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the lannan gift

by Victor M. Cassidy  

Nicholas Africano

All images here are courtesy the CHICAGO Museum of Contemporary Art (the Art Institute, apparently paralyzed by lawyers, declines to supply images for the Web, even for the kind of nonprofit, educational uses for which the museum is chartered).

Jean Dubuffet
The Happy Man

Jackie Winsor
Cheesecloth Piece

William T. Wiley
This is Just a Test

George Rickey
Two Lines Oblique

John Ahearn

   A fabulous gift of art --191 works in all media by the best-known artists of our time -- has enriched the Art Institute of Chicago and Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA). The work was received in February of this year and much of it is now on exhibition. What we see tells us a great deal about how the two museums acquire art, manage their permanent collections, and respond to change. It suggests the course that each museum may follow in the future.

The art comes from the Lannan Foundation in Los Angeles, a nonprofit organization that supports the visual arts, writing and social programs. It is part of a collection that was started in the 1950s by the late J. Patrick Lannan, and continued by his son, J. Patrick Lannan, Jr.

In 1994, the Lannan Foundation announced that it would be refocusing its resources on its social work, and therefore would disperse 580 artworks to museums. Because Lannan senior made his fortune in Chicago and Lannan junior lives in Los Angeles, the Foundation offered first refusal to the two Chicago museums and the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art.

85 objects; 27 artists
The MCA received bodies of work and installations by Nicholas Africano, Richard Artschwager, Chris Burden and Cindy Sherman, as well as pieces by Milton Avery, Leon Golub, Robert Irwin, Sherrie Levine and others. Overall, it got 85 objects by 27 artists.

Lucinda Barnes, MCA curator of collections, says that it was "very exciting to be allowed to select works, almost like kids turned loose in a toy store." The Lannan gift lets the MCA "address gaps in the collection with important works we could otherwise never acquire, to significantly expand upon the established strengths of the collection, and to add works by artists who are new to the collection," she added.

The Art Institute was given 58 works by 29 artists including Vija Celmins, Felix Gonzales-Torres, Eva Hesse, Lucas Samaras and Kiki Smith. A special agreement allowed the museum to buy -- at bargain prices --16 paintings, 30 works on paper, one sculpture and one video. Artists included Sam Francis, Robert Motherwell, Bruce Nauman, Gerhard Richter and Clyfford Still.

"Fundamental impact"
These acquisitions "will have a fundamental impact" on the experience of post-1945 (i.e., contemporary) art that the Art Institute provides, says museum director James N. Wood. The objects "range from acknowledged masterpieces by . . . leaders of the Abstract Expressionist generation to untested works of this decade by artists in whom we believe, but cannot yet claim historical validation," he adds.

Among the Art Institute's most important acquisitions are Clyfford Still's Untitled (1958), which joins the museum's almost completely black Painting of 1951. The two Stills are now installed at opposite ends of a big gallery with paintings by members of the New York School.

Another key acquisition is Robert Motherwell's Wall Painting With Stripes (1944), which is now the Art Institute's earliest and most important painting by this artist. Wall Painting With Stripes forms "a crucial link between [Motherwell's] formative, collage-based work and his later series of monumentally scaled canvases dedicated to the memory of the Spanish Republic," the museum says.

"You have thirty days..."
Jeremy Strick, the Art Institute's recently appointed curator of 20th-century painting and sculpture, explains how the Lannan gift came to Chicago. One week after Strick started his new job in autumn of 1996, a delegation arrived from the Lannan Foundation with a list of works being offered.

The Art Institute had 30 days to decide which objects it wanted and justify their importance to its collection. The museum could also buy objects from a separate list of works for sale. Identical opportunities were extended to the two other museums.

In consultation with the museum curatorial staff, Strick drew up a wish list of gifts and purchases. He then flew out to Los Angeles. Negotiations for works the museum would buy went "smoothly," he says. The Lannan Foundation made "generous" price concessions because "everyone wanted major works to go to the Art Institute."

At the MCA, Barnes and six associates selected from the gift list, but made no purchases. There were "sensational works of art available," says Barnes, "but we have very limited acquisition funds. If we'd raised the considerable amounts we needed, it would have dried up our pool for a long time. Then we wouldn't have been able to keep in step with what's happening now by purchasing younger artists."

Perfect moment
The Lannan gift came at the perfect moment for the MCA. For the first time in its 30-year history, the museum has enough space to exhibit its permanent collection and present temporary shows at the same time. In July of 1996, after ten years of planning, fundraising and construction, the MCA occupied a new $46-million building with seven times as much square footage as its previous facility.

Chicago loves the new MCA. Annual attendance is up to 375,000, compared to 100,000 in the old space. The museum has 16,000 members now vs. 3,500 before it relocated. Contributions and the operating budget have quadrupled. All this has raised public expectations, challenging the museum to deliver a better, more consistent product.

Chaotic vitality
The MCA is showing its Lannan bounty in two exhibitions. "Envisioning the Contemporary: Selections from the Permanent Collection" fills almost the entire fourth floor and runs through Apr. 5, 1998. Of the 124 works in this show, 25 are Lannan gifts. "New Acquisitions: Works on Paper from the Permanent Collection" presents objects and bodies of work by 21 artists -- nine from the Lannan Foundation. This show closed on Sept. 21, 1997.

"Envisioning the Contemporary" is the second of several long-term exhibitions that will be drawn from the MCA's permanent collection of 7,000+ objects over the next few years. The art varies wildly in quality, but its very unevenness suggests the chaotic vitality of today's art scene. Time will inevitably sort through competing styles, expose charlatans and make fashionably political work look quaint.

