Modern Wing opens up Chicago’s Art Institute

Light, bright and definitely pricey — the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is a triumph for Architect Renzo Piano.

Light, bright and definitely pricey — the Modern Wing at the Art Institute of Chicago is a triumph for Architect Renzo Piano.

In a single stroke, the 264,000-square-foot wing turns Chicago’s art museum into the nation’s second-largest and opens up the previously windowless fortress of culture to the sky and the city. And, luckily, the wing was funded during the bull market of the 1990s. Its $300 million price tag, plus $110 million for related improvements and upkeep, would be almost unthinkable in today’s economy. "This is the largest expansion and addition in the Art Institute’s history," said museum president and director James Cuno, who noted that many of the works installed in the new galleries had been cleaned and reframed so visitors can see them in a fresh context. The new wing opens Saturday. The influx of light — cool, neutral light from the north — comes through the ingenious design by Piano, who was already famous for his museum work in Paris, Switzerland, Houston and Los Angeles. The Pritzker Prize-winner covered the wing with a "flying carpet" of aluminum blades, calibrated for Chicago’s latitude, that allows light only from the north to come through the vast skylights forming the wing’s third-floor ceiling. That floor houses the core of the museum’s modern collection — European works from 1900 to 1950. Increasing the gallery space for those artists allows their works to be displayed chronologically, an approach loved by Cuno, who (in his favorite word) aspires to give the museum "encyclopedic" scope. The new space and arrangement allows the visitor to see the sometimes bewildering array of 20th century artistic schools in their historical context and gain some clue to their interrelations. Since the third-floor galleries begin and end with works by Pablo Picasso, they can show most of the stylistic twists and turns that protean figure took in his long career. They also demonstrate the steady march toward increasing abstraction by such artists as Piet Mondrian and Constantin Brancusi. The new galleries show off the unexpected richness of the Art Institute’s surrealist collection by permitting the display of a number of works once kept in storage.

Ideally, Piano’s "flying carpet," combined with the floor-to-ceiling windows facing northward onto Monroe Street, should bathe most of the third-floor works in the same north light used in the painters’ studios and provide the truest of colors. Cuno also has estimated that the light from outside should reduce the electrical consumption of the new wing to half that of the largely windowless main building. Light is obviously essential for the creation of art, but in too great an intensity it can be destructive to an artwork, particularly a painting. That is why only indirect light from the north is admitted, and why the floor plan of the galleries is so carefully laid out. The rooms closest to the windows contain light-resistant sculpture and ceramic works, while rooms of paintings are situated away from the windows. And one special interior gallery, without skylights, uses only dim artificial lights to display the most fragile of works; those on paper and multimedia assemblages such as the intricate boxes of Joseph Cornell. In order not to compromise the color of the paintings, all walls in the new wing are white, but Piano guards his spaces against sterility by adding the muted warmth of white oak flooring throughout.


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