at the Harold Washington Library Center, through October 16

In 1937 Chicago matron Josephine Logan, the wife of an Art Institute trustee, founded a movement called “Sanity in Art.” Supported by the Chicago Tribune’s art critic, Eleanor Jewett, this movement sought to resist, even suppress, new tendencies in art, to “rid our museums of modernistic, moronic grotesqueries” and restore “real art . . . along the lines of established and universal principles.” Small groups representing the movement would periodically enter the gallery of Katharine Kuh, who showed artists from Klee and Miro to Chicagoan Gertrude Abercrombie, and loudly berate potential patrons; after several such incidents, Kuh was finally able to expel them by calling the police.

This was not the first time–nor was it to be the last–that the Chicago Police involved themselves in the city’s art scene. A few years earlier they’d ordered a gallery to remove a reproduction of the famous (and hardly revealing) nude September Morn. The spat between Kuh and “Sanity in Art” was only a particularly absurd instance of a struggle between modernists and traditionalists that had been going on in Chicago for three decades.

As early as 1910–the opening year for a historical exhibit at the Harold Washington Library Center, “Thinking Modern: Painting in Chicago, 1910-1940”–a young Chicago draftsman named Manierre Dawson was producing small abstract paintings. At that time very little advanced modern art had been seen here: it was in 1913 that the Art Institute brought to Chicago a smaller version of the famous Armory show, which had given New Yorkers their first real look at Duchamp, Matisse, and others. Dawson bought a small Duchamp sketch there, but students at Chicago’s premiere art school, the School of the Art Institute, protested the Armory show’s Henri Matisses by conducting a mock trial of “Henry Hairmatress,” mutilating him in effigy and burning effigies of his paintings after “convicting” him.

Though it had sponsored the Armory show, the Art Institute itself was also generally negative toward the ethos and practice of modernism. According to several essays in the book The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910-1940, edited by Sue Ann Prince, early Art Institute leaders saw art’s principal purpose as elevating and ennobling the citizens of a raucous, immigrant-filled city. By expressing timeless classical values and a beauty that depended on order and proportion, art would help its viewers and makers take their places in a more ordered, more “noble” future. It’s no accident that the architecture of the Art Institute itself is neoclassical. In 1916 a longtime School of the Art Institute faculty member defended the requirement that students draw from plaster casts of classical sculpture; he argued that this practice helped bring “beauty and character” to students’ art.

Modernists, by contrast, stressed the uniqueness of each person’s vision. The purpose of art was not to rearticulate timeless values but to discover the new. George Bellows–an Ashcan school painter who also taught briefly at the School of the Art Institute, in 1919–encouraged his students to “Try everything . . . in every possible way. Be deliberate and spontaneous . . . thoughtful and painstaking. . . . Learn your own possibilities.” In part due to the influence of Bellows and others, by the 1920s Chicago had a genuine modern art movement. Artists knew each other, and they connected with people in other fields–Harriet Monroe, the founder of Poetry magazine, was an important early supporter. They began to found their own societies. The group Cor Ardens (“Ardent Hearts”) was followed by the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists, which offered an alternative to more conservative juried shows: any artist could exhibit in a State Street department store for a small fee.

Art school training at the time stressed the thoroughly academicized tradition of realistic depiction of objects according to older artistic models. Chicago’s modernists–like their compatriots elsewhere–rebelled, stressing instead a scene’s inner reality. Dawson, acknowledging Cezanne as his greatest influence, wrote in 1910 that Cezanne “doesn’t take the scene at face value but digs into the bones and shows them.” In this exhibition Dawson’s represented by Beechwood (1913): a few greenish tree trunks can be seen in the foreground, but between and behind them are a variety of greenish and brownish shapes, many soft-edged and blending into one another. Peering into this forest, one sees beyond the surface reality of a few large trees and into an abstract interior world.

