Candida Alvarez talks about the School of Art Institute, SubCity Projects

Darrell Roberts

Alvarez with SAIC student Sarah Sohn. Photo from ArtNet.

Currently serving as a tenured professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Candida Alvarez has been a part of the local Chicago art community since she first got a position with the Institute in 1998. She is originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., where she was born and raised by her parents, who came to the U.S. from Puerto Rico. She attended Fordham University’s Lincoln Center in Manhattan, where she received her Bachelor of Arts degree. She then went on to Yale University School of Art in Connecticut. After getting her master’s degree in fine arts at Yale, she attended the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, a summer residency program for emerging artists in Maine. She then became an artist in residence at the Museum of Modern Art PS1 in Long Island City, New York.

Alvarez’ work has been shown in prestigious collections such as the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Massachusetts, the Whitney Museum of Art in New York and El Museo del Barrio, a prominent Latino cultural institution in New York. Darrell Roberts sits down with Alvarez to talk about her past experience in the art world, her recent appointment as the graduate dean at SAIC and her on-going projects, as well as her plans for the future.

Alvarez's "Again." From 2002.

Darrell Roberts: What have residency experiences been like for you, both as an artist and visiting artist?
Candida Alvarez: In 1981, at PS1 in Long Island City, was my earliest residency experience. Alanna Heiss was director, and I had a small studio in a converted bathroom space, right next to the Alan Saret piece on the third floor. I was living in Queens, and I never really had a studio before. It was a turning point. I met artists from all over the world, and I got to plan my first installation experience inside a small arched space in the huge auditorium, which included the hanging of a large painting I made in the studio.
In 1984, the Studio Museum in Harlem was a real milestone experience because it included a stipend, a studio and a final exhibition. I met Kerry James Marshall, Allison Saar, Maren Hassinger, Charles Burwell, David Hammons and Charles Abramson, among many others.
While at the Addison Gallery of American Art as a visiting artist in the ‘90s, I met Sol LeWitt, who was visiting the gallery and preparing for a huge exhibit.

Darrell: You were a professional artist for many years before going to Yale for graduate school. What made you decide to take on this endeavor and what was your experience like?
Candida: It was the ‘90s; the stock market had crashed. My son was born, and my ex-husband, Dawoud Bey got accepted into the photo program (at Yale). After he graduated, it seemed like an exciting option for me to apply to the painting department. I worked with Mel Bochner, Sylvia Mangold, Catherine Murphy,Rochelle Feinstein, David Pease, Dick Lytle, Francis Barth and John Walker to name a few. Being in the MFA program was rigorous and challenging. It was not easy that first semester, letting go of my privacy. But it was worth it. The level of conversation and engagement was brilliant, and I shed a lot of comfort for more exciting territory. The time spent within the studio, the libraries, and the galleries was invaluable as were the critiques.

Darrell: You are now a tenured professor of Painting and Drawing at The School of the Art Institute and Dean of Graduate Studies. Can you describe your experiences from when you first started teaching there?
Candida: I remember the lecture I gave, for the job search, about 13 years ago in the Columbus auditorium. It was huge and dark, I could barely breathe. Robert Loescher greeted me afterwards and congratulated me. He re-assured me. “No one here is on a pedestal,” he said to me. I have found this to be true. It makes for an exceptional working environment. I taught in the painting department for 12 years. I was appointed interim Graduate Dean last semester. It is a very exciting time to be part of the new administrative team. I am proud to serve in this capacity, and I appreciate all the support of our staff and our dedicated and professional faculty.We are an amazing school of artists, designers and scholars. As you know our alum community is growing and thriving!

A performance at SubCity Projects from 2010

Darrell: Not only are you an artist, but you’re a curating artist. Can you tell us about SubCity Projects, how you developed it and where it is now?
Candida: SubCity Projects was born in 2005, inside a stationary elevator carriage that was out of use for over 50 years. My studio has been in the Fine Arts Building for several years now. I named it after a Tracy Chapman song. It is an organic space, in that it lives within the building, blending in. Two large double glass doors werelocked, allowing the viewers a peek from inside the public hallways. It is accessible for viewing when the building is open. I have invited a variety of artists both local and national to create specific projects or interventions. Currently, the new space is inside the former Lorado Taft studio. It is located in room 1036 and you can now view the work from a single glass window. Some of the artists who have participated with projects have included: Saya Woolfalk, Barbara Kasten, JoycePensato, Tania Bruguera, Anna Joelsdottir, Diana Fried, Tyson Reeder and, currently, Rebecca Keller.

Darrell: As Dean of Graduate Studies you were the main drive in the curated exhibitions and expanded galleries for the recent MFA graduates at The School of the Art Institute. How did you put it all together from the beginning to opening night?
Candida: This was an exciting challenge. I started working in the fall—Mary Jane Jacob, director of exhibitions for the Sullivan Galleries and her expert exhibitions team helped steer this in the right direction. The focus this year was on process. We hired four curators that were alums and created a curatorial fellows class that gave 12 students some practical hands on experience and allowed for an invaluable exchange between our MA students and our MFA thesis students to participate directly in the exhibition process. This was our largest exhibiting class to date, and we had a higher demand for exhibition space. We secured ground floor space on Wabash to compliment our 7th floor Sullivan galleries. The Wabash galleries were distinctive, in that the ceilings were 16 feet and the look and feel were more like a Kunsthalle.

Alvarez with fellow Chicago artist and arts professor Laura Letinsky

Darrell: You are represented in many museums and have been reviewed in many esteemed publications. What are your highlights as being an artist?
Candida: Having a studio at PS 1 when Joseph Beuys was having a huge show there, knowing that the exhibition essay Elizabeth Murray wrote about my work was her first on any artist, trading a drawing with Sol Lewitt and knowing he hung it up in his music room and never took it down, meeting Jean-Michel Basquiat and Andy Warhol as an artist in residence at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and hanging out with David Hammons in the ‘80s while he sold his snowballs and little white dollshoes in the East Village.

Darrell: What has been your most challenging exhibition?
Candida: I was invited to participate in an exhibition that was created on site over a month. It included paintings, drawings and installation and began with a single drawing by Sol LeWitt.

Darrell: Which one has been one of your favorites?
Candida: Peregrine Program. I hung six cloth paintings. The space, the daylight and the paintings were in sync. It took less than an hour to decide the entire exhibit. It was perfect and relatively stress free.

Darrell: What are your artistic endeavors for the future?
Candida: To keep working.