Learning Modern at the Sullivan Galleries

by Monica LaBelle

Arturo Vittori's Model for Atlas Coelestis, 2009, in collaboration with SAIC student team.jpg

Arturo Vittori's Model for Atlas Coelestis, made in in collaboration with an SAIC student team

It's easy to take for granted the influence of the Bauhaus in industrial design and architecture, and the exhibition "Learning Modern," at the Sullivan Galleries of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, invites us to give credit where credit is due.

Architecture and design enthusiasts will likely learn something new from this exhibition, but those unacquainted with the Bauhaus movement will not walk away with a cohesive story on this German-born school of thought that originally placed emphasis on experience over theory when it formed in the early 20th century. No matter--it is unlikely anyone but art students and design aficionados will venture to the 7th floor at 33 S. State Street to see this show, which is up through January 9, 2010 and is open to the public.

SullivanGalleryLearningModern.jpg

"Learning Modern" at the Sullivan Galleries

There are gems here to experience. Not all of them have to do with Bauhaus. For example, the video work by Andrea Fraser in which she plays both psychologist and artist-patient, seems out of place amid the stark and markedly Modern work in this giant gallery. Sure, we understand Fraser is playing an artist who is looking at herself and her influences as well as the frustration of being an artist, and that this focus on one's self in relation to the world is so utterly Modern. But one also suspects this work, because of its skimpy references to design, is in the mix because Fraser was a celebrated visiting artists to SAIC this past winter (favor for favor). I might be wrong, though.

The rest of the exhibition is snippets of chatter and whispers surrounding Bauhaus and the influence of its famous fathers. Thus, the most compelling voices that emerge here are of the Bauhaus mothers. Sure, we're familiar with László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. But what was it like to work under their formidable shadows of... dare I say it... genius? Well, if you were a woman working with them at the time, count yourself lucky. In "Modernity Retired," a series of interviews with retired Modern designers, women such as architect Gertrude Kerbis, who talk of being assigned to design kitchens despite being a terrible cook. And the displayed dresses of fashion designer Claire McCardell, a "pioneer of minimalism and a crusader of modernism," according to the display signs, is delightful to look at because of their familiar and simple construction that we can see in our best clothing even today.

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