Sunday, April 28, 2019

Arnheim on Cezanne











Madame Cezanne in a Yellow Chair, 1888-1890
Art Institute of Chicago

excerpted from 
"Art and Visual Perception - A Psychology of the Creative Eye"
(1954/1974)
by Rudolf Arnheim
 Chapter 1 : "Balance"

It follows from the foregoing discussion that an artist would interpret human experience quite one-sidedly if he allowed balance and harmony to monopolize his work. He can only enlist their help in his effort to give form to a significant theme. The meaning of the work emerges from the interplay of activating and balancing forces.


Cezanne's portrait of his wife in a yellow chair was painted in 1888-1890. What soon strikes the observer is the combination of external tranquillity and strong potential activity. The reposing figure is charged with energy, which presses in the direction of her glance. The figure is stable and rooted, but at the same time as light as though it were suspended in space. It rises, yet it rests in itself. This subtle blend of serenity and vigor, of firmness and disembodied freedom, may be described as the particular configuration of forces representing the theme of the work. How is the effect achieved?

The picture has an upright format, the proportion being approximately 5 :4. This stretches the whole portrait in the direction of the vertical and reinforces the upright character of the figure, the chair, the head. The chair is somewhat slimmer than the frame, and the figure slimmer than the chair. This creates a scale of increasing slimness, which leads forward from the background over the chair to the foreground figure. Correspondingly, a scale of increasing brightness leads from the dark band on the wall by way of chair and figure to the light face and hands, the two focal points of the composition. At the same time the shoulders and arms form an oval around the middle section of the picture, a centric core of stability that counteracts the pattern of rectangles and is repeated on a smaller scale by the head.

The dark band on the wall divides the background into two horizontal rectangles. Both are more elongated than the whole frame, the lower rectangle being 3 :2 and the upper :2 :1. This means that these rectangles are stressing the horizontal more vigorously than the frame stresses the vertical. Although the rectangles furnish a counterpoint to the vertical, they also enhance the upward movement of the whole by the fact that vertically the lower rectangle is taller than the upper. According to Denman Ross, the eye moves in the direction of diminishing intervals-that is, in this picture, upward.

The three main planes of the picture-wall, chair, figure-overlap in a movement going from far left to near right. This lateral movement toward the right is counteracted by the location of the chair, which lies mainly in the left half of the picture and thus establishes a retarding countermovement. On the other hand, the dominant rightward movement is enhanced by the asymmetrical placement of the figure in relation to the chair: the figure presses forward by occupying mainly the right half of the chair. Moreover, the figure itself is not quite symmetrical, the left side being slightly larger and thus again emphasizing the sweep toward the right.

Figure and chair are tilted at about the same angle relative to the frame. The chair, however, has its pivot at the bottom of the picture and therefore tilts to the left, whereas the pivot of the figure is its head, which tilts it to the right. The head is firmly anchored on the central vertical. The other focus of the composition, the pair of hands, is thrust slightly forward in an attitude of potential activity. An additional secondary counterpoint further enriches the theme: the head, although at rest, contains clearly directed activity in the watchful eyes and the dynamic asymmetry of the quarter profile. The hands, although moved forward, neutralize each other's action by interlocking.

The free rising of the head is checked not only by its central location but also by its nearness to the upper border of the frame. It rises so much that it is caught by a new base. Just as the musical scale rises from the base of the key tone only to return to a new base at the octave, so the figure rises from the bottom base of the frame to find new repose at the upper edge. (There is, then, a similarity between the structure of the musical scale and the framed composition. They both combine two structural principles : a gradual heightening of intensity with the ascension from bottom to top; and the symmetry of bottom and top that finally transforms ascension from the base into an upward fall toward a new base. Withdrawal from a state of rest turns out to be the mirror image of the return to a state of rest.)

If the foregoing analysis of Cezanne's painting is correct, it will not only hint at the wealth of dynamic relations in the work, it will also suggest how these relations establish the particular balance of rest and activity that impressed us as the theme or content of the picture. To realize how this pattern of visual forces reflects the content is helpful in trying to appraise the artistic excellence of the painting.

Two general remarks should be added. First, the subject matter of the picture is an integral part of the structural conception. Only because shapes are recognized as head, body, hands, chair, do they play their particular compositional role. The fact that the head harbors the mind is at least as important as its shape, color, or location. As an abstract pattern, the formal elements of the picture would have to be quite different to convey similar meaning. The observer's knowledge of what is signified by a seated, middle-aged woman contributes strongly to the deeper sense of the work.

Second, it will have been noticed that the composition rests on point and counterpoint-that is, on many counterbalancing elements. But these antagonistic forces are not contradictory or conflicting. They do not create ambiguity. Ambiguity confuses the artistic statement because it leaves the observer hovering between two or more assertions that do not add up to a whole. As a rule, pictorial counterpoint is hierarchic-that is, it sets a dominant force against a subservient one. Each relation is unbalanced in itself; together they all balance one another in the structure of the whole work.

**********
**********



I was intending to make this post a study of Thierry de Duve's 1993 essay about art education, "When Form has become Attitude -- and Beyond" -- but then I found an unfamiliar name whom he identified as one of "great modern theorists of art":




All progressive pedagogues of this century, from Froebel to Montessori to Decroly; all school reformers and philosophers of education, from Rudolf Steiner to John Dewey, have based their projects and programmes on creativity; or rather, on the belief in creativity, on the conviction that creativity - not tradition, not rules and conventions - is the best starting point for education. Moreover, all great modern theorists of art, from Herbert Read to E. H. Gombrich to Rudolph Arnheim, have entertained similar convictions and devoted considerable energy to breaking up the "visual language" into its basic components and demonstrating the universality of its perceptive and psychological "laws".




Who was Rudolf Arnheim (1904-2007) and what did he have to say?  That's when I discovered his book Art and Visual Perception  (1955/revised 1974)

He shares the following quote from Ben Shahn: "Form is the visible shape of content". ***

Or, to put it another way, content cannot be separated from form -- rather than the now prevailing assertion that content cannot be separated from context - i.e. political context - i.e. hierarchies of social power.

One might note that Shahn's statement would suggest that content can be comprehended anywhere, any time, by anyone with a healthy mind and  eye -- while in today's artworld,  a valid account of  context  is required --  the validation of which is the business of those institutions which require it.

Arnheim concludes chapter one with several paragraphs devoted to a painting by Cezanne that now hangs in my local museum.  So hopping on the train, I went down to the Art Institute of Chicago yesterday to take a fresh look at it.



*** It should be noted that Arnheim devoted a chapter in this book to "Form" -- wherein he  tells us that "
Whenever we perceive shape, consciously or unconsciously we take it to represent something, and thereby to be the form of a content.".  Shahn, however, used the word "form" quite differently.

