By Jeff Huebner
Wesley Kimler is known mostly for his battles. He’s battled with the bottle–though he’s been sober for ten years–with critics, with curators, with artists, with academics, with the Chicago art world in general. Many people–many artists, anyway–may know him more for the myths about him and his pithy proclamations about the local art scene than for his approach to painting. They may know him more for being a School of the Art Institute reject than for taking a style some think has been consigned to the dustbin of history and making it his own. “I stand up alone,” he once told me. “I make my own work. There’s no one else like me here. I’m not part of a group, not part of a club. I’m just me.”
On a warm day this past winter Kimler appears to be battling with a painting. He stands near the center of his 3,000-square-foot studio, gazing at a series of eight large semiabstract canvases tacked to a paint-streaked wall. Beside him is a long table cluttered with cans of oils, brushes, paint thinner, turpentine, rubber gloves, rags. But he’s not painting. He’s worrying about the direction of one of the works, which he’s just begun; it shows an abstract “green plastic watering can,” the source of which is a line from a Radiohead song. “Sometimes I tell a painting what to do,” he says, “and sometimes it tells me what to do.”
With his closely cropped hair and dark, loose-fitting clothes, Kimler has an air of asceticism. But his studio, located in an old factory near 25th and Western, is anything but monastic. Over the rattle of Q101, three African gray parrots take turns squawking from makeshift tree branches. A coterie of tiny exotic finches flit and chatter inside a huge hand-built cage. Tough guy Kimler? Some would enjoy the irony.
The eight works, then in various stages of completion, would be included in a February exhibit at the Rockford Art Museum. They have thick, sweeping, abstract expressionistic brush strokes–some squared, some looped–that lie over irregularly gridded fields of color. “A lot of people look at my paintings and say they look like big wrecks,” Kimler says. “And they are like big wrecks. That’s what I’m ultimately wanting–disjointed, jumbled wreckage.” But while viewers and critics often refer to Kimler as an abstract painter, he isn’t, at least not in the nonobjective sense of the term. He uses the language of abstraction, but there are usually figural elements in his work. This new batch of paintings is no different. For all their violent energy, they evoke familiar Kimler images–flying balloons, kites, a laundry basket, a watering can, heads.
“When I do use imagery,” he says, “it’s usually rather banal and plasticky that I try to transform through the act of painting into something concrete and interesting. But it isn’t what you paint but how you paint it that matters. I’m interested in a big style and painting large–painting big, dumbed-down, happy, clunky images with a romantic exuberance and without any angst or cynicism at all.”
Kimler’s recent crop of work has come along rather quickly, in only a matter of months. But some of his canvases have taken him years to complete. His work is regularly exhibited at galleries in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Scottsdale (he also has pieces in the permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), and once he gets the paintings back he often adds new lines, forms, and colors. He had a solo exhibit at the MCA in 1995 that included a series of multipanel works with titles from the short stories of Raymond Carver, who died in 1988 after a life of alcoholism. These were all older canvases that Kimler had joined and painted over–an attempt, some critics said, to reconfigure his own past.
“For me, painting is a language, a process, a way of thinking,” says Kimler. “Painting is about technique. I’m not the kind of painter who puts down a line and goes, ‘Aaah, that’s it.’ I’m more the kind of artist who puts down something and then changes it. I would typify my creative process as a sum of destructions. It’s a process of becoming–a process in the weather of the heart, of arriving at something that seems to have a legitimacy to exist in the world. A painting has to earn its place, its right to be. So I’ll work on a painting over a period of days or months or years or however long it takes for that painting to arrive at its own specific truth and meaning. I think painting should address the big issues. I think it should be heroic. I think it should be a way of living large. Art should be about being alive–the idea that being alive is almost remarkable in its complexity and difficulty.”
