Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today


Sigmar Polke, Ashes to Ashes, 1992. Oil and ink on printed fabrics and velour; 94 5/8 x 157 5/8 in. (240.3 x 400.4 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Gerald S. Elliott Collection, 1995.78

Photo © MCA Chicago

Albert Oehlen, Pro Brown, 2006. Acrylic and oil on canvas; 70 7/8 x 59 in. (180 x 149.8 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, gift of Daniel Fischel and Sylvia Neil, 2010.17. © 2006 Albert Oehlen

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
An image of John F Kennedy, painted in orange colors, points to the right toward a blue image of a person in a space suit with a ball-shaped object strapped to their back.

Robert Rauschenberg, Retroactive II, 1963. Oil, silkscreen, and ink on canvas; 80 x 60 in. (203.2 x 152.4 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, partial gift of Stefan T. Edlis and H. Gael Neeson, 1998.49. © Rauschenberg Estate/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Photo © MCA Chicago

Adam Pendleton, Sympathy for the Devil, 2006–07. Acrylic on canvas; 90 parts, each: approx. 30 x 23 5/16 in. (76.2 x 59.2 cm). Collection Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, restricted gift of Sanfred and Nancy Koltun in honor of the MCA's 40th anniversary; originally commissioned by the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago with the generous assistance of Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago, and Yvon Lambert Gallery, New York, 2007.19.a–llll

Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago


Despite the periodic ringing of the death knell for painting, this genre of art making is alive and well. An important reason for this is its continued evolution. Painters are bound to the traditions they inherit and know that in order to keep painting alive, push it forward, and agitate for its legitimacy, they must find ways to connect it to our times. The artist's hand—the central protagonist in modern gestural painting—has become a primary reference point for many artists intent on rethinking painting. Artists from Robert Rauschenberg to Christopher Wool have fostered skepticism about the role of the hand-made as an indicator of artistic genius or authenticity, a doubt that has found an outlet in a wide variety of paintings and artistic practices since the 1960s. This ambivalence toward the hand inspired the title of this exhibition, Phantom Limb, which brings together a wide cross-section of painterly activity by artists who are defining the terms by which we understand this tradition today.

Drawn primarily from the MCA Collection but augmented with works from the Chicago community, the exhibition explores the decades-old skepticism about how painterly gestures are made. Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol, pioneers who have become so central to the discussion, were early adopters of the silk-screen process in the 1960s. Across the Atlantic, artists such as Sigmar Polke, who likewise combined the hand-painted and the printed, further complicated these provocations by using patterned fabrics instead of pristine canvas. Recently, a new generation of artists has built on these breakthroughs—critically engaging the romance of the artist’s hand. By using printing techniques, staining, spraying, and other methods, artists as diverse as Wade Guyton, Rebecca Morris, Sergej Jensen, Kerstin Brätsch, and Sterling Ruby, to name just a few, extend these ideas into the present, connecting them with new concerns and conditions. As in the medical sense of the term, a phantom limb may no longer be in evidence, but its owner still feels its presence, is haunted by it, and struggles with instinctive urges to use it. In much the same way, painters today, perhaps perversely, find ways to maintain a critical distance to the hand, even though its presence is hard to deny.

This exhibition is curated by MCA James W. Alsdorf Chief Curator Michael Darling.


Support for Phantom Limb: Approaches to Painting Today is generously provided the Pritzker Traubert Collection Exhibition Fund. Additional support is provided by Marilyn and Larry Fields and Nancy Lauter McDougal and Alfred L. McDougal.

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