March 2009, Buckminster Fuller @ MCA Chicago

March 2009, Buckminster Fuller @ MCA Chicago
Buckminster Fuller, Courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 East Chicago Avenue, Chicago, IL 60611
March 14 through June 21, 2009

Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe opened in Chicago Friday night to what felt like a very large crowd. The Dynamic Maximum Celebration at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) made the main lobby of the museum feel like a pretentious nightclub. Earlier that morning, I had the fortunate opportunity to view the exhibition with a decent sized group of about twenty-five media representatives, two curators, the former wife of Fuller and the artist's grandchildren. It was quite a unique experience to have the insight of the curatorial staff and the personal perspectives of Fuller’s family on hand guiding the exhibition tour. The personal commentary from Jaime Snyder and Allegra Fuller Snyder offered a touching narrative to the meticulous visual composition of the life and work of “Bucky” Fuller. From a purely aesthetic standpoint the exhibition, which is laid out in a chronological representation, highlights the many conceptual foundations and physical artifacts of the self-proclaimed "Comprehensive Anticipatory Design Scientist." Enlarged photographs, video footage, mounted diagrams and sketches, display cases, and 3D models/moquettes neatly garnish the gallery spaces. Each object leads to an image and each image leads to a concept, which fascinates the imagination.

Two curators at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York developed the layout of the exhibition, which was the origin of this exclusive two-location exhibition (New York and Chicago). The first smaller show from New York was then passed on to the space at the MCA. It was the daunting task of curators here in Chicago to translate the first show, add appropriate material to fill in gaps, and expand on square footage to maintain the integrity of not only the artist himself, but also the initial curatorial team. This transition from one locale to another is interesting in a sense of metaphor for the many who try to interpret and re-present the ideas of man who defied all disciplines and classifications. In an interview with Elizabeth Smith, lead curator for the Chicago team, I tried to get to the heart of what makes Fuller such an important figure to the contemporary visual art community and to the rest of the world trying to find solutions to the many challenges that we face in this current global environment. It is in this interview that we see Fuller as a visionary and someone who dared to come up with solutions. 


Interview with Elizabeth Smith, James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
As a visual artist, graphic designer, art writer, and visual art educator, I often find myself confronting institutional titles and arbitrary academic categories in the field of art. My questions for this project center on what it means to present the work of a self-proclaimed “comprehensivist” in a contemporary visual art context.

William Keith Brown: Knowing what will be shown in the exhibition, (“A combination of models, sketches, and other artifacts -- many on view for the first time -- represent six decades of the artist's integrated approach to housing, transportation, communication, and cartography.”) how did the curatorial staff approach such a vast body of artifacts from a man working in so many different fields?

Elizabeth Smith: The approach to and selection of the materials was undertaken by two curators, Dana Miller and Michael Hays of the Whitney Museum. They conducted extensive research in order to arrive at the core contents of the show, which are intended to foreground Fuller’s “comprehensivist” vision and his creative process by presenting numerous artifacts and objects of his own design. In our representation of the show for Chicago, we are presenting the core exhibition as developed by the Whitney but are adding some important objects to it such as a Fuller resource room / study center which presents his many writings as well as books of significance to him from many different fields; some examples of his designs for “rowing needles” which he felt were pure expressions of his design philosophy; some large-scale photographic images to emphasize works of significance and key moments in Fuller’s career; direct quotes from Fuller on the walls throughout the exhibition; and many archival materials that reveal his presence in and connections to Chicago over the years.

WKB: Will visitors of the exhibition feel a “comprehensive” representation of Fuller’s work?

ES: Our hope is that the show will indeed reveal the wide range of his interests and explorations through the presentation of artifacts, objects, moving images/commentary by Fuller, texts, quotes, reading materials, etc. which focus on the variety of topics and areas of investigation that he pursued throughout his career. 

WKB: Will the exhibition represent a scattered non-linear organization of complexity? [What was the approach (modern or postmodern) to the exhibition and what will it feel/look like?] 

ES: The Whitney curators’ original approach was more of a modernist one in that it is largely (but not exclusively) chronological; as the hosting institution of their show we have respected and adhered to their preferred organization, altering the exhibition through the inclusion of the many objects mentioned previously.

WKB: In the exhibition description posted to the MCA’s web site and partially quoted above, Fuller is referred to as an “artist”, but the artist in this case never claimed that mantle. How did you anticipate audiences who struggle to see Mr. Fuller as a Contemporary Artist? 

ES: The didactic materials (wall texts, brochure, etc) throughout the show explain Fuller’s approach and how he considered himself a “comprehensive anticipatory design scientist” in ways that we feel will be easily comprehended by our visitors. We have a tradition of presenting exhibitions on architecture and design at MCA and our choices for these exhibitions are often informed by their relevance to and interest for the visual arts; Fuller’s work is deeply significant for visual artists and when the exhibition of Olafur Eliasson’s work goes on view on May 1, Fuller’s position as a figure of influence and importance to the visual arts will be dramatized for our public.

WKB: Was this label of artist a problematic consideration?

ES: We have relied on materials provided by the originators at the Whitney Museum.

WKB: Today, Fuller would be an extraordinary visual art student, but in his time, he was closely linked to Architecture and Design disciplines. What is it about today’s contemporary art landscape that has allowed multi-model reasoning and interdisciplinary studies to emerge as a relevant artistic strategy? 

ES: Artists are more and more interested in the world around them as subject matter and Fuller provides a model for those who are interested in engaging themselves with ideas from throughout many fields. His optimistic, exploratory vision also serves as an inspiration to many artists and that fact that he was iconoclastic in much of his thinking and rejected strict disciplinary boundaries is also attractive to and resonates with the thinking of many artists today. (See my essay in the catalogue to the exhibition, which treats the subject of Fuller’s relevance to contemporary artists; our media department can provide this if you do not have it.)

WKB: Why are so many people talking about R. Buckminster Fuller these days (i.e. November issue of ART FORUM)? 

ES: More and more people are recognizing him as a figure ahead of his time in terms of his commitment to addressing the “big questions” of our time without regard to conventional disciplinary boundaries. Beyond his impact on architecture, design, and the visual arts, he is certainly someone who anticipated the thinking of the environmental movement and who took action in his own work to address and solve problems that he envisioned would be of concern to humanity.

WKB: Was it daunting to present six decades of work by a person who defied definition?

ES: It’s an absolutely difficult task, especially when the ideas and influence of the person in question are so powerful, to tell the story with existing objects and artifacts. My hat goes off to our colleagues at the Whitney Museum who conceived this exhibition about a person who indeed defies definition, and I hope that our more expanded treatment of Fuller at MCA helps flesh things out further.

whitehot gallery images, click a thumbnail.

Keith Brown

​W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.


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