Review: God in the Modern Wing

God in the Modern Wing (Studies in Theology and the Arts), Edited by Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: Ten Christian artists offer reflections on different pieces of modern art found in the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, considering both the faith of the artists and what one might see in their art through the eyes of faith.

G. Walter Hansen, a retired theology professor and appreciator of modern art, describes the origins of this book in the preface to this book. He worships at Fourth Presbyterian Church in downtown Chicago, located about a mile from the Modern Wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. He contrasts the perceived distance between Christian faith and modern art, and his own growing appreciation for the works he finds in the Modern Wing. Out of this came the presentations that are basis of this book. Working with Cameron J. Anderson, former executive director of Christians in the Visual Arts and co-editor with him of this book, Hansen invited ten Christians in the arts to give presentations offering their own reflections on particular artists and works of art found in the Modern Wing. The contributors not only met this assignment but also offer insights into, using the expression coined by Flannery O’Connor, the “God-haunted” character of modern art, as well as the faith of many of the artists.

Cameron Anderson opens the collection with an introductory essay on “Being Modern” exploring the spirit, style, and self of modern art. He observes:

“Calling on their generative agency, artists sought means to foment aesthetic, social, and political revolution. If modern art labored to rid the picture plane of propaganda, then artists became the self-appointed guardians of this new visual horizon. This new generation flaunted its moral and creative freedom, but it also lived beneath the burden of its tragic flaws and lapses” (p. 11).

The following chapters focus on one to a few artists and works in the Modern Wing. The first takes us on a kind of tour through the eyes and ears and sketch pad of “Hadlock,” from Matisse’s Bathers by the River, through the Cubism of Picasso, the work of Diego Vazquez, works of Paul Klee, and others, interspersed with comments of gallery visitors, and the epiphanies of God’s presence in the works and even the inadvertent comments of visitors. Matthew Milliner considers the works of Chagall, Magritte, and Dali, particularly the last’s return to Catholic faith. Cameron Anderson discusses Constantin Brancusi’s soaring columns and his Bird series, and the expressions of joy they convey. Contrast this with the earth-bounded Walking Man of Alberto Giacometti and Anderson sees in these two both the aspirations and existential boundaries of what it means to be human. Joel Sheesley returns to Cubism, considering Picasso’s Portrait of Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, probably unlike any portrait you’ve seen, not representation, but negation, a statement of what one is not, of what is missing, as apophatic theology has done with God.

Bruce Herman introduces us to the later art of Philip Guston and Richard Diebenkorn. Guston’s Bad Times focuses on “human beings behaving inhumanely.” Many of his paintings explore humanity at its worst, asking “what are we?” but one, Couple in Bed portrays the beauties of faithful love. We are invited to consider Diebenkorn’s Ochre in the Ocean Park series, an affirmation of joy in color and form. Linda Stratford writes of Jackson Pollock and Barnett Newman. The latter, with his Stations paintings, especially fascinated me, black vertical bars with differing widths and locations on a series of canvases, or “stations.”

I had the opportunity to see some of Mark Rothko’s works a few years ago. Makoto Fujimura helped me understand the layers of color floating on many of his canvases and why I must visit the Rothko Chapel if I visit Houston. David McNutt introduces us to the faith of Andy Warhol and the connections between the “Pop” and spiritual sides in his life. Steve Prince describes the prophetic art of two black artists, Elizabeth Catlett and Charles White, as well as some of his own prophetic work, and what it means to be a prophet in art. Finally, Leah Samuelson, who works in the community art movement, writes about her encounters with the walking sticks of Andre’ Cadere, who would walk through exhibits, leaving his color-banded walking sticks as impromptu installations. She uses this to explore the art of protest and restoration.

In what I thought an apt afterword, Cameron J. Anderson considers the significance of these presentations as an invitation to make space in our hurried lives to contemplate these works, how they reflect the human condition and the nature and meaning of our modern selves. He observes the “nature of craft” and “nature of being” that has been under consideration throughout. As we study these works, we both explore how the artists have accomplished their works, and what they “saw” as they worked. He considers Charles Ray’s Hinoki, pieces of a fallen tree that captured his attention that he turned into an installation. It, like all art, poses the question, “Has anyone else seen the thing that I have seen?” And to go with it is the question, are we seen, and loved, and what does this mean for our existence?

The text is accompanied with black and white figures in the text as well as twenty-two color images in an insert. These cannot substitute for seeing the works, but certainly help make sense of the artists readings of these works. Late, in life, without former training, I’ve picked up the paint brush and enjoyed painting with my wife and local artists, many with far more art training. I have only the vaguest understanding of the movements within modern art but this work whet my appetite to know more. It reminded me that Christ is at play (reminiscent of Gerard Manley Hopkins) in the ten thousand places of the modern art world. As Anderson challenges us, will we make space to see, and to be seen?

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

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The ministry with which I work is hosting a conversation with Cameron J. Anderson and G. Walter Hansen on November 16, 2021 at 5 pm ET. If you want to learn more about God in the Modern Wing you may sign up for a Zoom link for this conversation via https://tinyurl.com/GodModernWing. There will be an opportunity to purchase the book at a discounted price. There is no charge for this event.

One thought on “Review: God in the Modern Wing

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: November 2021 | Bob on Books

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