Jewel by the Lake: The Mary and Leigh Block Museum

Last week I took advantage of two wonderful programs at Northwestern University’s Mary and Leigh Block Museum. Both were free, fascinating and one-time only events. They prove the Block’s amazing riches nestled right here in our community and accessible to everyone.

Lisa Graziose Corrin, the Ellen Philips Katz Director of the Block Museum, warmly introduced the first program, a gallery discussion within the Steichen/Warhol: Picturing Fame exhibit. Elliot Reichert, Block Museum Special Projects Curator, selected the photographs, organized them within the exhibit and wrote the accompanying catalogue. Reichert and Michal Raz-Russo, Assistant Curator of Photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, jointly explained the influences, inspirations and idiosyncrasies of Edward Steichen and Andy Warhol, and how the effects of each are seen in their photographs.

The exhibit stemmed in part by a generous gift in February 2013 of forty-nine Steichen photographs from the collection of Richard and Jackie Hollander. The gift was in honor of Northwestern University President Morton Schapiro and his wife, Mimi Schapiro. The Block is highly regarded: only two other museums in the country also received photographs from the Hollander collection–the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

I loved hearing Reichert and Raz-Russo talk about the photos in the exhibit. The untrained eye can admire an image based on what we see, but understanding the context and what came before the the camera clicks makes the finished print more revealing. It seems quaint to think about a time when models, actresses and celebrities were in the background, when designer clothes and products were the focus in magazines and advertisements, but Steichen was one of the first to shift the emphasis to the model. He captured glamour and celebrity in ways that were new as he played with fame, light, shadow, shapes and texture.

The Warhol photographs in the exhibit are part of a 2008 gift from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which donated 155 photographs as part of the Andy Warhol Photographic Legacy Program. As Corrin made very clear in her introductory remarks, the Block’s mission is to build its collections and scholarship, supporting new curatorial talent and make the museum’s collections available to Northwestern and surrounding communities.

The second program was a series of short plays staged amidst a current exhibit, The Left Front: Radical Art in the “Red Decade,” 1929-1940. The four ten-minute plays, part of the fifth annual Living Newspaper Festival, featured student actors from Northwestern and members of Chicago’s Jackalope Theater Company. The plays were raw and inspired by recent current events; the artwork was also inspired by current events at a time when artists felt an obligation to create revolutionary and socially conscious art. The featured artists, all members of the John Reed Club, named after an American journalist, “embraced the motto ‘art as a social weapon.'”

The Block is open every day except Monday. Most programs at the Block are free; check the Museum’s calendar to see if an event fee applies.  The Left Front exhibit closes on June 22, 2014.

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