Art in Chicago, 1945-1995

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through March 23

By Fred Camper

Complaints were predictable. Long before the Museum of Contemporary Art’s survey of the last half century of Chicago art opened artists were whining about being excluded; after it opened critics griped that important artists were left out and lesser ones were represented by multiple works. Virtually everyone agrees the show is big and messy. It couldn’t be otherwise: there isn’t a single story of Chicago art.

The complaints about exclusion seem a bit silly: of course a viewer is going to have different tastes than curator Lynne Warren; of course no one is going to like everything in the show. I doubt Warren does: she seems to have included some artists for their historical importance, as she should have. It would be a shame if discontent with critical judgments makes it harder to mount curated exhibits of local art; I still shudder to recall the hysteria about selection that finally killed off the “Chicago and Vicinity” shows in 1990. Chicago art has no canonical history, and in this postmodern age one isn’t likely to be written; serious observers of the local scene will view the MCA’s show as just another contribution to it, however large and prominent.

But as much as this exhibit aims to represent all of the major currents in Chicago art in its 215 chronologically organized works (the time arts–film, video, and performance–are exhibited separately), this is a show with a dominant theme. Buzz Spector (an artist who is included) told me he thought the exhibit takes as its “ground zero” the Hairy Who room, almost midway through the show. I agree.

Six brash young artists calling themselves the “Hairy Who” began exhibiting together in 1966–and attracted an unprecedented degree of attention to Chicago. These six and their allies, who soon came to be grouped together as the Chicago Imagists, gave Chicago art an identity it still maintains–or, depending on your perspective, that still dogs it. Partly because there are so many trends in Chicago art, the Imagists’ loud colors and startling figures tend to command viewer attention. And the Hairy Who is one of only two groups whose shows are partially reconstructed here. For these reasons, the Imagists’ work tends to affect one’s perception of everything else.

Among the show’s many narratives, then, is a kind of master narrative that, to varying degrees, includes more than half the pieces. One might call it the story of a “Chicago school,” not referring to all art made here but describing certain stylistic characteristics. This Chicago school is first of all figurative, in an era dominated by abstraction. Messy, rough, it’s often cluttered with details and with a variety of materials. And it’s resolutely physical. If Rothko’s or Gottlieb’s abstractions are passageways to something else, H.C. Westermann’s bottle caps are just bottle caps, and Roger Brown’s luminous, flat cityscapes are grounded in bright colors, biomorphic shapes, and voyeuristic views through windows.

In the more successful pieces, the clutter of forms results in an inspiring energy: paintings leap out, sculptures thrust up. Pieces of the clutter seem to collide almost like gears meshing, exchanging energy. It’s as if the ghost of our boomtown past–one observer wrote of Chicago in the late 19th century that “it grows o’night”–still haunted the art of the last half century. It’s fitting, too, that one of the country’s most industrial cities should spawn an art of materiality rather than transcendence, using such modest substances as wire and acrylic on Plexiglas rather than translucent oils and hand-carved marble.

It’s not only the Imagists whose work can be so described. Diane Simpson’s Ribbed Kimono (1980) is made of corrugated archival board cut and arranged in a geometrical manner that seems to owe more to architecture than to minimalist sculpture or clothing design. Rising from the floor, its various parts almost colliding, it suggests the tensions of a building’s frame, as does Joseph Goto’s steel sculpture Organic Form I (1951). Soaring up over ten feet, it’s organized around long, thin vertical rods; smaller, often pointed rods protrude vertically and horizontally along their length. The piece suggests not only movement upward but more general ideas of momentum, thrust, force.

Even Westermann’s Memorial to the Idea of Man if He Was an Idea (1958) is somewhat architectural. Its two inner chambers are lined with bottle caps; two figures, one headless, occupy the upper one, while in the lower one a ship seems to be sinking into the floor. At the same time the whole piece is a figure: the castlelike architectural motif crowning it is decorated with a one-eyed face, and in its red-lipped mouth can be seen a tiny silhouetted figure, arms spread. Here Westermann straddles several periods of Chicago art: his work has a jokey physicality and brash, self-mocking humor that anticipate the Hairy Who while the figures in the chambers recall surrealism in earlier Chicago art and the silhouette suggests Leon Golub’s solitary, angst-filled subjects of the 50s.

