The Art Institute’s ‘Go’ is an Invigorating Exploration of the 20th Century in Motion

Go is the second installation in “The Modern Series,” a group of exhibitions focusing on modern art in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago. Coming a year after Shatter Rupture Break, which explored the beginnings of modernism through the fragmentation, disruption, and disconnections wrought by artists at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th, the emphasis is now on speed. Not only does Go pick up where the first installation left off; it revs its engines and zooms away.

Installation shot of 'Go'
Installation shot of ‘Go’

Both changes in technology and an increasingly faster pace of life at the turn of the 20th century allowed for new ways of capturing and expressing people, animals, and objects in motion. Highlighting works from the collection, plus a few outside loans, Go insightfully incorporates a range of media in evocative, often profound pairings or groupings of works from the early 20th century through the present day. There’s something for everyone here: painting, photography, works on paper, decorative arts, textiles, film, sound, and sculpture are all included.

Ellsworth Kelly, Train Landscape, 1953, collection of the artist
Ellsworth Kelly, ‘Train Landscape,’ 1953

The exhibition provokes from the beginning, featuring a quote not by an artist but from advertising. A 1955 Studebaker slogan travels along the entry wall in shiny chrome-colored letters: “Get behind the wheel, give the speedster the gas, and thrill to the feel of its spectacular go…” The next room offers three works made between 1930 and 1955 that speak to the artistic translation of motion. Evanston-born filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker’s first documentary, Daybreak Express, set to Duke Ellington’s tune of the same name, presents a dizzying and increasingly exuberant train ride along New York City’s now-demolished Third Avenue elevated track, invoking early modern pioneers of experimental film like Man Ray and Len Lye with a layered, kaleidoscopic ending of color, text, and image. Germaine Krull’s eight photographs taken during a car trip between Paris and the south of France in 1930 show her experimenting with angles and subject matter to display the effects of being in a speeding vehicle–a view over the blurred windshield, or down onto rough tire tracks carved through the muddy side of the road.

On the opposite wall, twelve of Marcel Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, circular lithographs printed with geometric optical illusions, spin silently on small black turntables made to look like film projectors. Duchamp created sets of these double-sided discs in 1935 for an industrial fair; though they seem like records, they play a double trick on the viewer as optical illusions. A second set of discs were printed in 1953, and the AIC’s set is from this second run. Impressive as a group, their hypnotic, rotating images would provide a soothing relief to Pennebaker’s film, if they were not also created to purposely disorient the viewer.

Marcel Duchamp, ’12 Rotoreliefs,’ 1953

The exhibition design enhances the theme, with the dark gray walls of the first room opening to bright white in the second room; moving in between the two spaces feels like traveling through a dark tunnel into daylight. In the second section, works from the collection, plus a few loans, are broken up into pairs and groups by six staggered, parallelogram-shaped floating walls which pull the eye toward a printed tablecloth by Sonia Delaunay featuring a black, green, and red circle reminiscent of a target. Consistent with the theme of motion in art, some of the usual suspects are present here: a gorgeous 1887 Eadweard Muybridge collotype of a bird in flight; a friendly, autumnal Jackson Pollock; and just the right amount of Art Deco and midcentury chrome, with Oskar Schlemmer’s bronze and nickel Abstract Figure and a MR 20 Armchair by Mies van der Rohe.

The installation even encourages movement, as one shifts back and forth between the floating walls and the perimeter of the space, while the works on view engage with each other in fascinating and often unexpected ways. My favorite moments are in the more challenging pairs or groups the curators offer, exciting and perhaps startling to a viewer accustomed to the typical interpretations of speed and motion in the 20th century mentioned above. For example, an intriguing conversation takes place in the center of the room between two AIC favorites: Fernand Léger’s tubular Railway Crossing (Sketch) from 1919, opposite Ellsworth Kelly’s 1953 Train Landscape, and moderated by a small placard next to the Léger, on which is printed a quote by philosopher and educator John Dewey: “How can a public be organized, we may ask, when literally it does not stay in place?” Several more of these placards, printed with quotes or statements from various sources about motion and speed, are located throughout the exhibition to great effect.

Fernand Léger, ‘The Railway Crossing (Sketch),’ 1919

This question, posed in Dewey’s 1927 book The Public and Its Problems, refers to the negative effects of constant motion on one’s ability to form both an individual and group identity, and offers inspiration to draw connections between Léger’s jumble of tubes, lines, and arrows and the sunny calm of the Kelly, made while the artist was living in Paris. If the Léger, like the Pennebaker film, signals the chaos and fragmentation of modern movement by train, perhaps the Kelly speaks to the passive calm that can also be gleaned by several hours on a train watching a landscape roll by. These potentially opposing viewpoints only lead toward a deeper reflection on what motion meant to these two artists in their particular times, and what we can personally gain (or have taken from us) by being in motion. Moments like this occur throughout this fantastic and contemplative exhibition, suggesting the viewer reflect not only on motion in the art on view, but how the effect of motion extends into our everyday life.


Go is on display at the Art Institute of Chicago through June 4th during regular museum hoursTickets start at $29 for non-members. Entry is free for members.For more information, visit 

Taylor L. Poulin
Taylor L. Poulin