Wood on Steel and Glass


    James Wood directed the Art Institute of Chicago from 1980 to 2004. During his tenure, in 1999, the Art Institute initiated the Modern Wing project with architect Renzo Piano. Wood was there for the first five years of planning.

    I asked James Wood what he thinks of the Modern Wing now that it's open. He was gracious, as always, and tried to direct the attention to the current leadership of the Art Institute. James Wood is currently President and CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust in Los Angeles. We spoke on a lovely sun-drenched terrace at the Getty Center where James Wood told me he often returned to Chicago to watch the Modern Wing rise.
    Edward Lifson: So now that you’ve finally seen it open and with visitors, does it meet your great expectations?

    James Wood: Well, I had a very strong image in my mind of what it could and should be. But to see it teeming with people, absolutely alive, and with the collections installed, it really went beyond my very expansive expectations!

    Two marvelous things have happened. First of all these collections when you bring them together, of 20th century material, owned by Chicago- which are one of the great, great treasures of the world- brought from different parts of the earlier buildings into one space, you suddenly had that feeling of more than critical mass.

    I mean after the Museum of Modern Art it is one of the great, great experiences of 20th century art anywhere!

    The other revelation of course is seeing it in Renzo's light.


    Modern Wing Renzo Piano Chicago Art Institute Millennium Park

    The curators have done a marvelous job of using that space because remember most of the walls are the choice of the curator; there are very few bearing walls in those two pavilions. Renzo gave them a very flexible space. And they've really tailored the scale I think wonderfully to the objects.

    I mean, take the most obvious example, the extraordinary Matisse bathers, which is one of the finest paintings in any museum in the world.


    Modern Wing Renzo Piano Chicago Art Institute Millennium Park

    It had undergone in the last year a major cleaning- not restoration, the painting is in good condition- but cleaning, which has just brought out a whole level of color and subtlety that I must say we had never seen before; and that combined with the overhead natural light, the painting, I mean I wish Matisse was here to see it!

    Lifson: What would Matisse make of Millennium Park! How do those garden views affect the experience of visiting the Art Institute? You can look at Matisse's bathers, by the water, with vegetation, and move just a little bit to look out through windows at water and gardens in Millennium Park.

    Wood: I mean it's because of Millennium Park ultimately that this is why the new wing, the Modern Wing was built where it is. You remember we began a decade ago with thoughts of a wing that might span the train tracks east of the original building, went through several iterations, and then as Millennium Park began to develop it become clearer and clearer that the second entrance of the Art Institute should embrace this new front yard of the city.


    Modern Wing Renzo Piano Chicago Art Institute Millennium Park
    And what is so extraordinary now after, what has it been- three or four years of growth of the gardens, Frank Gehry's Pritzker building/sculpture is just settling in wonderfully with its plantings around it, and Renzo's building lines up within a centimeter of the axis of the gardens and the Gehry.

    Modern Wing Renzo Piano Chicago Art Institute Millennium Park

    Modern Wing Renzo Piano Chicago Art Institute Millennium Park

    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    So you have a remarkable interior space for art, but then also a connection with the city, and that wonderful bridge.


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    You know (current director) Jim Cuno has just taken this design and then gone beyond what I thought was possible. The bridge physically connects, but then equally important it visually connects.

    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    And Renzo from the outset was thinking of this wing as part of a larger institution but also as part of an urban plan.




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    It is incredibly gratifying to see how all of that has really gone beyond what any of us could have dreamt of; it's damn near perfect!

    Lifson: Well then tell me, how did you get such a better building from Renzo Piano than Los Angeles got with the Broad Wing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art?


    BCAM - The Broad Contemporary Art Museum
    at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art

    Renzo Piano Building Workshop, 2008


    Wood: (Pause.) It took us a long time! This is ten years from the first meeting I had with Renzo, until the opening. The clients make the difference. There were many people here beyond me. (He names them.) I think the important thing for the client , particularly with a museum, is to know that they're not the architect. But the architect is not the curator or the director.

    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    The most important thing for us to do, I felt, was to keep articulating the needs of the collection and the needs as we saw it of the public and what we wanted to provide to the public. Renzo was very sensitive to that. At the same time, he's an architect first, and an interested "enjoyer of art" second.


