John Corbett has admired the Chicago harbor scenes of James Bolivar Needham since seeing them in a retrospective a decade ago. “I thought they were lovely, kind of gritty,” Corbett recalls. Rich, small-scale representations of the city’s industrial waterways as they were a century ago, the paintings have the complexity of Persian miniatures, he says, with the three-dimensional feel of sculpture. “They are very tactile, and that tactility is a little rough and expressionistic. It makes you want to see the other side, to understand them as an object.”

This year Corbett finally got his chance. While poring over the archives of the Chicago History Museum for an exhibit he was curating there, he and cocurator Jim Dempsey examined Needham’s works from all angles and discovered something new: on the back, or verso, of each piece the artist had inscribed an elegant diamond-shaped monogram, marked with the work’s date and dimensions.

Little is known about Needham–a black painter, he was born in Ontario and came to Chicago in 1867, while still in his teens–and Corbett felt the monograms offered some insight. “They’re a really lovely, integral part of his work,” he says. “Here’s the artist on the other side, taking some care, very delicately and beautifully marking the back of it. That tells you something.”

Corbett and Dempsey, whose Wicker Park gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey specializes in Chicago paintings and works on paper from the 1940s to the ’70s, were already aware of the “mini tradition” of verso art in Chicago before discovering Needham’s monograms. They’d often come across stylized signatures, random notes, even additional paintings on the backs of works and had been kicking around the idea of dedicating an exhibit exclusively to them. But when they discovered Needham’s versos, it dawned on them that their show at the museum, “Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago,” would be the perfect opportunity to display them. Because while not all the versos could stand alone as artwork, they all said something about the history of the paintings.

The exhibit, which opened last week and runs through August, offers a nonlinear historical survey of painting in Chicago, dating back to 1842. To avoid stylistic generalizations based on region and era, Corbett and Dempsey arranged the paintings by theme, including cityscape/landscape, art in social spaces, figurative painting, and abstraction. “We tried not to be extradogmatic. Chicago really typified a lot of different things going on at the same time,” Corbett says. “We don’t think there’s a Chicago school of painting.”

And rather than sequester the versos in their own section, they spread them around the exhibit. “We thought this was something that could run throughout the show, and give people a way of looking at the painting that they wouldn’t see otherwise,” Corbett says. The only real challenge was hanging the art so both sides would be visible to visitors. History Museum exhibit designer Dan Oliver came up with double-paned Plexiglas walls inside which the pieces seem to float.

Among Dempsey’s favorite examples of verso in the exhibit is Walter Hahn’s Aquarium, which the artist submitted to 1951’s “Exhibition Momentum.” Started by students in 1948 as a counterexhibition to the Art Institute’s annual “Chicago and Vicinity” show, “Momentum” attracted younger and slightly more radical artists as well as high-profile jurors. During planning for the event, renegade Chicago painter Leon Golub had used the backside of Aquarium as a scribble pad.

“Golub wanted a chalkboard, but there wasn’t a chalkboard around, so he asked Walter if he could use this painting to write down all the names of potential jurors,” Corbett says. The scrawled list “starts with Jackson Pollock, who’s actually invited and does come. . . . Charles Eames is on there . . . and toward the end you get Norman Rockwell, almost viciously, maybe as they’re getting a little drunker.”

Corbett describes another verso from 1950, a double-sided painting by married artists Max Kahn and Eleanor Coen, who shared a studio from the 1930s to the 1960s. On one side is an ink wash by Coen, the other a watercolor by Kahn. “It’s extremely wonderful in illustrating the kind of lean times the people in that period were going through–the working-class-ness of Chicago artists in particular,” Corbett says. “It was not, ‘I’m doing something really cute.’ It was ‘I need another piece of paper’ and the challenge was to find one.”

The work of midcentury artist Robert Nickle, known for making intimate abstract collages out of colorful scraps of paper and other city debris, is also represented among the versos. On the back of each collage, he affixed a small photo of himself taken on the day he finished the piece. “They seem to me like passport photographs,” says Corbett. “‘Here I am. These are my papers.'”

Corbett says the Art Institute’s collection of Joseph Cornell’s assemblages and its 1949 exhibition of surrealist pieces from the Louise and Walter Arensberg collection helped fuel the tradition of verso in Chicago. “The presence of a great collection of Cornell and surrealist works that were multidimensional, that was a great fortune for a lot of these artists. People saw these really elaborate constructions and started to make these things themselves.”

Verso in Chicago “has its own particular trajectory,” says Corbett. “The Imagists really concentrated on it in a way different from other places. A couple of works by Ed Flood, a key Imagist, have perhaps the most three-dimensional qualities of the bunch. His paintings spill over onto their frames and backs, which feature cartoony images and instructions for their care. “There’s a kind of humility about a lot of the work that comes out of Chicago,” says Corbett. “A humility that admits there’s a back side of the painting.”

Big Picture: A New View of Painting in Chicago

Through 8/3/2008, Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark, 312-642-4600, $12-$14, kids 12 and under free, free admission on Mondays