Innovative Modern Wing gives cutting edge art fitting home

The Art Institute’s new Modern Wing embodies the past, present, and future of Chicago’s artistic and architectural culture.

By Kate Shepherd

The wait is finally over. Chicagoans have watched the Art Institute’s Modern Wing slowly take shape for the past four years, with construction cluttering Columbus Drive and the strange, serpentine Nichols Bridgeway slowly creeping over Monroe Street. On May 16, visitors can finally walk over that bridgeway and into the Modern Wing’s west pavilion, where they will find what might be the most sophisticated integration of art and architecture in Chicago.

At 264,000 square feet, the new wing is the largest addition to the museum since it opened in 1893. The wing increases the Art Institute’s space by one-third, making it the second-largest museum in the United States. The Art Institute may still be smaller in square footage than other famous museums, but the new wing’s architecture and cutting-edge collection are second to none. Designed by renowned modern architect Renzo Piano, famous for the Centre Pompidou in Paris, the new addition is also the greenest part of the Art Institute. The structure consumes only half of the energy the old Art Institute used, and the new museum gardens and plantings around the wing increase the green space on the city block by 21,075 feet.

Three stories high, the Modern Wing boasts floor-to-ceiling windows, making it resemble a modern urban loft. Third-floor skylights allow natural light to stream into the galleries, while the glass-and-steel curtain wall on the wing’s north side offers vistas of Millennium Park and Michigan Avenue skyscrapers. The views of the city’s architecture provide a dramatic foil to the art on display, particularly to contemporary sculpture pieces. At the members-only preview this week, people stopped and snapped pictures of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s 1993 “Untitled (Strange Music),” a sculpture made of light bulbs that is ingeniously placed in front of a second-floor window facing Millennium Park.

The wing also features a café, a fine dining restaurant called Terzo Piano helmed by James Beard award-winning chef Tony Mantuano, and a huge education center. Perhaps the most striking architectural feature is the new Nichols Bridgeway, which begins at the Pritzker Pavilion’s Great Lawn, rises several feet over the bustling Monroe Street, and connects to the west side of the wing. The 620-foot walkway represents an effort by the museum to strengthen its connection to the surrounding city.

But in the end, what matters most is the art. The wing provides a much better showcase than the old galleries for the Art Institute’s extensive collection of Western art from 1900 to the present day. Before the addition, the museum’s collection of contemporary art was on a rotating display in a small, difficult-to-find gallery behind the Asian art. Works by modern artists such as Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque, and Henri Matisse were housed in galleries adjacent to the museum’s famed Impressionist collection, making them easy to overlook. Now these works and other modern pieces finally get the appreciation they deserve. In addition, the 64,000 square feet of extra gallery space afforded by the new wing allows the museum to put up works that have not been regularly on display before. There are also many new acquisitions that will be viewed for the first time, including two Warhol self-portraits from 1966.

The museum’s Departments of Photography, Architecture and Design, and Contemporary Art are kicking off the Modern Wing’s opening with five exhibitions of contemporary art and architecture in a wide range of media. These works, which include pieces by artists on the cutting edge, seem more appropriate for the Museum of Contemporary Art than the relatively conservative Art Institute. Highlights include video installations by Steve McQueen (director of the recent Cannes smash, Hunger) and Bruce Nauman. McQueen’s fascinating Girls, Tricky portrays the famous London and New York-based “trip-hop” musician Tricky as he rehearses in his darkened studio.

The Architecture and Design gallery on the second floor is extensive, filled with rare architectural drawings and models by giants of modern design like Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Le Corbusier, Louis Sullivan, and Aldo Rossi. Architectural photographer Judith Turner’s series of photographs of the Modern Wing should not be missed.

The inaugural exhibition of the wing’s Abbot Galleries for Special Exhibitions is a sampling of the extraordinary work of Cy Twombly. Cy Twombly: The Natural World, Selected Works 2000-2007 features over 30 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper and photographs, most of which are being displayed in a museum for the first time. Twombly’s improvisational style and fearless experimentation make him the perfect artist to open the new wing—he is even scheduled to make an appearance this weekend. The exhibit provides a great opportunity to compare the elusive artist’s recent work to his earlier paintings in the museum’s permanent collection, The First Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961 and The Second Part of the Return from Parnassus, 1961.

In addition, the Art Institute is launching a week-long program of events to celebrate the new wing’s opening. From May 16 to May 22, the entire museum will be free to the public. Highlights of the upcoming celebrations include a May 16 Gypsy jazz and African dance concert on Monroe Street, and performances by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago inside the new wing. Daily gallery talks will be given all through next week.

Upon entering the Modern Wing for the first time, it is obvious why Chicago 2016 held its closing gala for the International Olympic Committee there. The new wing embodies the past, present, and future of Chicago’s artistic and architectural culture.