Fresh From the Old School

A member of the Monster Roster blows back into town.

By Jeff Huebner

Hours before the opening of his latest exhibit, 63-year-old painter Robert Barnes is sitting in the office of a River North gallery, reflecting on why he’s long been identified as a Chicago artist. He hasn’t lived here for more than four decades.

“I don’t think in those terms,” he says. “Wherever your studio is, that’s where you’re an artist. You take yourself with you–I am where I am. What is this business that you have to be in a certain place, especially in the late 20th century?”

Barnes has a point, of course. His studio is in Bloomington, where he’s taught at Indiana University since 1964, but for many he’ll always be associated with Chicago. Though he continues to exhibit new work regularly, there’s no denying that Barnes occupies an important place in the city’s art history. He left town for New York in 1956, but he’s frequently cited as one of the key contributors to the development of imagism, the most celebrated art “movement” to come out of Chicago.

The term imagist was coined by critic Franz Schulze in the early 60s. In his 1972 book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945, Schulze argued that the city fostered an indigenous psychological expressionism; imagism, then, referred to the work of a large and varied group of postwar figurative artists, nearly all of whom had been students at the School of the Art Institute. But much to Schulze’s dismay the moniker was later hijacked by dealers, critics, and collectors to refer exclusively to the Roger Brown-Jim Nutt-Ed Paschke generation of Chicago artists that emerged in the late 60s.

After Schulze devoted several pages to Barnes in Fantastic Images, Barnes’s dreamlike narrative canvases never failed to be included in imagist retrospectives–from 1972’s “Chicago Imagist Art,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, to 1994’s “Chicago Imagism: A 25 Year Survey,” at the Davenport Museum of Art in Iowa. Still, Barnes is skeptical of the critics’ penchant for placing things in tidy boxes. “People have to categorize,” he says. “In order for people to grasp what you’re doing, they have to have labels.”

Even so, Barnes didn’t make the cut in the MCA’s recent exhibit “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995,” an omission that puzzled both Schulze and critic Dennis Adrian, another early booster of the “Chicago Style.” Schulze called it “scandalous” and a “miscarriage of justice”–he even fired off a letter of protest to curator Lynne Warren. For his part, Barnes took his rejection in stride. While he was surprised to be excluded, calling it “weird,” he didn’t lose any sleep–his work has been shown here for 45 years. “I found the whole thing amusing,” he says now. “The idea of the show was people who worked in Chicago, and I only worked here as a student. I was a presence, but I wasn’t here.”

Yet Barnes’s enigmatic, highly theatrical imagery–based on literary, historical, and artistic sources, as well as on personal symbolism and memory–would have fit squarely into the MCA’s stab at defining the local canon. He may be a man of the world–a painter dealing with universal themes–but for decades he’s followed the imagists’ adventurous urge to create singular, original, sensuous objects. “I don’t think of theory,” says the wiry, white-bearded Barnes. “To me, the most important things in a painting are touch and mystery. If you know what something is, it’s not going to live. Every time I see my work, I see something I didn’t know I knew–I don’t know how that happens….I want a painting to seduce me.”

Born in Washington, D.C., in 1934, Barnes moved with his parents to Wilmette as a teenager. In 1952, while still a senior at New Trier, he had a painting in Exhibition Momentum, the salon des refuses started in 1948 by Leon Golub and other SAIC students when their work was barred from the Art Institute’s annual “Chicago and Vicinity” shows. Exhibition Momentum, which continued off and on through the early 1960s, was juried by three different New York art luminaries each year. Barnes says his first Momentum picture–“It looked like Mondrian”–was chosen by Alfred H. Barr, the founder of the Museum of Modern Art.

The early Momentums not only unified Chicago’s artistic community but brought national recognition to a group of artists later dubbed the “Monster Roster.” These artists–including Golub, George Cohen, Cosmo Campoli, Seymour Rosofsky, and Evelyn Statsinger–were known for their “monstrous” faces, their bold, expressionistic depiction of mythic, fantastic subjects.

Barnes says the art world was different when he was a student at the School of the Art Institute in 1952. He and several other students lived in a former dog kennel on Hubbard Street. “We were really bohemians,” he says. “We believed in art, not fashion, and we used to stay up till 3 AM at Trainor’s Cafeteria talking about anything having to do with art. I don’t think kids do that anymore.” Today, he says, fine art has become more of a commercial than an artistic enterprise. Students have to strategize early, and thereby may miss an opportunity to discover something unique about their creativity. His art school friends “would never make that much money from their work, if they ever made a dollar. They did their work because they had to. Now the art world is murderously large, and hideously competitive. Who has the courage to follow their own stars anymore?”

Unlike his Monster Roster predecessors, whose mature works in the late 40s defiantly countered the prevailing style of abstract expressionism, Barnes came of age in the mid-50s, when many Chicago artists were more open to the New York School. “We all began basically as abstract expressionists,” he says, “but I was too literary.” While his work became more figural and elusively surreal, Barnes still paid close attention to the abstracted elements in his work.

