WHO WOULDN’T WANT TO COME TO CHICAGO? That question, posed by a Windy City dealer last week on the eve of EXPO Chicago, begged a querulous reply. Why choose Chicago when the doors to New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Mexico City, and more exotic places are open? “Chicago is not an international city,” the woman conceded. “It is a great American city.”
Point taken. We were on the rooftop terrace of the Art Institute of Chicago, at a dinner that followed the opening of “Sarah Charlesworth: Stills,” dwarfed by the mighty skyline lit up around us. We were seated at two long tables with the late artist’s two children, Nick Poe and Lucy Poe, AIC photography chair Matthew Witkovsky, and some of the city’s leading collectors. They included Eric and Liz Lefkofsky, who bought and donated half of the fourteen Stills to the museum. “What every collector wants to hear is, ‘You can’t have it,’ ” Eric Lefkofsky said. “Then you stop at nothing to get it.”
The almost mythical body of work, appropriated from news sources, hasn’t seen the light of day since 1980, when the young Tony Shafrazi exhibited it in his first gallery, his New York apartment. Before her unexpected death from a brain aneurysm in June of last year, Charlesworth printed six images that weren’t in the original show. “This is the first time that Stills has been exhibited in its entirety,” Witkovsky told the full house attending an illuminating panel in the museum’s auditorium, moderated by Laurie Simmons with artists Liz Deschenes, Sara VanDerBeek, and activist Kate Linker.
Left: Artist Theaster Gates. Right: Artist Corban Walker with Shaquille O'Neal and art consultant Amy Cappellazzo.
The program was the opening salvo of EXPO Art Week, part of fair director Tony Karman’s high-octane effort to entice visitors to the three-year-old exposition, a startup that has replaced the failed Chicago Art Fair, a victim of the Armory Show, Frieze, and misguided management. Opening day, September 18, brought a touch of celebrity to Navy Pier, when filmmaker George Lucas (whose forthcoming Lucas Museum of Narrative Art is in Chicago) swept through the 140 stalls. Retired basketball giant Shaquille O’Neal was brought in by New York collector Glenn Fuhrman to curate “Shaq Loves People,” a rather good show of portraits in the Flag Art Foundation booth, felicitously located by the VIP Room, entry to which was through Michael Rakowitz’s re-creation of the Ishtar Gate.
The giant O’Neal, an indelible figure to begin with, made a stunning impression for camera phone–wielding fans when he stood beside the four-foot-tall Corban Walker, one of the artists in his show. “I just love Ron Mueck,” O’Neal said of another, but his taste also seems to run to delicate post-Minimalism. “He came in and went straight for the Richard Tuttle drawing,” reported dealer David Nolan, who was sharing a stall with Chicago gallerists John Corbett and Jim Dempsey. “Maybe it’s just that it was hanging at his eye level.”
Like pleasant Chicago, the fair is definitively American, despite Karman’s many efforts to give it an international profile by bringing French curators Matthieu Poirier and Guillaume Désanges to Chicago for a year-long residency, including Europeans like Isabella Bortolozzi and Thomas Schulte, and winning over heavyweight galleries like David Zwirner, Matthew Marks, Massimo De Carlo, and Lisson. For the most part, though, EXPO offered midlevel dealers a chance to hold the attention of collectors more often monopolized by bigger guns. “I think there’s something about Tony that makes people want to support him,” reflected Andrew Freiser, who split his stall with fellow New York dealer Garth Greenan—a common ploy here, and perhaps an indication of the caution out-of-towners brought with them.
Left: Dealers David Nolan and Paul Kasmin. Right: Artist Angel Otero.
Chicago has a long history of active connoisseurship, as the primo collections of the AIC, the Museum of Contemporary Art, the Arts Club of Chicago, and other institutions will attest. Collecting is a family affair here. “Did you go to the Fields this morning?” asked New York dealer Elizabeth Dee, who shared her booth with London’s Max Wigram. “That was to-die.” Marilyn and Larry Fields’s Lakeshore Drive apartment was but one stop on daily tours that took fair-going VIPs around to ogle private collections amassed by the Aronsons, the Guthmans, the Strokirks, the Broidos, and the Sandors, among others. The last in that list has just about every iconic photograph produced since the birth of the medium. “We have 1,600 on a wall of our living room,” Richard Sandor had told me at the Charlesworth dinner. “And that’s just one wall. We can’t seem to stop.”
