On Saturday, February 25, Block Museum Student Associates were invited to take part in the Art Institute’s annual University Partner Fest, a daylong even where students from the museum’s partner institutions are invited to explore the galleries, meet their peers, and learn from faculty and museum professionals across institutions. As part of the Fest student participants were given the opportunity to choose from the thousands of objects on view at the Art Institute to give a public art talk within the museum.
The Block’s own Nozizwe Msipa (Communication Studies ’24) and Bengi Rwabuhemba (Cultural Anthropology, Global Health ’23) share their encounters.
Nozizwe Msipa on Archibald Motley Jr’s Nightlife
Nozizwe Msipa on Archibald Motley Jr’s Nightlife
The day started off with an introduction from Madeleine Shearer, the Associate Director of Philanthropy at the Art Institute. We went over tips and best practices to keep in mind while leading an art talk, such as coming in with an open mind, being ready for discussion, and how to best handle talking with a large group of people. This was especially useful for my object; Nightlife by Archibald Motley Jr. A famous work in its own right, it is also currently on display on the other side of American Gothic by Frank Wood and across from Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, two of the most recognizable paintings in the museum’s collection. This meant the gallery I was based in would be quite busy throughout the day.
I was initially drawn to Nightlife because of its sense of movement. Though a painting cannot actually move, the way the figures flow as well as the perspective allows the viewer to feel the energy and music of the scene, set in a jazz club in the south side of Chicago. This idea of movement and liveness is what I chose to base most of my discussions on. Though the sign they gave us said, ‘Ask ME’, if a visitor chose to engage in conversation with me I often turned a question on them, asking what they saw and felt, even imagine hearing when looking at Nightlife. The hour I was stationed next to the painting whizzed by faster than I could have imagined, I was delighted by the number of visitors who were eager to discuss what they saw in the painting and how it felt for them. A compelling recurring idea that came from conversations with visitors was the idea of documentation- though Nightlife is a painting and therefore subjective to the painter’s view, the work still stands as the careful documentation of how this African-American community lived in 1940s Chicago. It would be compelling to see this painting serve as an entrance point to discussions on the Chicago Black Renaissance, an artistic and literary movement that was occurring at the same time. Nightlife stands as both an object created during this time and a depiction of other artistic pursuits- jazz music- that the Chicago Black Renaissance is famous for.
Another key part of the Partner Fest I would be remiss not to highlight was the opportunity to meet and talk to other University students from across Chicagoland. A step out of the Northwestern bubble was extremely revitalizing, and I made sure to listen to some discussion led by newly made friends from the University of Chicago and the School of the Art Institute. Time spent talking to peers interested in art and the museum space’s potential that came from different perspectives was priceless.
Bengi Rwabuhemba on
David Hockney’s American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)
Bengi Rwabuhemba on David Hockney’s American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman)
It is certainly not every day that one has the opportunity to present at the Art Institute of Chicago. Alongside Nozizwe Msipa, I was chosen to represent Northwestern and the Block Museum at this year’s University Partner Fest where thirty students across Illinois led hourlong art talks based on artworks in the museum’s permanent collection which houses nearly 300,000 works of art. It was truly a privilege to be given the latitude to choose anything, anything, on view from this renowned collection and I recall feeling overwhelmed and indecisive about where to even begin. American Collectors (Fred and Marcia Weisman) (1968) by David Hockney found me after days of scouring the Art Institute’s website and failing to decide. Exuding Hockney’s technical skill and attention to detail, there was, and still is, something unsettling about this painting that I wanted to sit with longer.
Hockney is a celebrated British artist whose creative practice extends beyond painting to include photography, printmaking, as well as set design. At the vanguard of the 1950s pop art movement, Hockney critiqued traditional fine art as restrictive and inaccessible to the everyday person. Therefore, he turned his attention to representing popular culture with the vibrancy and intensity of color symbolic of the movement. In 1964, he emigrated to Los Angeles where he formally established his career as an artist. Hockney was particularly interested in visually depicting the social and cultural landscape of southern California which enchanted him for its bright weather and relative liberalism, particularly after growing up in post-war Britain. Most of his paintings of Los Angeles depict radiant scenery teeming with bountiful greens, opulent pinks, and summery oranges, as well as representations of the quotidian where he critically explores themes such as race, class, and gender.
In this 84 by 120 inch painting, Hockney invites us into the sculpture garden of the esteemed American collectors, Fred and Marcia Weisman whom he met while in LA. The Weismans played an important role in cultivating a modern art scene in California following WWII by founding museums (e.g. the Museum of Contemporary Art), hosting lectures in their home, and fostering a community of dedicated art collectors. After having met Hockney, Marcia commissioned him to paint a portrait of her and Fred in their Beverly Hills home. This painting is what Hockney produced.
In the spirit of shared meaning-making and close looking I have learned while working at The Block, I enjoyed decoding the many layers of this painting alongside members of the public who stopped by to engage with me. Like many of the student representatives, I was nervous about how to initiate these conversations, recognizing that visitors tend to look at art for less than two seconds before moving on. However, I drew inspiration from the two other representatives in my gallery who introduced me to their artworks and practiced with me before people started shuffling through the museum. It was a wonderful experience to connect with budding museum educators, curators, and artists who are as passionate about art as I am.
The throughline of my conversations with viewers of American Collectors was the evident tension between the real and the performative that Hockney gestures to in this painting. Inviting viewers closer to the artwork, we observed the ways that Hockney troubles the veneer of LA perfection emanating from the artwork. I had viewers count how many sections of the painting were left deliberately unfinished or rushed by Hockney. Some pointed out the leaves in the pot plant that had not been shaded in while others noticed the streaks of blue in Marcia’s dress, and nearly everyone highlighted the paint dripping from Fred’s clenched fist. One person drew my attention to the nearly imperceptible slanting of the pavement as yet another testament against the façade, something I had not noticed before. This was a really fun way to have people engage closely with the artwork and think more deeply about the artificiality of the setting.
Despite the air of flawless affluence in the artwork, most viewers described the representation of Fred and Marcia as unflattering and awkward, contrasting their perceptions of a married couple. I also found that their stiff and separated bodies mirrored the sculptures that surrounded them such that they become objects of the gaze. Another viewer agreed, and added that she thought that the sculpture of the seated figure, a bronze work by Henry Moore, was a person “watching” them. Similarly, the symbolic Haida totem pole, carved by Indigenous communities of the Pacific Northwest, turns to ‘watch’ the couple too as it stands displaced in their sculpture garden – an aspect many viewers highlighted. I asked viewers to consider the subversiveness of Hockney’s decision to turn the gaze onto the Wiesman’s – art collectors no less – and the possibility it gives us to critically examine the politics of othering and spectacle that have historically governed museums. Their insights made for really fruitful discussions which everyone visibly enjoyed. I was pleasantly surprised when a young student who’d really engaged in my talk found me afterwards to thank me for the discussion and tell me how it had inspired in her more thoughts about our own complicated positionality as spectators within museums.
It was a thrilling experience to participate in the University Partner Fest and put what I have learned as a Block student associate into practice in a larger setting. I was reminded of how museums can be generative sites of dialogue, and the potential for art to inspire critical thinking and understanding. I continue to be grateful for the opportunity to represent Northwestern and The Block museum at this wonderful event.