at Art Institute of Chicago


What is an art exhibition in 2012, or what should it be? How might a show’s physical installation be made to interact with the powerful virtual world of the Internet? These are fundamental questions that are frequently raised when a museum or gallery mounts a show, but rarely does the public have access to the thinking behind the institution’s responses. “Parcours,” a forward-looking exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, places this behind-the-scenes process front and center.

The project takes as its inspiration a never-realized exhibition proposed in the 1930s by ex-Bauhaus artist Herbert Bayer, who envisioned a mazelike gallery space with artworks serving as markers. In that spirit, Liz Deschenes and Florian Pumhösl, the two artists (American and Austrian, respectively) who conceived the show, selected their title, “Parcours”—a word for “route” or “way”—for its association with educational or athletic trails. Publicity materials refer to the display as a “mini-labyrinth,” but this seems a bit overblown, given that there are only three compact rooms, which come off as meditative, even hermetic. Just a dozen works are on view, and the layout is rigorously sparse and minimal.

“Parcours” combines the old and new. It includes five photographs from the museum’s holdings (a perception-bending self-portrait from 1928 by Florence Henri; a 1958 view of Auschwitz by the Polish photographer Jerzy Lewczynski, etc.), interspersed with small and mid-scale pieces by Deschenes and Pumhösl. Deschenes’s monochromatic black or white photograms include a pair of long, narrow pieces displayed one above the other across a gallery corner; Pumhösl precariously poses sections of glass on wall-mounted, rectangular, inclined fiberboard supports. These elements quietly touch on the history of photography, the nature of exhibitions and the evolution of museum architecture. But the paucity of works and their spare presentation give the show a detached, academic feel that can be off-putting, especially to casual visitors.

A key component of the exhibition is to be found not in the galleries but on the Art Institute’s website. There, a blog chronicles the show from its beginning stages in March 2011 through its unveiling in April 2012. Leading a surprisingly unfiltered online archive are exchanges among Deschenes, Pumhösl and Matthew Witkovsky, curator of the museum’s department of photography. Also included are sketches of the space, edited and reedited drafts of the labels and accompanying texts, and photographs taken daily during the installation of the show. The give-and-take is fascinating, but it probably would have been more so if the stakes had been higher (say, for a big-time retrospective), or if the resulting physical display were more immediately engaging. Although designed to be a “forum for discussion,” the blog has not yet generated a single online comment.

“Parcours” offers a promising model for integrating the exhibition and the Internet, capitalizing on what each does best. But if connection to viewers is the goal, there is still work to be done.

Photo: View of the exhibition “Parcours,” 2012, showing (left) Florian Pumhösl’s Untitled E, 2011, and (right) Liz Deschenes’s Untitled (Studio), 2010; at the Art Institute of Chicago.