Other collecting couples, like the Lefkofskys and King and Caryn Harris, split their institutional affiliations between the AIC and the MCA, while one half of the Bluhms, the Griffins, the Gordons, and the Crowns also sit on the board of the Whitney Museum. They can’t stop either.
They didn’t all go to Expo, but the fair did get a swarm of art advisers and, according to dealer Monique Meloche, collectors from Indianapolis, Saint Louis, Kansas City, and other midwestern towns. I spotted New Museum director Lisa Phillips leading a group from New York, while Warhol Foundation president Joel Wachs, Rauschenberg Foundation director Christy MacLear, and artist Ryan Gander were among those imported to take part with Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker in EXPO’s “Dialogues” program of conversations. Another plus was the group of commissioned public artworks that EXPO In/Situ's curator Renaud Proch placed both outside the hall and within. The most remarkable had to be Jessica Stockholder’s fifty-foot-tall tower of brightly colored plastic buckets and crates. When it comes to consumer-goods sculptural installations, she still has the field to herself.
Left: Dealers Alex Logsdail and Tina Kim. Right: Renaissance Society associate curator Hamza Walker with artist Ryan Gander.
But what really set Chicago apart for me, at both the fair and at gallery openings during the week, was how much more integrated the art world appeared to be here than it is in such supposedly evolved places like New York and Los Angeles, where white faces still dominate. Many of those flocked each night to Rashid Johnson’s steam bath version of the racially charged Amiri Baraka play, Dutchman, seen in New York during the last Performa biennial, or to “Retreat,” an exhibition organized by Theaster Gates at the Richard Gray and Valerie Carberry galleries, or to Gates’s Dorchester Projects on the South Side.
Veteran dealer Rhona Hoffman’s booth was one that achieved racial equality at the fair, as did San Francisco’s Anthony Meier. Among the artists featured at Kavi Gupta’s booth was McArthur Binion, a charismatic sixty-eight-year-old African American who was the first black artist to graduate from Cranbrook, found champions in Sol LeWitt, Carl Andre, and other artists in 1970s New York, was in an exhibition at Artists Space during its inaugural year, and, after moving to Chicago, dropped out of sight for thirty years. Now, a little like Jack Whitten and Sam Gilliam, he’s starting to get the recognition he deserves. At his compound of galleries, Gupta also introduced a show of Mickalene Thomas’s bronzes and new, found-object installations by Glenn Kaino.
At the Arts Club on Saturday afternoon, the 2005 Turner prize winner Simon Starling led a tour of his current show, “Pictures for an Exhibition.” The black-and-white photographs document the fascinating trajectory of eighteen Brancusi sculptures exhibited at the club in 1927 through a network of collectors from then to now. “I learned a lot about the psyche of collectors during this project,” Starling said. “A strange breed. And I wouldn’t survive without you.”
Nor could Chicago. At least it seemed that way after a weekend of collector visits, architectural tours by boat, dinners in restaurants, receptions in galleries, and parties at the recently opened Soho House. But the most exclusive chill-out rooms were in a second-level corner of the fair that people who didn’t venture past the Exposure section for younger galleries missed. This was “Bling Bling,” a project of the nonprofit 6018North, curated by Tricia Van Eck. It had a Day-Glo disco room with glitter balls, glitter paintings, and a DJ playing protest music; a faux Louis XIV garden room; and a “democratic” VIP lounge lined with gold and silver fabric.
Bling was definitely on the agenda for Saturday night when the MCA held its annual artEdge benefit gala, beginning with a preview of the roots of glam: “David Bowie Is,” the exhibition of the rock star’s costumes and memorabilia that packed them in at the Victoria and Albert in London last year. The MCA is its only American venue. There was a sweeping Starling show on view in galleries off the lobby, but they went almost unnoticed that evening. Those who came for the entertainment alone went upstairs to the Bowie show, installed here by curator Michael Darling, who enlisted architect John Vinci, a legend in this town, to design the black-on-black, nightclub-like environment.
