Collecting for Chicago: Prints, Drawings, and Patronage at the Art Institute of Chicago, through September 14

Don’t worry! You don’t have to lie, so just admit it…You didn’t know anything about the Art Institute’s Prints and Drawings Collection until now. But why would you because until now, with the recent unveiling of a permanent gallery specifically reserved for prints and drawings, the collection has remained a cache, tucked away in flat files and kept out of exhibitions. Although there are many good reasons for the archival nature of this collection, mostly due to the potentially fragile state of these prints and drawings, as well as the sheer number (over 70,000 overall), the scope and quality of these works reflects the multifarious uses of pen and pencil by artists throughout the centuries as a medium deserving of the same attention as any other. This, the first of many more exhibitions to come, showcases dozens of artists’ works grouped only under the headings of which benefactor donated them to the museum’s permanent collection.

Although many of the works barely have anything in common with one another, the collector’s critical eye and sometimes their aesthetic obsession becomes apparent, where each room of the exhibition is devoted to a single collector. In the case of the Press Fund, American pop imagery prevails in the H.C. Westermann and R. Crumb works that satirize and make visible the dark underbelly of American policies towards the rest of the world. Whether it’s the fear of the Other cloaked in bravery in Westermann’s Central America, 1973, as an American shakes in his boots while attempting to conquer the New World, or Crumb’s still relevant end-of-the-world scenario Nukuler Holocaust Kicks, 1978, these particularly Americanized graphic tropes gloss over the gloomy realities of our past and present histories, where the gloss adds a wry emphasis to our country’s misgivings.
The Hartman room appeared devoted almost entirely to Diego Rivera and WPA-inspired works such as Charles Wilbert White’s charcoal drawing of two pensive field-workers, Harvest Talk, 1953, but this consistency was belied by Andy Warhol’s Skull, 1976. Both are drawings, yes, but White’s drawing attempts a certain degree of realism through its hatching technique that imitates shadow and light, while Warhol’s appears to have been made, not by drawing from a real-life subject, but by tracing the outline of an image made on a projection screen and then subjectively adding a decorous shadow.

One achievement made by this exhibition is the emphasis on the wholeness of a print or drawing, as well as the vastly different forms that the drawing or printing process can produce. That is to say, that it stands in contrast to a traditional, Western point of view where drawing is near the bottom of a hierarchy of the arts. This point of view still continues in art programs today where 2-D design classes are seen as introductory or foundational to building skills that will eventually culminate in a high degree of facility with a more complicated piece of equipment than a stick of graphite. Instead of proliferating this bias in the arts, there are very few sketches or models for other projects in this exhibition.

Of the many screen-printed works in the Delaney Fund room, The Graphics of Capitalist Realism portfolio, a gorgeously crafted work made in conjunction with the Capitalist Realists’ first exhibition in 1967, most obviously emphasizes the technical ability directly provided by an artist’s hand as unnecessary if it is only one node embedded in a larger, machinated process? Wolf Vostell’s Starfighter screen-print, with a shower of glitter glued over the spectacular image of serially repeating fighter paradoxic ally celebrates the glamour of war imagery while criticizing it.

As someone interested in post-war art, I was delighted to see many  mid-century works, and hope that this is a sign of the AIC’s commitment to modern and contemporary art, possibly due to the burgeoning anticipation of the Modern Wing in early 2009.

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