After he wrote that "Form is the visible shape of content" in his  book, "The Shape of  Content",  he went on to write that "there is a great deal of content that enters into the twists and turns of abstract-to-nonobjective form"














Here's the painting in a bit more detail. Before discussing it, however, I'd like to briefly address the earlier part of Arnheim's discussion of "balance":







In short, just as a living organism cannot be described by an account of its anatomy, so the nature of a visual experience cannot be described in terms of inches of size and distance, degrees of angle, or wave lengths of hue. These static measurements define only the "stimulus," that is, the message sent to the eye by the physical world. But the life of a percept-its expression and meaning -derives entirely from the activity of the perceptual forces. Any line drawn on a sheet of paper, the simplest form modeled from a piece of clay, is like a rock thrown into a pond. It upsets repose, it mobilizes space. Seeing is the perception of action


Whether or not we choose to call these perceptual forces "illusions" matters little so long as we acknowledge them as genuine components of everything seen. The artist, for example, need not worry about the fact that these forces are not contained in the pigments on the canvas. What he creates with physical materials arc experiences. The perceived image, not the paint, is the work of art.


Why is pictorial balance indispensable ? It must be remembered that visually as well as physically, balance is the state of distribution in which all action has come to a standstill. Potential energy in the system, says the physicist, has reached the minimum. In a balanced composition all such factors as shape, direction, and location are mutually determined in such a way that no change seems possible, and the whole assumes the character of "necessity" in all its parts. An unbalanced composition looks accidental, transitory, and therefore invalid. Its elements show a tendency to change place or shape in order to reach a state that better accords with the total structure. Under conditions of imbalance, the artistic statement becomes incom· prehensible. The ambiguous pattern allows no decision on which of the possible configurations is meant. We have the sense that the process of creation has been accidentally frozen somewhere along the way. Since the configuration calls for change, the stillness of the work becomes a handicap. Timelessness gives way to the frustrating sensation of arrested time. Except for the rare instances in which this is precisely the effect the artist intends, he will strive for balance in order to avoid such instability.






figure 7                               figure 8




The above examples are adapted from a test designed by Maitland Graves to determine the artistic sensitivity of students. Compare a and b in Figure 7. The left figure is well balanced. There is enough life in this combination of squares and rectangles of various sizes, proportions, and directions, but they hold one another in such a way that every element stays in its place, everything is necessary, nothing is seeking to change. Compare the clearly established internal vertical of a with its pathetically wavering counterpart in b. In b, proportions are based on differences so small that they leave the eye uncertain whether it is contemplating equality or inequality, symmetry or asymmetry, square or rectangle. We cannot tell what the pattern is trying to say.

Somewhat more complex, but no less irritatingly ambiguous, is Figure Sa. Relations are neither clearly rightangular nor clearly oblique. The four lines are not sufficiently different in length to assure the eye that they are unequal. The pattern, adrift in space, approaches on the one hand the symmetry of a crosslike figure of vertical-horizontal orientation, and on the other the shape of a kind of kite with a diagonal symmetry axis. Neither interpretation, however, is conclusive. Neither admits of the reassuring clarity conveyed by figure 8b.


I like the idea that any mark placed on a sheet of paper is like a pebble thrown into a pond - producing the consequent waves of energy that ripple across the surface of the water (and mind)

But when considering the four examples produced by Maitland Graves to "determine the artistic sensitivity of students" I fear that I might fail such a test.

Rather than feeling that Figures 7b and 8a are "irritatingly ambiguous", I feel that they are enticing and soothing.

Rather than feeling "enough life" in Figure 7a or a "reassuring clarity" in 7b,  I feel that both  are  painfully tedious and annoying.  To borrow Arnheim's words from further down the page -- I find them "intolerably static"

But even if these examples produce a much different  feeling in me than in Graves and Arnheim -- I still agree that 7a  needs to be paired with 8b,  while 7b is paired with 8a -- regardless of any conceivable context.

And that demonstrable point is also important - maybe more so.





The quest for balance, however, is not sufficient to describe the controlling tendencies in human motivation generally or in art particularly. We end up with a one-sided, intolerably static conception of the human organism if we picture it as resembling a stagnant pool, stimulated to activity only when a pebble disturbs the balanced peace of its surface and limiting its activity to the reestablishment of that peace. Freud came closest to accepting the radical consequences of this view. He described man's basic instincts as an expression of the conservatism of all living matter, as an inherent tendency to return to a former state. He assigned a fundamental role to the "death instinct," the striving for a return to inorganic existence. According to Freud's economy principle, man constantly tries to expend as little energy as possible. Man is lazy by nature.


But is he? A human being in good physical and mental health finds himself fulfilled not in inactivity, but in doing, moving, changing, growing, forging ahead, producing, creating, exploring. There is no justification for the strange notion that life consists of attempts to put an end to itself as rapidly as possible. Indeed, the chief characteristic of the live organism may well be that it represents an anomaly of nature in waging an uphill fight against the universal law of entropy by constantly drawing new energy from its environment.


This is not to deny the importance of balance. Balance remains the final goal of any wish to be fulfilled, any task to be accomplished, any problem to be solved. But the race is not run only for the moment of victory. In a later chapter, on Dynamics, I shall have occasion to spell out the active counterprinciple. Only by looking at the interaction between the energetic life force and the tendency toward balance can we reach a fuller conception of the dynamics activating the human mind and reflected in the mind's products.

I enthusiastically agree with the above text and find it quite  inspirational.

Arnheim's discussion of balance in Cezanne's portrait, however,  is more problematic.

Assuming that his target readership are college students who hardly ever go to art museums, it was not a bad idea for him to begin by directing their attention to issues like proportion and movement.  But the best  and  most thorough way to become sensitive to these and all other visual qualities in a painting is by copying it and then judging the copies. Ultimately, balance is an issue that involves the instantaneous impact of the painting as a whole.  Compiling a verbal shopping list of balancing forces is a fool's errand.

It was also not a bad idea for him to introduce facial and other body expressions into  a discussion of balance.  Cezanne has been quoted as demanding that his human models pose inertly, as if they were apples -- as would be appropriate  for a painter who had an abiding interest  in the structure of pictorial space. But even Cezanne did not paint his wife entirely as if she were an apple -- and the repressed emergence of her personality as a woman rather than a fruit might even be offered as the theme of this particular painting. 

Regarding Arnheim's conclusions, I certainly agree that  " the foregoing analysis of Cezanne's painting ... only hints at the wealth of dynamic relations in the work"  -- but I would avoid any attempt to  "realize how this pattern of visual forces reflects the content ...in trying to appraise the artistic excellence of the painting"  The arrangement of forces belongs to the painting.  All analysis and verbalized notions of content belong to the viewer.  

I would propose that judgment should directly follow the visual experience rather than any attempt to connect that experience to some verbal notion of content.  In a subsequent book, Visual Thinking (1969), Arnheim challenges the differences between thinking versus perceiving and intellect versus intuition and critiques the assumption that language goes before perception and that words are the stepping stones of thinking. 

I did feel that something like "the combination of external tranquility and strong potential activity." is what first, and continuously, strikes me in the portrait of Madame Cezanne who seems to be trying very hard to hold still  and stay in the same room with her husband. To ask "how is the effect achieved", however, is to ask what even the artist himself could probably not answer.

