Exhibit features portraits of chess grandmasters

By Sarah Weinman

I was much too late in discovering the World Chess Hall of Fame (WCHOF), a cultural gem in the heart of the Central West End.  You’ll know you’ve come upon it when you see a 10-foot-tall wood chess piece outside the museum.  Housed in a historic former private residence, the museum boasts three floors of rotating, intriguing chess-themed exhibitions.

On the first floor, contemporary artist Glenn Kaino and modern artist John Cage come together in an exhibition titled Cage and Kaino: Pieces and Performances

The collective piece One Hour Paintings by Glenn Kaino are 24” x 24” grayscale portraits of past and present chess grandmasters.  Kaino painted each in one hour or less, timing himself with a chess clock.  The works depict grandmasters young and old, male and female.  Though the sitters were not playing chess when Kaino created their portraits, they appear tense and focused.  The artist achieves these effects through facial expressions (pursed lips, frowning, intense gazes) and hands (clasped tightly or fists resting against faces).

In 2005 Kaino constructed his own large-scale chess set and chessboard, titled Learn to Win or You Will Take Losing for Granted.  The artist cast his hands in bronze for the chess pieces and placed the pieces on a 24” x 80” x 80” board.  One set of pieces has negative connotations: the bishops raise their middle fingers; the pawns make “noogie” fists.  The other set of pieces has positive associations: the rook makes the “E.T. phone home” gesture; the king sports the two-finger victory sign.  Kaino assembled the chessboard with squares of wood from produce boxes and ammunition crates, perhaps another nod to the positive-negative dichotomy.

On the other side of the room, information about and material from artist and music theorist John Cage’s musical chessboard fill the space.  With the help of Ph.D. student Lowell Cross, Cage hooked up a chessboard to a tableful of electronic music equipment.  When each chess piece on the board was moved, a different note sounded.  In 1968 Cage played a famous game of chess with the modern artist Marcel Duchamp and designed this chessboard for the event.  The exhibition also includes a contemporary musical chessboard connected to iPods, which create the same effect.  Visitors are welcome to try out this piece.

The second floor features the exhibition Strategy by Design: Games by Michael Graves.  The Michael Graves Design Group worked with Target Corporation and then J.C. Penney between 2000 and 2013.  Graves updated board games like Monopoly and Chinese Checkers.  Other Graves designs include a toaster shaped like a loaf of bread and a teapot with a handle shaped like Mickey Mouse’s head.  The objects are streamlined and modern, enjoyable to look at and probably even more fun to use. 

Cage and Kaino is on view through September 21.  Strategy by Design is on view through September 28.  The World Chess Hall of Fame is located at 4652 Maryland Ave. in the Central West End.  Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Thursday and Friday 10 a.m. – 9 p.m.; Sunday 12 p.m. – 5 p.m.; and closed Mondays.  For more information, call 314-367-9243 or visit http://www.worldchesshof.org/. 

Sarah Weinman is from St. Louis and earned a master’s degree in art  history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She loves to plan trips and travel.  In her spare time she enjoys photography and writing, and she belongs to a weekly writers’ group. Her blog looks at visual arts in St. Louis, featuring whenever possible Jewish artists or themes.

Note: Since this blog post was written, the author has become an employee of the World Chess Hall of Fame.