Anna Kunz, Mary Cassatt, Chicago & The Columbian Exposition
For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and Fair in Chicago, American artist Mary Cassatt was invited to paint a large mural over the entrance to the Gallery of Honor in the Women’s Building. The space was aimed at showcasing the advancement of women throughout history and her piece, Modern Woman, was a triptych whose central panel Young Women Plucking the Fruits of Knowledge or Science was inserted between the panel of Young Girls Pursuing Fame and the right panel of Arts, Music, Dancing which featured young women engaged in the arts.
Around 125 years later Chicago-based artist Anna Kunz was commissioned to create a new piece that was installed high above the booths at the 2016 EXPO Chicago, the city’s premier contemporary art fair. The large painting draped gracefully from the ceiling, dwarfing the freight entrance below it and functioning like a net to capture and manipulate light and color. For Anna Kunz: Venus, her current show at Providence College Galleries, the artist has expanded on the dimensionality of that piece and created a multi-media room installation that combines painting, sculpture and video. Artist Elizabeth Corkery chatted with Anna about four specific points of intersection (Chicago, temporality, expanded practice and the female body) that her piece has with Mary Cassatt’s historic World’s Fair commission.
Elizabeth Corkery (EC): You have completed all of your formal art training in the Chicago area, can you talk about the influence the city has had on the development of your practice? Whether it be historical, geographical, cultural…
Anna Kunz (AK): I have a lengthy connection to the city as my family has been in Chicago since before 1900. My father worked at the Art Institute of Chicago, so as a kid I was often babysat by a security guard friend of his. He was typically stationed by a Rothko painting and an Eva Hesse piece, so I spent a great deal of time with those works and enjoyed observing the activities around them. I ultimately went to school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and so was able to then study the collections from the vantage point of being artist myself.
Chicago is a city of neighborhoods that have distinct characteristics but adjoin one another fluidly. I find this can be both positive and negative. A positive aspect is that the city is based on a grid which makes it easy to navigate and the grid is punctuated by some famously iconic architecture. There is a rhyme and rhythm to one’s movements through Chicago, where certain sites and spaces can generate a simultaneity of experience.
The city is laid out to radiate from the lake, so the chaos of the built environment leads you to the calm of the water, or vice versa. A negative aspect of city life I’ve experienced is that the train cars are designed to have riders facing ahead and visually isolated from one another, as opposed to the more collective design in the New York subway where the riders all face one another.
Of course, Chicago is part of the history of music; blues and jazz, comedy and theatre, and has a rich art history; the Chicago imagists, the post-war Monster Roster and Hairy Who. I studied with Ed Paschke in grad school, who often talked to me about my “Chicago-ness” or you could say “She Caw GO”-ness. I’m certain that the synthesis of ideas I present in my work is most likely a result of my living here.
EC: Most of the major fair buildings created for the Columbian Exposition were constructed to be temporary. Similarly, Cassatt’s mural ended up being a temporary installation and we now only know through reproductions. I know that often your installations live on through their photographic reproductions and your performance pieces similarly rely on their video documentation. Can you talk about your own relationship to your work’s temporality?
AK: I think that the experiential dimension of art is the most important. It’s the most personal part, the riskiest and to me, the most precious part as it reflects life; all things are fleeting. My work requires your bodily presence and it turns into something different during its documentation. Instead of thinking about the work being temporary, I think of it as an ongoing project where the works are interconnected; one leads to the next. In his 1952 essay The American Action Painters, Harold Rosenberg refers to how the painted canvas was being treated “as an arena in which to act”. For me, it is fruitful to invert this idea and think: “an arena is a painting in which to act..” This idea motivates me to create new temporal experiences, the way the Alan Kaprow might have felt or even in a Situationist way where art experience can disrupt the ordinary. Through documentation of my installations, I’ve found that my work has a “camera persona” and I can consider the documentation to be a way to include photography in the discussion.
EC: This mural was arguably Cassatt’s most important work and working at this scale was new to her when she received the commission. Have there been opportunities presented themselves that have meant you need to move out of your typical method of making, scale of working or form of display?
AK: Yes, my current show curated by Jamilee Lacy in the PC gallery! In the past, I have also created room sized walk-through paintings, which I like to call “volumetric paintings”. In preparing for an exhibition, I always make a small-scale model that I use to generate an understanding of the space. This allows me the complete freedom to play and move things around without the burden of heavy lifting or production pauses. The models allow for both fluidly and absurdity. They help me visualize and trust that what I ultimately produce will be based in the most intuitive process. The video, sound elements and collaborations I have recently been involved with come from a desire to keep moving away from static presentations of painting and open up more sensory experiences for all kinds of viewers.
EC: Through depictions of woman at differing ages Cassatt’s Modern Woman mural is a powerful allegory of the radical transformation that took place in women’s lives during the nineteenth century. The third panel in particular includes mature women in modern dress depicted as personifications of Art, Music and Dancing. Not acting as muses for male creativity, they are entertaining one another on a present-day Mt Parnassus. Your approach to painting has a different relationship to the body, most specifically to your own body. Can you talk a little about the physicality of your process and whether you are given to reflecting on the history of painting vis-a-vie male actions and gestures in relation to your own practice?
AK: My process involves a lot of movement; a process of arranging and reordering that I liken to choreography. That idea is most evident in the way I position and arrange color experiences. If you visited my studio, you would find multiple things going on at once. My process is incredibly physical. My work is made out of relationships. I tend to synthesize many art forms and those forms reflect on the history of painting, male and female actions or interactions and are ultimately informed by my own interpretation. I sample from all domains in my work. I like to work through the body because it’s a universal space. I’m not so much thinking about “male actions” or gendered gestures but rather I’m reflecting on historical, canonical works as material to simultaneously appreciate and critique in my work.