Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New

at the Terra Museum of American Art, through October 31

Oh, these rich folks and their money. On July 16 Millennium Park was born with a silver bean in its mouth, a testament to the power of John Bryan’s Rolodex. Is there something wrong with a handful of Chicago’s richest citizens being allowed to decorate the park as if it belonged to them–as opposed to the people of Chicago, who kicked in about $270 million? I don’t know. Meet me by the BP Bridge; we’ll discuss it as we stroll across to the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, take a long detour around Lurie Garden and the Crown Fountain, then double back up Bank One Promenade toward the SBC Plaza and Wrigley Square.

And while we walk we can think ruefully about another example of the intersection between money, civics, and art: Daniel Terra and the soon-to-be defunct Terra Museum of American Art.

A rich chemist, Daniel Terra collected lots of paintings, then built a museum to house them. That went well, so he traded up, moving the museum from Evanston to Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. This new Terra had important shortcomings, but the shit didn’t really hit the fan until Daniel died in 1996. Soon the board was in disarray, one faction accusing the other of plotting to pull the collection out of Chicago and move it to Washington, D.C. It was alleged in a lawsuit that Judith Terra, Daniel’s widow, wanted to barter art for “a prominent place in [D.C.] social circles.” The struggle produced something of a Pyrrhic victory: it’s been decided, for now, that the collection will stay here, along with the foundation that oversees it. But the museum’s a dead letter as of October 31.

Which makes “Chicago Modern, 1893-1945: Pursuit of the New” the Terra’s valedictory show. Terra director Elizabeth Glassman calls it “fitting” that this final utterance should focus on Chicago. The rest of us might call it ironic, given the petty circumstances of the museum’s dissolution and its unfortunate timing–creating a hole in our metropolitan culture just when Millennium Park was telling the world we’d arrived.

Still, the show itself is beautiful and ambitious, if wrongheaded in some of its many assertions. The curators–Wendy Greenhouse, Daniel Schulman, and Susan Weininger–say that the modern arrived in Chicago with the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and its exhibition of impressionist canvases. They also argue that the modernist narrative that developed over the following decades–proclaimed by Clement Greenberg, plotted around the death of representation, and climaxing in abstract expressionism–packed such a wallop that it crowded other contemporaneous forms not only out of critical consideration but very nearly out of history. All this seems true enough. But then the curators go on to suggest that a more authentic narrative would center on the notion of individual expression–that 20th-century American art was really all about artists setting out in search of their unique voices, visions, and techniques. As satisfyingly free and inclusive and nonjudgmental as this pronouncement may seem, it’s also so ill defined as to be meaningless.

Just by way of illustration, consider the question of who was the greater artist, Willem de Kooning or Chicago’s own Henry Darger. Both were jaw-droppingly prolific and incomparable; both created a body of work that would have been inconceivable until they came along. By the criterion of individual expression they might be considered peers. Yet Darger was a recluse whose creative impulse was probably the product of psychosis. His work remained obsessively consistent over the course of 64 years and 15,000 pages. By contrast, de Kooning evolved ingeniously–by inches and leaps, in craft and in content–as he responded to society, nature, other artists, art trends, life, and his own consciousness. The modernist narrative is certainly parochial, but at least it provides a structure that helps us appreciate the achievement of someone like de Kooning in a way the vague notion of individual expression can’t.

Of course in the context of this show, vagueness might be considered a virtue: asserting individual expression as the true heart of the modern gives the curators the chance to shove New York over a little and make a case for Chicago as a locus of energy and innovation in 20th-century American art. The paintings (and the show is all paintings) on display in “Chicago Modern” certainly evince energy. Also enormous skill, variety, and awareness–both social and human. But they can’t be called uniquely innovative. Based on this show, I’d say the best artists of the 52-year period covered here were stepping into waves that also lapped up in places like Paris, Berlin, Mexico City, and, yes, New York. As the title of the exhibit inadvertently suggests, Chicago art before 1945 was a pursuit of the new–not a promulgation of it.

The curators are more convincing when they connect Chicago art to Robert Henri and his followers, who rebutted modernism with a plainspoken but often sophisticated record of American life. The most powerful tendency on display in “Chicago Modern” is a stubborn fidelity to representation–the gaze turned outward rather than in. This is bluntly obvious in populist works like Edward Millman’s 1937 Flop House, in which two down-and-outers doze amid washed-out browns and dirty whites, or Gustav Dalstrom’s 1942 Laundry, with its claustrophobic arrangement of three workers penned in by a low room divider, windowless walls, and an overhead conveyor, from which two columns of starched and folded shirts hang like so many blocks of stone. Even mythological subjects get gritty treatment. Macena Barton’s 1936 (but stunningly contemporary) Salome presents the famous seductress as a fleshy thing with big thighs, thick lips, a cold look, and a scimitar that suggests she likes to do her own killing.

But the outward gaze can also be lyrical, as in Eldzier Cortor’s Southern Landscape (circa 1938-’40), in which a black man and woman are portrayed as elements of the topography. It can be funny, as in Rowena C. Fry’s Great Lakes Art Class–a World War II-era look at sailors so bored they’re willing to do crafts. It can be disturbing, as in Todros Geller’s marvelous cubist-inflected Strange Worlds (1928), which somehow manages to address the issue of the immigrant Other from the points of view of both the immigrant and those to whom he’s Other. It can be heroic, as in Richard A. Chase’s Albert Speer-like vision of the Palmolive Building at night. It can be documentary, as in James B. Needham’s small turn-of-the-century studies of Chicago’s industrial waterfront. It can be romantic, as in several canvases showing Chicago as the city of fire, smoke, and steam it once was. It can be plain gorgeous, as in Julia Thecla’s 1939 Bunny Backstage, with its oddly Michelangeloid depiction of dancers. It can even be abstracted, as in Frederick F. Fursman’s wonderful Maizie Under the Boughs (1915), which takes an outdoor scene and refines it down to great swaths of color.

“Chicago Modern” maps out many of the paths followed by locally rooted artists during the first half of the last century–including, bizarrely, the path to Tomorrowland, represented by four futuristic works, all roughly from the period of World War I, that look like Gene Roddenberry’s dreams as painted by Maxfield Parrish. It’s the representational path, however, that emerges as most powerfully–though not uniquely–ours.

The formidable catalog for “Chicago Modern” is dedicated to the memory of Archibald J. Motley III and Robert Henry Adams. I know Motley only by reputation, but Adams was a friend, and his gallery–which contributed work to the show–remains an ongoing education on the subject of this city’s art history. One of my strongest impressions on walking through this exhibit was of the debt we owe him for his complete, scholarly, and loving dedication to the subject. In fact, it doesn’t seem like too much to say that a major exhibit on 20th-century Chicago art would have been impossible without him.