Kounellis’s Chicago Narrative

1980s Artists Chicago Exhibitions

With the Kounellis show, too—even more than the [Magdalena] Abakanowicz, which was using an exhibition space—Kounellis used industrial buildings at the turn of the 19th and 20th century.

So this added another dimension of contextualization. Things which were specific to Chicago, specific to those stories, to industry, and, of course, what we’ve seen many times over in terms of intervention of art within social and cultural contexts. That led me in other ways outside the museum in later chapters of my own career, but it was something—which came at the cusp of the time when I was leaving the MCA and moving to MoCA—the breadth of one of his works could occupy an entire gallery. So if you add the kind of six-ish spaces that there were within the institution, you’d have a retrospective composed of six pieces. I mean, if that happens it could be astounding, but it felt like we would be lacking something.

And also, because as I work with living artists whenever I can, but I guess, you know, 99 percent of the time it is to realize a new work, which in the beginning of my career was not something that was pro forma. Now, I think we always see that everywhere. And that is the way it is. But that also captures the vitality of the artist and the interest of the artist. And retracing your past is not fully fun for everyone. It’s certainly not generative.

So in the case of Kounellis, I said, “Well, you know, maybe we can find another building so that the show can be bigger.” So it was really—the invitation was just on the concept at that point of expansion.

And so I took him to see a number of buildings. Again, these buildings came via various board members, or in the case of the German club that is on the corner of Halsted and North, it came through John Vinci. And showed him these different places. I don’t know quite how many we looked at, but in the end, he said, “Okay. I’ll take these four.” And it was like, “Four? We were looking for one.”

But then, of course, that generative thing happened and he started to explain how what he sought to do was to create this opera, to work on this operatic level. He actually had designed for the opera, but in this case he works from a narrative that goes through time, that talks about the ancient world to the modern.

And so he saw this as a kind of passage and a narrative. And what he felt in moving through the city was that he was really experiencing that immigrant settlement of Europeans here with whom he identified, both being a European but also that he himself had moved from Athens to Rome. So in his mind, from an ancient world to a world that was ancient and then had layers into the modern—that his home location, native city, had not.

And so that idea of passage and that idea, particularly of the European passage, was something he really felt everywhere. And he would see it in the names of streets. He would see it in the people on the streets. And so that really became the materiality, if you will, of what he wanted to use. And the buildings—in part because they were abandoned buildings and they were, at that time, still quite plentiful—were these buildings that were postindustrial.

So they had been used for workers who were themselves immigrants. Whether a sewing machine factory or a candy factory, and the like. Or a place to have a social convening such as the location that was on North and Halsted, and is still. So this became this narrative that he wanted to tell.

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Video still, Behind the Scenes at an Art Museum. © MCA Chicago.

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