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Chicago Style

The Second City has first-class art to see and buy, from museums to galleries to auction houses.

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962

Lee Bontecou, Untitled, 1962

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Despite soggy weather and a still-iffy economy, Chicago’s art world, at least, promises to be anything but cruel this month. One sign of quickening here, along with a spring flood of new museum and gallery shows, is anticipation for the 16th annual Merchandise Mart International Antiques Fair. This five-day event, which opens with a preview the evening of April 25 and runs through the 29th, brings to town more than 120 dealers from North America and Europe. The show is expected to attract upwards of 10,000 visitors.

Seasoned collectors and newbies alike can look forward to encountering exquisite examples of everything from antiquities to mid-century fine art. Categories include not only the usual paintings, furniture and jewelry—including the largest pink diamond in the world, recently acquired by M.S. Rau of New Orleans—but also folk art, clocks, pipes, rugs, glass, silver, walking sticks, books, religious artifacts and even early audio equipment.

Logan Koons, owner of AOSTA Furniture and Décor in Chicago’s upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood, will be exhibiting at the fair for the first time this year. “The reason we decided to do the 2013 show is that there’s been a huge resurgence in mid-century Danish modern,” Koons said, referring to the style of furniture that is AOSTA’s stock in trade. Koons, whose shop’s name means “vintage” in Gaelic, acknowledges feeling some effects of the recession but reports that business “has picked up in the past six or seven months.” Koons attributes this upswing to the improved real estate market here. “People seem to feel more okay with buying investment pieces now,” he says.

Koons is especially excited about the seven-foot long, futuristic-looking 1964 Clairtone Project G stereo he’s taking to the show. Priced at $30,000 now, the Brazilian rosewood stereo originally sold for about what it would have cost to buy that year’s fully loaded Cadillac. The famously clear-toned stereo became an instant favorite of musicians. Of the fewer than 400 that were made that first year, Frank Sinatra reportedly purchased nine. “The sound quality is fantastic,” Koons says.

Another exhibitor at the fair will be Hilligoss Galleries, which will be showing a series of giant (up to 12 feet wide) paintings of the Chicago cityscape by the contemporary Russian artist Nikolai Blokhin. Owner Tom Hilligoss says that Blokhin was inspired to paint 50 such cityscapes a year ago, when he saw one of his works “lit in a special way” at the gallery, which is located on Michigan Avenue. Hilligoss specializes in contemporary realists and impressionist and also has prints by historic and 20th-century artists.

To paraphrase, art fairs are short but art museums are long. Situated one block west of Lake Michigan and home to one of the country’s great art schools, The Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) has presided over the city since 1893. The museum continues to reinvent itself, most recently and dramatically with the addition of the elegant, airy, capacious Modern Wing, designed by Renzo Piano. The extra 264,000 square feet house the museum’s extensive and growing collection of contemporary art, including galleries dedicated to architecture and design. With its roomy galleries, sweeping views over Millennium Park and rooftop restaurant, the expansion makes the museum the second largest in the United States.

AIC always rewards a visit, whether it’s mapped and planned or serendipitous and meandering. Particular attractions include the newly, stunningly reinstalled antiquities wing and, up through May 12, “Picasso and Chicago.” The exhibition, of over 250 exceptional works by that artist, is drawn from collections throughout the city, including the museum’s. The show marks the 100th anniversary of the presentation of Picasso’s work at the Art Institute, the first at any U.S. museum. Favorites on display include The Old Guitarist, from Picasso’s blue period, and Red Armchair, a work of figurative Surrealism in a style that rhymes with Chicago’s own quirky art traditions. If that isn’t enough Picasso for you, right down the street looms the 50-foot-tall sculpture (untitled, by the way—Chicagoans just call it “The Picasso”) that has graced Daley Plaza since the artist gave it to the city in 1967.

“Destroy the Picture: Painting the Void,” a mile uptown at the Museum of Contemporary Art, completes the destruction of the picture plane that Picasso began with Cubism. The show of over 100 works from 1949–62 by a wide assortment of modern masters will be up through June 2. Also on view at the MCA this month is “Color Bind,” a selection of black and white images from the museum’s permanent collection that includes works by Barbara Kruger, Kara Walker, Raymond Pettibon, Ad Reinhardt and Marlene Dumas.

With hundreds of galleries ranging from destination-only suites tucked away in Michigan Avenue high-rises to student run pop-ups and apartment galleries operating out of kitchens and storefronts, Chicago boasts the largest concentration of contemporary art galleries in any American city outside New York.

Richard Gray Gallery, a Michigan Avenue stalwart located on the 25th floor of the John Hancock Center, was founded in 1963 and now maintains a space in New York, as well. Known for cultivating long-term relationships with both private collectors and museums, the gallery represents a star-studded roster of influential international artists that includes the likes of David Hockney, Alex Katz, Juame Plensa and Magdalena Abakanowicz.

“I sell a lot of figurative work that tells some kind of story,” says William Lieberman, owner of Zolla Lieberman Gallery, which is located in a sprawling corner space in the River North neighborhood. “Abstraction, too, but not as much.” Figuration—occasionally realistic, sometimes funky, often fantastic or poetic or a combination of all of the above—is a dominant thread in much of the art that’s been collected or made in Chicago over the past 60 years or so.

