BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Don’t let the title of the Smart Museum of Art’s current exhibit Monochrome Multitudes restrict your expectations. And whatever you do, read the labels.
Co-Curators Christine Mehring and Orianna Cacchione have conceived the most colorful and enticing show in town. They’ve cleverly invited the President of the University of Chicago, chemist Paul Alivisatos; other professors in fields unrelated to art from neuroscience to law to mathematics; current students; and noted alumni to comment on exhibited pieces, creating absorbing labels that describe and interpret this sometimes challenging art form where only one color is used.
“Monochromes are so reduced that they are both challenging and compelling. They are so narrowed down yet there are so many surprising possibilities and discoveries to be made within these constraints,” Mehring explains. “Imagine that Robert Ryman worked his whole career and never made a single artwork that wasn’t white.”
Throughout the Museum, art rendered in a variety of mediums is presented in monochromatic groupings, with guests passing through rooms of blue, white, yellow, gray, black, and red, alternating with thematic sections. The collection of over 120 artworks range from primary-colored weavings and blue pixels to marigold-colored houses and silver-painted shoes, and forms vary from abstract paintings to musical pairings.
Now on view through January 8, the exhibit features modern and contemporary artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, Theaster Gates, Josef Albers, Sheila Hicks, and Amanda Williams.
We first wrote about Mehring, a specialist on 20th-century abstraction and post-war German art, in 2017 when she conserved German artist Wolf Vostell’s 32,400-pound public sculpture, a 1957 Cadillac encased in concrete, and returned it to the University of Chicago campus where it still resides in a public garage close to the Smart Museum. We have since admired her way of introducing art to all with clarity and full-on enthusiasm.
Hers is a collaborative nature and bringing in the whole university community as participants in this latest exhibit is testimony: “I have always felt that the Smart is a precious gem. We’re a university museum at this world-class university—that makes us special and gives us the unique opportunity to engage the immense expertise on our campus.”
Mehring’s responsibilities at the University are myriad. She is a Faculty Adjunct Curator at the Smart Museum, Mary L. Block Professor in the Department of Art History and the College, Affiliate Faculty in the Department of Visual Arts, and has been chairing the University’s Public Art Committee.
“Although I have the privilege of advising super-specialized art history doctoral students, I also teach college students who study art as part of our signature core curriculum. Most of these students only take one art history course during their four years here while concentrating on, say, economics and computer science, the most popular majors these days,” she says. “I want those students to go to museums for the rest of their lives, to know how to approach art and talk about it with families and friends.”
She describes her own approach to this current exhibit: “The concept of monochromatic art is so simple and so coherent, and that provided the perfect format for bringing in a multitude of voices, which seems so urgent at this particular moment for museums,” Mehring says. “It was an ideal time to get away from labels that seem to come from an anonymous or single curatorial authority and showcase our community.”
She continues, “There were some questions initially—would our faculty do this, can we manage this, will it cohere—but we got over 30 labels by faculty, plus some 50 labels by alumni and students, one better than the next. Only one person said no. This is what a university museum should be doing, yet to my knowledge it’s not been done on this scale.”
Among the participants is Silvia Beltrametti, a world expert on intellectual property and provenance. Beltrametti, also a lecturer at the School of the Art Institute who obtained her Doctorate in jurisprudence from the University of Chicago and is currently researching the backs of paintings by Lucio Fontana, wrote a label about one of the artist’s signature slashed canvases.
When the curators decided to include Helen Frankenthaler’s “Focus on Mars,” which renders the famous “red planet” in shades of blue, Mehring knew that she had to approach the Dean of the Physical Science Division, astrophysicist Angela Olinto, to see if she could tackle this discrepancy with a label. (“Within hours, she said yes,” Mehring shares.)
This portion of Olinto’s label serves as a prime example of how a university can contribute to a gallery visitor’s education:
We have learned a lot about Mars since 1976, thanks to several space missions to the Red Planet. Current scientific evidence points to underground water and subglacial lakes on contemporary Mars. A few billion years ago, the Red Planet was bluer, with vast primordial oceans covering large portions of its surface. Frankenthaler’s imagination prophesies the latest discoveries about Mars’s distant past and what the terraforming movement dreams for Mars’s future.
Mehring’s son Leo Mehring-Keller, a freshman and aspiring music major at the University, wrote one of the dozens of student-authored labels for one of the exhibition’s most fascinating pieces, a 1966 sculpture in aluminum—an example of the shiny monochrome industrial metals common in the 1960s—by Walter De Maria, who early in his career was a drummer for the Velvet Underground.
Recently, David Skidmore of Chicago’s Third Coast Percussion was able to draw music from the sculpture, which features a ball to be rolled left and right, with hidden contact microphones and an amplifier, resulting in a most haunting sound. You can listen to these sounds on the exhibition’s audio app. Click here for a sound recording.
Mehring and Cacchione also take the opportunity to relate museums to important sustainability efforts and the impact of contemporary building practices and fossil fuel dependence: “Museums are notorious for putting up and taking down walls for exhibitions—we are not being good stewards for the environment if we continue doing that,” Mehring says. “In the show, which features a section on the theme of ‘walls,’ we address the need for—and also constructed—moveable walls, which can be reused for years to come.”
University President Paul Alivisatos, John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in the Department of Chemistry and the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, wrote a label on an artwork created out of 72 sheets of gypsum drywall by Dan Peterman this year, which the curators commissioned for the exhibition to highlight the problem of sustainability in museums.
His timely label reads, in part:
Now that human activity has reached planetary scale, we are far behind in a race to develop artificial chemical cycles modeled on the natural cycles of living systems. For instance, chemists will one day find a way to emulate nature’s carbon cycle via artificial photosynthesis. Their goal is to use energy captured from the sun to convert carbon dioxide to a fuel with high efficiency, closing the carbon cycle just like plants. This would establish a complete carbon cycle for human energy use. Absent such cycles, we create one problem after another. Peterman reminds us that it is not just the carbon cycle we have to consider, but the cycles associated with many other elements of the periodic table. Like it or not, we are becoming climate system engineers. We had better learn to emulate nature.
A label by Shane Rothe, a curatorial research assistant for the exhibition who received their MA from UChicago last year, explains the future use of Peterman’s drywall material, which also functions as a pedestal for other monochrome artworks:
A new stage of the artwork’s cycle for this exhibition began with sourcing drywall and lumber from standardized construction material streams. The raw unmodified material—in the amount used for a local three-bedroom apartment—may be reconfigured into a new sculptural installation elsewhere on the University of Chicago campus before eventually being used by a developer and home builder active on the South Side. For this exhibition, the drywall is stacked as one large mass and strapped as if to be shipped. The deliberately excessive volume makes visible a material that typically becomes invisible, whether installed in a home or museum.
The majority of the works on display are drawn from the Smart Museum’s collection. They are supplemented by a number of loans from UChicago alumni, Chicago-area collections, and beyond. The exhibition itself is supplemented by “satellites” featuring monochrome art across the University campus, including a newly re-sited “Black Sphere” sculpture by Jene Highstein, Mehring’s latest concrete conservation project.
“All museums need to own the challenge of providing exhibitions that are at once truly scholarly and also appeal to the general public,” Mehring says. We think the Smart perfectly finds this balance.
The Smart Museum is located at 5550 South Greenwood Avenue. For further information about the museum and its current exhibition, on now through January 8, visit smartmuseum.uchicago.edu.
All photos courtesy Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago/Photo by Tyler Mallory unless otherwise noted.