Material Matters

Christian Scheidemann, New York-based conservator, and Christine Mehring, faculty member and chair of Art History, orchestrate a series of engagements with local scholars, artists and curators interested in the materials of modern and contemporary art.  This two-year collaboration is a project of the Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society in partnership with the Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry.

Since Pablo Picasso’s inclusion of oil cloth and rope in his Still-Life with Chair Caning (1912), and Marcel Duchamp’s attachment of a bicycle wheel on a stool for his first assisted ready-made (1913), the diversity of materials used in art making has exploded. Nothing, perhaps, distinguishes 20th-century art more from prior art than its materials. Yet their significance – if, when, and how these materials matter and mean – has not been seriously addressed in art history. Such an effort entails, for example, considering a material’s exact scientific make up, its nature as shapeable matter or found commodity, its historical and cultural meanings or transcendence thereof, its tactile as opposed to merely visual appeal or use, its manner of being worked, its existence in time and possible demise, its function in shaping and withdrawing monetary or cultural value, and its very role in shaping the identity and definition of art. This surprising lacuna results most obviously from the peculiar conjunction of discipline-specific and interdisciplinary expertise required to address these issues.

This two-year project will bring New York based conservator Christian Scheidemann to the University of Chicago campus for a series of engagements with a growing number of local scholars interested in the materials of modern and contemporary art. A leading conservator of contemporary art, Scheidemann is the only one in the world who has built his expertise on art made from non-traditional materials. A scholar who, in his publications, draws on his art historical training, intellectual breadth, and conservation experiences, Scheidemann is also a practitioner in the sense that he restores art, halts or slows its aging process, or advises not to intervene, but also in the sense that he consults and collaborates with artists who work with unusual materials.