Though many of us take the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for granted, it adds immeasurably to the fabric of the city. Not only has it been home to the most spirited of recent First Amendment incidents, it has also produced a roster of accomplished and renowned alumni. On the occasion of SAIC’s 125th anniversary–the school traces its lineage to the Chicago Academy of Design, founded in 1867–it has mounted two exhibitions heralding the work of its living alumni. And if the exhibits are a little self-congratulatory, they have a right to be. “From America’s Studio: Drawing New Conclusions,” at the Betty Rymer Gallery at the School of the Art Institute, and “From America’s Studio: Twelve Contemporary Masters,” in the Rice Building at the Art Institute, include work by some of the most important artists in the nation, most of it from rarely seen private collections or created especially for these shows.

The concept for the exhibits does raise a few questions. With such distinguished dead alums as Grant Wood, Thomas Hart Benton, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Steuart Curry, Ivan Albright, Mark Tobey, and Walt Disney, why did they limit themselves to works by living alumni? Should a school that considers itself strong in film and video, performance, interior design, photography, fashion design, metalworking, and jewelry mount exhibitions that feature only painting, sculpture, and works on paper? And why are there two different shows?

James Yood, the visiting assistant professor who curated “Drawing New Conclusions,” explains that he and Neal Benezra, curator of “Twelve Contemporary Masters” (and chief curator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden), were aware of several past exhibitions that had surveyed the work of all alums, and thought that doing so again would be redundant.

Yood says there’s a perception that the Rice Building show constitutes an A list, the Rymer Gallery show a B list, but he insists the distinction is far more straightforward. The size and configuration of the spaces dictated the character and content of each show. “Neal consciously chose works that were either on a monumental scale or that were sculpture,” he says. “I looked for works on paper.”

Determining the types of work was trickier but largely a matter of logistics, Yood says. Featuring all the disciplines taught at the school in one exhibit would have been unwieldy, and the exhibit difficult to assemble. But it’s probably not unreasonable to assume that these media were chosen because they represent the “right” products of a traditional art education.

The limitations on form have meant that the exhibitions appear rather conservative; the shows emphasize the representational, the figurative, and the abstract. Neither one features much work related to such contemporary approaches as conceptualism. Although the piece by Tony Tasset (MFA ’85) is a real head scratcher–a sheet of drawing paper rolled up and leaning against the wall–most of the works in both shows are extremely accessible. And many of the artists will be familiar even to those with only a passing interest in contemporary art.

“Twelve Contemporary Masters” offers major works by some leading lights in painting and sculpture. 3 Way Plug, Scale B, Soft by Claes Oldenburg (attended ’51-’54) is a six-foot-high droopy electric plug hanging from a 30-yard cord–a conceptual first cousin to Batcolumn and perfectly representative of his 1970s oeuvre. There are two vividly colored and haunting paintings by Ed Paschke (BFA ’61, MFA ’70), a sinister, disturbing canvas by Leon Golub (BFA ’49, MFA ’50), a heroic bronze abstract sculpture by Richard Hunt (BAE ’57) that Yood likens to the Nike of Samothrace in the Louvre, and three characteristically eccentric portraits in acrylic on Masonite by Jim Nutt (BFA ’67).

Because “Drawing New Conclusions” includes many more pieces and artists, it better represents the full range of SAIC-alum talents. And while the works in the “Masters” show may be from any era in the artist’s career, the works on paper are all quite recent. Some, like Big School Picture: Little Paper Mural by Gladys Nilsson (diploma ’62), were made especially for the current show. Others were not, but all are typically from 1990 or later. As a result, Yood suggests, they offer a good indication of what these artists are doing today.

If SAIC is associated with any one movement in art, it would be Imagism–post-World War II figurative, representational art, at a time when the mainstream in American painting and drawing was abstract expressionism. Imagists Roger Brown (BFA ’68, MFA ’70), Paschke, and Nutt are three of the “Contemporary Masters,” while “Drawing New Conclusions” features recent works by several other Imagists, among them Ray Yoshida (BAE ’53), Karl Wirsum (BFA ’61), Suellen Rocca (BFA ’64), and Barbara Rossi (MFA ’70).

The exhibits also showcase the work of some of the school’s other, equally distinguished graduates. Among the standouts in “Drawing New Conclusions”: a small, delicately rendered pen-and-ink drawing by David Klamen (MFA ’85), a radical depature from the powerful, dark, varnished canvases that have brought him so much attention; a typically whimsical drawing, Muscle Beach Party, by Red Grooms (attended ’55); a study for an elegant mural at Rockefeller Center by Robert Natkin (diploma ’52); and distinctive pastels by Phyllis Bramson (MFA ’74) and Hollis Sigler (MFA ’73).

There’s even a piece by LeRoy Neiman (’47-’50 and ’54-’55). Yood says he knew he’d take some abuse by inviting a submission from Neiman, familiar to most for his garishly colored contributions to Playboy, but since he’s “probably the most commercially successful graduate of the school,” they felt it was important to include one of his pieces. One can almost hear Yood’s sigh of relief as he opened the package from Neiman containing his 1992 The Maulers, a well-wrought charcoal drawing of boxers in the ring.

“Drawing New Conclusions,” in the Betty Rymer Gallery, Columbus Drive and Jackson, will be open through June 10; “Twelve Contemporary Masters,” at the Rice Building, Michigan at Adams, through June 14. Admission to the Rymer exhibit is free; hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5. There is no additional charge for “Twelve Contemporary Masters”; suggested admission to the museum is $6 for adults, $3 for students, seniors, and children, but Tuesdays are free. Museum hours are 10:30 AM to 4:30 PM Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday; 10:30 AM to 8 PM Tuesday; 10 AM to 5 PM Saturday; and noon to 5 PM Sunday. Call 443-3703 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/William H. Bengtson.