Can 150 years of art be distilled into a single book? Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now is being marketed as the first single-volume history of the art of this town. It is neither exhaustive nor comprehensive; instead it lets six writers take 20- to 40-year chunks of history and focus on their own interests to stitch together a messy crazy quilt before ceding the stitching to a series of contemporary artists and writers who add the ribbons and bows. The result is sometimes baffling, sometimes insightful, but ultimately too open-ended to be definitive.

Published as a companion piece to the Terra Foundation’s year-long Art Design Chicago initiative, a series of exhibits meant to celebrate Chicago’s history of art and design, the book gives plenty of attention to the Hairy Who, yet barely pays lip service to important artists like Francis Chapin and Todros Geller, both of whom were the subjects of exhibitions included in Terra’s program). The book’s most striking feature is its bold purple cover with embossed lettering.

Wendy Greenhouse tackles 1871 to 1912 in the first chapter, touching on the first artists who settled or, more often, passed through the city, and on the formation of the cultural institutions that preside over its art world to this day. The Art Institute, originally an art school, quickly became the locus around which virtually every other visual-art entity in the city revolved. But the patrons who bought the art that filled its galleries took their cues from the east coast and Europe; thus the museum has always been known the world over as a great repository of art from out of town.

The most insightful (and depressing) part of Greenhouse’s chapter is her insight that the tendency of artists to flee Chicago for more supportive or lucrative locales to grow their careers has been a key phenomenon from the start. Samuel Marsden Brookes, purportedly Chicago’s first resident professional artist, disposed of all his unsold stock by lottery and went abroad in 1845, only a dozen years after the city was founded. Artists have been fleeing ever since. The reasons the city has never been able to adequately support and sustain its creative class are many, but one interesting theory Greenhouse offers is that, obsessed as the city’s leaders have always been with pragmatic ways of making a buck, art’s nebulous qualities—such as reckoning with the human condition—have always been a tough sell here. Nevertheless, proven and sometimes risque work from elsewhere has always found champions here.The Art Institute hosted the first Claude Monet museum show in 1895.

Jennifer Jason Marshall covers 1913 to 1943 in the second chapter. It is by far the most lucidly-written and persuasively argued part of the entire book. In 1913 the city hosted a touring version of the Armory Show, which introduced many of of the most important European modernists to America; local art students staged a mock trial of “Henry Hair Mattress” on the last day of the show in a fit of provincialism and frustration at being left out of the exhibit. But an Arts Club of Chicago show of Picasso’s drawings—his first museum show anywhere—was a big influence on a young Leon Golub, one of the progenitors of Chicago’s homegrown mongrel version of figurative art. Other painters like Aaron Bohrod and Archibald Motley took inspiration from writers such as Theodore Dreiser and the art of New York’s Ashcan School to create a lively, warts-and-all portrait of the city.

Maggie Taft, one of the lead editors of the book, tackles 1933 to 1956 next, and echoes some of the concerns from Greenhouse’s section. One hundred years after its founding, Chicago was still searching for its own identity. “It is no culture yet, just a million beginnings,” observed László Moholy-Nagy, a recent transplant from the Bauhaus in Berlin, in TK YEAR. The city was still more often a way station or a place to start a career rather than a destination.

Still, as Taft’s coeditor Robert Cozzolino points out in the fourth chapter, which covers 1948 through 1973, artists kept coming here. “It was like you could run free because there was no place to run to, so to speak,” Golub said. This was the period during which the city’s most enduring art style, broadly called Chicago Imagism, sprang up and was quickly codified. It was a visual art inspired by artifacts found at the Field Museum, by self-taught artists, and by ephemera such as ads and comic books. It was an emphatic rebuke to both European modernism and the abstract expressionists who held sway on the east and west coasts at the time.

Rebecca Zorach writes about the Wall of Respect and other city murals in the next chapter and also the formation of the DuSable Museum and other cultural institutions in the city’s African-American and Latino communities between 1961 and 1976. The tensions between the various local modes of expression and the international artwork favored by city leaders came to a head with the installation of the Picasso statue in Daley Plaza in 1967. The reaction from the neighborhoods was summed up by poet Don L. Lee (later known as Haki Madhubuti): “Picasso ain’t got shit on us, send him back to art school.”

Jenni Sorkin focuses on the long tradition of alternative and feminist art spaces in chapter six, which covers 1973 to 1993. The question of why these places often close after a decade or less is broached but not answered. Her argument that it’s part of the natural life cycle of an artist-run space to disappear once its members leave for better opportunities sounds like putting a happy spin on an intractable problem.

The rest of the book is devoted to a grab bag of short essays and interviews with local luminaries. Comics artist Chris Ware offers a typically eloquent and self-deprecating evocation of Chicago: “Our city could arguably be considered the nation’s heart—or at least its large intestine.” And gallerist and historian John Corbett reveals a bit of how the sausage is made in a vignette about how he tricked a local junk dealer into parting with a hidden treasure.

Taft, Cozzolino, et al have assembled their version of a historical survey of Chicago’s art. To anyone involved in any way in that history, there will be gaps and omissions, which will vary according to their own interests. But can a single book give an accurate overview of such a heterogenous thing as the art of a city? My bet is that this book will be best remembered as a handsome design object, which is the fate of most coffee-table art books, many of which have much less attractive covers than this one.   v