That philosophy is one reason Kimler often has been compared by critics to the big-painting, large-living likes of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, whose romantic belief in art as a force of freedom fueled the abstract expressionist movement that virtually defined international art in the 1950s. It’s also why Kimler’s appalled at what’s become of painting in the late 20th century. “The American art world has become thoroughly academized,” he says. “Students are trained to address the latest hip topics in order to have success. It’s easy to teach gobbledygook, art babble, homogeneous dogma, pseudophilosophy–it takes the place of being taught real skills in painting, sculpture, or in that branch of philosophy known as aesthetics. We’ve become besieged by the disease of trendiness.”
He believes that even the local art world is now dominated by academics and conceptualists and minimalists who are “making objects that they can hang their artspeak onto.” He says these tastemakers are sanctioning a “theoretically based style of conceptual painting, buttressed up and packaged in this pale, dated, exotic rhetoric of what was hip and trendy in New York and in Artforum magazine last month.” The result is “bland, bad, boring paintings devoid of technique, skill, and talent. Take the rhetoric away from it and it’s still hotel-lobby art, the pictorial equivalent of background Muzak.”
Kimler’s own paintings aren’t bland–and he’d be the first to tell you that. In a dismissive review of Kimler’s MCA exhibit, Chicago Tribune art critic Alan Artner wrote that in the 80s the artist “set out to be the Great White Hope of local painting.” Kimler has tried to live that notion down by saying he just wants to be left alone in his studio to work, but he can’t seem to give up the loud, brash talk and braggadocio that has gained him enemies.
“I know how to paint,” he says. “And I really know how to paint in a very American way. I’m trying to make serious paintings based on my ideas as a painter, not on some dried-out academic idea of what painting should be. Painting should not be placed in the position of being servile to rhetoric. I’m not sitting down and making some dry, dull-looking abstract paintings that are fulfilling some sort of art department head’s vision of grandeur as to what serious art is. Look, here’s the point a lot of people don’t get. It’s a lot more difficult to make a good abstract painting than it is to paint in a sophisticated paint-by-numbers way or to slavishly fill in the blanks on some idea. It’s a lot more difficult to make a painting stand on its own, to have it refer only to itself.”
Once he gets going, the rhetoric only escalates. “The bottom line about art in this town is that these people who are trying to graft their theories onto painting–the powers that be that have given us academic minimalism and conceptualism–are now endeavoring to bring us their idea of what painting should be and to define what’s important in painting in Chicago. But these people wouldn’t know a good abstract painting if it came up and bit ’em on the ass.”
Kimler mocks them with a little exhibit he set up in the hallway outside his studio, “Bubble: Recontextualizing Post-Modern Deconflationary Mythological Archetypes.” It consists of 20-odd snow globes he’s collected from around the world. You can even pick them up and shake them.
If the Chicago art world needs some shaking up, Wesley Kimler–that’s Wesley, not Wes–is quite willing to let anyone know he’s equal to the task. He relishes his renegade-outsider role, unmuzzled by an institutional job, mortgage, or marketplace demands. His outspokenness is unusual at a time when few people in the local art world seem to have strong opinions–at least opinions they want to make public. “There’s a certain tradition in Chicago of the two-fisted, blue-collar, up-yours artist, and Wesley wears that hat,” says James Yood, who teaches art history, theory, and criticism at Northwestern University.
As editor of the New Art Examiner in the mid-80s, Yood was well positioned to watch Kimler’s star rise on the then-booming Chicago art scene. “A lot of people think he’s Ditka with a paintbrush,” Yood says, laughing. “But that’s never been true. He’s really, really smart. That was sometimes lost in the bluster of the times.”
Yood has given Kimler’s work generally good reviews over the years, in the Examiner and other publications. He says he’s “never received the full blast of Kimler’s ire,” and that if he had it wouldn’t have changed his opinion. “Wesley is part of the story of modern art in Chicago–historically and aesthetically. I think his place in Chicago art is assured. You can’t tell the story of the 80s without talking about him. He represented a major platform in Chicago art, and he continues to be influential. He’s on his way to becoming a Chicago icon.”
