Chicago Painting 1895-1945: The Bridges Collection

at the Illinois Art Gallery, through May 19

By Janina Ciezadlo

[Chicago] is colossally rich; it is ever changing; it yearns for distinction. The newcomers who pour in from the wheatlands want more than mere money; they want free play for their prairie energy; they seek more imaginative equivalents for the stupendous activity they were bred to. It is thus a superb market for merchants of the new. And in particular it is a superb market for the new merchant whose wares, though new, have a familiar air–which is to say, on the aesthetic plane–for the sort of art that is recognizably national in its themes and its idioms, and combines a Yankee sharpness of observation with a homey simplicity. –H.L. Mencken, in a 1920 article, “The Literary Capital of the United States”

I went to “Chicago Painting 1895-1945: The Bridges Collection,” on display at the Illinois Art Gallery, looking for the city I had heard and read about, the city where my family weathered the Depression and searched for American identities, the city where some made fortunes and others perished. I wanted to see the city we catch glimpses of between the waves of constant renewal–wanted to see its elusive past. The European and American modernist canon–roughly developed at the same time as the work in this show, collected by the Bridges family in Wilmette–has become something of a sacred text for many university-educated artists. But the local is often overlooked.

At the heart of this carefully curated, generously documented exhibit, which includes landscapes, portraits, and other genres by some 48 Chicago artists, is a room of paintings of the city. And there’s a great pleasure in seeing modernist techniques devoted to our town rather than Paris or New York. Europeans had opened up a spectrum of formal choices–various styles and approaches to color and composition–that Chicago painters exploited, rendering illusionistic or flattened spaces, registering their view of the urban experience. Most of these painters were working with received ideas, conventions, and styles that had come into being to depict other places, but their interactions with this city are vibrant, and the value of their interpretations–both innovative and familiar–is incontestable.

Several paintings portray the city across an open space, a composition in use since the Renaissance implying that the human drama takes place on the stage of the city. Tunis Ponsen’s clean, surely painted precisionist image, Chicago River and Wrigley Building (circa 1932), revitalizes the formula. Precisionism is an American movement that thoroughly assimilated elements of European abstraction and cubism. This painting is a fluid mixture of recognizable space, abstraction (precisionists simplify), and an almost symbolist glorification of the buildings in the distance. Part of precisionism’s aim was to bypass the spiritualism of 19th-century painting, which denied the material base of America’s growth, and to fuel the industrial landscape with an optimistic energy. Ponsen manages to combine idealism and materialism, adding the human presence that precisionists usually omitted.

In the foreground of the painting are two men (probably unemployed), a red shack that repeats and intensifies the muted reds of a large building like a warehouse in the background, and a variety of industrial and marine equipment set off by green patches of weeds in this half wild space. Ponsen applies muted colors in graceful, decisive planes–precisionists eschewed brushwork. The artist clearly loves the geometry of the scene, and his depiction is logical and deliberate. The middle ground–the river–is empty, collapsing the space and stressing the distance between the unemployed men and the pale towers of the Wrigley and Tribune buildings, floating in the background like serene, unassailable artifacts.

The other precisionist painting in the exhibit–an untitled work from about 1933 by Jean Crawford Adams–is optimistic but much more prosaic and materialist than Ponsen’s work. Its point of view is firmly within the urban industrial space: water tanks and rooftops are close at hand. John Storr’s stainless steel Ceres is visible at the top of the Board of Trade, a visual allusion to the truth behind Chicago’s built environment: the agricultural markets. Amid billowing smoke and airplanes gliding through the sky, the economic identity of the city is clear.

A small painting from the same period but of no particular school, Emil Armin’s North From Jackson (1934), depicts street activity and the ornamental facades of South Michigan Avenue on a bright day. Armin paints with a nervous hand, his line registering speed, disruption, and distraction. He seems to love the variations in the facades, painting each one in a different set of colors so that it stands out as a separate entity. Though small, the canvas is packed with detail: there are ladies in colorful dresses and hats, birds, flags, cars. Armin’s cerulean sky pushes forward, and the crowded street vibrates with yellows, blue grays, oranges, and pinks. The way the eye moves around a city street–not wary or anxious but direct and dynamic–is implicit in the pleasure Armin takes in his own style. There’s nothing programmatic or cliched about this artist’s response to the urban scene: he’s dazzled by its color and movement.

The 19th-century and early-20th-century images of Chicago here borrow from the palette and atmospheric effects of landscape paintings of the period (seen in the first two rooms of the gallery). But while these represent the picturesque and pastoral, the city takes on aspects of the sublime common earlier in the 19th century to American landscapes, still exotic at the time. Here the city is awe inspiring and beautiful, but like nature it appears to have been created by mysterious forces. Alfred Juergens’s LaSalle Street at Close of Day (1915) and State Street, Armistice Day (1918) are finished and formulaic. Streets full of people in the city’s central canyons symbolize its success: it’s a “maelstrom of money-making,” as Dreiser called it in Sister Carrie, the spectacle of conspicuous consumption that set the callow Carrie Meeber on her mercenary path. Both of Juergens’s paintings, which are smaller than they seem, represent the urban space from above in order to portray its bustling life, but the spectator is above the melee, not in it–not vulnerable to its demands but a witness to its transcendental beauty and power.