This show–curated by Susan Weininger, a professor at Roosevelt University–provides an excellent introduction to Chicago art of the period. Twenty-one artists are represented by 51 works in a variety of styles. Not all the artists are equally strong; though some depart from academic realism, they seem to be recapitulating the achievements of earlier modern painters in a less interesting way–but even this work is worth seeing to anyone interested in Chicago’s artistic heritage. Anthony Angarola’s and Emil Armin’s paintings reminded me at times of Manet and Monet, but it’s still interesting to see well-known Chicago locales rendered by these early, if derivative, modernists. Ramon Shiva’s Chicago MCMXXIV (1924) is more original in its composition. Several factories belch multicolored smoke against a bright red sky; the image isn’t all that unrealistic to anyone who’s seen Gary at night, but it does tend toward a geometry of fixed, solid colors (also evident in his 1926 nude painting Yellow Vase). While there have been at least since the Fauves traditions of representing scenes in bright and unexpected colors, Shiva’s colors have a striking, almost metallic solidity that well befits his Chicago subjects.

Based on Macena Barton’s two paintings on display here, she was not a great painter, but the work is so odd as to be worth noting. Salome (1936) shows a nude Salome with the head of Saint John on a plate at her feet. In her hand, at about the level of her crotch, is a curved sword, its end covered with blood, which she holds curving upward like an erection. Loaves (1938) seems at first glance a conventional still life of bread on a table, until one notices that the background is a distant landscape of fields and a river; the table’s legs would have to be about 100 feet long to touch the ground. The vaguely cosmic significance given to this still life places this picture in the small but fascinating category of the truly weird.

More conventionally unified are the works of Paul Kelpe, who found the climate for his abstract work so inhospitable here that he left after a few years. (Dawson had already left Chicago to become a fruit farmer in Michigan.) Kelpe’s representational Man & Machine (1934), a large oil painting, shows one source for his abstractions. While the top of the painting is a relatively conventional skyline, the center is a dense mass of wheels, belts, pipes, tanks, a ladder, and square tiles. This is not a representational space but a dense, synthetic combination of objects that clash and combine with each other almost like gears meshing. Indeed, one of the many justifications artists offered for abstraction was that it was the style most appropriate to the machine age. Similar combinations of shapes can be found in Kelpe’s abstract Composition #248 (1932), but I was especially struck by his Construction (1927). Here flat painted shapes are combined with actual three-dimensional objects–a metal wheel, a chess pawn. Behind the pawn is painted a brown, pawnlike shape. The mixing of painterly illusion with actual objects suggests that Kelpe sees abstraction as a way of relating to, of reenvisioning, the manufactured shapes of our world–an idea already implicit in Man & Machine.

My two favorite artists in the exhibit were Julia Thecla and Gertrude Abercrombie, who knew each other but apparently were not close friends. Yet each produced highly personal, almost surreal explorations that achieve their effects through a combination of technique and subject matter.

Thecla’s Chess: White’s Move (circa 1939) places two outsize heads, a man’s and a woman’s, at either side of a chessboard in a bare room. Though the sides of the chessboard are labeled with rank and file names and numbers (KR, KN, etc), the chessboard itself is not correctly oriented to the heads: actual players would be sitting at the board’s two unoccupied edges.

The combination of the two disembodied heads, the spare room, and the mispositioned chessboard creates a certain mystery. Thecla’s medium–watercolor and charcoal on cardboard–produces an image that’s a mixture of thick blacks and insubstantial colors that seem on the point of dissolving. The chess position is an endgame that at first glance looks like an obvious win for white; but on closer inspection each piece seems precisely positioned to deny that win. The likely outcome is a draw–but then, because of the orientation of the board, it’s not clear that anyone’s playing. The image is locked in a set of unresolvable contradictions, fraught with instabilities, none of which are likely to lead to a conclusion but rather to a draw.

