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Modernism 101


I’ve got nothing!
It’s clean.
It’s not art.

These were the words used to describe Robert Ryman’s Charter Series last Saturday by attendees of “Deciphering the Contemporary” here at the museum. “Deciphering the Contemporary” is the second installment of Modernism 101, a mini-course in which participants spend the afternoon in the galleries taking a closer look at the history of Modernism through the Art Institute’s collection. During the dawn of the Modern Wing and about the time I joined the Museum Education staff as a Kress Fellow, many visitors expressed a desire for a more in-depth look into Modern and Contemporary Art that went beyond what could be covered in a 45-minute gallery talk. Some wanted the answer to “is it art?” or “why is that here?” Others wanted a crash historical course.

So we began with Understanding Modernism, which covered the European avant-garde to 1950 and proved so popular that, though I offered it on a repeating basis, the course still had a waitlist. The series now includes the above-mentioned course on contemporary art, a look at Modernist roots in Impressionism and Post-Impressionism (by popular demand), a history of photography, and Modernism in Chicago.

The most rewarding aspect of teaching the seminar is the range of experience and ideas offered by attendees. Some have never been inside the Modern Wing and signed up for the courses as an introduction, while others crack jokes about Marcel Duchamp with their friends before the seminar even begins. Still more are dedicated Art Institute volunteers and docents. There was even a retired gallery picture-framer who struggled with how to tell “which way is up.” And all are part of the conversation.

While the seminar is about a history of Modernist movements, it’s more about reception, interpretation, and opening up the works of art on display for discussion that will guarantee to shed new light on them for everyone, even for a seasoned Modernist like me. One can bury oneself in the library to learn about the "-isms" (as I'm oft to do) but it is through each seminar, different every time, and everyone's thoughts, revelations, insights, questions, and experiences brought to the conversation that I have to come to know the Art Institute's collection.

—Terah Walkup, Samuel H. Kress Foundation Fellow, Department of Museum Education