“Business is great,” Lieberman says. “I didn’t really experience a slump.” He’s referring to the ups and downs of the art market in the past few years, a slowdown that forced some Chicago galleries to close their doors. “People always have money to buy art,” Lieberman says. “It’s the 1 percent.”

The gallery’s longest running, and most lucrative, relationship began in 1976 when Lieberman’s mother, Roberta Lieberman, who co-founded the gallery that year, first met with sculptor Deborah Butterfield in Madison, Wis. Butterfield’s monumental horses, fabricated from cast bronze sticks and often standing eight feet tall, have been a mainstay of the gallery every since. Lieberman now represents Butterfield’s husband, sculptor John Buck, too, along with the artists’ two sons, Hunter Buck and Wilder Buck.

Although Butterfield divides her time between Montana and Hawaii, about half of Lieberman’s stable of artists have strong ties to Chicago. That includes both artists featured in the gallery this month. David Kroll paints realistic, large-scale still lifes of birds perched on fragile porcelain vessels that suggest a tension between nature and the manmade world. If these quiet, introspective works are like a concerto played by a string quartet, what comes next is more like opera: Phyllis Bramson’s boisterous, theatrical, lusciously sensual, half-comic, half-erotic narrative paintings about love, seduction and affection. That show opens April 19. Other artists represented by the gallery include Vera Klement, William Conger and Su-en Wong.

Meg Sheehy, co-owner of Zg Gallery, which specializes in emerging artists, says her gallery is doing fine now but describes a terrifying week in October of 2008 when they lost $25,000 in agreed-upon but unpaid sales. “Invoices were typed up,” she says; art had been delivered, in some cases. “Then the economy tanked.” The gallery didn’t go bust, Sheehy says, but only because “we knew the art business is boom or bust so we’d socked money away.” It was touch and go through March 2009; after that, things started to turn around and sales have been steady since. Sheehy attributes the turnaround in part to the sold-out 2009 show of paintings by Cleveland artist Amy Casey whose images of crashing and collapsing houses Sheehy describes as “a weird confluence of current affairs and content.” Zg is back on an even keel now. What sells best for them are “accessible paintings that have an experiential aspect,” Sheehy says, like Steve Hough’s color shift works on sculpted Plexiglas. Coming up in May is a one-woman show of new work by Amy Casey.

Douglas Dawson is in some ways the opposite of most galleries in Chicago. Instead of dealing in contemporary American or European art, the gallery exhibits and sells both contemporary and ancient tribal art from Africa, Asia and the Americas. Noteworthy exhibits include a recent show of Japanese textiles and the upcoming “Terra Cotta: Twenty Years Exhibiting African Ceramics.” The show marks the 20th anniversary of the gallery’s first African ceramics show and will include about 30 examples of rare, historic traditional vessels and sculpture from across the continent. Most of the pieces were made between the late 19th century and World War II.

Another gallery that specializes in ethnographic works is Primitive, located in the West Loop area, right near the Merchandise Mart. The museum-like space contains a huge inventory, 27,000 strong, that includes Tibetan lingams and thangka paintings, Himalayan furniture, African baskets and miniature bronzes, Chinese Cultural Revolution propaganda objects and Indonesian textiles, to name just a few. Primitive has a Tibetan woodcarver on staff supervising a workshop that does restoring and also custom carving of architectural elements for collectors’ homes, says owner Glen Joffe.

Good galleries in Chicago are far too numerous to list comprehensively here, but a few more, in no particular order, include Rhona Hoffman, Donald Young, Carrie Secrist, Kavi Gupta, Linda Warren, Stephen Daiter, Catherine Edelman, Thomas McCormick, Roy Boyd, Carl Hammer, threewalls, Tony Wight, Corbett and Dempsey and the venerable Printworks, which was established in 1980. Specializing in works on paper, Printworks features prints and drawings by a number of Chicago artists including novelist Audrey Niffenegger, who was a visual artist long before she wrote The Time Traveler’s Wife.

A number of auction houses operate out of Chicago, too. Richard Wright opened Wright in 2000, specializing in high-end midcentury furniture and contemporary fine art. This month’s auction includes works by Donald Judd, Philip Pearlstein and Roy Lichtenstein. Next month’s Wright is offering Scandinavian design.

Leslie Hindman Auctioneers, the highest-profile auction house in the Midwest, opened in 1982, sold to Sotheby’s in 1997 and reopened in 2003. Hindman handles a wide range of objects and fine art, including but not limited to rare books and manuscripts, furniture, jewelry, timepieces, vintage couture clothing and accessories. At a recent Hindman auction a Judith Leiber crystal peacock minaudiere sold for $4,000. (For the less than fashion-fluent, a minaudiere is a very small purse.) This month’s vintage couture and accessories auction is scheduled for April 17.

This article originally appeared in Art & Antiques Magazine as “Chicago Style”

By Margaret Hawkins

Author: Art & Antiques Magazine | Publish Date: April 2013

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