Lynne Warren agrees, though she wouldn’t have 15 years ago when she was beginning her tenure as a curator at the MCA. She didn’t buy the hype that surrounded Kimler back then and couldn’t see the merits of his art. But she did organize his solo MCA exhibit three years ago and has since become one of his strongest champions. “You need a gadfly in the old traditional sense, someone who’ll puncture balloons and speak up and not be afraid to,” she says. “Wesley still has the courage of his convictions. I don’t know too many people like that–in all walks of life. He’s a unique type of figure who never will be appreciated in his lifetime–not just for his art, but for him. But he should be.” She adds, “I don’t think he has personal animosity toward any particular artist, and that’s hard for some people to understand.”
“He’s probably the only guy in the world who’s got more enemies than I do,” says friend and frequent coexhibitor Tony Fitzpatrick, who first met Kimler when Ed Paschke brought him by Fitzpatrick’s studio several years ago. “I always thought it was gutty for a guy to be painting that way today–a muscular kind of painting you don’t see a lot in Chicago, especially not now. He reminds me of that Kirk Douglas movie Lonely Are the Brave, about the old cowboy who won’t get off his horse with the coming of the automobile. That’s what I like about him–he won’t get fucked out of his world. He’s one of those guys who rages against the machine. He’s fearless. Let’s face it, guys like us who make pictures will be dinosaurs someday–perhaps. I don’t believe it, but maybe we’ll have to give it up and find a new way to do it–people are making art with computers now. But the 11th round’s gonna come, and Wesley’s still gonna be there.” Fitzpatrick laughs. “Put this in there. He thinks he knows more about boxing than he does. I have to say something to piss him off.”
Most of the people in Chicago’s art world who’ve sparred verbally with Kimler refused to be quoted, saying it wasn’t because they feared pissing him off, but because they didn’t see the point in taking the bait. Joel Leib, director of the conceptualist-oriented Ten in One Gallery, was willing to go on the record. He’s had some lively discussions with Kimler about what constitutes good art. “Perhaps too many. Wesley represents a time of excess and idealism in the art world that doesn’t exist anymore. I believe he has a romantic notion of painting as it used to be–and how it still could be if not for those ‘damned, pesky, blankety-blank conceptualists.’ He wants everyone to know he’s a significant artist. If you’re ambitious, that’s to be understood. But he feels that if he doesn’t speak up, people will perceive the art scene from the point of view of others whom he does not respect.”
In a city long associated with a peculiar strain of figurative painting–with its imagists and Monster Rosters and psychological expressionists and Hairy Whos–Kimler has often been considered something of a square peg, an anachronism, an eruption. “Wesley’s not in sync with the art world now,” says Lynne Warren, “and I’m not sure he ever was.”
When the gale of abstract expressionism–the idiom to which Kimler clearly owes a debt–began to blow out of New York in the late 40s, many of Chicago’s postwar artists, with Leon Golub at the forefront, defiantly stood against it. Yet the city has produced quite a few noted abstract artists–painters, photographers, and sculptors–and it has always been able to support a lively, if small, group of abstract painters, from Robert Natkin and Roland Ginzel, who emerged in the 50s but eventually left for New York, to contemporary figures as varied as Rodney Carswell, William Conger, Susanne Doremus, Judy Ledgerwood, and Dzine. Galleries such as Klein Art Works and Lydon Fine Art cater almost exclusively to collectors with a taste for abstraction.
When Kimler began making a name for himself in the mid-80s, critics, with their penchant for cataloging, didn’t always know where to put him. Early on he was pegged as a neoexpressionist–that movement ruled at the time, and its works moved off gallery walls. Kimler’s work was more figurative back then, and the physical movement of his paint on canvas reminded many of the “action painters” of the 50s. But whatever his work was, it had little historical connection to Chicago.
“I brought a bigger painting style to this town, carried on a tougher, more painterly tradition,” Kimler says. “I’m alien to the aesthetics here.” New Orleans Times-Picayune critic Chris Waddington wrote in 1996, “It’s feasible that he is the best American painter to emerge from the neoexpressionist wave of the 1980s–he just did it in the wrong city.”