To quote from "A Few Words of a Kind" by  Dylan Thomas:


You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it technically tick and say to yourself when the works are laid out before you the vowels the consonants the rhymes rhythms, “yes this is it this is why it moves me so it is because of it’s craftsmanship,” but you are back again where you began; the best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps in the works of the poem, so that something that is not in the poem can creep crawl flash or thunder in........ everything happens in a blaze of light"



Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ten Painters of Chicago Cityscapes



Andy Paczos






Brian Wells







David Rettker









Dmitry Samarov








Emily Rapport







Emmett Kerrigan








Enrique Santana







Kevin Swallow








Marion Kryczka






Sandra Holubow





Art Chartow







Albert Vidal

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Qing Dynasty Jade Brushpot






This Qing Dynasty six-inch jade brushpot just sold for $2,060,000 at Sotheby's.  It depicts an imperial procession.

For the previous 118 years it was in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago - but I don't remember ever seeing it.

I doubt that it has been on display recently.  The gallery space for Chinese art was reduced significantly when the Roger Weston Galleries of Japanese Art was installed in 2010.






Here are some  detail views:















I would call this a treasure of world art. It's subject matter - an imperial procession - and it's function - a container for writing brushes -  celebrate  the political and intellectual foundations of  Chinese civilization.  Its craftsmanship (it's only six inches high!)  in an extremely hard material is amazing. No evaluation of its formal qualities, however, should be attempted without seeing the actual object.


As usual, the Art Institute made no announcement of the deaccession.  Many thanks to Matt Morris for bringing it to public attention -- and  for suggesting that the museum be more transparent about  deaccessions by displaying the works one last time and sharing the reasons for cashing them out.

This is exactly what the DePaul Art Museum did in 2010 when it mounted an exhibit of all the stuff it was selling off in preparation to move into its new facility.

The  DePaul Art Museum even invited the public to vote thumbs-up or thumbs-down for each piece.

That vote was just a gag. Everything in the show was still removed from their collection.

And I would not pay much attention to the opinions of the great unwashed public either.

But I would like the museum to explain their decisions.  It might make desist from  deaccessioning when no good reasons can be given.. While,  if the explanations are really good ones --- wouldn't they serve to edify the rest of us?




Thursday, January 31, 2019

Art in Chicago since 1945

 I moved to Chicago in 1975 to be closer to the city's aging public sculptor, Milton Horn , an artist much closer to the 17th Century than to the late 20th. So I've never had much interest in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.  But I did go there in 1997 to view "Art in Chicago, 1945-1995" to learn something of the local art scene.

When first read, this review,  published in the May, 1997 edition of Art in America,  made little sense to me.  The artists were unfamiliar.

Now, however, having spent the past ten years reviewing local art, I can recognize it's value.  The author offers succinct and pithy comments on a dozens of local artists - most of whom are still showing in area galleries and museums.



***********************


Art in America - May, 1997
  
   "Where the Wild Things Were" By Richard Vine
  


Is there-was there ever a Chicago aesthetic? Surveying work from the 50 years following World War II, a recent show at the city's Museum of Contemporary Art presented a complex history of movements, groups and individual talents in the nation's third-largest art center. When it comes to contemporary art, not only can you not go home again, you can't even visit. This point was powerfully, if unintentionally, made by "Art in Chicago, 1945-1995," recently on view at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. Curator Lynne Warren's gathering of 187 works by 149 artists induced several distinct reactions. For viewers unfamiliar with Chicago's critically neglected art scene, the show was immensely informative. But it left insiders either picking nits (mostly of the "who's in, who's not" variety) or, as in the case of this erstwhile resident, touched by a nostalgia for the days when the city's best work was vital and unpredictable rather than safely-and somewhat deadeningly-catalogued.

It's hard to argue with the irony of this situation - though it's been repeated every time that rebels become enshrined as icons: DeKooning, Picasso, Manet -- all the way back to the pioneer naturalists who designed the statuary for the Parthenon.

The job of art criticism is to query whether such work still has value once it is no longer shocking and unpredictable. Vine's review doesn't really do that - for all its wit and information.

And it's not "picking nits" to debate who's in and who's out of a regional survey of art. It's the most important issue - especially if entire categories of visual culture have been excluded. This show,for example, had zero naturalism or figurative idealism. There was no landscape painting or commissioned portraiture - no religious art of any kind - no depictions of athletes - no commercial advertising - no comic book illustration - no Asian brush painting - no calligraphy.

Overall, what's been excluded is any art that offers a positive, healthy, adult view of humanity.



In this first full-scale survey of the postwar era in Chicago, every attempt was made to be comprehensive and evenhanded. Kevin Consey, current director of the MCA, initiated the project in 1990, reportedly out of exasperation with another exhibition, "The Chicago Show" that the museum had coorganized at the Chicago Cultural Center along with the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) and the Department of Cultural Affairs. Conceived as a culturally diverse sampling of area artists, "The Chicago Show" floundered when 84 of the 90 artists chosen by the five-member blind jury turned out to be white. (The overall Chicago populace is 39 percent black, 37 percent Anglo Caucasian, 20 percent Hispanic, mostly of Mexican origin, and 4 percent Asian. In response to protests, the organizers then inserted an apology into the catalogue and extended invitation to 20 additional artists of color. Of these, 10 rejected the gesture and subsequently mounted a counter-exhibition at the Cultural Center. Chastened by this experience, Warren, who has held various positions at the MCA for two decades, worked on "Art in Chicago" with other staff members for five years. In the process, she relied heavily on an advisory committee of 18 Chicago art-world worthies (ranging from arts program directors to critic-historians to influential collectors) and on the feedback from five public roundtables that involved some 200 arts-community participants. To be considered for inclusion in the exhibition, artists simply had to have lived and produced work in Chicago for a reasonable period of time-regardless of their place of origin or subsequent residence. Excluded were those who, like the much-missed painter Robert Barnes, had a significant Chicago presence through their work but no record of sustained domicile in the city. Having served on the jury of the ill-fated "Chicago Show," Warren was particularly careful to include a substantial number of black, Hispanic and Asian-American artists. She also chose to personally contribute (in a collaboration with assistant curator Staci Boris) a catalogue essay that, instead of disclosing her overall vision of Chicago art, concentrates on non-mainstream multicultural elements, especially "community-based" murals.

An interesting piece of history is recounted here.  I did not see that show.  In addition to excluding "black, Hispanic, and Asian-American"  artists -- the show probably also excluded anyone, of any color, who worked outside academic norms


No matter how many precautions are taken, however, a show of this nature can never completely satisfy it primary constituency, the artists themselves. There was a tremendous self-consciousness about this enterprise, an awareness that history was being made-or at least proposed-through these curatorial selections and catalogue essays. Thus it is not surprising that some artist felt unfairly passed over (my own list of missing persons includes Andrea Blum, Terry Karpowitz and Richard Loving), while others felt inappropriately represented by early work. For example, in one of the show's more peculiar moves, Edith Altman, now primarily known for spiritualized installations and confessional performances dealing with her post-Holocaust survivor's built, was represented by "Obuli #23" (1970), an abstract sculpture composed of 24 obliquely stacked birch-wood ovals.

I am unfamiliar with the work of Blum, Loving, and  Altman -- but I have seen a Terry Karpowitz piece, "Equilibrium", weekly ever since it was installed at the corner of Dearborn and Elm. I find it pleasantly boring......but it does feel appropriate for the tight urban space that it occupies.

