Leon Golub photographed in the 1950s in front of two paintings from his "Philosophers" series Credit: Courtesy The Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts

John Corbett describes the artwork on display at “Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago”—an exhibit he cocurated that opens this weekend at the Smart Museum—as “a howling, terrified, introspective whorl of penetrating angst and disoriented subjectivity.” Elsewhere in his essay Corbett proposes Thelonious Monk’s “Ugly Beauty” as the theme music for the show, and that song title is as apt a description as it gets.

“Monster Roster” is a term coined by artist-writer Franz Schulze (whose work is also on view) in 1959 to describe a group of Chicago artists who worked in an expressive, figurative style. Like so many other catchall genre titles, “Monster Roster” wasn’t favored by many of the people it included. Schulze states in the show catalogue that Monster Roster doesn’t refer to literal monsters; rather, it was the Chicago Bears, the Monsters of the Midway, who served as his inspiration. (Of course there was also the need to come up with the kind of memorable phrase that gives a fledgling writer a calling card.)

“Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago” is the first major survey of this era. Of the artists included in the exhibition, Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky, Nancy Spero, Cosmo Campoli, and Theodore Halkin get the most space, but others, such as June Leaf, H.C. Westermann, Irving Petlin, and George Cohen are also well represented.

Many of these artists had common experiences and interests. Almost every man in the show served in World War II, and that conflict overwhelms the first few rooms of the exhibit. The anonymous giants in Golub’s paintings battle energetically, yet appear dejected; the scraped, sanded, and ripped surfaces testify to a fight being waged inside and outside their bodies. Though it’s never literally referenced, the Holocaust suffuses certain artworks. Nancy Spero’s Nightmare Figure 1 (1960), a dark black-and-blue oil painting, is a howl into the void. Not much light is let in, and no great distances are visible, as if the chaos and conflict of the world only allowed the artists to see the broken earth at their feet.

Most of the members of the Monster Roster studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and were profoundly influenced by Kathleen Blackshear, who told them to go to the Field Museum and draw Oceanic and Native American artifacts. According to the exhibition catalogue, this was an unheard-of practice in the 40s and 50s, because at the time such work was considered “primitive” and merely ethnographic. Having witnessed what modern, evolved civilization was capable of, these artists looked to the distant past for refuge. Unlike the abstract expressionists in New York and on the west coast, the Monster Roster’s art remained mostly figurative. They found kinship with European artists like Jean Dubuffet, whose influential talk “Anticultural Positions” many of them had attended. Dubuffet advocated for a raw “un-art” inspired by the work of the untaught, the naive, and the insane. The goal was to get beyond or around intellect, to tap into a purer essence of feeling and being.

In the last couple galleries color and light begin to return. The figures in June Leaf’s paintings can be weird or grotesque, but they’re not ground up like Golub’s. The visionary, fantastical look of Robert Barnes‘s For Tristan Tzara (1965) is a far cry from the bleakness of the previous rooms. These final rooms pave the way for the Chicago Imagists, who would come to the fore in the late 60s and become the dominant mode of Chicago visual art.

Though the Monster Roster didn’t set out to make art specific to Chicago, this show advances the notion that their 1950s and ’60s work was the first of its era to not be derivative of other schools and movements that were concurring or had occurred elsewhere. In prior decades there had been oddball iconoclasts, like Ivan Albright, and influential but since forgotten American Scene painters, like Francis Chapin, but no group had asserted and developed a vision of their own.

However, like artists, writers, and musicians before and after, the Monster Roster would leave town. Many of them were planning a future elsewhere, indicated as early as 1958, when Spero produced her painting Homage to New York. Chicago has always been a great incubator for creative work, but the city is rarely able to convince its greatest talents to stay. Golub, Spero, Leaf, and the rest started their journey here, and we should be grateful that the Smart Museum has lured them back to town for a visit.  v