Kimler thinks the abstract-expressionist comparisons might have been apt a decade or more ago, when he was “out of control.” But he says he’s put his excesses behind him and has worked hard to make his paintings less dashed out, more thought-out. He doesn’t think “that whole Pollock-de Kooning thing” is relevant anymore. “Many years of semisanity and sobriety later, that’s not my story anymore,” he says. “Of course, I still like those paintings–who doesn’t? But I’ve moved on, and I wish other people would as well. But Chicago critics never discuss what I’m trying to do. Rather than deal with my paintings, they want to focus on my personality. They don’t address the subject matter and iconography in my work. They bring up the same dumb arguments and gross generalizations.”
Kimler–who was born in Montana, spent his teen years in San Francisco, and later lived in Los Angeles–says he feels more kinship with the west-coast abstract painting tradition. He says abstraction is doing better in California, mostly LA, than anywhere else in the country. In recent years he’s been studying the work of classic Bay Area artists such as Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, Frank Lobdell, and David Park, along with second-generation New York School painters such as Alfred Leslie and Joan Mitchell.
Yet Los Angeles art historian and critic Henry Hopkins wondered if this affinity left Kimler in a dilemma. In a 1994 catalog Hopkins wrote, “Almost every writer dealing with Kimler’s painting produced in the 1990s…raise[s] the question of whether or not he is a first rate, but none-the-less third generation Abstract Expressionist working thirty-five years too late to have a meaningful impact on the future of art and its history.”
Kimler responds, “When I look at a painter like de Kooning or Diebenkorn or Leslie or Park, what I see happening in the high point of American painting in the 50s and 60s is a complete recapitulation of what painting is, brought up into a language that we can all understand in the terms of modernity. Now that we’ve broken through, we have to use that language–take all the ideas that came before and work with them. I think what was given to us were the possibilities. We were given this whole new idea of what art could be, what painting could be.
“And so what I’m trying to do is take the sort of painting that’s been deemed archaic, the kind of painting I find interesting–not the kind of talk I find interesting, not the kind of parties I find interesting–and I’m trying to look at that and find a way of making that now, of remaking that now, of recapitulating that, of making something new. As T.S. Eliot said about originality, ‘We are better than our predecessors precisely because we know them.’ We are at the end of the century, and I don’t think we’ve even begun to address all the possibilities that have been stated in painting.”
Despite his complaints, Kimler does have a strong national presence, especially on the west coast. He’s a name artist. His large-scale paintings command up to $20,000, and he sells well. He hasn’t had a day job in 15 years. He’s had a spate of favorable reviews in the local and national art press, and “The Real Deal,” the title of his exhibit with Fitzpatrick and Paschke at the World Tattoo Gallery in 1994, got lots of ink. Since 1995 he’s shown his work in Chicago at TBA Exhibition Space (with sculptor Gary Justis) and twice at Thomas McCormick Works of Art (once with painter Mary Livoni). He’s now represented by Fassbender Gallery, where he’ll have a show in October. (Two of his works adorn Eleventh Dream Day’s latest disc, Eighth.)
But Kimler doesn’t believe Chicago has given him the acclaim he deserves. He wonders, for instance, why he’s “almost never” been included in museum-caliber survey exhibits here. “It’s sort of funny. I’ve been included in them in LA, I’ve had a couple of virtually sold-out shows at L.A. Louver Gallery, been ‘Pick of the Week’ in the LA Weekly, shown at the Pasadena Art Center, showed all over the west coast, up in San Francisco–showed all over the place. In New Orleans, LA, and San Francisco people know me for my paintings, not me. But here rarely have I been invited to be in any [major survey show]. I guess I’m just not hip enough, I guess I’m not cool enough. And I’ve probably stepped on the wrong toes.”
Kimler felt somewhat vindicated when Lynne Warren and her advisory committee included his painting Egmont in the MCA’s “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995.” The work, a gift to the museum, was from 1995. But Ten in One’s Joel Leib, who says Kimler’s “outside the loop of cutting-edge contemporary art,” thinks Kimler should have been shown with artists representing the 80s, the decade with which he’s most often associated. He adds, “Anyone in a position of influence will have their favorites, whether through academia, their community, or through a personal discovery of their own. It’s common in any art scene for people outside a particular circle to be resentful of the attention others can get when they’re connected. [Some tastemakers] may not be in Wesley’s corner, but people such as Lynne Warren are in his corner. So the door swings both ways.
