised to admit natural light when sculpture is shown.
Another kind of language
The drawings are formal and spare. These artists are concerned with visual questions -- human perception and experiences of seeing. But they put so little on the paper -- often just a line or two -- that the work must be explained to us. It's no wonder that art critics love Minimalism.
The most rewarding drawings in the show -- Untitled (1963-64) by Eva Hesse, Aspiration (1960) by Agnes Martin and Masking Drawing No. 20 (1983-86) by Brice Marden -- are intensely human. Marden made Masking Drawing for a stained glass window commission that he never completed. Bright and colorful, it shows a little-known side of this artist.
Less can be more
Robert Ryman's Untitled (1961) also shows how less can be more. We see the artist's familiar square with a penciled grid behind it and nervous calligraphic markings within. Covering the square is an active, transparent layer of white gouache. A vertical band of pencil destabilizes the image, tilting it to the left. Using simple means, the artist creates a tiny world.
One of the few narrative works in the show is Lawrence Weiner's Serpent Mounds, Ohio (1984). Inspired by a light aircraft flight over the great Serpent Mound in Adams County, Ohio, it addresses a special concern of the artist -- how people add or subtract mass to change the earth's surface.
The unnamed individual who formed this drawing collection likes to buy from the studio and purchases preparatory drawings for works that are executed later in other media. An intriguing example of this is Barnett Newman's untitled 1946 ink on paper drawing -- long black vertical stripes on a white background -- that anticipates the Abstract Expressionist paintings he made after 1948.
Dan Devening's Windowwall
We see works by six artists in odd corners of the museum. Christine Tarkowski affixes site-specific wallpaper with a stacked firewood design on the side walls of the Block's wheelchair-accessible ramp. The Good Studio (Janice Clark + Dino Stoneking) mounts a small red plastic grocery-store coupon dispenser near the auditorium door. Instead of real coupons, visitors get slips of paper with colorful designs.
Devening's Windowwall is an 11 foot wide, 12 foot tall gridded mural made from 55 sheets of vellum that have been painted in subdued color to "suggest glass filtering cool exterior light," the artist states. Cool, fresh and beautiful, Windowwall responds to the Block's glass and steel façade and its location within sight of Lake Michigan. Stylized rain droplets "punched into the panels appear and disappear in varying patterns, depending on the humidity," says the artist.
A master class
Judy Ledgerwood, a painter who teaches at Northwestern, plans to spend a lot of time in the Study Center. "I want to take the artwork out of drawers and look at it," she says. "Looking at art has been very important to my development as an artist. My students should have those experiences."
VICTOR M. CASSIDY writes on art from Chicago.