After 17 happy years at the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis, the chickens are flying off to Armenia. Yes, Armenia.
That would be the caged chickens painted by Doug Argue, a Minnesota-born, New York-based artist. The untitled picture -- 12 feet tall and 18 feet wide -- known informally as "the chicken painting" has been a popular attraction since 1995, when its owner, Gerard Cafesjian, then a St. Paul legal-publishing executive, lent it to the University of Minnesota museum. He plans to send it to his namesake Cafesjian Center for the Arts in Yerevan, Armenia's capital.
Fans are invited to stop by Sunday, say goodbye and leave a comment or record a favorite memory of the picture before it departs Monday. Because it is so big, it will be removed from its stretcher-frame and rolled up for shipping.
"I love the Weisman, and think it's been great there," Argue said, "but at the same time I'm eager to see it in Armenia. I'm curious what people will think of it there."
The Cafesjian Center for the Arts, which opened in 2009, is a lavishly appointed American-style museum with elegant galleries, a shop and a jazz club. An Armenian-American who now lives in Naples, Fla., Cafesjian had the building incorporated into a Soviet-era "cascade," a huge terraced park whose construction had stalled when the U.S.S.R. disintegrated and Armenia found itself economically and politically adrift. His Cafesjian Museum Foundation reportedly invested more than $35 million to complete the "cascade" and add the museum, designed by David Hotson Architects, a New York firm.
The New York Times described the project as "a mad work of architectural megalomania and architectural recovery ... one of the strangest and most spectacular museum buildings to open in ages."
According to the center's website, it had more than 1.2 million visitors in 2011. It primarily shows art owned by the Brooklyn-born collector, including sculpture by Barry Flanagan, paintings by Jennifer Bartlett and Archile Gorky, glass by Dale Chihuly and other Americans as well as international talents.
Crazy, made-up chickens
When Argue painted the chicken picture, he had never seen a factory farm in which birds are confined in tier upon tier of cages that seem to stretch forever. He had once visited a turkey farm where thousands of birds were confined to pens separated with "little wooden boardwalks and fans constantly running," details he incorporated into his image. For him the receding grid of birds was a "metaphor for infinity and the impossibility of painting an infinite number of individuals. As they got smaller, I couldn't help but generalize them as a dot.
"I had no idea that chicken farms actually resemble what I was making," he said by phone. "I just made it up."
It took him more than two years to complete the picture, during which time he supported himself with a grant from the McKnight Foundation.
"I think it sold for about $42,000 or $44,000, which came to about 2 cents an hour, probably even less if you deduct the expenses for paint, canvas and other material," he said.
Argue's current paintings feature "exploding letters" and are about half the size of the chicken picture. They sell for upwards of $100,000 at fashionable Haunch of Venison Gallery in Manhattan or through his New York dealer, Asher Edelman. Earlier this year one of his 2010 paintings was among the top 10 lots in a sale at Phillips de Pury, the international auction house, where it fetched $92,500.
Weisman director Lyndel King said the chicken painting has been a museum favorite "because it looks so simple but has so many layers of meaning."
She recalled the reaction of a black inner-city Minneapolis kid whose teacher pushed him to stand up and talk about the picture. "At first he said it has no meaning. The artist is just crazy painting all these chickens in a pen. And then he suddenly stopped, looked again and said, 'Oh. I know. It's like a slave ship,'" King recalled.
"And you know, it is like a slave ship. Here's a kid who probably never thought about a painting in his life and he had this incredible stroke of insight that I'd never had.
"One of the reasons we're going to miss it so much is that it's so important in helping kids realize that you can make your own meaning from art."
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431