Sculptor Antony Gormley’s Infinite Cube, in the “Gift of Art” microexhibit, realizes an idea by his friend, artist Gabriel Mitchell, who struggled with schizophrenia and died in 2012. (Antony Gormley, After an Idea by Gabriel Mitchell, Infinite Cube, 2014, mirrored glass with internal copper wire matrix of 1,000 hand-soldered omnidirectional led lights, Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago, Gift of Antony Gormley and W. J. T. Mitchell, 2014.63, courtesy of the artist. Photography by Michael Tropea)

Eye of the beholder

For its 40th anniversary, the Smart Museum offers inviting, unexpected avenues to approach art.

Wandering through the Smart Museum’s current exhibition, it seems almost as if the curatorial staff, faced with having to choose from among the 12,000 items in the museum’s collection, decided to choose a little bit of everything. The result is a glorious profusion. Objects and Voices: A Collection of Stories, running through June 21, consumes the whole museum (as did last fall’s Carved, Cast, Crumpled: Sculpture All Ways, the exhibit that preceded it in celebrating the Smart’s 40th anniversary). There are Tiffany vases and a Frank Lloyd Wright window, Japanese scroll paintings, engravings from the German romanticism period, architectural fragments from medieval French monasteries, avant-garde Chinese photography, contemporary abstract sculpture. A 1968 Romare Bearden collage once owned by Ralph Ellison hangs in one gallery, while in another a Marcel Duchamp Boîte-en-valise (“Box in a Valise”) unlatches to reveal miniature reproductions of his works.

It isn’t only the artwork that is so diverse. The show consists of 17 microexhibits, each exploring a different theme: literary narratives in painting, British and American modernist design, questions of identity for Asian artists in America, the emotional effect of nudity in art. The museum’s staff invited outside collaborators—all with their own relationships to the Smart—to organize each exhibit, stepping aside to allow free rein to artists, curators, former Smart Museum interns, UChicago faculty, art history alumni, and current students. Museum staff began planning the exhibition two years ago, says Anne Leonard, curator and associate director of academic initiatives at the Smart.

One exhibit was produced by fifth graders taking part in the museum’s programs for South Side elementary schools. Led by teaching artist Candice Latimer, students from Beasley Academic Center in the Washington Park neighborhood composed written and artistic responses to pieces in the Smart’s collection: Alice Neel’s The City, Michiel Simons’s Still Life with Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Ledge, Chinese mingqi sculptures.

Some microexhibits are straightforwardly interpretive. Some put artworks in conversation with literature or music. Others are more personal, weaving in life stories. Donors discuss what drew them to the art they collected, and why they wanted to give it to the Smart. UChicago art historian Martha Ward ruminates the modern-day bloodshed that compelled her to include Otto Dix’s ruthlessly realist War prints about the First World War in her introductory art history course. Russell Bowman, AM’75, the former director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, traces painter Mark Rothko’s transformation from moody realist to simplified, emotive abstractionist—while contemplating his own evolving relationship with the artist’s work, which he first encountered as an undergraduate four decades ago.

Thought provoking and deeply layered, the exhibit gives a sense of arms open wide, offering multiple avenues into the Smart’s holdings. That, says Leonard, was the intention. “There’s still an impression out there that when you go to a museum, you are expected to have a lot of background or knowledge, and that without it you aren’t equipped to appreciate what you’re seeing,” she says. “We’re trying to democratize that a little bit by showing the great variety of ways that art can be experienced and looked at and worked with.”

Several works in Objects and Voices have never been exhibited at the Smart—new acquisitions, new bequests, works newly emerged from storage. Ralph Ellison’s Bearden collage is one, along with an 18th-century painting by Jean-Baptiste Regnault and a 2014 sculpture by Antony Gormley. Perhaps the most intriguing among the microexhibits of newly displayed works involves a painting attributed to Wassily Kandinsky, with dark-hued lines and abstract shapes—a curve that vaguely resembles a mountain, another that might be a flower—amid a field of blues, greens, yellows, and grays. It’s titled Composition.