Prefiguring the radical nose thumbing of the 1966 Hairy Who exhibit are two works displayed together, one by Don Baum, who curated the Hairy Who shows, and the other by Karl Wirsum, one of the original members. Wirsum’s Armpits (1963) depicts a woman in bright, flat primary colors, but even her toothy smile is no match for Wirsum’s comic-book zigzag border, which surrounds her like an explosion. Still, what one notices first is the brown fur in the woman’s armpits. Juxtaposing the painted figure and “real” hair doesn’t just make a joke on the illusion of painting–it underlines the disparity between the flat, unmodeled figure and the sexually provocative fur, the real hair a rupture that forces on the cartoony figure an almost violent three-dimensional physicality.

Baum in The Babies of Della Robbia (1965) jokes about the Renaissance family best known for wall reliefs of Madonnas, children, and babies. Baum fills a triangle with 18 plastic dolls spray-painted off-white in imitation, perhaps, of Della Robbia marble or terra-cotta. Several of these dolls are literally coming unhinged: one can see limbs beginning to separate from bodies. If the smoothness of Della Robbia figures soothes and transports the viewer, Baum’s piece traps one with the dolls, forcing the viewer to contemplate their defective joints and blank, half-open eyes. Nor is this the only artwork in the show to mock traditional religious art. In Brown’s The Entry of Christ Into Chicago in 1976 (1976) Christ stands on a flatbed truck. Filtering religion through the materials of modern industry, Brown and Baum seem to suggest the two are incompatible; the almost comic grit of mass manufacture excludes the mysticism of earlier sacred art.

The partially reconstructed Hairy Who show contains at least one work by each of the six artists, set against floral wallpaper in imitation of the floral linoleum on the walls of the original exhibition. Here the clutter works: the busy paintings collide with one another and with the wallpaper, revealing their commonalities. At first Gladys Nilsson’s gentle watercolors may look very different from Jim Nutt’s acrylic-on-Plexiglas figures, until one starts to see the grotesque, Maurice Sendak-like creatures within her compositions.

Roger Brown once said that while pop artists were trying to elevate things like advertising to fine art, he and his Imagist colleagues readily acknowledged advertising to be art. Seen from this perspective, the work of the Imagists represents a sharper break with artistic tradition than the art of such pop figures as Warhol and Lichtenstein. Aiming to transcend its subjects and style, pop is readily assimilable into the high-art tradition, but Brown, Nutt, and others made work that doesn’t pretend to be fundamentally different from a comic book or piece of advertising. In the context of this show, however, earlier work that superficially resembles that of the Hairy Who might be mistakenly assumed to have the same aesthetic.

True, Evelyn Statsinger’s In the Penal Colony (1949) includes some cartoonish heads with multiple eyes, but more important are her dense, repetitive lines in ink, almost like a woven fabric. Anticipating by several decades the feminist rediscovery of the decorative traditions of women’s art, Statsinger’s drawing shares the clutter and figural interest of Imagist works but lacks their aggressive tone. Yet one tends to see all its elements through the exhibit’s central “filter.” Many of Gertrude Abercrombie’s sparse surrealist paintings of the 40s may contain humor, but the one here, The Courtship (1949), seems almost self-parodying, a quality I hadn’t detected in her work before. The elongated head of Marion Perkins’s sculpture Man of Sorrows (1950) is an honest, somber attempt to integrate African and Western traditions, and it is from that perspective–not in relation to the Imagists’ grotesque figures–that it’s best understood.

Trying to comprehend the various traditions in Chicago art becomes something of a problem in this exhibit. Representing most artists with only one or two works doesn’t help; an understanding of the individual artist, best accomplished through multiple examples, precedes an understanding of the various “schools.” Chicago photography is represented largely in the work of Aaron Siskind, Harry Callahan, and their students and followers, but it’s a story obscured by the show’s chronological organization, which separates photos from one another. Most African-American artists in Chicago looked to traditional African art for inspiration, but the way their works are scattered throughout the show doesn’t reinforce that. Calvin B. Jones’s engagingly cluttered mixed-media Brilliant7as7the7Sun7

Upon7the7World (Egungun) (1994), with its fabric and shells, bright colors, and geometrical patterns, resembles Imagist work only superficially: where the Imagists largely abjure spirituality, most of the African-American art on view here has an incantatory power.

