Chicago Archives: Imogen reports on a research trip to the US

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower, 1,353 feet up

A view of Chicago from the Willis Tower, 1,353 feet up

An aspect of PhD research that I especially enjoy is tracking down and analysing archival material. I’ve recently returned from a five-week research trip to the US (generously funded by an AHRC grant) where I visited 9 different archives that hold documentation relating to the art therapy courses that Bauhaus artist and teacher László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) developed at the Institute of Design in Chicago in 1943. In 1933 the Nazis closed the Bauhaus school of art in Germany, and Moholy-Nagy, like many of the institution’s teachers and students, emigrated to the US where he continued to practise and develop Bauhaus concepts and methods.

To find out more about both Moholy-Nagy’s interest in the possibilities of art therapy and the medical professionals with whom he worked, I spent most of my time in Chicago (Birmingham’s twin city), where I visited archives at the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago, the Illinois Institute of Technology, Chicago Institute for Psychoanalysis and the Chicago History Museum. I also flew to New York to pursue my lines of enquiry further, spending my mornings at the Archives of American Art and afternoons at The Museum of Modern Art archives. (I would need another blog post entirely to explain why researching at MoMA was so particularly exciting…) The following week, I hotfooted it over on an Amtrak train to Springfield, the capital of Illinois, to view documentation from the slightly bizarrely titled ‘Department of Mental Hygiene’ from the 1940s.

MoMA sculpture garden

MoMA sculpture garden

Archives are rich and exciting sources of information. Unpublished letters, reports, minutes, manuscripts, and diaries, as well as exhibition catalogues, advertisements and newspaper articles all communicate vital empirical information about how people or institutions operated together, and subsequently pave the way for further investigation into what particular art practices might mean. Archival research leads to exciting moments of discovery when you stumble across an illuminating reference. There were moments during my trip, usually towards the end of the day when, tired and hungry, I was jolted sharply from the haze of fatigue by a reference leaping out from a file. On one occasion, this was an unpublished typescript written by Moholy-Nagy, held within the personal papers of a Chicago-based occupational therapist, which contributes to my understanding of how, and with whom the artist operated within the therapeutic field. These small instances of revelation amount collectively to a greater understanding of a subject.

Of course, there are also pitfalls to archival research. Archives raise questions about the possibilities of over-interpretation. How far can you draw conclusions by analysing the language used in letters, which might have been written in haste, for example? Importantly, Michel Foucault argues that archives are a source of power in society and that their storage is never a passive act. Primary source documentation shapes how history is written, and, in light of this, omissions and silences in material can be as significant as what is recorded…

Anish Kapoor's Cloud Gate (the artist's first public outdoor work installed in the US)

Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate (the artist’s first public outdoor work installed in the US)

 

'The Bean' at night

‘The Bean’ at night

During my time in the US, I was also fortunate to meet up with archivists, curators and research fellows, which led to thought-provoking discussions about my PhD research and allowed me to consider further the position of my own work within current scholarship.

Alongside my research in the archives, I also had the opportunity to explore the exciting and culturally-rich city of Chicago, experiencing Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate, views from the 1,353 foot high Willis Tower ledge, a free open-air Tchaikovsky concert at Millennium Park and fireworks at Navy Pier. Not to mention the incredible collection at the Art Institute of Chicago, outdoor public artworks by Picasso, Miro, Chagall and Dubuffet, Hull-House Museum, the underground Art Deco vaults at the Chicago Board of Traders (normally closed to the public), a river-boat architecture tour, the renowned antique Randolph Street Market, the grand stairs at Union Station from The Untouchables, Chicago’s famous deep-dish pizza, and drinks on the 96th floor of the Hancock Center…

 

Picasso's untitled sculpture at Daley Plaza

Picasso’s untitled sculpture at Daley Plaza

Top of the John Hancock Center

Top of the John Hancock Center

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877 at the incredible Art Institute of Chicago

Gustave Caillebotte, Paris Street; Rainy Day, 1877, at the Art Institute of Chicago

Post-archive ice cream...

Post-archive ice cream…

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