The exhibition was distributed over 12,800 square feet in five installments, each covering 10 years, and (except the pluralistic, 46-participant last) containing the work of 20-25 artists. (Research assistant Dominick Molon curated a sixth segment, "Time Arts Chicago," dealing with film, performance, and video for the entire 50-year period-another story in itself beyond the scope of this report.) The vast majority of artists were limited to one or two works; only a few of the best-known names appeared several times: e.g., four works apiece by Roger Brown, Leon Golub, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, and H.C. Westermann. The most striking feature of the exhibition as a whole was the tension between the often irreverent, high-energy works on display and the institutional sterility of their setting. An overly conscientious survey-its effect was that of walking through an encyclopedia-was installed in German architect Josef Paul Kleiheus's grand-bland building. (It is a major irony that the MCA, identified with a city widely admired for a superb architectural tradition-Sullivan, Wright, Mies, Jahn-should, after a two-year international search and $46.5 million expenditure, find itself newly housed in a devitalizing shoebox. Here, the dutifulness of Warren's choices was only intensified by the clinical, smallish galleries and graceless central hallway that split the show disconcertingly in two.) Essentially, "Art in Chicago" is what happens when you impose a politically correct late-1990's sensibility, coupled with a curatorship-by-committee approach, onto often wild-and-woolly work that was originally produced without the least thought of social responsibility or decorum. As I strolled-excuse me, assiduously worked my way-through the show, I kept being struck by how earnest it made everyone look, when in my experience, solemnity, without some leavening or mania or absurdity, used to condemn a Chicago artist to swift, dismissive ridicule. What, I wondered, had become of the sheer effrontery I so fondly remember? To peruse the show's first section, "A Decade of Momentum, 1945-1956," was to be immediately impressed with the fact that most of the elements later associated with the "Chicago style" were already at hand by the time enrollment at the city's art departments swelled with the postwar influx of students of the GI Bill. Surrealism, for example, much favored by Chicago's most influential collectors, had been given intellectual cachet by Franz Alexander's Institute for Psychoanalysis, in operation since 1932, and was further boosted by the appointment of the Chilean painted Roberto Matta to a visiting professorship at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1954. The Surrealist movement clearly affected such seminal figures as Ivan Albright, whose "The Temptation of Saint Anthony" (1944-45) resembles a Bosch painting refracted through a blanket of prisms, and Gertrude Abercrombie, jazz-loving bohemian hostess, analysand of Franz Alexander and mentor to the Imagist impresario Don Baum. For decades Abercrombie produced symbol-laden, psycho-autobiographical canvases like the flat-hued "The Courtship" (1949), which depicts a long-gowned lady on a seashore, bracketed by a phallic lighthouse and a vaginal moon sliver, being "robbed" (of what, it's not clear) by a masked, finger-pointed bandit/suitor.



I also hate the design of the MCA building. It looks like a Gestapo police station. But do we really don't want a gallery space to compete for attention with the art?

And if art can't overcome a sterile setting -- how exciting can it be ?






Gertrude Abercrombie, "The Courtship", 1949


as noted here I'm a big fan of this artist



But the landmark even of this period, repeatedly cited by the Chicago art world's many oral historians, was Jean Dubuffet's 1951 exhibition and lecture at the Arts Club, "anticultural Positions-a cri de coeur for the work of the untrained, the undersocialized, and the mad. Consequently, seeing the hand-annotated typescript of this talk in one of the show's many excellent secondary material vitrines was akin to beholding a long-inaccessible Art Brut relic. Nevertheless, a semi-realist work conveying social commentary also persisted from its '30s and '40s WPA heyday. The impulse could be detected here, mixed with hints of existential symbology, in the hatted, grid-trapped figures of June Leaf's 1956 "Arcade Women" (kissing cousins to the men in her friend Seymour Rosofsky's 1958 "unemployment Agency).



Seymour Rosofsky, , "Unemployment Agency"




June Leaf, "Arcade Women"




These same two pieces were displayed near each other at an
exhibition of the Monster Roster at the Smart Museum
nearly twenty years later.



It was yet more explicit in the impressionistic works of black painters such as Archibald J. Motley, Jr., and Eldzier Cortor, who showed, respectively, a crowded mixed-race street scene and a collagelike study of young women sharing a bed in a small, run-down room. Ironically, Warren's good-faith attempts at racial equity, in this section and throughout the show, only highlight a discomforting fact. Despite the Great Migration that gave Chicago an enormous African-American population and made it a hotbed for the country's greatest indigenous art forms, jazz and blues-ah how refreshing in an art catalogue to find an index entry for "Wolf, Howlin'"- the city's visual-arts world has remained overwhelmingly white. To be sure, the abstract sculptors Richard Hunt (three pieces shown) and Martin Puryear (two pieces) have developed international reputations, but most of the work by black artists included in this exhibition, like much of the Hispanic material, had the air of a "make-good" effort-not because it lacked artistic merit, but because it was so obviously a conscience-soothing (and pressure-group-appeasing) addendum to the way Chicago art history actually unfolded.

The city's most celebrated living artist in 2018, Kerry James Marshall, is an African American with no apparent connection to the Imagists, the Monster  Roster, or the Hairy Who.

So it's  quite possible that art historians in the near future will see  Chicago art history unfolding quite differently that it was back in 1997.


Sculpture-which in this first section ranged from an African-influenced black marble head by Marion Perkins to Cosmo Campoli's melodramatically figurative "Birth of Death" (1950) and two elongated abstractions in thin welded steel rods by Joseph Goto-is always something of an afterthought in one's take on Chicago; and so, regrettably, was it treated in this survey. Scale may have been as much of a problem as critical bias. The large-sized work produced in Chicago during these decades could be only faintly suggested by such examples as Steven J. Urry's jagged 7-foot-high loop of cut steel ("Blat," 1967) and a 7-foot-high John Henry assemblage of polished aluminum bars ("Lafayette '61," 1981) that brought to mind Mark di Suvero's productive stays in the city in 1963 and 1968-69. For the most part, sculpture in "Art in Chicago" was limited to either pedestal pieces or close-to-the-floor works. Examples included Konstantin Milonadis's model-sized (and overly cute) steel sire sailing ship, "Wave-Goer" (1964); Jerry Peart's painted-aluminum "Escape" (1973), which resembles a diminutive Lichtenstein brushstroke gone limp, and, more interestingly, an untitled 1993 Gary Justis work that incorporates a motorized polished-aluminum strut extending nine feet along the ground.





Cosmo Compoli, "Birth of Death"


Saw this piece at the recent Monster Roster exhibit at the Smart Gallery.


It was indeed monstrous.





