Friday, October 28, 2011

‘By taking away, they’re opening it up to interpretation’

Q&A with Adriana Nijensohn, Museum of Contemporary Art Tour Guide
Adriana Nijensohn, MCA Tour Guide
Along Chicago Avenue, a blast of wind whips trees, leaves and tourists into a frenzy of movement. In contrast, the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) stands still, silent and solid, a block of glass and concrete with little to announce its identity save for its discreet letters and a bent coat hanger sculpture by artist Mark Handoforth.
Inside, Adriana Nijensohn stands patiently waiting. Calm as the sparse interiors of the museum, the veteran tour guide is waiting to take visitors through a series of paintings and sculptures featured in ‘The Language of Less (Then and Now).’ Carefully and brilliantly selected by chief curator, Michael Darling, the exhibit showcases works by influential Minimalist and Contemporary artists.
She was a tour guide at the Art Institute of Chicago for the past ten years, mostly explaining Egyptian art and culture to curious fifth graders. Now a tour guide at the MCA for the past year, the soft-spoken Nijensohn discusses the significance of modern art in today’s culture and why Picasso will continue to mystify.
Where are you originally from?
I’m from Argentina and I’ve been in Chicago for 43 years.
How long have you been working as a museum tour guide?
I used to work full-time and as a museum visitor, I loved the other side of art. So when I stopped working, I wanted to give back and this is my way of contributing and expanding my horizons.
I’ve been doing this for over ten years at the Art Institute of Chicago and I wanted to do something different. The children are a lot of fun but I also wanted to work with adults. When I’m standing here (waiting for a tour to start), I don’t know if I’m going to have one or 20 people. I don’t know their background so it’s all very spontaneous.
What is the ‘Language of Less (Then and Now)’ about?
The whole show is divided into two collections. ‘Then’ features work from the ‘60s and ‘70s that are fundamental to Minimalist Art. ‘Now’ features five new artists to show how their art is a reflection of the older artists. It gives us an idea of how these artists started their work.
Minimalist Art strips away everything that you normally see in pictures, such as a face, a landscape or a building in order to help us see the basics. What are the basics? It can be the lines, the colors and the shape of the canvas and from there they want us to expand on our thoughts. By taking away, they’re opening it up to interpretation.
Do you find that people are dismissive of Modern Art?
Yes, which is why it’s wonderful that people come into the museum. A lot of people wouldn’t even come inside, saying, “I don’t like stuff like that, it doesn’t speak to me.” But it’s about discovering new things and opening your mind. The more difficult a piece looks, the more people assume that it must cost a lot of money and that’s what people associate as good art.
What are the challenges in explaining this exhibit to the public?
I was walking around the museum today and I overheard someone say, “I could have done that myself.” It’s a typical reaction. There’s a misconception that there’s no difficulty in Modern Art but there’s a lot of thought behind pieces such as the black painting by Ad Reinhardt. You might just see it as a black painting but there are lines created by the canvas. There’s a depth that draws you into the painting. I think if you have that in your house, depending on the light and your mood, you’ll always see something different in it that you hadn’t seen before.
What are your favorite pieces from the show?
"Untitled (Stacks)" by Donald Judd
From “Then” I like the simple lines of Donald Judd’s “Untitled (Stacks).” In “Now” it definitely has to be artist Carol Bove’s work. There’s a strength and softness that I like. It’s feminine but not in a frilly way. I adore her piece “Tears” - it’s just gorgeous.
Who’s your favorite artist?
Picasso because I can never totally figure him out. He always surprises. I know that his work had a study, his ideas were there, and he had muses and people who inspired him. But if I ever had the opportunity to meet him, I’d probably ask him how he could work on so many pieces at the same time. He worked on three to four pieces at the same time, whether it was a sculpture or a canvas. How could he do something like that? He didn’t feel the need to concentrate on just one thing. He was a genius.
"The Language of Less (Then and Now)," Museum of Contemporary Art, October 8, 2011 - April 8, 2012. For information, visit

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