Even in 2012, after all that has happened in contemporary art during the past several decades, Allen Ruppersberg's latest installation at the Art Institute of Chicago manages to startle. It's easier to envision this rambling, homespun homage to the history of rock 'n' roll at a small-town museum or county fair than in the sleek, formal confines of the Art Institute's modern wing. But that's the point, of course.
Appropriating, assembling and repurposing secondhand objects and images, this influential pioneer of Conceptual art has been challenging notions about the relationship of art, artist and viewer since the late 1960s. In his latest work, No Time Left to Start Again/The B (Birth) and D (Death) of R 'n' R (2012), he remains true to form, bringing together several thousand digital scans of record covers, photographs, newspaper obituaries, maps and other ephemera. Included are all kinds of vintage materials, from a publicity photo of Elvis Presley in a shiny gold suit and an ad for Thriftytone Photo Finishing to a recording featuring Jimmie Noone and his Orchestra, and even an application to join the Ku Klux Klan.
As Ruppersberg spells out in an unusually exacting wall text indicative of the obsessive nature of the project, the work includes 40 4-foot-square pegboard panels grouped into five loose thematic sections tied to different musical styles. One set of eight panels, serving as a kind of introduction, hangs on a wall outside the gallery, and the rest run along two interior walls and both sides of a pair of angled partitions. In the middle of the room are a sofa and coffee table, which give the environment a homey feel. Visitors can sit down and look through binders filled with even more memorabilia or scroll through some 1,400 vintage songs on a digital player connected to an overhead speaker.
Each of the pegboard panels is decorated with brightly colored targets or triangular pennants with words that Ruppersberg says can be read as a kind of poem. Scattered and stacked on the floor are 60 packing boxes, most bearing appropriated, silkscreened images, such as an old-time ad urging "Listen to America . . . On Decca Country Records." The boxes outside the gallery differ slightly, sporting more of the targets as well as pennants with words having various musical associations. To top everything off, Ruppersberg has put together eight compilation albums-on vinyl, of course-and some of his covers are on view. (A website address posted in the show indicates where they may be purchased.)
While parts of this installation are painstakingly crafted and well ordered, much of it is deliberately amateurish. Many of the scanned images are positioned off-center or askew, and displayed in office-store plastic pages rudimentarily hung on hooks. Though some vague historical narrative runs through it all, there are no labels or captions and no real structure, so it all comes off as somewhat aimless and amorphous, and certainly in no way educational. Instead, the intent of this work appears to be about casting a mood or trading in nostalgia. And for Ruppersberg, that seems to be enough.
Photo: Allen Ruppersberg: No Time Left to Start Again/The B (Birth)and D (Death) of R 'n' R (detail of one of five sections), 2010-12; at the Art Institute of Chicago.