The show is heavy on costumes and memorabilia from Bowie’s career, absent its seamier (and most creative) episodes, which is really too bad. It did have his voice and music on the clever audio tour, and tucked at the back of one platform, a blurry video of Bowie’s 1979 appearance on Saturday Night Live with Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias that stopped me in my tracks.
I guess nostalgia was in the air. Just ask all the people who bought tickets for the gala’s afterparty, which featured the soigné Bryan Ferry as the musical guest. New York collectors Charlotte Ford and Lisa Perry were among his fans at the gala, which also put Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel in the house with Marilyn Susman, wife of President Obama’s former ambassador to the UK, and what appeared to be the city’s entire art world—elite collectors (the Griffins, the Zells, the Goldenbergs, the Blitsteins, the Bluhms, the Neesons, etc.), artists, dealers, curators… everyone. Clearly, event chairs Nancy Crown, Cari Sacks, Liz Lefkofsky, and Caryn Harris totally turned it out. MCA director Madeleine Grynsztejn was elated.
Patrons skewed to the senior set, though Adam Fields brought artist friends like Tony Lewis. “I’m trying to bring a young, edgy note to the scene,” he said. Representatives of Louis Vuitton, the evening’s sponsor, asked me in several emails to mention the company’s support of the show, but during the dinner for seven hundred that followed the preview, I saw Nick Cave wearing some kind of green leather chest harness, and women dressed in Prada, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Gucci, and, well, anything but Vuitton.
Ferry, handsome as ever and wearing a flower-print evening jacket, rocked out to the swooning crowd of revelers packed into the afterparty tent. “This is so exciting!” Ford said. Sometimes, I thought, one has to go to the heartland to stay on the cutting edge. Next morning, Renaissance Society curator Hamza Walker gave me a tour of an eccentric show opening that night by the German Conceptualist Josef Strau, one related to Native American mythology that I couldn’t imagine at any other institution in the country.
While waiting for my taxi to the airport, I recalled something that young Fields, who lives in New York, told me. “I’m very proud of Chicago,” he said. “Eventually, I’ll be back.”
Left: Artist Simon Starling and MCA Chicago curator Dieter Roelstraete. Right: Collector Helyn Goldenberg with MCA curator Naomi Beckwith and collector Michael Goldenberg.
Left: Artist Tom Sachs and dealer Sarah Hoover. Right: Artist Nick Cave with collector Sally Kobler and Bob Faust.
Left: AIC curator James Rondeau with dealer Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn. Right: Collector Charlotte Ford.
Left: Dealers Christopher D'Amelio and Presca Ahn. Right: Artadia director Carolyn Ramo and Artspace founder Chris Vroom.
Left: Playwright Lonnie Carter, collector Ellen Kern, dealer Jay Gorney. Right: Artist Liz Deschenes.
Left: Shaquille O'Neal with collector Glenn Fuhrman. Right: Dealer Lisa Cooley.
Left: Robert Rauschenberg Foundation director Christy MacLear. Right: Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit director Elysia Borowy-Reeder and artist Scott Reeder.
Left: Collector Mera Rubell. Right: Meeghan Nemeroff, art advisor Meredith Darrow, and dealer Jessica Silverman.
Left: Dealer Tif Sigfrids. Right: Artists Sheree Houseplan and Jason Middlebrook with dealer Monique Meloche.
Left: Collectors Steve and Nancy Crown. Right: Collector Stephanie French.
Left: Collector Marjorie Susman and dealer Daniella Luxembourg. Right: Space I director Rachel Barrett.
Left: Artist Glenn Kaino. Right: Collectors Jesse Karlov, Lena Blitstein, Marlene Blitstein, and David Blitstein.
Left: Critic Kate Linker and dealer Richard Edwards. Right: Dealer Marc Selwyn.
Left: Arts Club of Chicago director Janine Mileaf. Right: Christie's America deputy chairman Laura Paulson.
Left: Dealer Ellen Langan. Right: Collector Eric Lefkofsky.