Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum

The opening reception of Chance Aesthetics and Metabolic City at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. Photo by Whitney Curtis

You can see artworks made by firing a pistol at paint-filled balloons, smearing mayonnaise on a canvas and drawing random numbers out of a phone book, all on display at Washington University’s Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum. They’re part of Chance Aesthetics, an exhibit that examines how avant-garde artists of the early 20th century used processes of chance to create their works and engage viewers. The exhibit features more than 40 artists, including Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Niki de Saint Phalle, using such strategies as collage, games, found objects and ‘automatism,’ a method of unconscious drawing. 

    While the majority of the works are borrowed from other institutions, Chance Aesthetics also reflects and draws upon the larger collection of the Kemper Art Museum, which focuses on cutting edge, contemporary art from Europe and America in the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. Founded in 1881, the Washington University art museum was the first art museum west of the Mississippi. Now situated at the corner of Forsyth and Skinker boulevards, it originally opened downtown, where Washington University was then located.

    Around the time of the 1904 World’s Fair, the museum needed to move, both because the university was relocating west of the city and because the building wasn’t big enough anymore. Founding director Halsey Ives built the Beaux Arts palace in Forest Park, the building where the Saint Louis Art Museum is located today, with the intention of moving the art museum there after the fair. But St. Louis citizens decided they would not pay taxes for the university museum because it was a private corporation. Ives became director of the public City Art Museum (now the Saint Louis Art Museum) formed shortly thereafter, where the university’s collection remained on loan for several decades.

    While the Saint Louis Art Museum went on to develop a broad, encyclopedic collection, the university museum developed a focus on contemporary European and American art. Washington University art historian and curator H.W. Janson, who came to St. Louis in 1941 as an exile from Nazi Germany, was instrumental in that shift. “He decided to de-accession much of the collection, including many 19th century paintings, and from the proceeds he bought mostly European modern art,” says Sabine Eckmann, director and chief curator of the museum for the past five years. With the goal of creating ‘the finest collection of contemporary art assembled on any American campus,” Janson acquired works by Max Beckmann, Georges Braque, Max Ernst, Juan Gris and Pablo Picasso, among others. “Most of the Janson acquisitions made us famous and are also the works that tour internationally,” says Eckmann. In 2004, the museum received a generous $5 million gift from the Kemper family, and it was renamed the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.

    Today, the museum continues to focus on buying the most cutting-edge art of the day, Eckmann says. The Kemper’s collection is about 90 percent European and American art from the late 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, she says, along with some Old Master prints and Greek and Egyptian antiquities. Notable recent acquisitions include a gift of 180 photographs from the Andy Warhol Foundation to be exhibited in summer 2010, and a 661-pound polished aluminum orb by Danish artist Olafur Eliasson, which hangs in the entry hall of the museum’s new building, designed by architect Fumihiko Maki and opened in 2006.

     “[Chance Aesthetics] is the first big modern art exhibition in the new building,” says Meredith Malone, curator of the exhibit. “I wanted to do something that looked at modern art from a different angle.” Putting it together took two years, which Malone says is typical for a major loan exhibition. Only two of the works included belong to the Kemper Art Museum, Bearded Head, a piece of driftwood found by the artist Jean Dubuffet, and The Eye of Silence, a painting by Max Ernst. Grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Dedalus Foundation, the Missouri Arts Council and the Regional Arts Council helped support shipping and insuring the more than 60 works of art.

    While most of the pieces traveled to get to the exhibition, some were in fact made on site specifically for the show, like William Anastasi’s Untitled (one gallon of industrial high-gloss enamel, poured). Anastasi, now in his late 70s, first created the piece in 1966. He came to Washington University a couple of days before the exhibit opening to climb a ladder and pour black paint out of a Dixie cup down the wall. “It was kind of mesmerizing watching the paint drip down,” Malone says. “It’s a conceptual piece because every time he does it somewhere else it’s different.” The paint splattered slightly as it ran down the wall, leaving a large, glossy pool on the floor, which Malone says will never fully dry.

    Asked to name her favorite pieces in the exhibit, she picks out works by Niki de Saint Phalle, Ray Johnson and Dieter Roth. De Saint Phalle covered a piece of plaster with paint-filled balloons, then shot them and let the paint dry. Ray Johnson, the inventor of mail art, put together a box full of cardboard pieces punched with holes and sent them to a friend, to be put together like a jigsaw puzzle or strung as a work of art. Dieter Roth used the chance formations created by decay to create works of art from mayonnaise, sausage and cheese. “When we first took [the mayonnaise painting] out of the crate, it smelled horrible,” Malone recalls. “I was a little disappointed that the smell went away, because I thought it would have been an interesting addition.”

    Malone says she sees the exhibit as playful, and hopes viewers have fun. “I also want people to think about the notion of chance, because you can talk about it on so many levels.” In fact, the exhibit engages other disciplines, with accompanying events like a panel discussion on chance as it relates to art, music, literature, architecture and anthropology; a concert including experimental works by John Cage; and a live chess match using a specially designed roulette wheel to determine both player’s moves. The wheel was invented specifically for Chance Aesthetics by two-time U.S. Women’s Chess Champion Jennifer Shahade, who will be in town for the Women’s Chess Championships in October. Shahade was inspired by the artist Marcel Duchamp, who loved chess and once commented that it would be interesting to combine “the ultimate game of strategy” with “the ultimate game of chance.”  

    At its core, Malone says, Chance Aesthetics is about the tension between strategy and choice. Take the ‘automatic drawings’ by the Surrealists, for example, where artists started sketching at random, then worked up the figures and faces they saw in their designs. Or the plexiglass container of trash made by French artist Arman, who collected random trash from a specific person, artist Claes Oldenburg. About that piece, Malone has a tip for savvy viewers: Toward the top of the pile, you might spot a pamphlet with a picture of the St. Louis Arch on it. Not intentional, she says. “It’s totally by chance.”  S