Expanding Narratives: The Figure and the Ground

April 24–December 16, 2018

The first iteration in a three-part exhibition series, Expanding Narratives uses the formal relationship between the figure and the ground in Western art history as a conceptual springboard into discussions around visual representation, the museum space, and the role of the Smart Museum’s collection in fostering the exchange of diverse perspectives.

The exhibition tells a familiar story of aesthetic progress—from naturalism to abstraction to a plurality of contemporary art practices across media—but gives pride of place to the work of women and people of color. It introduces the idea of figure and ground and then demonstrates the myriad ways that artists throughout history manipulated, debated, and, in some cases, ultimately eradicated the dichotomy altogether. It features works in a variety of media—drawn from the Smart’s collection and supplemented by a number of important loans from University of Chicago alumni and Chicago-area collectors—including single-point perspective landscape paintings that act almost like windows on the natural world, modern works that play with perspective or use multiple viewpoints, surrealist paintings that create new realities, abstract works that emphasize surface quality and artifice over illusion, and even sculptures and installations that invite the viewer to enter into a figure-ground relationship with the artwork itself.

Through these works, the exhibition examines the social, political, and creative impulses that help drive the creation and subversion of illusionistic space in art. The Figure and the Ground challenges visitors to consider all the ways their own senses of perception and perspective can be shaped through the museum space.


Exhibition includes works by Kevin Beasley, McArthur Binion, Gustave Caillebotte, Jim Campbell, Nick Cave, Paul Delvaux, Dan Flavin, Sam Gilliam, Jeppe Hein, Rashid Johnson, Lee Krasner, Kerry James Marshall, Joan Mitchell, Alice Neel, Trevor Paglen, Mark Rothko, Cindy Sherman, Sylvia Sleigh, Kara Walker, Jack Whitten, and Kehinde Wiley, among others.

Expanding Narratives: Theme and VariationS

April 24–July 22, 2018

Adjacent to the main space, a section of the exhibition explores how nineteenth-century French printmaker Félix Buhot dissolved classic distinctions between figure and ground in ways that challenge the limits of the etching medium.

In order to protect these works from damage caused by long-term exposure to light, this section will only be on display for the first half of Expanding Narratives. 

About the Expanding Narratives Series

This project is the first chapter of Expanding Narratives, a three-year, three-part collections and exhibitions project. By combining key loans from University of Chicago alumni and Chicago-area collectors with works from the Smart’s collection, the series offers an open platform to examine the composition and role of the Museum’s collection and how the addition of new works can shift and expand the narrative possibilities the Smart can create and share.

These three discrete reinstallations are guided by different thematic frameworks. In 2018, The Figure and the Ground sets the stage by thinking about representation through the formal dichotomy of figure and ground. In 2019, the second chapter in the series will focus on how museums, collectors, and others are re-inscribing African American artists and artists of the African Diaspora into the canon of the history of art. The third and final chapter in 2020 will break with traditional geographic divisions in museum display to tell an ambitious global history of art. The project will be installed chronologically with works from around the globe grouped together to examine critical points of intersection among people and cultures.

Top: Jeppe Hein, Why are you here and not somewhere else, 2004, Neon. The Booth School of Business Art Collection, Gift of Dean Valentine and Amy Adelson.