Signed and dated 1914, the painting has been mired in doubt for decades. In 1982, through what Hannah Klemm, the art history graduate student who curated this microexhibit, describes as a kind of clerical accident, the painting was dropped from the registry of official Kandinsky works. Afterward, it was never outright denounced, but it wasn’t reinstated either. “It’s just in this purgatory,” she says. For the past year and a half, Klemm, a former Smart curatorial intern, has been on a hunt to fill the holes in its provenance—there’s no record of the painting until 1955, when it appeared for sale in the United States—and to find out whether it’s genuine.

The search has taken Klemm to see art dealers in Germany. She’s searched through the Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC. She spoke to gallerists in New York, where collector Joseph R. Shapiro, EX’34, bought the painting in 1955 (the Shapiro family donated it to the Smart in 2012). The gallery owner who sold it to him went out of business in the 1960s and later died, his gallery’s records vanishing with him. “There’s no official record of its transaction,” Klemm says, “except a letter from Henry Kleemann to Shapiro that just says, ‘I have this Kandinsky that you should take a look at.’ That’s it. And then the Kandinsky appears in his collection.”

Absent any documents from the gallery, Klemm turned to the painting itself. She called in experts to look for traces of Kandinsky in the brushstrokes. Among them was curator and art historian Peter Selz, AM’49, PhD’54, who in 1991 sent a letter assuring the Shapiros that the work was real. “Since the 1950s I have seen a large number of Kandinsky miss-attribution [sic] and outright fakes. ... I have never had any doubts,” he wrote, that this painting “is from Kandinsky’s own hand.” Says Klemm: “He still stands by it.”

In 1993 Donn and Dolores Shapiro, who had inherited the painting, commissioned a chemical analysis that confirmed the work was created between 1914 and 1928—“not really prime Kandinsky forgery years,” Klemm says. Examining the interior stretcher of the canvas, she found another clue to the painting’s date: a stamp from a German art supplies dealer who went out of business in the 1920s.

Klemm searched through book after book on Kandinsky, looking for any mention of the painting, or even a photograph that might show it in the background. There was  nothing. She analyzed the work of all his students to see if one of them might have painted it instead. No. She studied the handwritten lists of his paintings that Kandinsky, his pupil and mistress Gabriele Münter, and his wife Nina Andreevskaya kept. “The paintings that came from Münter’s and his wife’s collections have the best provenance,” Klemm says, “because they kept track of them, and they usually donated them in large blocks to museums.” But the period beginning in 1914 is a black hole. War was breaking out all over Europe, and Kandinsky left Munich, where he’d been living, and traveled to Switzerland and Russia, taking some paintings with him and leaving others behind here and there. “His hand lists become a mess,” she says.

Klemm is convinced the painting is authentic. Again and again, she’s found evidence linking it to Kandinsky—or, as she says, indicating that “it’s not not a Kandinsky”—but never anything direct and definitive enough to restore its place on the official registry. She’s still looking. One next step is to commission another paint analysis. She’s particularly interested in proving that the signature in the bottom left corner of the canvas wasn’t added later. Chemical techniques are much more precise now, she says, “light years” beyond what was available to the Shapiros in 1993, and it might be possible to place the painting’s date within a couple of years of 1914.

There’s also another, darker question she wants to answer: “Whenever you have a modernist painting from 1914 that we don’t know where it was, there’s always a concern about looted artworks,” she says. Kandinsky was on the Nazis’ “degenerate art” list (Hitler labeled these works “filth”—almost all modern art was included), along with the Bauhaus in general, where Kandinsky was a member. “We need to know where it was during the ’30s and ’40s,” Klemm says. “But we don’t have any evidence for how Kleemann got his hands on it. And that’s really the linchpin.”

In the meantime, she says, the painting has been a fascinating teaching tool. “We don’t usually think about paintings just losing their identity,” she says. “Or what it means to try to figure out if something is real or not. All my students find it really interesting, because it turns the work into something that exists in the world. It’s not just iconography or a painting to look at for style. It becomes this very object.”

Klemm’s microexhibit, which pairs the painting with some of the documents she’s dug up, asks a question that also reverberates through the displays of wartime prints and painted nudes and silver spoons and cast-bronze sculptures: “What does it mean,” Klemm says, “to have these objects in a museum?”