In the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago, there is a gallery. This gallery contains The Elliott Room (Charter Series) by Robert Ryman. It is one of the most fascinating works of art I have ever seen.
The room features five pieces, which consist of unblemished expanses of white, interrupted only by sparse horizontal and vertical strips of metal, and affixed to the wall by evenly spaced, unassuming bolts. Within this highly limited set of variables, Ryman nevertheless explores a vast range of possibilities. Though the paintings may appear superficially similar, none of them are alike, and each piece projects its own unique character.
But the paintings themselves are not the only art in the room. This particular gallery is a dead end, with only one entrance, and a large window looking out on Millennium Park. And it is this arrangement that permits the emergence of a new and unintended kind of artwork. The first time my girlfriend and I viewed The Elliott Room, we stopped at the threshold and briefly looked around in confusion before leaving. Although we didn’t know it at the time, we had found the key to appreciating the series on an entirely different level.
During our next visit to the museum, we took the time to stop and properly examine the work. The seating affords an excellent view of the entire gallery – including, most crucially, the entranceway. While contemplating the series, we gradually became aware of another part of the room: the audience.
We watched quietly and observed people’s reactions upon first seeing Ryman’s art. A woman with two children stood at the entrance, and turned back almost immediately. A middle-aged man paced around the room, bitterly cursing under his breath. A young couple walked up to the window, scarcely even noticing the artwork. Most people barely set foot in the room before realizing what it was and leaving in instant disappointment. And it was the funniest thing we had ever seen.
In fairness, if you haven’t read the description, the series could perhaps be mistaken for wall mountings without any art on them. And the vast north-facing window often draws people’s attention away from Ryman’s work. But the interaction between the art and its audience is one of the most engaging features of the museum. It’s a surprisingly evocative and challenging piece, and nowhere else did we witness such forceful reactions to an installation. In a way, the very act of putting this series on display has itself become a work of art. It may seem like one of the last pieces that would have the power to take on a life of its own and transcend the intentions of its creator, yet it does so effortlessly. And it is hilarious.
You don’t need to struggle to understand anything about it. All you have to do is sit back and watch what happens. I highly recommend it.