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The Allen Memorial Art Museum is currently closed for improvements.

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Allen Memorial Art Museum, Oberlin College
87 North Main Street, Oberlin, OH 44074
440.775.8665

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Like a Good Armchair: Getting Uncomfortable with Modern and Contemporary Art

January 17 - July 16, 2023
In Ellen Johnson Gallery

Like a Good Armchair: Getting Uncomfortable with Modern and Contemporary Art

January 17 - July 16, 2023
In Ellen Johnson Gallery

The Allen is fortunate to have a permanent collection with enough breadth to be able to speak to complex and nuanced topics, even in the context of a routine gallery rotation. This exhibition uses contemporary thinking around the body to revisit the impact and significance of some of the most cherished works in the collection alongside lesser-known ones.

In 1908, the painter Henri Matisse wrote that art should offer “a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.” Yet, as the 20th century progressed through World Wars, decolonization, and social upheaval, one of the major contributions of vanguard art has been its ability to challenge viewers to question their assumptions and routines.

Each thematic section of the exhibition is anchored by chairs and chair-adjacent artworks, several on view for the first time. Rather than a chronological survey, the exhibition focuses on the racial, ableist, gendered, and ageist politics of who gets to sit, when, and how.

Artworks by George Grosz, Yayoi Kusama, and Finnegan Shannon foreground disability and the ways that bodily variation conditions our experiences of the built environment. Berthe Morisot, Eva Hesse, Alice Neel, Nan Goldin, and Diane Arbus examine the way women are encouraged to sit and pose—often with legs crossed and a pleasant or downcast gaze. Renée Green, Alison Saar, Kara Walker, and Margarita Cabrera present chairs and seated bodies as vessels of intergenerational trauma as well as wisdom and resilience. Their works respond both to the wreckage of colonization and the flourishing of ancestral traditions in the diaspora.

Andy Warhol’s candy-colored prints of an electric chair offer a meditation on capital punishment and the sensationalization of news imagery. Frank Lloyd Wright-designed stools from the Weltzheimer/Johnson House serve both as seating in the gallery and an iconic example of midcentury design with a rich Oberlin history.

Regular visitors and alumni may be familiar with chairs in the Allen’s collection by artists such as Jim Dine, Scott Burton, and Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown. Other artworks featured in the exhibition, such as a multipart sculpture by the Cuban artist José Bedia, have never been displayed in an exhibition at the Allen. These works will be shown alongside new acquisitions in the Allen’s growing decorative arts collection by Art Deco designer Gilbert Rohde and the contemporary artist-designer Norman Teague.

Developed in conversation with current Oberlin students and faculty, this exhibition presents the seemingly ordinary act of sitting as an unsuspecting expression of privilege and identity. Like a Good Armchair invites visitors to move beyond the passivity in Matisse’s claim that art should offer relaxation, and instead investigates the generative thoughts and feelings evoked by the experience of discomfort.

Organized by

Sam Adams

Ellen Johnson ’33 Assistant Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art

With assistance from

Fudi Fickenscher

OC 2023

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Allen Memorial Art Museum Closed for the Summer

Starting May 27, the Allen Memorial Art Museum will close for the summer in the lead up to the completion of Oberlin College and Conservatory's Sustainable Infrastructure Program (SIP). Learn More