Richard Feigen remembers the 1968 Democratic convention well. Feigen, a Chicago-trained artist who now works in New York but owns a gallery here, recalls the surprise that swept the city–first at the demonstrations, then at the bloodshed.
Feigen, though, was not surprised. “Everyone was astonished by what happened,” he says, “except for the art community.” He and his fellow artists decided to stage a kind of demonstration of their own. Headed by Feigen, who then ran a gallery on Ontario, they put together an exhibition of art about Daley and the city he ran.
The show, titled simply “Richard J. Daley,” got a lot of attention from everybody–the critics, the public, and other artists. Some loved it: the press (treated so badly by the police during the riots) praised the message, although it gave the art mixed reviews. Others hated it: one group (“obviously Daley sympathizers,” says Feigen) trashed part of the gallery one night. But the artists made their point: the Daley administration was corrupt, the police were in the wrong, and political upheaval was inevitable.
Now a second show, consisting mostly of works from the original exhibit, is on display at Feigen’s current gallery. “Richard J. Daley–The 20th Anniversary,” a commemoration of artists’ reactions to the ’68 convention, opened on election day.
Chicago in 1968 was not a rewarding place for artists, Feigen says. “If you were gonna make it, you had to go to New York”–and many Chicago-trained artists did. After the convention, some of the emigres wanted to express their scorn at the way Chicago police treated the rioters and announced a boycott: none of them, they agreed, would show their work in Chicago for ten years.
Relations between the artists who left Chicago and those who stayed were also strained. The convention riots had given Feigen the idea for a protest show, but the threatened boycott spurred him on. When New Yorker Claes Oldenburg canceled the career retrospective he’d scheduled at Feigen’s gallery for early October, Feigen was moved to action. Oldenburg hadn’t canceled because of the boycott–he wanted time to put together a more timely exhibit. But Feigen and his cronies worried that Oldenburg’s cancellation would set an example for other artists and really set the boycott in motion.
The Chicago artists worked fast: the Democratic convention ended August 29, the Oldenburg letter arrived September 5, and the exhibit–which included some work made especially for it–opened October 23.
The artists interpreted the city’s political chaos in a variety of ways. Some, like Kenneth Noland, who called his series of colored horizontal lines Shadow Line, chose an abstract route. Others were more overt: Chuck Thomas put Daley’s head in the middle of his Dartboard, and Oldenburg made a crayon drawing called Mayor Daley’s Head on a Platter. Feigen has three particular favorites: Barnett Newman’s Mayor Daley’s Lace curtain, a life-size barbed-wire fence splattered with “blood”; James Rosenquist’s mylar Daley Portrait, cut into strips so viewers could punch it; and Oldenburg’s Fire Plugs, 50 seemingly innocuous bright red foot-high replicas.
When Feigen asked his daughter, Phillipa, to put together the anniversary exhibit, it took her about the same amount of time the original exhibit had required–six weeks. She started by sorting through piles of old records her father had kept–fan mail, hate mail, reviews, and even the telegram Oldenburg sent telling Feigen he was canceling. “I’m sure it was incomplete, but we had a whole lot of information,” she says.
She and her father made a list of the pieces they wanted to find. “We didn’t try to reconstruct the exhibition because it was too much trouble,” Feigen says. A lot of the artists were dead, and not all of the contributions now seemed relevant to him.
Phillipa searched first through her father’s own art collection; there she found the mylar Daley portrait and one fireplug. Then she called galleries, artists, and sometimes relatives. A few of the artists still living couldn’t help, some, like Christo, were out of the country, and others, like Roy Lichtenstein, were busy with other projects. Nevertheless she managed to round up 13 of the original works.
“We got the most germane things,” Phillipa says–the mylar portrait, the “lace curtain,” and 6 of the 50 fireplugs, which had been sold separately. She and Feigen also included a few newer pieces–including a portrait of a big, ugly Dan Quayle titled Young, Rich and Stupid.
This exhibition is “more about politics than aesthetics, artists than art,” Feigen says in the program. Last time, he tried to rally the artistic community. This time, he hopes the exhibit will just remind people of the events–artistic and political–of 1968.
“Richard J. Daley–The 20th Anniversary” runs through December 6 at Richard L. Feigen & Company, 325 W. Huron. Gallery hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday through Friday and 11 to 5 Saturday. Call 787-0500 for more information.