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If “Learning Modern” at succeeds in one thing, it’s in displaying what a sprawling mess the concept of modernism has become. The phrase “many modernisms” is used quite often to point out that “the Modern” means, and has meant, many different things to many people. That is worth keeping in mind here because “Learning Modern” stems really from just one of those modernisms, itself full of confusion and diffusion, not at all helped by the terrible placement of labels and a serious lack of explanatory texts.
This is Bauhaus Modernism, specifically László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe Modernism. These prominent figures left the increasingly dangerous climate of Germany’s Fascist cultural policies for Chicago in the late 1930s; Moholy-Nagy to set up the New Bauhaus, which eventually became a part of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT), and van der Rohe to head IIT’s Architecture Department. This isn’t a show about Modern Art; it’s a show about design, architecture and some art that takes those fields as its subject. A lot of the story is missing here. For an exhibition so frontloaded with teaching and learning, the learning curve is pretty steep. One has to have a pretty solid knowledge of modern design and applied art to make heads or tales of it. The show seems to say, “We both know about this modern thing, now look at some stuff some other people that know about this modern thing did.”
Ken Isaacs, Knowledge Box. 1962.
Visually and sculpturally one of the most memorable pieces is the Knowledge Box, built by Ken Isaacs in 1962 at IIT. Viewers don old-fashioned headphones equipped with an accumulation of copper wiring and enter a bright blue cube that looks like a state-of-the-art pressure chamber for use in deep sea or deep space. But attached to it are numerous slide projectors that click to life upon entering. A muffled recording of speeches and music begins playing on the headphones and the cube is lit up by images from Elvis Presley to Dwight Eisenhower projected on all six sides. It feels like an aging exhibit in a science or a broadcast history museum. Like the show in general, it is aimed at creating new learning, except it doesn’t really provide anything new and was mainly a mass of data that didn’t amount to much. I actually like the piece a lot, but not for any of the reasons its maker intended.
"Learning Modern,” SAIC Sullivan Galleries. Installation view. Photo: James Prinz
Taking the idea of the Bauhaus and its focus on collaboration between teacher and pupil, the exhibition features an ongoing rotation of projects involving current School of the Art Institute of Chicago students. Including students, and engaging learning with an exhibition practice is admirable, but as a presentation of artwork it falls flat. It’s like a science fair without the explanation of the projects beyond a small description. The result seems like classroom experimentation that has been forced and put on show.
On the other hand, the exhibition architecture, designed by Marcos Corrales and a group of SAIC students called “Bauhaus Lab,” is quite effective. Panels that make up movable walls have been stacked to form plinths. The temporary walls made to house video projections (and to which artwork has been mounted on the outside) are simply composed of metal studs with furry carpet covering drywall. The structure is very tactile, mixing the smooth metal with the fuzzy drywall panels. The paneling is on only one side of a given wall and the revealed structure has a raw utilitarian feel. While the exposed beams visually echo the exteriors of many Mies van der Rohe buildings, their raw and incomplete state seems to run counter to Bauhaus design. As does the reuse of old temporary wall panels. But that’s fine and the result is interesting. It also furthers the dispersion of “modern” to the general public conception of it: anything that is new, attractive, industrial, slightly edgy and expensive.
This show is about the failure of Modernism. Not intentionally, but by default; its ever-expanding programming and all-inclusive nature results in a homogenized modern-like thing with no center. Not to say all the modernisms out there are failures, but undoubtedly a lot of the utopian musings went unrealized. Maybe this is what fuels the perpetual desire for reviving lost Modernist causes hoping for a different result. What is most frustrating about “Learning Modern” is that it serves in many ways to be just one more fetishization of “Bauhaus,” “Moholy-Nagy” and “Mies.” It’s one more example of a limp gesture toward the utopian that relies too heavily on past achievements of others without doing much else. And in the case of Modernism, the landscape is littered with good intentions that didn’t amount to much else beyond dreaming of a better tomorrow.
Angela Ferreira, Crown Hall/Dragon House, 2009. Steel, wood, acrylic, 144” x 122” x 64”. Photo: James Prinz.
A few pieces, in my opinion, begin to address this issue with interesting results. Angela Ferreira’s Crown Hall/Dragon House, 2009 (seen above), literally turns Mies on his head by conflating elements of those two buildings into an upside down structure that connects floor to ceiling. It is an interesting object because it appears to be something utilitarian and straightforward like a piece of furniture or equipment, but is really just a strange sculpture. Half architectural model and half artwork, it also interfaces with a type of modernism mostly left out of the show: the piece ties in the aesthetics of artists like Donald Judd, Carl Andre and Sol LeWitt. More pointedly it links up with the work of Liam Gillick and Jorge Pardo, not just stylistically, but in the way their objects too flirt with traditional fine art object-making and applied modernism.
Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Always After (The Glass House), 2006. Video still, Super 16mm film transfer to HD digital video, Loop 09:41 minutes. Collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of David Tieger Foundation, 2009.567. Image courtesy of Donald Young Gallery, Chicago
Another piece that explores the step after fetishization, is Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle’s Always After (The Glass House), 2006 (seen above). In an HD video transfer of a 16mm film, we see glass shards swept up like little pieces of glacial ice, or diamonds. Not much is revealed through the tight framing and composition, but it is apparent windows have been blown out of a very modern black building. At one point the legs of men and women dressed for a formal occasion appear, as generic in the their modern attire as the architectural elements, and then are seen exiting.
The footage was taken from an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that kicked off the massive rehab of Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall in 2005. To raise funds IIT devised a uniquely Freudian and destructive scheme: Auctioning off the chance to shatter the old windows of the building. Manglano-Ovalle was at the gala and this film resulted. The winner of the auction was van der Rohe’s grandson, himself an architect. So the auction takes on obvious connotations of subsequent generations of artists resisting the inherited mantle of Modernism. But that it was first an act consumed as a novelty for donors makes it problematic, in a good way—it deflates the heroic gesture of attacking the big ‘m.’ Added to that are the aesthetic gestures of slow motion, lighting and framing that locates the Manglano-Ovalle’s piece alongside the experimental filmmaking of László Moholy-Nagy and others from the period.
Finally the title seems to hold within it a certain resignation from Manglano-Ovalle himself: is everything he does to be always read as coming after his breakout piece, where he washed the windows of van der Rohe’s glass Farnsworth House? Is everything we do always after Modernism?