Envisioning the Contemporary

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through April 5

By Mark Swartz

As part of its fall series of public programs, the Museum of Contemporary Art is offering a workshop titled “Using Contemporary Art to Stimulate Creativity and Innovation.” The instructor, Gerald Haman, is a consultant who works with Fortune 500 companies to help executives attain their “creative potential.”

I couldn’t obtain a syllabus for the workshop, but I can make some assumptions based on its title and some of the ideas about art floating around our culture. Haman sees a visit to a museum as a creativity vitamin, a boost to the creative juices of people developing new products, laying marketing plans, and forging business partnerships. This crowd equates creative inspiration with the lightbulb that goes off over an executive’s head: “We don’t have to just sell fries, we can sell plastic toys, too!”

“Envisioning the Contemporary,” the MCA’s current selection from its permanent collection on view in the fourth-floor galleries, is eclectic enough to support all kinds of theories, even Haman’s. But that’s a good thing: its predecessor, “In the Shadow of Storms,” restricted interpretation by adding time lines and historical markers on the gallery walls. The current selection deliberately avoids specific instructions; in fact, as MCA curator Lucinda Barnes told the Sun-Times, “One of the main ideas of the exhibition is that we not consider our notion of the contemporary absolute.”

The installation of the art, however, is not random, and the show’s emphases and juxtapositions make clear that Gerald Haman’s corporate spin on contemporary art is dead wrong. Rather, contemporary art appears to be a sustained, polymorphous protest against the culture promoted by big business in general and against the misreadings advocated by the likes of Haman specifically. Imagine this review as a refutation of Haman’s approach: the tour I would give of “Envisioning the Contemporary” would break down into four parts.

First, when you get up to the fourth floor, note that four wood sculptures dominate the first gallery: Donald Judd’s untitled crates, Carl Andre’s Arcata Pollux, Tony Cragg’s Loco, and Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Cage. Forgetting about the individual details of each work momentarily, think about wood. Is wood the kind of uniform, easily controlled substance that mass production demands? No, wood is imperfect, belonging to nature and the slow progress of years. Artists working with wood acknowledge its imperfections and incorporate them into the art. Even the perfectly sanded surfaces and machined edges of Judd’s crates still celebrate the “woodness” of wood.

Second, now that you have wood on the brain, look around at the other media explored: a dominant theme of “Envisioning the Contemporary” is material. Walk around the galleries focusing on the wall labels and, specifically, the line that gives the material each piece is made of. Your inventory would include zinc (Andre), burlap (Abakanowicz), Plexiglas (Judd), petroleum jelly (Matthew Barney), seashell (Buzz Spector), felt (Joseph Beuys), and dozens of other nontraditional materials. This art is a long way from conventional genres, whose wall labels invariably offer up such predictable media as oil on canvas, pastel, and egg tempera. The museum that contains a variety of material, natural and synthetic, endorses the fusion of art and life. And that fusion threatens the status quo, because once artists emerge from their cloistered studios and take to the streets, they’re apt to take liberties, to mess things up. Art that stays on the wall, on the other hand, is safe for display in boardrooms and shopping malls. I wouldn’t join the chorus of critics and artists proclaiming that painting is dead, not yet, but for the purposes of this tour, you should forget about the so-called traditional painters, the Leon Golubs and Franz Klines.

Third, focus on the works that adhere to Marshall McLuhan’s formula: The medium is the message. Quintessentially contemporary, this formulation describes art whose primary reason for being is the material; the form is secondary. In this exhibit Chris Burden’s Eighteenth-Century Gunpowder consists of a glass case displaying the three elements of gunpowder–charcoal, saltpeter, and sulfur–arranged in neat mounds. Burden doesn’t add anything, nor does he shape the materials or make any suggestions: the material is threatening enough as it is. But it helps to know a little about Burden: over the course of his career he’s had himself shot, had himself nailed to an automobile, invited gallerygoers to electrocute him, and designed projects for the destruction of museums. It’s safe to say that he may have antisocial plans for these materials.

The ceiling over the center aisle is Chicagoan Dan Peterman’s Sulfur Cycle. Its form is dictated by the building’s architect, Josef Paul Kleihues; Peterman was exclusively concerned with the material for this barrel vault, a plasterboard made using the sulfur dioxide released when coal is burned. It’s also been the material in a number of his other pieces: this product is environmentally friendly because the sulfur dioxide is used rather than released into the atmosphere. Its incorporation into the structure of the museum can be seen as a challenge to those who make decisions about building materials in Chicago and elsewhere, and to the extent that this challenge has not been addressed, Sulfur Cycle continues to shame the builders who use environmentally irresponsible materials.

Fourth and finally, look for all the synthetic materials. Ever since the 1967 film The Graduate, “plastics” has been a byword for phoniness and the establishment. Considering what I said about wood earlier, how can contemporary artists use plastics and other synthetic materials and still criticize the business culture? They do so by subverting the reason that plastics were developed in the first place: to accelerate production and to make things cheaper, lighter, and brighter. But you wouldn’t know that from the works in the MCA.

For one thing, art that’s made it into the museum is sure to be expensive. And the artists have undermined the “plasticness” of synthetics in more purposeful ways. Bruce Nauman uses neon not to advertise a product or service but to make absurd or insulting proclamations, and his fiberglass is heavy and unsleek. Cragg, rather than stuff discarded red plastic lighters, red toothbrushes, red combs, and red coffee-can lids in a landfill, hangs them in the shape of a bottle. Richard Artschwager uses Celotex, a common building material for walls, not for its intended purpose but for a reproduction of Rembrandt’s Polish Rider. And Jeff Koons displays vacuum cleaners in cases, but even these subvert the expectations of a throwaway society because in the context of a museum they’re functionless, preserved in perpetuity, and absurdly overpriced.

In Israel I saw a war memorial made of the twisted remains of machine guns–a contemporary variation on the biblical swords-into-plowshares theme. When I look at contemporary art, I see a similar quixotic gesture. As busily as artists reconfigure industrial materials in order to cast doubt on their value, the producers of the material will outproduce them. As the snack-food maker says, “Crunch all you want, we’ll make more.” A futile but necessary gesture, contemporary art shouldn’t be so glibly co-opted by “artsy” management consultants.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Red Bottle” by Tony Cragg.