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.