BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
From the current Venice Biennale to a stunningly renovated warehouse in West Town, Chicago, public artist Jaume Plensa will again be creating local excitement with portraiture in huge proportions. Works by the Spanish artist span the globe, yet nearer to home millions have paused to watch the Crown Fountain in Millennium Park since its installation in 2004.
On September 14, the Gray Gallery on Carroll Street will premiere his exhibition Secret Garden. The 5,000-square-foot warehouse space can amply display Plensa’s works in wood, alabaster, bronze and, for the first time, stainless steel—all with an emphasis on luminosity and serenity.
Paul Gray, Gray Warehouse partner, reports:
“Jaume Plensa is a profound thinker—an artist we have worked closely with for over 25 years, holding one of his first shows in the US in 1994 and subsequently placing his work in collections all over the world.
“Although the Crown Fountain is certainly not his first work to transform people’s experience of the public space, it is one of the world’s most talked about. He enjoys the challenge of this type of work but along with it comes expectations of collaboration with patrons, architects, curators, and, most importantly, the responsibility that he is impinging on space that belongs to the public—imposing his ideas and his materials on them without even having been asked by most who will encounter his works.
“At the gallery, we have the flexibility to offer him exhibitions that he can totally shape, from the very private and solitary development of his ideas in the studio and the production of the work to the presentation, spaces, lighting, etc. We very much had him, and other artists, in mind when choosing, designing, and building the Gray Warehouse.”
Paul Gray is the son of Richard Gray, Chicago’s dean of gallery owners, who has also had a stunning New York gallery for 20 years. Suzanne McCullagh, former Art Institute of Chicago chair and curator of Prints and Drawing and now director of the Gray Collection Trust, described the Gallery’s international impact:
“For over 50 years, the Richard Gray Gallery has been preeminent in modern and contemporary art not merely in Chicago but internationally as well.
“Richard and Mary Gray have been significant philanthropists in a wide range of cultural and educational spheres. Moreover, they have applied their critical acuity to a remarkable collection including old master and 19th-century drawings of the highest quality that they are making accessible to the public through the Gray Collection Trust.”
Paul tells how it all began:
“My father started the gallery almost on a lark, after a series of late night conversations with a sculptor friend in the fall of 1963. He’d been casually interested in art even in college and during European travels when he served abroad in the Air Force, but it was walking into my mother’s family’s apartment on Stratford Place on their first date, around 1952, that he had his first real experience with collectors.
“Unlike his own family, my mother’s living room contained paintings and sculpture by Miró, Pollock, and Kandinsky, among others, as well as not one, but two, grand pianos. It was compelling.
“Introductions over the next ten years to people like Joseph and Jory Shapiro, Ruth and Leonard Horwich, Lindy and Ed Bergman, and other now legendary cultural leaders slowly led him to that first small gallery space on East Ontario Street.
“His vision, if you could even call it so, was to follow his own eye; to build a program of established 20th-century masters and emerging as well as mid-career contemporary artists he was passionate about and hoped to gain a following. It took some time.”
We sat down with Gray to inquire a little more about the gallery’s storied past, its future, and its role in the contemporary art scene in Chicago.
How did the Richard Gray Gallery grow?
Our move to the Hancock, a little more than 20 years ago, was due to the demolition of the former gallery building at 620 North Michigan Avenue that was also the home to the Arts Club of Chicago. I chose the Hancock for its prominence, convenience, security and flexibility, and it has served some aspects of our business very well, but its interior space limitations do not allow for the kind of volumes in which artists have become used to working and in which we have come to expect while having our first experiences with works of art. Context is important. Over the past five or so years we had begun to think about expanding here in Chicago. The right space and a desire to raise the bar on exhibitions of our artists as well as to attract new ones is what led us to open Gray Warehouse.”
What are your dreams for the Warehouse?
Richard Gray Gallery is growing and evolving. We have had a gallery in New York for 20 years now. Gray Warehouse opened earlier this year, but that’s just real estate. The most important part of our growth is in our people, for it is people, including the artists, who will chart our future.
Increasingly, gallery partners Andrew Fabicant and Valerie Carberry, gallery directors (we now have five), and other dedicated professionals who have chosen to invest their talents with us are making the decisions. They will be doing the dreaming.
How would you describe art collectors in Chicago?
Chicago’s collectors, like those we encounter elsewhere, are dedicated and deeply committed in their support. They bring their confidence, intuition, desire, anxiety, spontaneity, and a kind of intelligent doubt to the larger conversation. It’s a lively and healthy community.
Jaume Plensa’s Secret Garden runs September 14 through November 11 at the Gray Warehoouse, 2044 West Carroll Street. On September 15 at 10:30 am, Plensa and curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport will lead a walkthrough of the exhibition and answer questions.
Another exhibition of his works titled One Thought Fills Immensity, runs concurrently at the Gray Gallery, 875 North Michigan Avenue.