Quaytman exhibition looks at the beginnings of a celebrated art museum, career
BY MADELINE NUSSER January 16, 2013 5:54PM
Installation view of "Passing Through The Opposite of What it Approaches, Chapter 25," a new body of work by R. H. Quaytman at The Renaissance Society through February 17, 2013.
‘Passing Through The Opposite of What It
Approaches, Chapter 25’
♦ Through Feb. 17
♦ The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis, Room 418
♦ Free admission
♦ (773) 702-8670;
Updated: January 22, 2013 6:16PM
For those who’ve followed art in Chicago for long enough — say 10 or more years — R. H. Quaytman’s exhibit at the Renaissance Society is a trip down memory lane. The artist, who in 2000 began enigmatically dubbing her exhibitions “chapters” (perhaps of an unfinished oeuvre), creates paint-based installations — and this one, the 25th chapter, aims to tell the story of Chicago art’s intellectual center, the Renaissance Society itself.
The historical precis comes at an apt time: Renaissance Society director Susanne Ghez steps down in June after 40 years, having steered the 98-year-old Hyde Park institution toward its global reputation as a rigorous conceptual art venue.
To create the exhibition — titled “Passing Through The Opposite of What It Approaches, Chapter 25”— Quaytman, a New Yorker, spent a week at the Renaissance Society. She culled archives and catalogues, mining them for visual ephemera. Some images became integrated into the artwork, photographed and silkscreened onto wood panels.
“I didn’t know [the Renaissance Society] would be the subject — but [Quaytman] wanted to do this,” says Ghez, speaking a day after the exhibition’s opening, packed with regulars who dub the institution “the Ren.” “It was a surprise and a thrill. I can’t think of a better ending of my position at the Ren.”
Quaytman’s 26 artworks, visually glued together with op-art patterns and fistfuls of glitter, feature a selection of the archived images: A headshot of Ghez; portraits of her mentor, former Art Institute of Chicago curator Anne Rorimer; snapshots taken by the interior gallery’s architect John Vinci; and, perhaps most evocatively, correspondence with Ghez and conceptual artist Dan Graham scrawled on a World Trade Center postcard in 1984. In it, Graham responds to Ghez’s request to name artists he’s admiring — showing off Ghez’s initial way of working with artists.
A few descriptive titles aside, these references are only occasionally recognizable to those not among the Ren’s apostle-like followers, who crowd its opening artist talks. (For example, a painting of a hollow triangular shape, notated “Portrait of Susanne Ghez,” resembles a most intimate detail — the curator’s oft-worn bracelets.) This rarified brand of intellectualism, ironically, sits at odds with Ghez’s foray into curating conceptual art. As Ghez tells it, she fell into her career. A stir-crazy young mother, she joined friends on the weekends strolling Manhattan’s galleries. The idea of a job at one piqued her interest. Her friends told her, “Yeah, well good luck — PhDs are selling postcards on Madison Avenue.” One day she inquired, to no avail. When she walked back into her apartment, the phone rang — someone at the gallery had quit. “That’s the absolute truth,” Ghez notes.
A few years into her Madison Avenue gallery-assistant job she moved to Chicago and gave birth to another child. The story repeated itself: She walked into the Ren, asked after a job. “This time it was three weeks until a person quit. I’ve been here ever since.” Back then, in 1973, the Renaissance Society was two people in a small room. Now a staff of nine maintain programs, a spacious gallery and a $1.7 million dollar budget.
In her early years Ghez admired the conceptual art explorations of Art Institute curator Anne Rorimer, who instigated, among other exhibitions, a notable 1980 installation of French artist Daniel Buren’s trademark stripes covering CTA car doors, called “Watch the Doors Please!” (Buren’s stripes were recently revisited in a 2005 installation of orange dayglo bands covering the Art Institute’s grand stairway staircase.)
“I’m not an art historian,” starts Ghez, “when looking at this work I thought, ‘Well if I can understand it, then so can the rest of our audience. Let’s put it out there and see what happens.’ ”
She began to cobble a program of “work that has a strong conceptual base and a strong formal presentation.” But not everybody was on board with the difficult art. “Early on there were probably some people who weren’t so happy about the fact that we did so many conceptual shows, but that’s in the past.”
In one artwork inside the Renaissance Society’s entryway, Quaytman’s trademark optical effects obscure an awkwardly half-smiling woman, who is, in fact, Rorimer. The work looks predetermined, no accidental drips or brush strokes — the lack of the artist’s hand makes the work eerily closed off, nearly claustrophobic. More successful might be John Vinci’s repurposed architectural snapshots, their darkened sepia tint demarcating time that’s past — a nice tie-in with the departure of Ghez, whose undertakings as a conceptual art tour-de-force will surely leave the art world looking back, remembering.
The board-dictated replacement, forthcoming director Solveig Ovstebo, praises Ghez and, in some ways, hopes to carry the torch. Emailing from Norway, where she directs the Bergen Kunsthall, Ovstebo writes: “I told the search committee that if they were looking for total and radical changes, I might not be the right person as I find my institutional attitude not so far away from what has been practiced at the Ren.”
Decades after her start, and the bolstering of dozens of artists’ careers later, Ghez recalls she initially made her curatorial decisions learning by doing. “In life sometimes you just have to jump.”
Madeline Nusser is a local free-lance writer.