Joseph Goto







Steven Urry


John Henry




Constantin  Milonadis, "Wave Goer"







Jerry Peart, "Escape"




Gary Justis


Photography, on the other hand, asserted itself forcefully from the beginning, with images by Harold Allen, Harry Callahan, Nathan Lerner, Arthur Siegel, and Aaron Siskind on view in the initial section alone. This strength was due largely to the fact that, since 1937, Chicago has been home to the New Bauhaus, now called the Institute of Design (ID) at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). Founded by Moholy-Nagy, the school has preserved Walter Gropius's emphasis on industrial design and truth-to-materials (Buckminster Fuller was a notable visiting lecturer in 1948-49) but also, like the original Bauhaus, has integrated these concerns with modernist adaptations of traditional arts. Alexander Archipenko, for example, served as the first head of the modeling workshop, sometimes wielding his cane against student work that displeased him. Taking a cue form Moholy-Nagy's pioneering abstract photograms, the ID's photography department has attained great distinction. Callahan, Lerner, Siegel, Sisking, and Art Sinsabaugh all taught there for long periods, encouraging generation of students to experiment with lensless exposures, solarization, extreme close-ups and other defamiliarization techniques, and to treat even ostensibly realistic, sharp-focus images primarily as fields of visual design. This approach also impacted photography instruction at the SAIC and other area colleges. Thus later parts of the show, little affected by chronology (or by recent strategies of appropriation), offered works of remarkably consistent quality, whether the familiar category was straight city scape (Yasuhiro Ishimoto, Sinsabaugh, Bob Thall), urban formalism (Siskind), interpretive realism (Allen, Callahan, Barbara Crane, Lerner, Siegel, Jane Wenger, Joe Ziolkowski), portraiture (Luis Medina) or experimental fantasy (Kenneth Josephson, Joyce Neimanas, Paul Rosin, Ruth Thorne-Thomsen). A version of the Bauhaus esthetic had it most persuasive advocate in another European exile, Mies van der Rohe, who lived in Chicago from 1937 to 1969, where he produced some of his best known structures (e.g., the 860-880 Lake Shore Drive apartment towers, 1951, and S.R. Crown Hall and other ITT campus buildings, 1959-67) and profoundly influenced, to controversial effect, the workaday architecture of the city's massive postwar urban renewal campaign (which consumed $24 billion in public funds between 1955 and 1960).



Evelyn Statsinger, "Bountiful Landscape", 1976



Despite the elegant austerity of Mies's own designs, his taste in painting and sculpture often ran to the figuratively fanciful, yielding a personal collection, heavy on Klee and embracing Picasso, that eventually included works by Chicagoans Evelyn Statsinger and Westermann. He thereby gave further impetus to the short-lived phenomenon of "Chicago-style" galleries that sold contemporary furnishings alongside current arts works, and helped foster the continuing tendency of local collectors to unite radically disparate styles-particularly classic modernism and Outsider art-in a single eclectic vision. One of Mies's students, the late A. James Speyer (himself a significant private collector) served as curator of 20th century painting and sculpture at the Art institute for 25 years (1961-86).







Minimalism fits with Outsider Art as well as alienation fits with madness. 



This esthetic witch's brew of emotive and rationalist factors contributed to the event that gave the first section of "Art in Chicago" its theme. "Momentum" refers not only to the accelerating pace of artistic activity in Chicago after the war but also, beginning in 1948, to a series of annual shows known as Exhibition Momentum, directed against perceived effetism of scheduling policy at the Art Institute. Founded in 1866 as the Academy of Design, this imposing institution had split in 1882 in to an encyclopedic art museum, the AIC, and its attendant academy, the SAIC, governed by a separate board. From 1889 on, the museum mounted an "Annual Exhibition of American Art." In 1947-largely though the influence of curator Katharine Kuh, who for decades championed formally advanced (and usually non-objective) contemporary art-the show was devoted to a peculiarly Chicagoesque blend of "abstract and Surrealist American Art." So vociferous was the political reaction-museum director Daniel Catton Rich was denounced as a Communist sympathizer on the floor of the U.S. Congress- that the AIC decided to modify it other signature survey, the "annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity," by excluding undergraduate SAIC students (prone, then as now, to provocative entries) from future jury consideration. The response from neophyte artist was predictable, in type if not in its high level of organizational sophistication. Demonstrations were followed by the establishment of a counter-exhibition, jointly organized by students from the SAIC and the ID. This, according to catalogue essays by Franz Schulze and Peter Selz, was an odd match; the SAIC participants were given to expressions of individualistic depth psychology and social alienation; the ID crew to a utopian vision of better living, both material and spiritual, through a melding of art and design, tastefulness and mass manufacture. Out of this dialectic, aided by activist efforts of then-young artists like Golub and Ellen Lanyon, emerged a string of independent salons, accompanied by well-designed catalogues, that drew high profile jurors such as Alfred Barr, Jackson Pollock, Mies, and Max Weber. These Exhibition Momentum shows gave early exposure to the work of aspiring artists, many of whom are now forgotten some of whom-like Schulze (to the outside world, Chicago's best known contemporary art critic)-went on to related endeavors and a few of whom-like Golub-became art word luminaries. The title of the show's second section, "The Second City Rises, 1957-1965," was evocative of a distinct Chicago mind-set. More than a reference to the tired, though undeniably real grudge that the nation's then second largest town has long held against the first, New York, it also played upon the title of the 1964 IIT show, "The Sunken City Rises"-which in turn pointed to Chicago's historical emergence form a swamp. (The city's name is derived from an Indian word for the wild onions that once grew in the marsh.) The "this ain't no Venice-or is it?" reaction prompted by that title revealed a characteristic mix of envy, admiration and disdain for the Big Apple and Europe, offset by an internalized agrarian ambivalence about cities per se, those centers of sin forever luring away the Midwest's prodigal sons and daughters. Much Chicago art implies a view of the metropolis itself as a monster of the subconscious, risen threateningly into the light of day. How could such a displacement and perversion of nature, a Gomorrah already destroyed once by fire (in 1871) and now brashly re-emergent, be anything but a menace to the family values of the heartland? From this preconception, supplemented by the war traumas of GI Bill artists like Golub and Campoli, came a tendency to emphasize and exaggerate difference (from nature, from the old culture) and to graphically celebrate peculiarity. Indeed, Schulze in 1959 dubbed the major affinity group of this period the Monster Roster in reference both to football's Chicago Bears (a.k.a. "the monsters of the Midway") and, more soberly, to the sometimes gruesome figurative work produced by Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Golub, Theodore Halkin, Leaf, Rosofsky and Statsinger, largely under the sway of the semi-mystical Existentialism espoused by the war- veteran Golub. Meanwhile, Westermann-acrobat, carpenter, wounded Marine Corps veteran of both World War II and Korea, haunted witness to the kamikaze devastation of the USS Franklin "death ship"- began producing the whimsical, finely wrought sculptural houses and figure-based boxes that gave imaginative license and high standards of craftsmanship, to several generations of Chicago artists.








H.C. Westermann, "Memorial to the Idea of Man, if he was an idea", 1958




H.C. Westermann, "USS Franklin Death Ship", 1976



Karl  Wirsum, "Armpits", 1963





Don Baum, "Babies of Della Robbia", 1963



By 1961, Golub, Leaf, Westermann and Nancy Spero had all permanently departed. But their legacy was manifest in the "Second City" section in works like Karl Wirsum's "Armpits" (1963), a pinball-type oil on canvas image of a woman with tufts of fur attached to her exposed underarms, and Baum's 1963 "The Babies of della Robbia," a spooky assemblage of white-sprayed, sometimes dismembered baby dolls with closed eyes. Such pieces indulged-therapeutically, one hopes-a savage playfulness that became increasingly characteristic of Chicago art in these years. At the time, New York wasn't having any of this, thank you. "New Images of Man," a 1959 show including Campoli, Cohen, Golub and Westermann (alongside Dubuffet and Giacometti) that Selz, formerly a teacher at the ID, organized for MOMA was thoroughly drubbed by the critics.