“If you look at the last page of the ‘Art in Chicago: 1945-1995’ catalog, she ran pictures by Tony Fitzpatrick and Wesley Kimler. They got the last word on ’95. She’s probably the only person who would’ve done that. That to her is ’95 in Chicago–but that’s not ’95 in Chicago to me. Why weren’t there more artists of the moment, artists who are setting the scene on fire right now? Wesley is not one of those artists.”
Kimler retorts, “Some people can’t differentiate between what’s new now and what’s good now. Thank God people like Joel didn’t hold sway in New York in the 50s and 60s, otherwise all the work that de Kooning did after his first show in ’48 would be irrelevant. Or look at Jack Nicholson–he just won an Oscar. But in Joel’s universe Jack Nicholson would’ve been finished after Easy Rider.”
Asked what’s wrong with Chicago’s art world, Kimler doesn’t attack the artists. “With so much influence being exerted by the university system in this town–unique among any other cities in America–we’ve become a town of emerging artists, with no support system for professional artists.” As a result, he says, “Chicago has gone from being the second major art city in the 1980s in America to being a blip on the map, to where we got an art scene here the size of Denver’s. You can say it’s the art recession, but everywhere else the art world has come back. Only in Chicago is it like it is. That’s because the same people who decided what was important when I came to this town 15 years ago are still calling the shots. In any other world–if it was the underworld, if it was the business world–these people would’ve been gone a long time ago. We’re looking at the end results of nepotism and corruption. When we’re down to the last gallery, the same people will still be pulling the strings.”
Kimler claims that a “small clique”–most but not all neoconceptualists–associated with such institutions as the University of Illinois at Chicago and the Renaissance Society, and to a lesser extent a handful of galleries, keeps getting promoted and given shows in high-profile local and national venues. Anyone outside this circle, he says, is rarely given attention. “These middle-class academics have so much power and so much say-so on who gets shown where that we have all these artists stumbling all over themselves trying to make the kind of art that’s hip and cool enough that they’ll get a show at the Renaissance Society or get in someone’s good graces.”
The Chicago-based neoconceptualists–a group that has included Jeanne Dunning, Gaylen Gerber, Mitchell Kane, Judy Ledgerwood, Hirsch Perlman, Kay Rosen, Joe Scanlan, and Tony Tasset, most of them SAIC graduates–became identified as a movement when they began exhibiting together in the mid- to late 80s. Like their 70s forebears, these artists are well versed in art theory, and they make work that stresses the primacy of ideas over objects and investigates art production, representation, and distribution. Many critics contend that the neoconceptualists’ work, which doesn’t carry a Chicago label, transcends the city’s provincialism and has become part of an international exchange of ideas. Indeed, most of these artists are better represented in national and European galleries and institutions than they are in Chicago.
But Kimler contends that it’s exactly this kind of academic-based art that has contributed to the city’s second-tier status. “If you keep curating nondescript artists from Chicago to other museums around the country, people will get bored. You don’t have a bunch of artists in New York or LA saying, ‘Let’s be international.’ Artists in LA aren’t sitting there going, ‘What’s going on in New York?’ There’s a chauvinism about artists in LA. The irony of it is that the people who are supposedly bringing us internationalism really are cementing our position as being a secondary art scene by not allowing Chicago to be international on its own terms.”
Kimler argues that few other artists get the chance to be seen. “When was the last time a Chicago artist not affiliated with UIC had a show at the Renaissance Society? When was the last time a Chicago artist not affiliated with UIC or the Renaissance Society got visits from outside museums and curators, major venues from outside Chicago? The same people get all the visits.” He insists that when work by Chicago artists is included in major art events, such as the Whitney Biennial or the Documenta exhibit, “it isn’t the result of some blue-ribbon panel deciding who’s important in Chicago. It got there because of politics–it’s a couple people who put that work there. It’s all engineered. And then everyone in Chicago is supposed to be impressed.”