Thecla’s Self-Portrait (1936) again combines watercolor and charcoal, creating an image of profound visual contradictions. Some areas are so dark they seem like light-absorbing voids; others, light or tinged with white, shimmer almost radiantly. We see Thecla’s head and shoulders: she wears a black hat with a flowing white veil, depicted in white lines with a repeating star pattern; through the veil a background of water and sky is visible. Thecla stares ambiguously, a bit unhappily; the surface of her face is curiously luminous in some areas, dark in others. The space around her head is filled with dark leaves, unattached to any tree; in contrast to the precisely rendered veil they’re painted in smudges. The effect is of several different representational systems employed at once, each held in a paradoxical balance with the others. The picture poses its contradictions as questions while simultaneously asserting that there are no answers. If an artist’s self-portrait can be taken as an accurate record of her self-image, it seems Thecla is profoundly ambivalent about her physical self and her relation to the world. While some of this ambivalence may be particularly Thecla’s, the position of women–and women artists–in 1930s Chicago might well have discouraged a more positive self-conception.

Abercrombie’s works suggest a similarly unstable worldview, but the instability is not tied to the human form. Interior (circa 1938) shows a near-empty room with bare gray walls; in some areas the walls’ paint has peeled away to reveal the red bricks beneath. In a wall at the left a window opens onto a blue and white sky. The room’s walls are not a solid, even gray; one can see brush strokes, and some areas are lighter than others. The color range in the wall is echoed by the blue and white sky seen through the window–the two extremes of the wall’s colors. Abercrombie seems to conflate inside and outside, “civilization” and nature. If each merely reflects the other, then all the other important distinctions we make–such as between the inner self and the outer world–are also called into question.

Abercrombie took art classes at the University of Illinois, where she majored in Romance languages, but she later discounted their importance, saying she took a lot of them because they were easy. Most of the artists in this show had a similar ambivalence toward art education, declaring that technical skill is less important than inner vision, and that formal training is inimical to finding one’s own voice. Dawson’s only art class was in high school. Angarola planned in 1925 to open an art school that would give each student “absolute freedom . . . encourag[ing] each student to express his inner artistic being.” Armin, after working for years at menial jobs to finance night classes at the School of the Art Institute, upon graduating “consciously tried to forget the training he had so dearly paid for,” according to Weininger’s essay in The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde.

These artists were similarly ambivalent on the question of influence. A viewer of Abercrombie today is likely to think of Magritte, but she suggests she didn’t see much Magritte until late in her career: she said that it was only on seeing a Magritte show at the Art Institute in the 60s that she recognized an affinity and found her “spiritual daddy.” Dawson–who’d seen little other modern art when he did his own first abstractions–reacted in this way to the Matisses and Kandinskys in the Armory show: “Many are thinking and expressing the same ideas that I am growing into.”

While there have certainly been cases of artists denying the influence of others as a way of bolstering their claims to originality, Abercrombie and Thecla are original. Abercrombie’s work has an aspect I find nowhere in Magritte. The sensuality with which she paints surfaces and the irregularity of their textures create a certain mystery and instability that are the result of technique as much as the paintings’ strange content. Her Pink Carnations (1939) shows a typically spare room: a small round table with a blue green cloth supports a gray vase in which sit some pink carnations; an additional lone flower lies on the table in front of the vase. The walls’ gray is echoed in the vase’s color, while hanging on one wall is a painting, in Abercrombie’s style, of a desolate landscape with a figure and a few trees. The wall painting’s greens and grays repeat the dominant colors of the whole composition, while the landscape subject is echoed by the pink carnations. Abercrombie’s medium–oil on masonite–and her gently sensuous grays and greens give the image an overall tactile solidity. As one’s eye passes back and forth between the landscape and the entire composition, one feels a powerful tension between illusion and actuality, image and world. The wall painting is a reminder that the whole picture is but an illusion, paint on a surface like the gray paint on the room’s walls; but the wall painting is also an opening, a window, a reminder that even the most mundane of surfaces can dissolve into open space. A questioning and unstable self here perhaps finds expression in a world in which each thing vibrates between actual object and created illusion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marlin Ross-Illinois State Museum.