“The works on view constitute as disparate and uninteresting a group as has ever been assembled for a major museum show. . . . [Golub] seems to interest a few people whose opinion I greatly respect, and it may be that I’m blind to Mr. Golub’s virtues, [yet] I must say that I’ve seen very little outside the school studios that is so inflated, archaizing, phonily ‘expressive,’ badly painted, and generally ‘pompier.’ The only thing big about the result is its windiness.”-- William Rubin  director of the painting and sculpture department, MOMA, 1968-1988




 "rather than being the long awaited answer to Abstract Expressionism, the museum's monster show is confusion with wishful thinking buried under its sentimental hide"...  Manny Farber's review 'New Images of (ugh) Man' in Art News


New York Times critic John Canaday referred to Westermann as "a guest who arrived in a clown suit, forty years late for a costume party, to find a formal dinner in progress." 



My review of a recent Monster Roster exhibit may be found here


Three years later, a similar reception was accorded MOMA's "recent Painting USA: The Figure," which included Cohen, Golub and Barnes. This rejection created psychological room to maneuver for Chicago artists of other dispositions, such as the spiritual abstractionist painter Miyoko Ito, the dedicated "soft geometry" painter Roland Ginzel and the master collagist Robert Nickle. But, above all, it strengthened the pro-expressionist, anti-new York resolve of a new wave of Chicago artists-resulting in that rude efflorescence known as Imagism.




Miyoko Ito: "Mandarin" or "Red  Empress", 1977

I now like several of the artists who were in this show
…..but I like Miyoko the most!





Roland Ginzel



Robert Nickle: 50  Cents,  1968-73





Did these artists really need a discourse by New York art critics for a "psychological room to maneuver" ?  I'm skeptical.






Roger Brown, "Entry of Christ into Chicago 1976", 1976


The Entry of the Imagists into Chicago, 1966-1976" the show's third (and in every sense central) section, took its title from a wry 1976 Brown canvas ("The Entry of Christ into Chicago in 1976") loosely based, in turn, on an 1888 James Ensor work depicting the Messiah's arrival in Brussels. In all three cases, a play is made-with varying degrees of irony-on the idea that the Logos, however ill-received, could erupt in one's own hometown, one's own life. (In Brown's picture, Christ arrives on the back of a flatbed truck-a pretty reasonable update of entering Jerusalem on a donkey.) This is indeed the grandiose role accorded to the Imagists in Chicago art-world legend, and in critical perception on the East Coast and beyond. The group's hegemony was established through a series of galvanizing exhibitions organized by Baum in the mid-'60s and early '70s. outside of Imagist circles, these shows and artists-indeed, any Chicago artist whose work is both figurative and funky (e.g. Hollis Sigler, with her faux-naif paintings of little lost women whose lot is mused upon in inscribed texts, or Robert Lostutter, who produces eerie, glowingly colored, close-up watercolor renderings of bound figures and men in gorgeous feather masks)-tend to get lumped promiscuously together, sometimes along with the Monster Roster as well. In fact, the Imagists were never a formal group with a creed; rather, they were a curatorial invention that, like Frankenstein's creature, took on a life of its own. Named in the spirit of a rock group, the three "Hairy Who" exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center (1966, '67, and '68)-Hyde Park is the area around the University of Chicago, a middle-class enclave in the midst of the South Side ghetto-encompassed James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Wirsum. "Nonplussed Some" (1968) was most notable for introducing Paschke. "False Image" (1968) presented Brown, Eleanor Dube, Phil Hanson and Christina Ramberg. "Marriage Chicago Style" (1970) featured Barbara Rossi, the Hairy Who and Paschke, some of whom also participated in "Chicago Antigua" (1971). (Given the "bad boy" reputation of the Imagists, it is interesting to note that almost half of these artists were in fact women, at a time when few, if any New York movements could claim a comparable percentage.)




James Falconer: "Morbid Sunshine by a Miner Artist", 1966


Art Green, "Examine the Facts, Consider the Options, Apply the Logic", 1965-66



Eleanor Dube : "Cut Out", 1968


Phillip Hanson, "Rousseau's Lily", 1972





Respectability of sorts began to accrue to the Imagist "members" with the exhibition "Don Baum Says: 'Chicago Needs Famous Artists'" (1969), a rec-room-style installation in the old MCA's basement, complete with a cleaned-up, multi-duct furnace. Four years later, their apotheosis came in "Made in Chicago," a show that Baum organized for the twelfth Sao Paulo Bienal (1973), and which traveled in an expanded version to the Smithsonian in 1974 and "returned" to the MCA in 1975. This triumphal march, coinciding with the 1972 publication of Schulze's "Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945" (from which Imagism takes it name) gave vitality- and a measure of cogency- to conspiracy allegations such as those made in the New Art Examiner, launched by Chicago's Jane Allen and Derek Guthrie in 1973 with the express intent of demonstrating that the Midwest produces much art besides goofy, sexually charged figuration. However closely or loosely knit their association, these artist do share a preoccupation with aggressive figure-based imagery, allover composition, florid color and obsessively fine surface treatment. Although their work arose contemporaneously with Pop and draws upon similar sources, it is invested not with dispassionate irony but with comic horror, a frantic laughter in the face of mortality. One of the more interesting presentational gambits in "Art in Chicago" was a small room that attempted to simulate the third "Hairy Who" installation, which entailed floral linoleum on the walls and wall paper on the floor, the whole mixing classing wonderfully with the often intensely pattered works on display. Next door, the "1968 Room" organized by Boris offered countercultural posters and a video using vintage news footage to advance the dubious claim that Chicago artists were exceptionally political around the time of the infamous Democratic National Convention riots. Chicago's cooperative murals, supposedly the nation's first, are described as a pointed response to oppression in black and Latino neighborhoods. But this is essentially a reflection of what activists in other cities have found valuable in Chicago. On the home front, the period did give rise to several cultural organizations and to one noteworthy artists' group, the Black Panthers influenced AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists)-but their impact upon the Chicago art world seemed considerably less at the time that some revisionists, dominating the catalogue, would today like to believe. Closer to the art historical mark was the show's highlighting of fantasy works by three untrained talents (two black and one white, if you're counting): Joseph Yoakum, Henry Darger and Lee Godie, all of whom captivated the Imagists. Yoakum (1886/88-1972), the son of a former slave, claimed to have been born on an Indian reservation and to have traveled the world as a performer for several circuses and for Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show. During the last 10 years of his life, spurred by religious dreams, he produced an enormous number of colored drawing (at times incorporating tracings from National Geographic) that depict idealized landscaped of sinuous natural formations in a nonperspectival space. The reclusive, perhaps mentally damaged Darger (1892-1973), who worked as a school janitor, spent some 40 years developing a 19,000 page text and picture epic about young girls (frequently sporting penises) imperiled by mysterious alien invaders. His figures, usually traced or collaged from children's picture books, inhabit brilliantly hued landscapes that often completely fill both sides of his folding, multisheet, yards-long pages. Godie (1908-1994), a self-styled "French Impressionist," was a big lady who would occasionally paint her own face to match those of the "glamour girls" she routinely portrayed in colored drawings that she hawked on the streets for 20 years (1968-88). Her sharp-lined renderings, which also sometimes pictured a contemporary "Prince Charming," are filled in (with pencil, oil pigment, crayon, even lipstick) in a blatantly two-dimensional, nonmodeled fashion that influenced many of the artists and SAIC students who bought and learned form her. (If the organizers had been really on the beam, they would have included photos of the long-demolished River View Amusement Park and sample side-show tarps by Snap Wyatt, a figure much admired-and collected-in the Imagist milieu.)