The Renaissance Society responds that it has supported conceptualists, imagists, and abstract painters. “As for the UIC argument,” a fax the society sent states, “we’ve shown abstract, conceptual and figurative work from [UIC’s] faculty which undermines his argument that there is some sort of conceptual hegemonic force over there, let alone a cabal being run by the Ren and UIC.” However, it’s true that the majority of the Chicago artists in the society’s 90s shows were affiliated with UIC or were conceptualists, including Gerber, Rosen, Ledgerwood, Carswell, Julia Fish (a UIC teacher,) Tasset (also a UIC teacher), and Arturo Herrera (a UIC grad). And the society is now showing works by UIC teacher Kerry James Marshall, though Kimler says Marshall is a “terrific painter” and his 1997 appearances in the Whitney Biennial and in Documenta were well deserved. One of the few exceptions was the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Ben Nicholson, who had an exhibit at the Renaissance Society in 1996.
Whitney curators, who visit Chicago and other major American cities every other year, spent two and a half days in 1996 going through institutions such as the MCA. But they also visited several galleries, including the Uncomfortable Spaces galleries and Feigen, and the studios of at least 25 artists who were doing a broad range of work.
“What we have in the Chicago art scene is a matrix, and [conceptually oriented art] is one strand of that matrix,” says Carswell, who’s also acting director of UIC’s School of Art and Design. “The Chicago art scene is diverse–there are multiple scenes. I think the problem is more not about what anybody perceives to be the dominant trend at the time. I think the problem is just that this art world tends to be relatively small and doesn’t support major, multiple directions at the same time.” He concedes that in Chicago “it does seem like university art programs have a lot of influence in the visual art scene” and notes that recent grads usually don’t have problems getting gallery exhibits. “Art schools do have an effect here, though it’s hard to say what the most powerful ones are at any given moment.”
Judith Russi Kirshner, a former teacher at the School of the Art Institute and now interim dean of UIC’s College of Architecture and the Arts, is one of Kimler’s main targets. She says that Kimler’s arguments are “old news. Given the challenges in the Chicago art world, this is a moment to be inclusive. This isn’t the time to beat up on artists and institutions.”
Kimler disagrees. “I was talking to [art critic] Robert Hughes a while back, and he made a comment about how everyone in this country is so afraid to say what we think. You’re not allowed to have opinions or else you become a social pariah. And it’s particularly true here in Chicago. I’ve done well–it’s been a rocky road. I’m only being outspoken about what a lot of people know to be true. I’m speaking up for any number of people who’ve gotten the shaft here. It just angers me. This has far less to do with myself than what I’ve seen happen to my friends and colleagues whose talent has been met with such a lack of professionalism. It doesn’t give me pleasure to be engaged in these ‘art wars.’ I’m a painter. But it’s impossible to be silent.”
Kimler says that many original, established Chicago artists have a hard time getting premier exhibits here and elsewhere. He calls Gary Justis “a fantastic, wonderfully talented sculptor making some of the best work today. But has he been recognized in a way that’s commensurate with the quality of his work?”
Justis, who teaches at Northwestern University and the SAIC and was a well-promoted and reviewed artist in the mid-80s, says, “I’ve had a bittersweet relationship with Chicago. The movers and shakers get behind your artwork when you’re young, but then it changes. I think artists become problematic as they mature. People’s interests change–there are subtle changes of trends in general, and that can be disconcerting to artists moving into middle age and older. Mature work is harder to categorize, more difficult to write about–it takes a while to digest the subtleties.” Yet both he and Kimler admit that the MCA has been supportive and is doing a much better job of casting a spotlight on Chicago artists.
Kimler’s Welsh ancestors were among the original settlers of Montana. He grew up in Billings, where his father was a construction salesman and his mother a homemaker. His parents split up before he was two, and he stayed with his father in Billings until he was five. Then his father remarried and moved the family to the Sierra Nevada foothills east of Sacramento.