Juergens veils his buildings in mauve, violet, and green, punctuated with yellows and oranges that denote lights coming on and keep the surface of the painting vibrating. The painter uses the techniques of impressionism and seductive but predictable tropes to capture the atmosphere of evening, but unlike the radical originators of this style he does not portray forms’ dissolution into light. Banks and streetcars resolutely retain their materiality. This is an essentially conservative vision softened by a French style.

Grand views of downtown find their counterpoint in paintings of the neighborhoods. Here, too, instead of referring directly to the high art of Europe, many of the neighborhood paintings use an American model: New York’s early-20th-century Ashcan school. Later paintings are influenced by the federal projects of the 30s: these are humanistic visions of the common man and of small communities untouched by the dislocations of modernity.

One of these neighborhood paintings–Francis Chapin’s City Arabesque, painted before 1943–has the folkloric look of a stage set for Petrushka or a Red Grooms sculpture: it’s Old Town painted in a delirium. A green el car with a purple roof and windows outlined in orange rushes past a red violet building and a block of frame houses. Some unidentifiable thing painted white to the rear of the middle ground pushes forward, and a steamroller moves toward the viewer. People, shapes, and colors too numerous to catalog vie for one’s attention. According to historian Susan Weininger’s wall text, Chapin is responding to ideas about “old-fashioned virtues of the local.” What I liked about the painting is that everything is at the point of chaos but is ultimately contained by the artist’s sense of balance.

Fred Biesel’s Winter Morning, or My Backyard, 5542 S. Dorchester (painted before 1939) seems at first to be an example of small-town realism. In Biesel’s work the city’s open space is the painter’s backyard, full of actual urban snow, a dirty-looking substance painted in whites, browns, blues, grays, greens, and a dash of orange. A milkman moves along the walkway toward the alley. Beyond the garage, buildings of various heights–up to about 10 or 20 stories–are painted in a spectrum of brick colors. The brush strokes are stubby and naive; their rhythm is reliable, recording the traces of the city’s restless motion in an otherwise static scene. Behind the buildings is a vivid blue, turbulent, almost van Gogh-style sky, with brush strokes going every which way–yet the painting remains essentially calm and melancholic. The horizontal brushwork and lines of the garage are broken by bare trees. Biesel’s view of Chicago is solid and scrappy, with an emotional resonance that connects it to our own experience: the artist is not privileged or clairvoyant. Biesel’s achievement is to capture the contiguity of private and public space in the city. The collection of buildings beyond his backyard is more than a backdrop–it recapitulates the defining modernist experience of the simultaneity of different “realities.”

Isms were proliferating between 1895 and 1945. Surrealism is represented here by a wonderful painting in which Julio de Diego defines the urban setting in terms of the meeting of the human and the geometric. In his Spies and Counterspies (1941), several people wander in a setting of upright boxes like telephone booths or a kind of adobe warren, attenuated figures looking around corners. Other paintings, including some in a room of portraits, push in other ways against the weight of representation. The sibylline Gertrude Abercrombie, who made her living painting pictures of gloves for catalogs, did the wonderful, if oddly titled Self-Portrait of My Sister (1941). It may be the most prescient of the paintings here, prefiguring a variety of discursive, enigmatic, subjective approaches: in this stylized portrait a woman with very bright blue green eyes and an improbably long neck looks out from under an oddly balanced hat ornamented with grapes. The subject is clearly focused on her inner life.

Cubism registers its disjunctions in the work of William S. Schwartz in the late 20s and early 30s, and Lincoln Park flows in curvilinear shapes in early-20s paintings by Anthony Angarola and Gustaf Dalstrom, reminiscent of the early work of Gaugin and Seurat respectively. A 1912 abstract painting by Manierre Dawson, Fireman, unfolds on the diagonal in peaches, sherbet oranges, and violets; this painter (whose earliest work was contemporaneous with Picasso’s Les demoiselles d’Avignon) came to abstraction through his involvement with architecture, the arena for Chicago’s best-known modernist vision, renowned as lucid and coherent. Chicago doesn’t contemplate modernity–it is modernity. If we use the word “modernism” to denote the broad economic and social changes, including our perception of time and space, that resulted from the industrial revolution, technological advances, and immigration, this city’s role is clear.

European modernism was ultimately more involved with consciousness and perception than with representation. Chicago painting during the same period is about things. The best work in this show portrays a solid, actual, ineluctable world: buildings, red bricks, bridges. Even though color pervades the show and may connote an emotional response to the city, it doesn’t have the sort of subjectivity that calls into question the status of the material world. Much of what was being painted might be considered conservative, and artists may not have had the opportunity to explore larger truths or innovate, but their work is full of energy and invention. This show, which will travel around the state when it ends here in May, represents a rare and wonderful opportunity to see what painting was like in our town during the crucial first half of the 20th century.