Snap Wyatt, c 1950




This dynamic cycle - flowing from vernacular sources (especially comix, back -page advertisement, old toys, Outsider art, pornography and carny ephemera) to the art school classroom to the studio-was actively encouraged by SAIC artist-teacher Ray Yoshida, known for his rank-and-file formation cutouts and for eye-dazzling patterned-figure paints like the show's "Jizz and Jazz" (1971).


Ray Yoshida, "Jizz and Jazz", 1971



Meanwhile, Whitney Halstead, who taught art history at the SAIC, exposed his students to a wide range of formal influences-both Western and non-Western, mainstream and other-through repeated visits to the ethnographic collections of the Field Museum of Natural History and through his in-class use of some 60,000 lecture slides that encompassed images from every corner of the globe. The titles of the last two sections, "The Bit Picture, 1977-1985" and "(Un)assigned Identities, 1986-1995," were a tacit admission that, for better or for worse, Chicago has produced no single movement in the last 20 years that seizes the imagination with the force of the Monster Roster or the Hairy Who. Instead, the local scene has exfoliated into one of global pluralism, played out against the lingering legacy of Imagism.



Frank Piatek, "Hierosgamos 11", 1967



Richard Loving, Chatterly, 1968





Vera Klement, "Tree Tops", 1967






William Conger, 1970




Miyoko Ito, "Pyramid of Silence", 1964






An attempt at counter-Imagists groups had been made as early as 1971 when a handful of abstract painters-only one of whom, Vera Klement, was included in Warren's selection-designated themselves "The Five." In 1981, Ito, Piatek, Loving and William Conger (the last represented here by a typical canvas of sharp, curving, multicolored strips against a dark background) formed a collectivity called the "Allusive Abstractionists." Obviously not everyone has the Schulze-Baum gift for nomenclature.


Richard Hull, "What I Believe", 1980




Jim Lutes, "The Welder", 1980's




Ken Warneke, 1995


Imagist-related artists of this period include the painters Richard Hull, who locates small featureless figures, seemingly composed of swirls, in houses with a dream-like geometry of jumbled planes; Jim Lutes, who places distorted figures in more-or-less realistic settings and Ken Warneke, whose dispassionate, bruise-toned canvases often feature free-floating limbs and disembodied heads. Warneke participated in a 1981 try at recapturing the old street-tough energy through an exhibitions titled "Black Light-Planet Picasso." This neo-Happening, held in the loft of Jim Brinsfield and Darinka Novitovic, featured New Wave music and keyed-up paintings displayed under black lights. Like "Hairy Who III," it was partially reconstructed in "art in Chicago"-but to disadvantageous effect.




Nereida Garcia Ferraz



Alejandro Romero, "Procession", 1991
(this does not match the description given below)


The work of several recent Hispanic artists also suggests a formal sympathy with the Imagists style (or vice-versa). Nereida Garcia-Ferraz produces pseudo-naive, image and Spanish text paintings that evoke her native Cuba; Alejandro Romero, known as a muralist and community organizer, was represented by "Procession" (1991), an assemblage of medicine cabinets, surgical instruments and sexy female mannequins surrounding a painting in which the notoriously hard-living Raya, wearing dark glasses, lies in a hospital bed with a tube up his nose.

  


Tom  Czarnopy , 1984


Michiko Itatani, 1994









But the show's single strongest embodiment of the Imagist aftermath was Tom Czarnopy's untitled sculpture of a partially crouched bark man whose eyeless face cumulates in a long hornlike branch that seems to serve him as a snout. Dating from 1984, the eerie, life-size piece is one of many tree-humans (including several root-fetuses) that the artist created in the late 1980s but has, lamentably, since abandoned for other forms. Meanwhile, all the standard varieties of abstract painting have continued in Chicago, from the geometricism of Rodney Carswell to the expressive scribblings of Susanne Doremus, from the spiritualized mark-making of Michiko Itatani (who complicates critical matters by occasionally introducing large tumbling figures) to the cool surfaces and hyper-rational "empty" compositions of Daniel Ramirez.




Rodney Carswell, 1988



 Susanne Doremus,  Aquarium, 1983



Dan Ramirez, 1995



Lately, the East and West Coasts have inflicted a subtle revenge on Chicago through the work of Wesley Kimler, whose exhibited "Egmont" (1995) looks like a misbegotten collaboration between Diebenkorn and Motherwell.

Wesley Kimler, "Egmont", 1995


Was it the painting or the cantankerous artist himself that drew this, the most negative response given to any of the art on display? I can certainly see how the piece might resemble both Diebenkorn and Motherwell -- but why is that conflation necessarily misbegotten ?


Tom Kovachevich, "Purple Gas", 1981







The economic boom-and-bust of the 1980s and 1990s had the same effects in Chicago as elsewhere. And the show makes clear that the aesthetic energy of these years was tied to a new philosophic model signaled by events like the 1978 founding of the journal "White Walls," with its emphasis of artist's writing and French theory, and the opening of the postmodern Feature gallery in 1984. An art scene that had always been gutsy and contentious now proved itself capable of at least moderate cerebration as well. One of the earliest manifestations of this trend was seen here in materials from a 1977 "dancing papers" performance in which Thomas Kovachevich ( the show's only artist-osteopath) placed pieces of shaped tracing paper on swaths of various fabrics spread over tanks of water, causing the paper to gradually absorb moisture and twitch erratically under the dramatic lighting.


Buzz Spector


But the godfather of Chicago think art is Buzz Spector, co-founder (with Reagan Upshaw) of "White Walls," which he published and edited for nine years, and a maker of altered postcards, artist's books and installation. "His Library" (1984), combining manipulated texts and natural rocks in long wooden box-shelf, is a typically waggish comment on the weightiness of reading.


Apparently "think art" is synonymous with "conceptual art" - though I've never seen that construction before. I wonder why Vine chose to use it. It's a genre in which I have no interest -- though it does serve to emphasize, by contrast, those qualities that attract attention visually.




