The Collected and the Ultimate Collector

The School of the Art Institute, touting its role as “a true laboratory for groundbreaking scholarship,” hosted a salon last week where artist Jeff Koons, critic James Yood, and local collector Stefan Edlis were to consider “The Return of the Wunderkammern in Contemporary Collecting.” SAIC dean Lisa Wainwright steered the chummy discussion, defining Wunderkammern as 17th-century cabinets or rooms stuffed with marvelous and rare objects and venturing her thesis that Koons’s work falls into that category. Examples of the artist’s work flashed on a screen behind the panel: the chaste, Lucite-encased vacuum cleaners, the prescient porcelain Michael Jackson, the billboard-size photographs of the artist and his former wife, Italian porn star turned politician Cicciolina, doing what she was first famous for.

Edlis, who owns what is said to be one of the world’s best private collections of contemporary art, was armed with an arsenal of one-liners. He identified the main attraction in any number of Koons pieces as “the boobs,” said he purchased one because it matched a rug, and opined that the Wunderkam-mern label as Wainwright wants to apply it is a stretch. (“Let’s face it,” he said to Koons at one point: “Your stuff is ree-llly slick.”) Yood described collectors as “disciplined hoarders” and identified the subject of a Koons painting owned by Edlis as Miss January, 1998. The artist, now 50 and looking a lot more buttoned-down (cropped hair, dark suit) than the wannabe stud of his Cicciolina days, spoke with a voice and worldview so modulated they might–like his recent paintings–have been generated by a computer.

How else to explain the former commodities trader intoning pap like “Art is in the viewer”? According to Koons, whose work has sold for more than $5 million at auction, “Art is really free,” and that’s what he’s always loved about it: “Once you view it, you can carry it in your heart.” As for his work, it’s about “accepting everything around you and finding the grace in it,” something he picked up at the Art Institute when he studied there in the mid-70s and worked as Ed Paschke’s assistant. The son of an interior decorator, he’d learned the power of display in his father’s furniture showroom, but he says it was Paschke who showed him what to display. “Everything’s already here in this world,” Paschke told him. “You just have to look for it.”

Tyner White’s Glorious, Homeless Hoard

That’s a sentiment Tyner White could agree with. On the day Koons appeared at the SAIC, White was loading his objects of wonder into a semitrailer, worrying that he’d be ousted from his Cermak Avenue warehouse before he could finish the massive packing job. Hoping to get him into smaller quarters, the managers of White’s family trust had cut off the rent money for the sprawling basement, and a court order said he’d have to move by the end of March. With one day to go, the task was overwhelming. In the last three years White had filled the 20,000 square feet of space with a mesmerizing profusion of castoffs: rusting screws, glass shards, plastic bottles, books, clothing, cardboard, and, most of all, his beloved scrap wood in all sizes and shapes. Although two other semitrailers had already been loaded and driven away–and perhaps the same amount given away–it would clearly be impossible to pack and load the rest in time.

White is a weather-beaten apparition somewhere north of 60, decked out in his usual dusty wig and twists of wire, limping from a severely arthritic hip. A graduate of Wilmington College and the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Iowa, he had two poems published in Paul Carroll’s Young American Poets anthology back in the 60s. But that was a long time ago. Now his manuscripts are locked away and his mission is to save the world’s forests by making usable objects of discards. He’s built a mad hatter’s assortment of prototypes: a possibly functional tape dispenser in the shape of a cat, rubber-tipped walking sticks with handles of telephone wire, oversize sculptural chess pieces sporting shiny metal screws for arms, a deeply discordant toy violin. “Here,” he says, offering a box of lumber scraps that he’s sanded and beveled. “Take a diamond.”

After his Iowa days White lived for a while in Europe; he came to Chicago in 1972. His original enterprise and champion product was his handmade toker, or “antioverdose device,” which he sold on the street until the police cracked down on drug paraphernalia in the mid-70s. (He blames the tobacco companies for that and says the device–which he claims reduces the amount required to fuel a bowl by 93 percent–could put them out of business and save millions of lives.) After that he became the reigning prophet of Maxworks, a ragtag commune of artists, environmentalists, and assorted others who bunked in Maxwell Street spaces he rented for years–until the University of Illinois at Chicago kicked him out and bulldozed the last one.

White dreams of presiding over a thrift shop where artists and teachers would take what they could use from his collection. With the help of a single employee (also paid from the trust), he’s built hundreds of scrap-wood shelving units for this hypothetical shop and crafted thousands of cardboard boxes–cockeyed little boats with green tape wrapping the seams and edges. “Can you imagine,” he says, surveying his domain, “all of this going in Dumpsters?”

At the end of the day, recycler Ken Dunn, who’s known White for 30 years and still has two trailers of his Maxwell Street inventory parked on his property, delivers good news. It looks like the landlord will extend the deadline a little and may even provide some cash to help empty the place. White pulls out a piece of scrap foam and lies down on the concrete floor for a moment’s rest. Now all he has to worry about is the $1,800 he owes his staffer in back wages, and where he’ll go next.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre Van De Putte, Joeff Davis.