James Rondeau, is the Art Institute's Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Modern and Contemporary Art and the exhibition curator of the recently opened Charles Ray: Sculpture,He recently spoke with our Member Magazine about some of his earliest artistic memories and why you shouldn't be intimidated by contemporary art.
Do you remember when you were first drawn to art?
My mother was a Sunday painter, so I remember growing up with her paintings around the house, and I have strong memories of the occasional visit to Boston or New York museums for “blockbuster” exhibitions of Egyptian or Impressionist art. But it was not until college that I was alerted to art history as a discipline.
If you could pick one piece from the Art Institute’s collection for your office, what would it be?
Impossible. One of the great things about my job is that the quality and depth of our collection makes any such game of favorites truly beside the point. Yes, we are proud of our singular masterpieces, but our greatness comes as a whole that is more than the sum of its individual parts.
What were some of the installation challenges with "Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014"?
Every challenge presents an opportunity to learn more about the artist’s work and about our own museum, its incredible possibilities, and its occasional limitations. In this case, the extreme weight of some of Ray’s sculptures presented real challenges. Working with our colleagues in the Department of Design and Construction alongside a team of outside structural engineers, we were able to solve most every issue.
The Art Institute has been committed to collecting contemporary art since its founding. When the museum was first established, Monet was a contemporary artist. Do you feel any kind of pressure given this legacy, being responsible for finding the Monets of today?
Not pressure per se, but a great sense of responsibility. It’s useful to remember that all great art was once contemporary. To be sure, part of our mandate is to embrace the experimental and not to be afraid of risk. That said, we know who we are as an institution, we know our history, and we know the context we provide to artists and objects. All of this makes us different from many of our peer institutions that only collect contemporary art. Hopefully an understanding of these distinctions informs the decisions we make in the most positive sense.
You get to work with living artists. What’s one thing that would surprise people about the foremost artists of today?
Surprise? Not sure. But almost without exception, I am struck by the confluence of great artistic talent with incredibly agile, open, challenging minds and kind and generous personalities. That said, great artists can also be tough. They keep us on our toes.
You curated a major exhibition of the work of the artist and director Steve McQueen the year before he won the Oscar for Best Picture for 12 Years a Slave. Is this a rare crossover or the shape of things to come?
Steve is one of the great artists of his generation working with the moving image. We have presented his work twice here, first in a small exhibition in 2002 and then again with the survey we organized in 2012. I am proud that we recognized his talent early and then showed it in depth. Increasingly, artists who work with media move between formats (film, video, digital) and modes of distribution (the art gallery, the museum, the movie theater, television, the Internet). This fluidity makes things exciting but also makes identifying the differences between “art” and the “everyday” more of a challenge, possibly even irrelevant.
Some people try but struggle with contemporary art. What is your response to that?
Go with your instincts, but most contemporary art emerges from a basic paradox: because it sometimes does not look like traditional forms of expression, we find it alienating or off-putting. But precisely the opposite is intended. The revolutionary freedom inherent in contemporary art—the expanded set of possibilities for what a work of art can look like, how it can function, who can make it, and for what purposes—is meant to be both liberating and welcoming. Hopefully, we can find such an open field exciting rather than vexing.
Which would go best—a hearty red or crisp white wine—with work by the following artists: Roy Lichtenstein, Sol LeWitt, Ed Paschke, Jackson Pollock, and John Chamberlain?