Barnes says he was more influenced by Chicago’s literary legacy than by its artistic traditions, and that’s why narrative and the figure became important elements in his work. He drew both inspiration and subject matter from his friendships with writers and literary people, including Jessica Nelson North, then the editor of Poetry and a onetime member of the old Dil Pickle circle, and poet Paul Carroll, a freewheeling figure in Chicago’s art scene of the 1950s and ’60s who experimented with surrealist verse.

Barnes started exhibiting at Allan Frumkin Gallery on Superior Street. Frumkin, which opened in 1952, was one of Chicago’s first galleries to show a wide range of contemporary art, including surrealism and German expressionism, as well as imagist-oriented works by local artists. He would continue to show with Frumkin in New York and with its various local incarnations–Frumkin/Struve and Struve–until Struve folded in 1995. Barnes then went over to Sonia Zaks Gallery.

Soon after arriving in New York in the mid-50s, Barnes renewed his friendship with Chilean surrealist Roberto Matta Echaurren, who had taught at SAIC. The openness and adventurism Barnes saw in the painting of the time was mirrored in the artists’ lifestyles. He says he once invited himself into Willem de Kooning’s studio, and he also became friends with Marcel Duchamp. “Matta introduced me to him,” Barnes recalls. “He said, ‘Come visit me.’ So I went up there–he lived in midtown Manhattan–and went up the stairs. There were antlers sticking out of the stairwell. I went into his apartment. Duchamp was sitting in his bathrobe, eating honey out of a silver bee.” They played chess from time to time, a game that Barnes barely knew anything about. “He loved the fact that I just did it, moved pieces around. It’s very hard to play with an amateur that never follows a gambit. He thought it was very Duchampian.

“He was one of the supergreatest, a very good, kind man. He did more things for young artists than anyone would expect. He was not a snob. If he hadn’t been a great artist, he still would’ve been a great man. He was smart, like his art. And he didn’t think about money either. I don’t think he ever made more than $5,000 a year at that time. He lived on very little and never needed much.” A large 1996 canvas that Barnes created in homage to Duchamp, Belle Haleine, was recently purchased by the David and Alfred Smart Museum.

By 1960, there was a lull in Chicago’s art scene, as many of its most celebrated artists–Golub and wife Nancy Spero, June Leaf, H.C. Westermann–decamped to the east coast. In 1962, while attending the University of London on a Fulbright grant, Barnes’s work appeared along with that of Golub and Cohen in the exhibit “Recent Painting USA–The Figure” at the Museum of Modern Art. Chicago artists had hoped that the much-trumpeted show would officially validate figural art, but the New York critics weren’t biting. As a result, wrote Schulze, “‘Chicago-type’ art had been largely re-consigned to the provincial shadows….Any Chicago artist who yearned for national recognition would henceforth likely seek it on his own, and divest himself of any close affiliation with the hometown.”

Barnes currently has 20 new pastels on view at Sonia Zaks–a body of work that took him 18 months to complete. The pastels tell stories that often take place on stage sets, “like toy theaters,” he says. They reference subjects as varied as Titian, dancer Paul Swan, Antonin Artaud, Edith Piaf, Macbeth, a Mexican folk dance, Kenneth Starr, and exotic perfume (“a mystery of the senses that I see as a metaphor for painting”); several depict scenes from near his second home, a cottage in Umbria.

Some of the imagery is obscure, and it helps to have Barnes as an interpreter. He pauses at The Young Artist Approaching the Temple of Art. “I have a real sympathy for young artists entering our field, because it has become commercialized [and] more exclusive,” explains Barnes, who teaches beginning and graduate painting classes. “The two figures in the foreground are my daughter and her boyfriend, who are art students. The yellow square in the background is the temple of art, that is, the commercial world. Just in front of the temple is the money changer at a table. I am to the right of the temple trying to caution the actors. Above are figures dangling bait–fame, fortune, success. In the foreground, hardly recognizable, is a large trap.”

Barnes makes no apologies for his dense, allusive imagery, but he cautions that the stories themselves may be a trap. “I don’t want my paintings just to be appreciated for their narratives,” he says. “I want them to be lushly beautiful. The stories take you away from the real core, which is beauty, sensuality.” He decries the predominance in contemporary art of “blood, viscera, pornography–beef heads and formaldehyde. You can’t be shocked. The only thing that’s going to shock anybody anymore is beauty. Maybe the avant-garde now would be to make beautiful things. As Tristan Tzara once said, ‘The last bastion of iconoclasm is conventionality.'”

But Barnes is not too concerned. He works daily in his Bloomington studio, blissfully removed from what he calls the “sophisticated art world,” trying to get his stories right. While making this series of works, Barnes says, he was thinking a lot about Degas’ pastels. “He knew when to stop and what not to put in,” he says. “I’m not up to that yet. As I get older, I’ve learned to appreciate my flaws. I don’t want anything perfect. What I want is to push myself to the point where I’m not competent. What I want is to go beyond my own ability.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo of Robert Barnes by Larry Rainey.