The University of Illinois began building a collection of postwar art, including many abstract paintings, before Krannert Art Museum was built, and those works have become a notable part of the art museum’s holdings. They now have a long-term home in the recently renovated Rosann Gelvin Noel gallery in “Art Since 1948.” This new installation is the first time in more than a decade that the museum has dedicated a gallery to its modern and contemporary collection.
“There are amazing strengths in the Krannert Art Museum collection that haven’t regularly been on view, and we have a really busy exhibition calendar,” said KAM director Jon Seydl. “To feature these holdings more frequently, we are starting to balance longer-term collection installations with our temporary special exhibitions. The modern and contemporary collection is our most legendary collection, so it seemed obvious to start there and use ‘Art Since 1948’ to show the diversity of voices this art and these artists represent.”
“Art Since 1948” features paintings, sculpture, photography and works on paper from KAM’s collection, as well as several significant loans. The exhibition opened Aug. 29, and the museum will hold a public reception for it and other new exhibitions on Sept. 26.
The updated gallery features a design by Julia Di Castri, including a pair of L-shaped walls that provide more space for display and create spatially dynamic ways for visitors to engage with the art they see. “There are surprises around every corner,” Seydl said.
“One of the challenges of any modern and contemporary collection is you have some real differences in scale – huge works of art, plus many things that are much smaller. Our collection is so strong in works on paper, which need to be shown with lower light levels, so the regular rotations these more delicate works require will lead to more nuanced displays of the collection,” Seydl said.
Amy L. Powell, the curator of modern and contemporary art for the museum, organized the installation, which begins with works collected from the university’s first Contemporary American Painting exhibition in 1948. While the art is arranged with a sense of chronology, works are also grouped in several themes. Paintings by surrealist painters Roberto Matta, Yves Tanguy and Edna Reindel, among others, are included in KAM’s collection of postwar surrealism and abstraction.
A theme called “Signs of the Times” features pop art and electronic or light art from the 1960s and 1970s, as well as artwork that addresses issues such as civil rights. It considers how artists respond to the time period in which they are working and includes photographs by U. of I. alumna and documentary photographer Doris Derby and a light sculpture by Earl Rieback.
The installation features Louise Fishman’s “Blonde Ambition,” a large-scale abstract painting that KAM acquired in 2018, as well as paintings by Leon Golub, Purvis Young, William T. Wiley and Barbara Rossi.
Works of art looking at questions of memory, history, identity and land use includes a short film on loan from artists and filmmakers Sasha Wortzel and Tourmaline. “Lost in the Music” imagines the afternoon of black transgender activist Marsha P. Johnson on the day of the Stonewall riots in 1969. The 4 1/2-minute film is an excerpt from a 17-minute film called “Happy Birthday, Marsha.” It uses archival footage of Johnson as well as a cast of performers depicting the scene at Stonewall.
“The film helps us think about gender, racial and sexual identity as they relate to how we tell history and how we remember trans activists and Stonewall,” Powell said. “The work has such an emotional, powerful effect as a site of resistance, mourning and imagination. It reminds us too that the Stonewall riots were a protest by trans people of color against police brutality.”
The exhibition also features “Beyond the Chief,” a work consisting of commercial signs by Native American conceptual artist Edgar Heap of Birds that were displayed on campus in 2009. Each sign has the words “Fighting Illini” printed in reverse, which disrupts usual ways of seeing and belonging. Each features the name of a Native nation that once lived in the area. The American Indian Studies program acquired the signs and is lending them to KAM for this exhibition.
“Edgar Heap of Birds uses language to mark and question place and land use as it relates to Native history,” Powell said. “When his work was installed on campus in a commission organized by Robert Warrior and John McKinn, the public perception was that these works were public signages, which they were, but they were also contemporary artworks. By having them in a gallery, I’m looking forward to the works performing that dual function.”
Objects featuring messages of empowerment include Nick Cave’s “Soundsuit,” on loan from the Thoma Art Foundation in Chicago. Cave, an African American fiber artist and sculptor based in Chicago, creates sculptural costumes that are a kind of armor or second skin.
Cave made his first soundsuit in response to the 1992 assault on Rodney King by the Los Angeles police. He has since created more than 500. They are inspired by ancient American images and Yoruba masquerades, and are extravagantly ornamented with textiles, buttons, beads, wire, sequins, feathers and found objects. While Cave often performs in the soundsuits, he also presents them as static sculptures.
A final section of the installation highlights photography and works on paper, including photographs from pioneering gay artist Hal Fischer’s “Boy-Friends” portfolio. Seydl said it is particularly important to show the museum’s collection of works on paper.
“In the long history of KAM’s collection, it was very conventional in the sense that the university and museum collected a preponderance of white male artists. To make that narrative more inclusive and reflect other ideas we’re now thinking about at KAM, the museum has collected important works by women artists, artists of color and LGBTQ+ artists,” he said. “Many of these works are on paper, so their presence helps us to tell a bigger story.”
“Art Since 1948” focuses on the museum’s collection, but it includes many new acquisitions “so even people who know the collection will be surprised,” Seydl said.