Blog: MCA DNA

Back to the ’70s: Art by Telephone on WTTW

By Sarah Wade

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MCA panel discussion in conjunction with Art By Telephone, Nov 13, 1969, Pictured, from left to right: MCA Director Jan van der Marck, participating artists Jack Burnham and William Wegman, and Robert (Robin) Glauber, art curator for the Illinois Bell Telephone Company Photo © MCA Chicago

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Continuing National Archives Month, Librarian Sarah Wade shares the MCA Library’s research on the 1969 exhibition Art by Telephone and an unexpected arrival.

on an archival discovery

Traces of forgotten events from the museum’s past are sometimes uncovered in our everyday work of processing the museum’s archives and facilitating research, leading us to fun rediscoveries. Last year, Library Director Mary Richardson came across a WTTW press release related to the exhibition Art by Telephone while she was consulting the archival materials for a different exhibition, the museum’s 1970 Roy Lichtenstein retrospective.

Art by Telephone, a controversial exhibition at the time, included conceptual artworks by such artists as John Baldessari, James Lee Byars, Claes Oldenburg, Richard Serra, and Robert Smithson. Each of the 39 participating artists phoned in instructions to MCA staff members, who then created the works on behalf of the artists.

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Press releases for the Art by Telephone program, both 1970 © MCA Chicago

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Press releases for the Art by Telephone program, both 1970

The press release describes a 30-minute special that aired on WTTW in March 1970, featuring the works from Art by Telephone and local students from Harlan and Von Steuben high schools in conversation with MCA staff members Jan van der Marck and David Katzive, respectively the museum’s first director and first curator.

Thrilled by the possibility of seeing early MCA staff and local students interact with this exhibition, Mary and Michelle Puetz, the MCA’s Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Curatorial Fellow, began an eager quest to locate a copy of the footage of the WTTW program. Unfortunately, neither the MCA’s nor WTTW’s archival collections contained copies of the film. After inconclusive WorldCat searches and correspondence with various film repositories such as the Museum of Broadcast Communications and the Chicago Film Archives, it seemed that footage of the program would never be found and that a piece of the MCA’s history was lost forever.

Then, in June of this year, an unexpected package arrived at the MCA addressed from David Katzive. To everyone’s surprise and delight, it contained a film reel and a digitized copy of the WTTW program. Library and Archives staff celebrated the serendipitous arrival by immediately watching the program, reveling in the intelligent and earnest dialogue between the students and the MCA staff as well as the fantastically hip fashions and hairdos of the 1970s.

Below are some of the highlights.

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High school students offer their reactions as they walk through a piece by Guenther Uecker with the exuberant Director Jan van der Marck. Students liken the wood posts to a jail cell, while van der Marck suggests the work could also be reminiscent of an orchard.

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A young student asks van der Marck if artists are more interested in their work or the audience’s reaction to their work. Van der Marck asserts that the intent of the artist is to provoke and stimulate audiences.

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Curator David Katzive and students explore a piece by George Brecht in which the artist proposes moving various countries across the earth’s surface to new locations. One student smartly proclaims that the artist is conveying a story visually.

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The students question Katzive about the work of Claes Oldenburg. Katzive calls Oldenburg “probably the most brilliant artist alive today.” When the students wonder what makes this artist so special, Katzive humorously tries to clarify by stating that Oldenburg makes “these giant soft hamburgers.”

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In the program’s final discussion, one student emphatically challenges Katzive’s interpretation of a work by Bernar Venet.

All clips taken from the film reel of WTTW program Art by Telephone, 1970. MCA Archive. Gift of David Katzive