Jno Cook, Cockroach Camera



Outright humor turned up in Jno Cook's "35mm Cockroach Camera" (1978), a contraption jury-rigged form camera parts and electrical components to function as a photographic bug-zapper, and in Robert C. Peter's installation titled "Chicago: Although Marco Polo Never Heard of Chicago, Its Story Really Begins With Him" (1982), which brings together a city map, loaves of bread from various ethic neighborhoods, and a hodgepodge of statistics and humorous quotes-among my favorites, tough-guy novelist Nelson Algren's "If Diogenes came to Chicago they would steal his lamp."





The era's overtly politicized art was no more profound in Chicago than it was anywhere else. (This, it should be remembered, is the place where, in 1988, an alderman led the charge to forcibly remove a painting of former mayor Harold Washington, in high heels and garter belt, from a student exhibition at the SAIC. A year later, a second SAIC student gained brief celebrity by spreading the Stars and Stripes on a gallery floor under an inscription asking "what is the proper way to display a U.S. flag?") Since the city did not produce a political artist with the formal panache of a Barbara Kruger or a Martha Rosler, it is probably just as well that Warren kept ideological works to a nearly invisible minimum


One interesting exception was Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's "Assigned Identities (Part I)," 1990, composed of 11 color headshot photos of Hispanic individuals on blank oversized ID-card backgrounds, each with a different colored border.


Inigo Manglano-Ovalle,  "Assigned Identities

Is this really supposed to exemplify "formal panache" ?



 The work that enjoys the greatest critical prominence in Chicago these days is either purely formal or "political" only in the incorrect sense of conveying a latent cultural critique. One can still ferret out paraphrasable messages about the malleability of perception and the social construction of sexuality in Jeanne Dunning's photographs like "Neck" (1990), on one of her phallic, shot-from-behind female "Heads," or in "Detail 8" (1991), and extreme, hyper-saturated ovoid close-up of a piece of tomato that compellingly evokes some improbably moist and intimate human body part.


Jeanne Dunning, "Neck"


A rear view of a woman's head might resemble a man's penis --- imagine that! It's funny -- but  what might be the "paraphrasable message" with a "latent cultural critique"?



Kerry James Marshall's painting "Untitled (Altgeld Gardens)," 1995, shows a young black man on his hands and knees, peering out at the viewer before a shallow-space depiction of a "bucolic" housing project.

Kerry Marshall, "Altgeld Gardens"


This painting seems so much more than a cultural critique.  It also seems to embody growth, yearning,  fulfillment, and the thrill of being alive.



And in a more playful vein, Kay Rosen contemplates the linguistic manipulations of meaning in works like "Various Strata" (1985), a painting composed in her now-signature fashion by stacking, in three tiers of diminishing type size, the terms "HIM/HYMM/HMMM."


Kay Rosen

This is just a very good billboard. Unlike all other good billboards, however, it qualifies as important art because it sells a politically correct cultural critique




 Tony Tasset, whose '80s stretched animal hide "paintings" were once esteemed as parodies of abstract painting and the commodification of art objects (and who once curated a show at the Randolph Street Gallery that featured three women wrestling nude in a pool of jello), was here represented by "Abstraction with Wedges" (1990), a thick square of Plexiglas resting inches off the floor on five wooden shims-perhaps because his use of animal products (to say nothing of the female accomplices) was too reconstructed for current curatorial taste. ..

Tony Tasset


One can say that every solid object has form -- and everything can be related to a politics .  The primary concern of this piece,however,  just seems to be playing the game of contemporary art.


Joe Scanlan's 4-inch-high "Untitled Candle (8 oz. Milk)," 1988, is one in a series of candles that he originally showed simultaneously with an art gallery and a furniture store, with identical pieces priced high as "art" and much lower as home decor - demonstrating, well, you get it.





Joe Scanlan, Four untitled Candles, 1988



 Pure formalism prevailed mostly in mini-formalist works. Richard Rezac's untitled 1986 ground-level sculpture, for example, resembles a cockeyed, 2-foot-long vermilion exclamation point laid on its side.

Richard Rezac, untitled, 1986


Rather than"pure fomalism", this might better be called "pure semiotic academicism" -- i.e. it's primary function is to engage linguistic theories current in academic institutions. 



Adelheid Mers' ethereal "American Beauties #19 (Flame)," a pattern of red light on the floor, served as wistful envoy piece for a show commemorating the city once described as "stormy, husky, brawling."


Adelheid Mers, American Beauties



Margaret Wharton, "Morning Bed"





 For the exhibition, experienced in its entirety, gave one the sense of moving from a time-tested aesthetic involving unique, well-made, often body-centered physical objects (e.g. Margaret Wharton's "Morning Bed," 1978) toward a new art-as-information (e.g., [Art] Laboratory's 1991 computer-derived "virtual photography" installation), in which facture-and even substantive presence - is of secondary importance at best.


I'm not convinced that facture and substantive presence is all that important in  "Morning Bed" either.



This change, along with the fashionable preoccupation with multiculturalism and identity politics (a rear-guard action in defense of vanishing diversity), marks a transformation that is in many ways representative. Chicago once had a distinct aesthetic; today it shares in the worldwide lingua franca of contemporary art that, like the mass marketing of sneakers of Coke, permits no more than minor local inflections. The diverse, autonomous cultures that once offered resistance and contradiction and richness-or at least alternative-to the dominant style of any historical age, are now being steadily obliterated, for all time. Today, viewers see essentially the same art in Chicago that they see in Paris or in Copenhagen or Seoul: one art world, on art language, one art mind-to our eventual detriment. The Chicago art scene I remember-and this is, of course, both the strength and the weakness of personalized history-was one in which, far from fretting about Second City, didn't give a rat's ass about critical opinion in New York (the transparent bravado of this claim was part of it charm); in which a well-known dealer, bragging about her recent breast augmentation at a dinner party, could lift her sweater and display the impressive results over the salad course; in which brunch at the Jones/Faulkner collection included a nonstop showing of male porno videos with titles like "Seven Boys in a Barn;" in which an evening at critic Dennis Adrian's table, where he and others proffered a rhapsody of devastating wit unmatched since the last days of Versailles, inevitably brought to mind Oscar Wilde's remark about "feasting with panthers"; and in which a friend, reflecting the sexual mores of the art world in general, could adopt as his personal credo Lord Byron's quip: " I have been more ravished than anybody since the Trojan War."



Richard Willenbrink, self portrait, 1988





 Well, times do change. I confess to being relieved that the show, although it included a work by the neo-baroque allegorist Richard Willenbrink, did not contain his nude portrait of me, in near-life-size scale, for which (with a recumbent former wife) I sat-or, rather, flagrantly stood-for many Sunday afternoons in that faraway time and place. Still, one can't help wishing that Warren's ever-so-careful survey had captured something of the outlaw, in-your-face quality that once made art in Chicago intellectually mordant-and outrageously fun.   


***************


Over twenty years later, both Vine and Willenbrink are long gone  -- while the Imagists remain the most, perhaps only, distinct kind of investment grade art Chicagoans have created.  Last year, the Art Institute re-created all the Hairy Who shows, completing their transformation from wild provocateurs to established icons.

So... may we now look elsewhere for interesting art? Does it still have to be "intellectually mordant" and "outrageously funny"? As Richard Vine has noted, that approach was outdated in 1997 - and it has certainly gotten no fresher over the decades that followed.



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