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Richard Harris’ ‘Curiosity’ is a morbid affair

Richard Harris stands before 17th century painting St. Jerome part new exhibit his massive collectiart iconography Chicago Cultural Center. |

Richard Harris stands before a 17th century painting of St. Jerome, part of a new exhibit of his massive collection of art and iconography at the Chicago Cultural Center. | Al Podgorski ~ Sun-Times

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Curiosity: The Richard Harris

† Jan. 27-July 8

† Chicago Cultural
Center, 78 E. Washington

† Free

† (312) 744-6630;

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Updated: January 25, 2012 5:36PM

It’s hard to find even the smallest hint of the Grim Reaper in Richard Harris.

There’s his easy grin. His enthusiastic eyes. The beard and the cable-knit sweater, which gives the 74-year-old northwest suburban Riverwoods resident more of the look of a hearty seafarer than a man who compulsively collects art about death.

“It’s not that I’m a morbid person particularly,” he said. “But I am a curious person.”

Nearly 1,000 physical manifestations of this curiosity — paintings, photographs, sculpture, three-dimensional installations and more — are on display at the Chicago Cultural Center in “Morbid Curiosity: The Richard Harris Collection,” one of the center’s largest and longest-running exhibitions. It kicks off Jan. 27 with a public reception from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m., and runs through July 8.

“We’re born to die,” Harris said. “We don’t know where it’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen or how it’s going to happen. I’m interested in how artists represent death.”

Harris is retired from a career selling decorative art to high-end interior designers. In the late 1970s, he started a personal collection of antiquarian illustrated natural history books, finding the books while looking for art for his clients.

After 35 years, he sold his book collection at auction, though not before starting another collection of prints by Rembrandt, Picasso and Matisse. In 2000 and 2001, he sold those high-end art pieces at an art fair in Maastricht, Netherlands. Around that same time, he started searching out pieces about death, buying his first item, a painting by 17th century Dutch painter Adriaen van Utrecht. In just over a decade, his collection grew to thousands of pieces.

“I wanted to see what I could create on my own,” he said.

For the past decade, he looked daily for different art about death, drawn by the universality of the subject. He traveled, went to art fairs and searched out pieces he spotted in art magazines.

“When you start looking for something as specific as that, it’s amazing how often you’ll find things,” Harris said.

At the Chicago Cultural Center, visitors will find one-third of his expansive collection is divided into two separate rooms, dubbed “War Room” and “Kunstkammer of Death.” Each object in the two rooms features a skull.

“War Room” presents fives series of pieces on war from the 17th century to the present day, including work by Jacques Callow and Francisco Goya. A 16-foot-tall mound of clothing called “Tribute” by Cuban-born artist Guerra de la Paz commemorates the Holocaust.

“Kuntskammer of Death,” in the Sidney R. Yates Gallery, is modeled after the 17th century kuntskammer, or “cabinet of curiosities,” a way for the well-heeled to preserve and showcase art and oddities. Paintings are hungsalon-style, Mexican Day of the Dead skulls are arranged around a colorful altar, and in the “Death of Venus,” a fiery red metal figure’s face is revealed to be a skull covered by a veil.

In the center of the room hangs “In the Eyes of Others,” a one-ton, 13-foot-high chandelier made of 3,000 handcrafted plaster bones.

Harris’ collection includes relatively unknown artists whose work caught his eye as well as pieces by a number of well-known artists including Rembrandt and Jasper Johns.

“Richard did not set out to collect trophy art, but he managed to collect trophy art,” said Debra L. Purden, who curated the exhibit with Lucas Antony Cowan.

One of the show’s major challenges was streamlining and then organizing the massive number of pieces. Harris gave the curators a disc with a catalog of his collection and they painstakingly decided whether or not to include a piece and how to organize what they were including.

“You have to categorize it so you are telling something of a story,” Cowan said. While the space is crowded with Harris’ pieces, equally important were the empty spaces, he said.

“A lot of it is so heavy you need to take a break and look away,” he said.

Harris said he was thrilled to have the exhibition in Chicago.

“It’s a coming out party, so to speak, of my collection,” he said. “You can’t ask for anything better.”

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