Similarly, the minimal and conceptual art that emerged in the early 70s (exhibited in quantity about midway through the show) often seems lost in the overall clutter. In this area, selection is sometimes a problem as well. Richard Rezac, known for elegant, muted objects with an air of edgy mystery, is here represented by a rare brightly colored work (untitled) from 1986; its red is all too consistent with Imagist painting, and its apostrophe shape looks unusually humorous in this context. Dan Peterman, who recycles used materials into furniture with gentle, monochromatic surfaces, is represented here only by Small Change (1989), three disks of recycled cans with bright, varied, colorful surfaces that fit well with the Hairy Who. These and other selections raise the rather ugly possibility that, consciously or unconsciously, Warren tried to unify the show by occasionally misrepresenting an artist’s oeuvre.

Acknowledging that an exhibition of this scope must be incomplete, the MCA has fleshed it out with a generally fine catalog–which unfortunately few visitors will ever read. The short critical biographies are especially helpful. A visitor unfamiliar with Robert Nickle’s work and puzzled by the one example here–a collage of scrap paper whose restrained colors exude an ethereality at odds with much of what surrounds it–can learn that he was an admirer of Mondrian, and therefore outside the “Chicago school.” A viewer who wonders whether Joe Ziolkowski’s single photograph of a bending male figure is a formalist exercise influenced by Siskind can learn that his work is “homoerotic,” something that could also have been established by including a few more photos. A visitor curious about the art for which Chicago is most famous, architecture, can read about it in Franz Shulze’s essay. The visitor surprised by the way the apparent unity of the exhibit’s first half collapses into a babble of discordant tongues in the second can read Judith Russi Kirsh-ner’s passionate argument “Resisting Regionalism,” in which she stresses the differences, not the similarities, among Chicago artists. Indeed, given the internationalized art world and art market, one would be hard put to find a dominant local style today.

One deficiency of “Art in Chicago” that the catalog cannot correct is the installation itself. Warren, it seems, adopted the Hairy Who aesthetic for the entire show, producing a series of cluttered, chaotic rooms. Just as Hairy Who Suellen Rocca in her Suellen’s Corness Painting (1965) jumbles body parts, figures, and other forms with little regard for traditional compositional unity, so most of these rooms are full of discordant sights. On first viewing this can make for a rather fun experience, as one goes from one sensation to the next; but as one tries to look at the art more seriously real problems emerge. The randomly colored cans of Peterman’s Small Change sit beneath Julia Fish’s carefully calculated, poetic painting Cumulous (1990), which in turn is juxtaposed with an almost blank untitled 1992 painting by Gaylen Gerber: each work requires an entirely different way of seeing and thinking.

Lying underfoot at the exhibit’s end is Adelheid Mers’s American Beauties #19 (Flame) (1994), a red light projected on the floor in the abstracted shape of a four-leaf clover. On the walls around it are three paintings with substantial amounts of red or tan, color-coordinated with Mers’s work. I stood for a while looking at the four works, wondering whether a careful viewer could see each one independently of the others. While I was still trying to decide, two elderly women who’d been walking through the show slowly, looking at the works with some care, arrived in the room and looked at each of the three paintings. As they left, one remarked to the other, “I think that light on the floor is part of the last painting.” I concluded that if even careful viewers can make such a mistake, something is seriously wrong.

There’s also the small matter of a videotape the MCA commissioned from Hans Schaal and Ed Rankus for this show. 1968: A Year in Frenzy (1996) is a lively, clever edit of footage from the period, giving some sense of its chaos and perhaps of the intended chaos of some of the art. But it doesn’t give any sense of the meaning or context of that chaos, a fact made clear to me when I heard a mother explain to her adolescent daughter that Mayor Daley’s shoot-to-kill order was the result of a “race riot.”

What’s worse, the sound track for the video is audible throughout a third to a half of the exhibit. Hearing our former mayor order officers to “shoot to maim or cripple” every ten minutes–or, for that matter, hearing Jerry Rubin mouth off about “the menopausal men who run this country”–threatens to wreck any serious viewing of the art. Either the MCA expects its visitors to be plugged into the taped tour, or it thinks that visitors are so desensitized that they don’t know the difference between “shoot to kill” and silence.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Memorial to the Idea of Man if He Was an Idea” by H.C. Westermann/ “The Babies of Della Robbia” by Dan Baum. Courtesy of Museum of Contemporary Art.