In just a little over a decade, Chicagoan and Art Institute of Chicago trustee Irving Stenn Jr. has amassed a compelling collection of 170 drawings by at least 90 artists. Concentrating on works from the 1960s—a period that saw a fundamental change in the way works on paper were made, used, and appreciated—Stenn’s stunning collection features multiple works by Mel Bochner, Sol LeWitt, Brice Marden, and Fred Sandback, along with pieces by Agnes Denes, Eva Hesse, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, and Ellsworth Kelly. This focused assembly of 140 works, 100 of which are promised gifts to the museum, not only showcases Stenn’s personal taste, vision, and passion as a collector but also offers a window into an era when artists reconsidered and reinvented the medium of drawing.
Stenn and his wife, Marcia, began collecting art—bold contemporary prints, paintings, and sculpture—in 1971. Yet it wasn’t until 1999, after his wife passed away, that Stenn gravitated to drawings, which appealed to him because they are the most intimate and raw visualization of an artist’s thought process. Their smaller scale also allows a greater number to remain on display at once—significant as Stenn lives with his entire collection. Most importantly, however, his collecting pursuit has afforded Stenn close personal relationships in the drawing community, such as his friendship with Mel Bochner, which in turn have provided him with a thorough education and awareness of the broader sweep of art history.
Though Stenn did not set out to create a specific narrative with his collection, he was drawn to artworks from the 1960s and enjoyed tracing influences to earlier pieces including those by Suprematist Kazimir Malevich and David Smith. His resulting assemblage highlights a definitive shift in artists’ approach to drawings. While continuing the early modern practice of making drawings as finite expressions in their own right, innovators of the 1960s also frequently employed drawing in ways not previously considered art—for example, as diagrams, instructions for fabrication, caprices suggesting movement in performance, markers of space and time, or notes made during lectures. Such works enabled spatial and tactile perception to be recorded or conceptual concerns of a larger project to be explored, and these ideas, evidenced in a focus on the grid, inform many of the drawings in Stenn’s collection.