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Charles Ray: Sculpture, 1997–2014

Through October 4, 2015

Galleries 291–299

The first major exhibition devoted to celebrated Chicago-born, Los Angeles–based sculptor Charles Ray since a midcareer retrospective in 1998, this display of 19 works fills the second floor of the Modern Wing and flows into the museum’s South Garden, presenting a full range of Ray’s most recent achievements with particular emphasis on figurative experiments. The exhibition, co-organized by the Art Institute and the Kunstmuseum Basel, can only be seen in the United States at the Art Institute, and six sculptures—including four new works in their museum debut: Horse and Rider, Huck and Jim, Silver, and Girl on Pony—are on view only in Chicago.

On technical and formal levels, Ray has been redefining the possibilities of contemporary sculptural practice since the early 1980s. His recent pioneering use of solid, machined aluminum and stainless steel is entirely new to the history of art, its reflective qualities and fluid effects belying the tremendous weight of many of Ray’s life-size and over-life-size works. As the exhibition demonstrates, Ray’s latest sculptures evidence a verisimilitude that can range in a single work from painstakingly exact to a softer, more stylized rendering. The works, materially and conceptually dense, often emerge from a long process of study, experimentation, refinement, and meticulous execution. Ray himself has described his objects not as the product of an obsessive practice but rather as the manifestation of “discipline and persistence.” With works sometimes ten years in the making, Ray’s process can be likened to a river eroding or reshaping stones over time. 

This intensive working method, along with the sculptures’ highly technical creation and carefully controlled display, yields works that are timeless yet utterly contemporary. Throughout the exhibition, viewers can trace themes of boyhood, sleep, ghosts, self-portraiture, and myths of American popular culture, as well as recognize references to Classical statues and the revival of ancient techniques such as bas relief. Yet there are also many conceptual aspects to Ray’s work—space and time, physical and psychological presence—that form a matrix of migrating allusions and allegorical meaning. 

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A substantial catalogue accompanies the exhibition, with new critical texts by four authors who bring a diverse and multidisciplinary approach to the examination of the artist’s work. Contributors include co-curator James Rondeau, the Dittmer Chair and Curator, Department of Contemporary Art at the Art Institute; Richard Neer, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor of Art History and Cinema and Media Studies, University of Chicago; Anne Wagner, Class of 1936 Professor Emerita, University of California, Berkeley; and Michael Fried, Professor and J. R. Herbert Boone Chair in the Humanities, Johns Hopkins University. 

At the Art Institute of Chicago, lead funding for the exhibition is provided by Caryn and King Harris, The Harris Family Foundation.

The Lead Affiliate Sponsor is the Auxiliary Board of the Art Institute of Chicago.

The catalogue is made possible by Glenstone.

Some works in this exhibition may not be suitable for younger viewers.