“I had a strange, unhappy childhood,” Kimler recalls. “I came from a poor, lower-middle-class world. But California was pretty nice. It was filled with orchards. I spent a lot of time running around the woods and being a river rat, fishing and swimming in the American River.” He says he excelled at music, theater, and art. He began drawing in the second grade and took private trombone lessons.
When he was 13 Kimler, who calls his father tyrannical, went to live with his mother, who’d remarried and moved to Boise. He has six half siblings and is particularly close to one sister; he and her family go camping and fly-fishing in Montana every summer. “I always go back,” he says. “I’ve always connected to Montana.”
Kimler eventually returned to his dad’s house in California, then ran away several times. When he was in ninth grade he landed in jail after being picked up by the police for hitchhiking. “A judge gave me a choice–either go to a juvenile home or go to a military school.” Instead Kimler dropped out of school and stole $23, the cost of a one-way bus ticket to San Francisco.
It was 1968 and Kimler only was 15. He lived in the North Beach district, the birthplace of the beats. “I really grew up fast. Runaway, that was me. I panhandled, sold the Berkeley Barb, was a bicycle messenger, washed dishes. I was hanging out at coffee shops. I lived in every wino hotel, every flophouse there was. The longest place I stayed, for a year, was the Stella hotel. The beats and Mark Twain had stayed there. It was full of crazy characters, interesting people. I lived next door to a composer from Juilliard who’d gone mad. There were a lot of speed freaks, needles on the transom. Somehow I avoided that–I had my survival thing down. It was a wonderful bohemian youth. I think a big part of my hardness came from growing up on the street–that’s where my need, my push to survive comes from.
“North Beach was who I was. I grew up with beat things–I related to that more and thought it was cooler. I was more attracted to their iconoclasm. Life to me was more like a Tom Waits song than a Grateful Dead song.”
Kimler wound up in jail again, this time for pot possession. “When I walked out of there two months later I knew how to take care of myself.” Upon turning 16 he asked himself, “What am I gonna do that’s positive with my life?” He decided to save his money and study music. He took classical flute lessons for the next several years, though in 1971 he fled to Vancouver to wait out the draft. But then he pulled a high lottery number and returned to San Francisco.
His life took an exotic turn when he hooked up with a friend who ran a Middle Eastern import business, dealing mainly in carpets and kilims but also silver jewelry and other tribal handicrafts. A buying trip overseas ended up lasting nearly two years. With Herat, Afghanistan, as their base of operations, the two went to Kabul, Kandahar, and Jalalabad, as well as major trade centers in Iran, Pakistan, and northern India. “Afghanistan was like a cross between the old west and the 12th century–very primitive. You could have someone killed for $100. I had guns pointed at me. We slept with pistols beneath our pillows.” He recalls friendships formed over hashish-packed hookahs, but he also describes how he and his partner kidnapped a man whose family owed the business a lot of money but wasn’t paying up. After persuading the man to sign a confession, Kimler and his partner took him to Herat on a bus. “He sat between us. We took all of his money, and every night when we stayed at a hotel we took his clothes away.” One day the man created a disturbance in the street. Kimler and his partner explained the situation to the authorities, and the man was taken into custody. He wasn’t released until the family paid the debt. “I turned 21 when I was over there,” says Kimler. “I came back feeling like an Afghani, a changed man, grown up.”
Back in San Francisco, Kimler resumed his flute studies and hung out at jazz joints, but he soon realized he didn’t want to spend his life as a musician. “I knew I needed to find an art form I could really work at. I wanted something I could do for a long time by myself and get good at, something that you could spend a lifetime doing and peak at 70 instead of at 30, like a musician.” He’d been sketching a lot–landscapes, seascapes. “So I chose painting. It was the most logical, rational choice I’ve ever made in my life. I fell in love. I’ve been in the studio ever since.”
In 1976 Kimler began his art training at the Laguna-Gloria School of Art in Austin, Texas, working in a lumberyard to support himself. Two years later he transferred to what he now calls a “conceptual think tank,” the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. “I did all the things that conceptual art students did–one-liner trick art, standard stuff,” he says. “I like conceptual art–good conceptual art. But most of it is dubious and sophomoric at best. I started to rebel, making big paintings against that whole one-liner shtick.”
