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MCA reaches for the ‘Sky’ in towering new exhibit

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “9/11 Frontpage” (2001) consists 151 international front pages detailing disaster. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times Media

Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “9/11 Frontpage” (2001), consists of 151 international front pages detailing the disaster. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times Media

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‘Skyscraper: Art and
Architecture Against

♦ Through Sept. 23

♦ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago

♦ Admission: $7-$12

♦ (312) 280-2660;

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Updated: July 11, 2012 5:54PM

As far back as the biblical Tower of Babel and beyond, humankind has yearned to reach for the skies. But only since the late 19th century, has the engineering know-how existed to allow soaring structures to become commonplace reality.

The ultimate markers of modernity, skyscrapers don’t just define cityscapes but they also embody technological prowess and the needs of cities and countries to assert their primacy on the world stage.

“Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity,” a recently opened exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, offers alternately romantic, playful, skeptical and mournful looks at these architectural wonders.

“It’s completely inspired by Chicago,” said chief curator Michael Darling, who organized the show with curatorial fellow Joanna Szupinska. “This city is widely noted as the birthplace of the skyscraper, so it seemed like THE place to do something like this.”

Although myriad artists in previous decades from Georgia O’Keeffe to Red Grooms have created memorable takes on skyscrapers, the gravity-defying structures have not seemed to be subjects of obvious pressing artistic concern today.

But this engaging exhibition proves differently. It gathers multimedia works by more than 50 artists from around the world that should appeal to both casual visitors and art cognoscenti.

Rather than try to make any specific point, it seeks to present a broad look at skyscrapers, with the selections divided into five thematic sections — some more cohesive than others.

At times, the show’s focus blurs into contemporary urbanity in general. Shizuka Yokomizo’s four melancholic portraits of city dwellers framed in their apartment windows, for example, do not deal with skyscrapers directly.

The most surprising omission is a gallery devoted to the on-going, contentious race to seize the title of world’s tallest building – one that long ago moved to Asia and the Middle East, as emerging countries seek to flaunt their new financial might.

On the floor in the entryway, serving as a fitting preface, is Tony Tasset’s 12-foot-long “I-beam” (1996), a straightforward ode to the one building material more than any that made skyscrapers possible.

The show then begins in earnest with a 50-minute excerpt from Andy Warhol’s famed 8-hour film, “Empire” (1964), an extended, virtually unchanging look at the Empire State Building, New York’s art-deco masterpiece.

Looming over any consideration of skyscrapers today, of course, are the horrific events of Sept. 11. A gallery, labeled “Vulnerability of Icons,” largely centers on that day and its aftermath.

The room has some of the show’s most effective works, starting with Hans-Peter Feldmann’s “9/12 Frontpage” (2001), a simple yet searingly powerful installation, consisting of 151 international front pages detailing the disaster.

Other highlights in the gallery include Robert Moskowitz’s “Skyscraper ,” a bold, semi-abstract view of the World Trade Center painted three years before its destruction, and Vera Lutter’s ghostly trio of photos, “Studies for Ground Zero” (2001-02).

If one had to pick the exhibition’s strongest selection, a persuasive case could be made for Monika Sosnowska’s “The Fire Escape” (2012). It consists of a section of an actual fire escape that has been flattened and elongated to form a dramatic 39-foot-long hanging sculpture in the museum’s central atrium.

It is at once elegant and harrowing — a graceful, formally compelling work that also serves as a potent symbol of the deadly limits of skyscrapers, which are vulnerable to a host of threats from fires to terrorists.

Along with such standouts, there are also some puzzlingly underwhelming selections, such as Francis Alÿs’ “Corona (triptych)” (1995-96), a group of three representational paintings aided little by the conceptual conceit underlying it.

More than a century after the first skyscraper was constructed in Chicago, these ever-taller behemoths still thrill and awe us, but they can also scare us – an uneasy dichotomy compellingly captured in the MCA’s new exhibition.

Kyle MacMillan is a local free-lance writer.

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