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    So our role as client was to create a good strong confrontation- any great building is compromises- and I think over time, I think at the end of the day the compromises aren't apparent! They're not visible to the user.

    Lifson: Well then you have to tell me what they are!

    I mean compromises such as: how much space do you give to architectural expression because there's this constant desire to get as much gallery space as possible. But at the same time, Renzo is a great creator of public spaces.


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    He talked about the “profane” and the “sacred.” The “sacred” is where we look at the art, the “profane” is where these other things happen. We were creating a north/south axis that would meet the east/west axis of this huge institution. And that axis took space, it took money, it took architectural commitment. I think he has really given us what we wanted.

    It's going to be hard to decide now which of the two entrances to the Art Institute is- not the grandest- because this isn't about sheer scale, but which is the more seductive, and just satisfying, as a way to enter a building where you're going to experience art. One is absolutely 19th century,


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    and the other is absolutely 21st century!


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    And the fact that you got both in the same building, to me is very nice. Most major older, Beaux-Arts museums, most large earlier museums when they had to or wanted to add a new wing or a major new structure, tended to come up with a secondary entrance or they overshadowed the original entrance. The National Gallery in Washington would be an exception to that- to some degree. In this case you have two new equals, and that was very much intended. The new building was not intended to overshadow the old building; old building wasn't supposed to in any way prevent having the new building from having its own life and importance in the city.

    Lifson: I thought the grand old Michigan Avenue entrance– beloved if not “sacred” itself- to generations of Chicagoans - was to remain the principal entrance.

    Wood: The principle entrance is really going to be the entrance that most people use. My guess is that it's probably going to be something like 60/40 with more people using the Michigan Avenue entrance, because public transportation goes there. They're both wonderful entrances, the bottom line here is if you come to the Art Institute, come in one, enjoy yourself, go out and come back in again!

    Lifson: Would you agree the Griffin Court entrance, the new one, is a slightly more commercial entrance? The scale is larger, it's not quite as intimate.


    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park
    Wood: This is a good question. I would not use the word "commercial." Surely, there is a shop there. But actually there’s a shop to the right as you come in either entrance, old or new. But in both cases, the shop is a choice, it's not a requirement.
    The fact is that Griffin Court creates an uninterrupted axis all the way to the core of the whole institution, as opposed to the Michigan Avenue entrance where you come in and you're confronted by the staircase.

    You can go around the staircase and I think given the layout of the Michigan Avenue building, that's perfect. You walk in, and you are drawn up with a strong psychological pull to the day lit European paintings galleries.

    In Renzo's building you're drawn in to Griffin Court and then you have a choice, to the left-- elevator, or you take a staircase- equally exciting- but it doesn't block you, it's an option.

    Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    Lifson: The choice and that asymmetry are more modern.

    Some people say that Griffin Court is a lot of wasted space and it's a shame there's not art on those walls.

    Wood: Well first, I wouldn't call it "wasted space" because it's functional. I mean for the size of the wing, and the size of the institute, the dimensions of that space, to me are not overpowering, and the desire was to keep that human scale. Whether over time they’ll decide to introduce more art into the space, that's a completely open question. I think they're wise to take it a little slowly, you know, see how people function in the space, see what art may.... I'm sure over time some art will find its way into the space, and I think it will work nicely. There's a lot of light, so you have to be sure they're things that can deal with the light.

    I have a friend who bought a house and they gave two parties before they bought any furniture. Just to see where people went and how they used the space!

    Lifson: What do you think of the Ellsworth Kelly?


    Ellsworth Kelly, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium ParkEllsworth Kelly’s White Curve (2009).
    In the new Pritzker Garden, landscaped by Gustafson Guthrie Nichol Ltd.
    White Curve (2009) is Kelly's largest work to date and his first collaboration with Renzo Piano.
    White Curve was commissioned in honor of James Wood.



    Wood: Oh, well, Ellsworth is one of my favorite artists, he's a remarkable human being, I've had the good fortune to know him for years. I'm just so- I can't say surprised because he does it... but he has reinvented himself again! And not just the size. I mean when they told me there was going to be a Kelly on that wall I thought, "My god, this is an immense wall..." And Ellsworth scaled it absolutely perfectly. It floats.

