The University of Chicago Smart Museum of Art’s recently mounted exhibition, Classicisms, presents itself ambitiously. The accompanying text authored by co-curators Larry F. Norman and Anne Leonard states that the exhibition is meant to “explode the idea of classicism as an unchanging ideal.” Despite the expanse of nearly 70 items on view (ranging from sculpture and cast plaster replicas to paintings and works on paper), the exhibition stops itself significantly short of anything that could be called explosive. Rather, it forgoes any attempts to venture into unexplored territory, instead maintaining the kind of static, pedantic tone one has (regrettably) come to expect from university museums.
This is not to say that the exhibition is not of high quality–it certainly is–and it is accompanied by a thoroughly researched and fully illustrated catalog that in some ways is superior to the show itself. Both present coverage of the implications of classicism throughout the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in a way that is considerably more engaged than one typically sees, assessing the aesthetic and cultural implications of these works, and deftly avoiding the common institutional inclination to address them as mere artifacts of a bygone age. Where this exhibition misses the mark then–and where it would seem the most potential, to challenge interpretations of classical ideals, to take curatorial risks, exists–is in coverage of twentieth and twenty-first century.
There are a mere three twentieth-century works are on view (only one of which–an etching of Christo’s Wrapped Venus Villa Borghese,1963–is notable for its integration and translation of the classical ideal into the avant-garde), installed, in what feels almost like an afterthought, on the wall immediately preceding the exit, to say nothing of the fact that it eschews twenty-first century works altogether. Given the level of scholarship present, it seems that this could only have been a choice, rather than an oversight, on the part of the curators, and an exceedingly frustrating one at that (and the possibility that this negligence is the result of the lack of resources necessary to secure contemporary works would be considered valid if it were not for the equally marked absence of contemporary work from the exhibition catalog, the scope of which extends in many ways beyond the ground covered by the works on view). The choice to ignore working artists such as Charles Ray, with his bas-reliefs and monumental works of sculpted portraiture in stainless steel, or Jeff Koons, with his gazing ball sculptures, self-portrait busts, and balloon Venus’–that is, the of kind work that really explodes the idea of classicism as an unchanging ideal–not only ignores the ongoing matter of classicisms very relevance, but undercuts the exhibition’s premise altogether.
On the subject of oversights, there is one other curious and rather glaring exclusion: architecture. Discussed only in passing as it is depicted in a number of etchings and other works on paper throughout the exhibition, classical architecture is never addressed directly, as either a wellspring of the designs most often associated with classicism, or in the postmodern condition, as it plays a role in the work of architects like Stanley Tigerman.
Despite its deeply engaging premise and well-qualified curatorial team, Classicisms ultimately feels at best, incomplete, and at worst, stifled by an unnecessarily rigid commitment to academia. This renders it a particularly wracking disappointment, in the way only exhibitions we have the highest of expectations of may disappoint us.
Smart Museum of Art is located at The University of Chicago, 5550 S. Greenwood Avenue.
Gallery hours are 10am-5pm, Tuesday-Sunday. Current exhibitions will be on view through July 9th.