Chicago Goes Pop

In 2015, Stefan Edlis and Gael Neeson (husband and wife) donated over $400 million worth of art to the Art Institute of Chicago.  It would be the largest bequest in the institution’s history.  As of December, this massive addition to the permanent collection is now on permanent view in a suite of galleries in the museum’s contemporary wing, an airy, rectilinear space designed by Pritzker-winning Renzo Piano.  The 44-piece collection is a veritable who’s-who of postwar art, with a particular emphasis on all things Pop.

The Edlis/Neeson collection carries some weight; in one room alone, you’ll find yourself in the company of three Jeff Koons sculptures and a Damien Hirst.  Other artists include Andy Warhol, Cy Twombly, Robert Rouchenberg, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Charles Ray, Cindy Sherman, and Gerard Richter.  There’s even an entire room of Warhol miscellany.

Andy Warhol. Big Electric Chair, 1967-68. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © 2015 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc./Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

There’s not really a coherent theme among the varied works, though most lie firmly in the category of Pop art, reflective of Edlis and Neeson’s personal interests.  The founder of Chicago’s Apollo Plastics Corporation, Stefan Edlis initially only collected art made of plastic, certainly a postwar medium.  The collection has since broadened to include Pop art more generally.

Jeff Koons. Bourgeois Bust – Jeff and Ilona, 1991. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Jeff Koons

For all its emphatic modernity, the collection engages in a sort of dialogue with art history.  Two works by Jeff Koons, who ironically and self-conscientiously creates sculptures smacking of bad taste, directly reference art history.  His Christ and the Lamb derives from a Leonardo drawing of the same name, but Koons transforms the tender drawing into a gaudy mirror with an obnoxiously sprawling frame—it’s like Baroque gone berserk.   And his Bourgeoisie Bust is a very kitschy spin on the traditional portrait bust.

The Edlis/Neeson collection was always intended to be accessible, and it is.  But below the glossy surface of some of these works lies an understated social commentary.  Charles Ray’s subtly malevolent sculpture of a boy disconcertingly smiles at us while gesticulating with his right hand as if elucidating a point…or is he gesturing the shape of a pistol?  His proportions are that of a youth, but he stands at six feet tall and wears clothing reminiscent of the Hitler Youth.  It’s sinister and menacing, much like Hirst’s Still, a display case of surgical tools which could just as plausibly be instruments of torture.

Charles Ray. Boy, 1992. The Art Institute of Chicago, Gift of Edlis/Neeson Collection. © Charles Ray

But it’s Andy Warhol who delivers the most poignant sociopolitical commentary.  His Little Race Riot is a lithograph of a photo taken by Charles Moore of police using dogs to disperse a crowd of civil rights marchers in Birmingham.  Warhol’s repetitive use of imagery, be it of celebrity faces, electric chairs, or automobile accidents, famously comments on our inability to be emotionally moved to empathy when we’re bombarded so incessantly with images of violence on the news.  It’s a problem certainly exasperated further with the advent of social media.

Pop generally seems to have a pejorative connotation.  The words pop music and pop culture, for me at least, tend to evoke the banal and the trite—in short, anything that sells, regardless of how insipid or shallow.  But this half-billion dollar addition to the Institute’s collection suggests that postwar Pop art can actually be surprisingly relevant, at least when it wants to be.  And though some of this work is half a century old, it nevertheless seems current—in the case of Warhol especially, perhaps more now than ever.

The Edlis/Neeson collection is on view as part of the ongoing exhibition The New Contemporary.

Jonathan Rinck

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