    But what he's done in that piece that I had never seen before-- and I don't believe he's done it before is-- he's developed a whole new surface. It is a relief sculpture, but it's a surface that um, it reminds me of a marvelous piece of Japanese lacquer. You know where you get a reflection, but a reflection that goes deep into the lacquer. It's not a mirror image, and yet it's also not opaque, or absolutely flat. So it picks up Renzo's building, it plays back….


    Ellsworth Kelly, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    And of course picking the color white- is perfect! You know a novice probably would have said- "good place for green or red…." But white! Once you see it, you know it had to be white. That's Ellsworth, he knows.


    Ellsworth Kelly, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    Lifson: Were you surprised by the dedication?

    Wood: I was incredibly moved. I-I-I, frankly I-I-I I still am. Yes surprised.... To be honest with you, I can't imagine anything that would make me happier and prouder,

    Lifson: Your voice is breaking...

    Wood: (Collects himself) Ah well, such a thing doesn't happen very often, in fact it's never happened before! (Clears throat.)

    Lifson: You talked about the compromises a bit. I wish that on the third floor, looking east, you had pulled the solid wall in enough to make a passageway, and had glass for views of the lake and the park. I would have given up a little gallery space for that.





    Architecture, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    Wood: You know that was considered. At different times, as the wing was taking shape, we all agreed we did not want to have a box with almost no views out of it. That in effect is what the Beaux-Arts building is. The Michigan Avenue building is a temple in the park- you enter the temple and you don't see out of it. This from the beginning, we wanted to have a much more transparent relationship with the city.


    Architecture, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    Glass on the east was considered; but ultimately it was thought, let's have almost a domestic view to the south, but very shielded because that's where the strong light is; a view down to the garden.


    Architecture, Modern Wing, Renzo Piano, Art Institute of Chicago, Millennium Park

    You do get a few views there where you get a bit of lake. Then we just absolutely open up and embrace Millennium Park to the north. But don't give up gallery space and don't start piercing the east wall. That's compromise. I think it was the right decision to be absolutely exuberant looking north and really maximize that glazed wall, and not open it up to the east.

    Lifson: In some ways the bridge looks like an afterthought.



    It's not integrated like Piano's escalators in Los Angeles and at the Pompidou Center in Paris.

    Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1976.
    Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers


    Wood: I don't want to sound defensive, but given my emotional commitment to this building it's hard not to! It's not an afterthought, because Renzo from the earliest sketches was thinking about a physical connection. For me - "afterthought" - no; to me it is a very bold thing. Because most bridges, you think of sort of being a reverse catenary-- you start at a level, you go across, and at the other side of what you're crossing, you come in at the same level. This doesn't do that. This is sort of like a samurai sword that is halfway out of the sheath.



    You know it angles down! And it took me a little while to sort of grasp that; but visually in the end, it's far more dynamic than I think a static, more traditional bridge.

    It comes along the side of the building, it does not go into the building, and I think it animates the facade. What I love is when you're in those galleries and in the building looking north and then you look slightly to the west, suddenly you've got this incredible sculptural... blade. It's a very dynamic thing to see.




    So I mean, in its way, in a totally different way, it's a bit like Gehry's bridge, which is a kind of a folly in one sense, you know.


    Frank Gehry's bridge in Millennium Park


    It's sort of the bridge to nowhere, but it's a wonderful thing, it animates the park.


    Renzo's bridge has a definite function, it absolutely connects park and museum. But it's no standard bridge. It has a deep sculptural and architectural justification.




    Lifson: Any other surprises for you when the wing opened?

    Wood: The new Architecture and Design galleries. That collection is growing quickly and beautifully.



    Lifson: Yes, and it’s less locally focused. Thank you very much James Wood.

    James Wood: Thank you, and good to see you. See you next in Chicago?

    Me: I would like that.

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    I review the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago here.

    I've blogged a lot about the Modern Wing, here are the posts. Scroll, scroll, scroll.

    Nearly all the photographs ©2009 Hello Beautiful!

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