The first object in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s new exhibition, “Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity,” is unexpected. Co-curators Michael Darling and Joanna Szupinska open the show with Tony Tasset’s i-beam (1996), a sculpture that hugs the floor rather than soaring toward the sky. It is literally a steel I-beam painted a glossy, bright red-orange—at once a disembodied structural component of a skyscraper and a metaphor for the slick, glamorous and powerful edifices of our collective imagination.
Darling says the show was “inspired by Chicago, its skyline, and the notion of Chicago as the birthplace of the skyscraper.” He and Szupinska include a diversity of artists and mediums in this sprawling, thrilling exhibition. Included are famous works like Andy Warhol’s Empire (1964)—an eight-hour film of the Empire State Building condensed to a manageable 55 minutes—and lesser known, but impressive works like Jeff Carter’s Untitled #3 (Chicago Tribune Tower) (2010), a sculpture made from IKEA furniture components and modeled after Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius’s Tribune Tower competition entry.
Jennifer Bolande’s Appliance House (1998–99) is one of many exuberant works that capture our love affair with tall buildings. It is a sculptural play on New York’s Lever House, the iconic 1950s office tower that put the Chicago architecture firm of Skidmore, Owings and Merrill on the map. Strips of translucent photographic negatives mimic the blue-green curtain wall of the original building and voyeuristically hint at what is hidden inside.
Other works address the anthropomorphic qualities of skyscrapers. Vito Acconci’s 20-foot-tall High Rise (1980) dominates its gallery space. Playing with the phallic nature of skyscrapers, Acconci’s interactive sculpture invites visitors to literally “erect” an accordion-like structure that gradually reveals the outline of a giant penis (!).
Past this point, the exhibition becomes more serious. Works like Jakob Kolding’s Untitled (2001) challenge us to question the social and political implications of deluxe apartment towers designed for wealthy urbanites and anonymous concrete housing projects for the disadvantaged. Cyprien Gaillard’s video Desniansky Raion (2007) depicts the failed utopias of high-rise housing projects across the world. His helicopter views of Kiev look less like Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse and more like the underground worker city in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
The exhibition’s most haunting works, however, address 9/11 and the destruction of the World Trade Center. Of these, the most eerie were created before the fall of the Twin Towers—they seem to predict the disaster to come. Painted in 1996, Francis Alÿs’s Corona (triptych) depicts a lone passenger jet flying across a cloudless sky above the tops of city buildings. Robert Moskowitz’s Skyscrapers, from 1998, reflects the darkened silhouettes of the Twin Towers themselves. Both works took on new, disturbing meanings after September 11.
The exhibition wraps up on a lighter, more lyrical note, presenting works with a folk influence or outsider-art aesthetic. Most whimsical is Yin Xiuzhen’s Portable City series featuring suitcases opened to reveal soft sculptures of city skylines, including Chicago (2012), a work commissioned specifically for the MCA.
Hanging from the center of the museum’s three-story atrium is another commissioned work: Monika Sosnowska’s Fire Escape (2012). The sculpture is a steel fire stair that has been manipulated by the artist; its flattened steps suggest the repeated floors of a steel frame skyscraper. This sublime exclamation mark to the exhibition captures both the beauty—and terror—of tall buildings in our modern world.
Franck Mercurio is serving as interim Art & Design editor while Lauren Weinberg is on leave.