"Envisioning the Contemporary" includes three superb pieces from the Lannan Foundation. John Ahearn's Clyde (1981), a wall-hung cast plaster sculpture, shows an angry, desperate black man (a runaway slave, perhaps?) looking back over his shoulder and carrying an iron bar in his hand. Ahearn uses raw blue pigment and acrylic paint to great effect in this piece. William T. Wiley's This is Just a Test (1972) is an unstretched canvas with a sand-colored ground on which the artist draws in black acrylic. Wiley's imagery suggests land-forms, rock and fossils. Jackie Winsor's Cheesecloth Piece (1981) is a meticulously crafted box-like structure of wood that she covers with transparent white cheesecloth. Cheesecloth Piece is so beautiful that it's easy to overlook its formal complexity.

What were they thinking?
"New Acquisitions: Works on Paper" is a disappointment. The best Lannan acquisition in this show is Jean Dubuffet's The Happy Man (1955), a fresh, lively watercolor and collage. Most of the other Lannan gifts are empty rehashes of decades-old styles and techniques.

The weakest works on paper make us wonder what the curators were thinking when they chose them. Mike Kelley's Disembodied Militarism (1988) is six comic strips about military life, clumsily drawn on needlessly large sheets of paper. Ed Ruscha's Sunset Strip 1-6 (1966-95) comprises six photographs from his book Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966), which the artist has enlarged and manipulated to no discernible expressive purpose.

These two shows demonstrate what Chicago has known for years. The MCA owns some excellent work, some junk and masses of mediocre art. When the museum was young and struggling to establish itself, it took what it could get from patrons who wanted tax write-offs. But the MCA is strong enough now to weed its permanent collection and refuse some donations, even if this ruffles a few feathers.

Lucinda Barnes says she's "working very hard" to build up the collection, but is the museum designed to support her? Of the 151,000 square feet of space in this structure, only 45,000 are devoted to art exhibition. The permanent collection gets 16,000 square feet and galleries for temporary exhibitions total 15,000 square feet. Project, drawing and video galleries fill 14,000 square feet. The remaining 106,000 square feet include an outdoor sculpture garden, staff offices, a store, a restaurant and special events area, and a multi-purpose education center. The museum's huge lobbies and hallways are clearly intended to accommodate school groups and social events.

So the MCA has reached a crossroads. While the collection cries out for attention, the museum distracts itself with parties and peripheral activities. During the next few years, the MCA must either live down its reputation for mediocrity and drift or it will lose all the ground it has gained.

History helps explain how the Art Institute deals with the art of our time. During the '60s, this general museum fell out of touch with contemporary developments. In 1967, several prominent Chicago collectors and disgruntled Art Institute patrons opened the Museum of Contemporary Art to show work they believed in. During these years, some important Chicago art collections went to museums in other cities.

The present era began on Jan. 8, 1980, when James Wood became director and president. He mended fences with Chicago's collector community, modernized and enlarged the physical plant, and directed a brilliant rehanging of the collection. This "long march," as he calls it, began in the early '80s and ended on May 20, 1997, when the reinstalled Galleries of Contemporary Art opened to the public.

Woods' courtship of Chicago collectors was so successful that the Art Institute received more gifts of contemporary art than it had room to show. To remedy this situation and keep the donations coming, the museum committed 8,000 square feet of permanent exhibition area to contemporary art and allotted an additional 8,000 square feet on an occasional basis. The Art Institute now devotes more space to European and American art since 1900 than to any other period.

A logical arrangement
The Galleries of Contemporary Art are logically arranged with rooms for Abstract Expressionism, Color Field painting, Minimal Art and other tendencies. Virtually all the Lannan acquisitions are on view. The art is much better and of more consistent quality than the MCA's.

Even so, this installation seems dry, because it's all large paintings and sculptures with no relief. In the 1900-1950 galleries by contrast, the Art Institute installs masterworks in the large galleries and minor pieces in side rooms. Acknowledging that the contemporary galleries need a lighter touch, Strick promises to "get to this" in the "next round of installation."

The contemporary galleries contain eleven paintings by Gerhard Richter. Ten of these came from the Lannan Foundation, including Ice 1-4, four 1989 abstracts; Woman Descending the Staircase (1965), an all-blue painting which is based on a photograph; and Candle (1982), a very pretty painting which seems to be photographically-based also. Asked why Richter gets so much space, Strick explains that the Lannan Foundation dropped this "premier" collection in the Art Institute's lap. Richter is "a key person," he states, who speaks to "really crucial issues of contemporary art" because his work has "alternated for so long between abstraction, figuration, and photography." To understand an artist well, he adds, "it is helpful to see their work in depth." Students of Richter will come to the Art Institute from now on.

Warhol's Mao
One of the most striking works in the contemporary galleries is Andy Warhol's Mao Wallpaper (1974), a hideous 20-foot-tall propaganda-style image of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. This work is positioned such that the Chairman's face is seen through the Galleries of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Art.

Mao was not a movie star like others that Warhol painted, but a tyrant whose policies brought starvation and endless war. For years he tried to destroy the very culture that the Art Institute seeks to preserve. Couldn't Warhol's painting have hung elsewhere?

Strick says that he "thought a lot" about Mao Wallpaper and even asked the curator of Asian Art for an opinion. He explains that "much postwar art has been made in the shadow of the Holocaust, the nuclear age, and the political upheavals of our time." Mao Wallpaper hangs with art that is "about the return to figuration in response to political conditions." Despite all this, he acknowledges that some people "loved" this installation and others "hated" it.

Two Chicago museums have absorbed the Lannan gift in quite different ways. The MCA shows promise of becoming a major institution if it disciplines itself and focuses on fundamentals. By giving so very much space to contemporary art, the Art Institute has acknowledged changing times, but without sacrificing its standards.

VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.