Young Chicago

When Through 4/29

Where Art Institute of Chicago, Michigan and Adams

Price Free with admission

Info 312-443-3600

Looking at the new “Young Chicago” show at the Art Institute is like looking into a fun-house mirror. What’s young? What’s Chicago?

The show is a calling card for a new regime headed by Joseph Rosa. After the museum’s longtime architecture curator John Zukowsky retired last year, Rosa, curator at San Francisco’s Museum of Modern Art, was brought in with an expanded mission and a new title: curator of architecture and design.

Museums worldwide have been attracting new audiences with design-oriented exhibitions such as “The Art of the Motorcycle” at the Guggenheim and “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years,” which made its way to the Field Museum after blockbuster runs in New York and Boston.

At SFMOMA Rosa created his own kind of fusion with “Glamour: Fashion, Industrial Design, Architecture,” an exhibition that included everything from Jaguars to haute couture by Versace to the architecture of Herzog & de Meuron.

Rosa’s “Young Chicago” has similar ambitions, with the work of 16 designers cutting across all the disciplines–architectural, industrial, graphic, and fashion. On display is one of Nick Cave’s fantastical Soundsuits, described in the catalog as “static sculptures for exhibition…as well as ritualistic costumes for performance.” Also on display are the menus graphic designer Jason Pickleman did for Avec and the proposals architect Clare Lyster made to spur redevelopment–including agricultural–in Chicago’s Lawndale community. There’s not a single weak link, but the show still feels a bit sparse and disconnected.

Giving baby boomers no small measure of comfort, Rosa’s definition of young is highly permissive. Most of the featured designers are at least 40; many are in their 50s, and furniture designer Holly Hunt is pushing–well, I’m not a total cad.

Everyone in the show does work in Chicago. But architect Ross Wimer, whose beautifully tapering and twisting 73-story Infinity Tower in Dubai is in the show, moved here only recently. Architect Paul Preissner, whose entry in the show is a series of digital renderings of his sinuously amorphous museum in South Korea (think Frank Gehry in concrete and glass instead of titanium), founded his firm, Qua’Virarch, in LA and only relocated to Chicago in 2004.

Much of what’s in “Young Chicago” seems tied to Chicago only as an accident of geography. “While its architectural fabric can easily personify a city,” Rosa argues in the exhibition catalog, “the disciplines of industrial design, graphic design, and fashion…are not associated with a particular region.” He’s right, though this is a fairly recent development–historically culture has been heavily influenced by location.

Chicago’s closeness to vast supplies of lumber, livestock, and grain and its central location in the country, with access to the lake, the Mississippi, and rail lines, made it a commercial hub. Out of all this emerged a distinct Chicago culture–committed to bigness as well as to showing the world that we were just as cultured as New York or Saint Louis. Those were the cities of old America. Chicago was young America, its artists, writers, and architects prophets of the country’s future.

There was always a lot of socializing and cross-pollination among the artistic disciplines here. It’s no accident that Henry Fuller’s novel The Cliff-Dwellers revolves around one of the city’s iconic turn-of-the-century skyscrapers. Rosa notes that this dynamic was still alive in the 30s, when three European exiles united Chicago culture under the principles of the Bauhaus: Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reinvented the city’s architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy created what would eventually become the Institute of Design, and Herbert Bayer redefined graphic design as a consultant to the Container Corporation of America. But after World War II that unity slowly came apart. Moholy-Nagy died in 1946, Mies was eased out at IIT, and the CCA was eventually sucked up by Mobil.

These days capitalism changes almost everything it touches into a global commodity. And we can take some of the blame for that: in 1857 the Chicago Board of Trade created a revolutionary system of standardized grades that allowed grain to be traded and transported not in the sacks of individual farmers but in bulk, by the thousands of bushels. Eventually it could be traded anywhere in the world, and the process was what mattered, not the place.

Process also defines IDEO, a franchise represented in “Young Chicago” by its Evanston office, one of four in the U.S. Its stock-in-trade is the commodification of ideas: it attacks a problem by throwing together a bunch of people to brainstorm back to first principles, then come up with new and improved designs. Today the problem is a hospital, tomorrow it might be a shopping cart. In “Young Chicago” it’s a kidney transporter, iPod speakers, and a “Humatrope reconstitution device,” an intricate cool blue apparatus that mixes drugs and prepares syringes for parents to use at home when treating children with growth-hormone deficiencies. All of these items could just as easily have been created in Boston or San Francisco–or Shanghai.

For all its reach, “Young Chicago” has a Cliffs Notes feel to it, as if Rosa had created it as a quick way to get a handle on his new terrain. Still, when you throw together a bunch of things, no matter how disparate, the viewer instinctively seeks to discover relationships between them. Rosa has also gotten the different disciplines together in the same room for the first time in a long time. That’s not a bad start.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.