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Grabner received a B.F.A. (painting and drawing) in 1984 and an M.A. in art history in 1987 from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee. She received an M.F.A. from Northwestern University in 1990.At NU she worked with painters Ed Paschke and William Conger. She is Professor and Chair of the Painting and Drawing Department at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she has been teaching since 1996. From 1997 through 2003 she was on faculty at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Department of Art.
Grabner considers herself a conceptual artist, and her work seeks Platonic ideals of orderliness and routine. In her early work, she pursued these principles through her domestic environment and everyday life (crocheted blanket patters, paper towel patterns, etc.) and in her later abstract work through repetitious vocabulary, simple mathematical ordering, the Archimedean spiral, and basic radial compositions. In her most recent work, she has revisited the domestic realm through use of fabric and gingham patterns. She sees this work in relationship to the work of Eleanore Mikus, Anni Albers, and Sheila Hicks. Critic Barry Schwabsky writes that, “Her paintings refer to the traditionally feminine realm of the domestic by way of the metaphorically loaded imagery of fabrics and textiles--not only blankets and curtains but rugs, clothing, and so on. They might therefore be seen as a Pop rereading of the abstractionists' grid, in the tradition of the Dutch artist Daan van Golden's work of the '60s, or as continuing the recovery and reevaluation, in the feminist-inspired Pattern & Decoration art of the '70s, of the "secret language" and "covert imagery" (as Miriam Schapiro and Melissa Meyer put it in 1978) of women's domestic productivity."
Critic Maika Pollack writes, for Southfirst gallery, “Grabner’s gesso and Flashe on canvas tondo paintings address repetition in their internal structure (optical and dot-based) and sheer profusion (there are over fifty). They are circular, from eight to eighty inches in diameter, and hung around the gallery like so much punctuation without a text. Are they aphasic? Her work evokes the history of abstraction as well as the feminine-gendered domestic patterning of washcloths, crocheted blankets and patterned paper towels. Perhaps they are about learning language, our first haphazard and repeated phonemes. Grabner invokes Gertrude Stein’s work on composition for this installation; of its arbitrariness she writes “I am not opposed to [the tondo paintings] even being illustrations of Stein’s periods.”
Her work is in the collection of the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, Milwaukee Art Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; DaimlerChrysler Collection, Berlin; Musee d'Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean, Luxembourg Mudam Museum, Luxembourg; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington DC; and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
Essays and reviews by Grabner have been published in Artforum, X-tra, Frieze, and Modern Painters.
The Suburban and The Poor Farm
Grabner and her husband Brad Killam run the artist project space called The Suburban in Oak Park, Illinois, which they developed with friend David Robbins in response to the idea that the suburbs were an overlooked site for avant-garde activities. Since January 1999 they have worked with over 200 artists.
In 2008 Grabner and Killam purchased the Waupaca County Poor Farm in the Town of Little Wolf in Waupaca County, Wisconsin. The building's 8,000 square feet (740 m2) is dedicated to year-long exhibitions. The Poor Farm, a non-profit art space and residency also has a dormitory building for artists and writers. The Poor Farm hosts classes from the University of Minnesota and Columbia College, and each summer hosts Summer School, a free school with a mix of students and faculty from colleges around the Twin Cities. During the summer of 2009 the Waupaca County Poor Farm was the site of The Great Poor Farm Experiment, a series of artworks installed and presented in and around the Poor Farm during the renovation of the main exhibition building.
- Michelle Grabner. University Normal, Illinois: Galleries of Illinois State University, 2008.
- Brooklyn Rail, March 2012
- Artforum, October 2006
- Southfirst: presents Michelle Grabner’s Never Quite Happy Home. Retrieved 2011 November 26.
- Michelle Grabner named curator for Whitney Biennial - JSOnline
- Relyea, Lane and Michelle Grabner. “Remain in Light”. Illinois State University, 2008
- Michelle Grabner's Black Circle Paintings, Metalpoint Drawings and Monoprints. Poor Farm Press, 2009.
- Jacob, Mary Jane and Michelle Grabner (eds.). The Studio Reader. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010.