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Robert Walser inspires the last show at Donald Young Gallery

Robert Walser inspires the last show at Donald Young Gallery

Photograph: Tom Van Eynde
Rodney Graham, Sunday Sun, 2012.

During the past few years, Chicago’s Donald Young Gallery has persuaded a long list of blue-chip artists to participate in an unusual project.

Founder Donald Young—who died in April at the age of 69—was already a fan of Robert Walser (1878–1956) when he found the Swiss writer’s bizarre “microscripts” at a 2008 exhibition in Berlin. Walser created the microscripts after he was institutionalized in 1929, scrawling the stories in a medieval German shorthand on envelopes and other scraps of paper.

As Young planned an exhibition of the microscripts with New York–based gallerist Christine Burgin, he became interested in “the connection between [Walser’s] writings and certain contemporary artists,” he wrote in his curatorial statement for “In the Spirit of Walser.” This exhibition, which began in December 2011, elicited responses to Walser from Peter Fischli and David Weiss, Moyra Davey, Thomas Schütte, Rosemarie Trockel, Mark Wallinger, Tacita Dean, Rodney Graham and Josiah McElheny. It ends November 2—when the Donald Young Gallery closes forever.

James Rondeau, the Art Institute of Chicago’s chair and curator of contemporary art, describes the Loop gallery via e-mail as “one of the best contemporary art galleries in the country.” He adds, “Having it here was a terrific boost to the cultural life of Chicago. The absence of [Young’s] program of exhibitions leaves a huge hole in our cultural landscape.”

At press time, Young’s staff could not tell me whether other local galleries will begin representing their internationally renowned artists, some of whom had exhibited with Young for decades. Graham and McElheny—who have been with the gallery since the 1990s—conclude “In the Spirit of Walser.”

Young “worked so hard for his artists, like no gallerist I know,” Graham says by phone. The Vancouver-based artist read Walser’s Berlin Stories before creating Sunday Sun 1937. Though the lightbox photograph’s allusions to The Lady Vanishes and Graham’s previous work are more obvious, there’s an affinity between Walser’s laconic writing, which the artist says he appreciates for its conciseness, and his own compression of numerous historical references and visual jokes into a single image.

Donald Young Gallery has displayed first editions of Walser’s modernist novels (many illustrated by his brother Karl) and facsimiles of his microscripts for the duration of the show. But “In the Spirit of Walser” “was almost a new exhibition with each artist, because each person had a different response to the writing,” assistant director Robyn Farrell recalls. A new book, A Little Ramble: In the Spirit of Robert Walser (Christine Burgin/Donald Young Gallery/New Directions, $35), pairs photographs of the artists’ works with the Walser texts that inspired them. To Farrell’s surprise, Walser spurred many of the artists to diverge from their signature practices: Graham also composed poems that appear in A Little Ramble, and filmmaker Dean contributed an essay based on found flea-market art.

Walser’s story “A Painter’s Life” shaped McElheny’s prints of the same title and Imaginary Paintings, an installation of colored-glass rectangles in early-20th-century picture frames. “I thought about the way literature doesn’t provide all the information, and thereby creates this opening for one’s own thoughts,” the MacArthur-winning artist explains by phone from his Brooklyn studio. Young’s collaborative effort, he suggests, proves “there’s a way of crossing the boundary between art and literature that’s not sentimental.”

Donald Young Gallery closes with a reception November 2, 5–7pm.

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