In 1978 Kimler married a classmate, painter Brenda Barnum, and two years later they moved to San Francisco. He had his first exhibit there, in 1981, but they grew tired of the city and decided to move back to the midwest. “We wanted to live in a big city that had a real art scene,” says Kimler. “At the time Chicago actually had one.” He applied to the School of the Art Institute, but was denied admission. He guesses it was because he never got beyond the ninth grade. “I was angry and resentful, but in a way it served me better. I said, ‘I’ll show ’em.’ It made me focus on my work.”
In late 1982 Kimler and Barnum settled into a studio in a dingy loft building at the corner of Fulton and Desplaines. During the day he worked as a bartender at a Merchandise Mart restaurant, and at night he cranked out big expressionist canvases that dealt with the themes of man in harmony and in conflict with nature. He often drew his impetuous, anguished images–boats, bulls, deer heads–from the writings of Herman Melville, Jack London, Ernest Hemingway, and others.
The Chicago art scene in the early 80s was still defined by the second- and third- generation imagists–figural artists who’d virtually defined the Chicago style since the late 40s. Many artists, including Kimler, were restlessly looking for something new. “Here was this big, beautiful, rough city,” he says, “and I had a hard time equating the city I saw with the kind of pictures Roger Brown was making. What was this big midwestern city doing, looking at these little people in all these little windows, doing funny things? It didn’t make a whole lot of sense that this was the art that represented Chicago–it was picture making as opposed to the act of making a painting. I’d just come from the Bay Area, where there was a tradition of gutsy painting, and I wondered why a wide-open place like this didn’t have reckless, freewheeling paintings. I wanted to paint in a way that would reflect the kind of city Chicago is.”
At the time New York neoexpressionists such as Julian Schnabel and David Salle were setting a new pace, and it suited Kimler. He began showing at Peter Miller Gallery, and in 1984 had his first notable exhibit, “Big City: Civilization as We See It,” which included a 13-keg opening night featuring punkers Big Black and performance artist Debbie Pintonelli. In 1985 Kimler began showing at Frumkin & Struve Gallery. That same year he and Barnum moved to a loft space on North Laflin and became part of a group of artists who met regularly at one another’s studios to indulge in alcohol, camaraderie, and debate.
Critics and movers and shakers in the art world began touting Kimler as the Next Big Thing, and he and other local neoexpressionists reaped the benefits of the 80s art boom. But then another movement started emerging in Chicago. A group of young, conceptually oriented artists, most of them SAIC trained, challenged the dominant pictorial mode with idea-based exhibits at such galleries as Feature, Robbin Lockett, and Randolph Street. “There were some interesting artists here in the mid-80s,” says Kimler. “And then along comes this clique–some good, some not. At first we welcomed them. But when it became apparent that they were excluding other artists, we had a big problem with that. A lot of people saw this as a dividing line.”
Kimler became known for criticizing these artists’ work. “The imagists, for all their slickness, at least were iconoclasts,” he says. “There was a slickness to this other group’s work, but they’d traded in any idiosyncratic subject matter for Duchampian academicism. It was all smooth surfaces, easy to look at, not visually or technically challenging–and supposedly very smart.”
James Yood remembers that era well. As an occasional participant in the “movable rap sessions” of Kimler’s group, he saw the schism firsthand. “There was a feeling at the time of, which camp were you in, of turf jostling going on for the positions of power being doled out.” Kimler, he says, “was part of a group of feisty, aggressive, painterly artists that all seemed to surface together. He began to be identified as one of the more strident and petulant painters, willing to call a spade a spade–even if it was not a spade. There’s a professional courtesy in the art world where you pursue your agenda and you leave others to pursue theirs. I always gave him credit–he named names. A lot of people grumble in the art world, but Wesley grumbled from a platform and at high volume. They were good arguments, and they raised the temperature of the art world. He got people’s juices flowing.”
However, Yood says, Kimler “creates enemies and conspiracies, he sees vendettas where I don’t think they exist. Yes, some people support some artists, and some powerful people supported the neoconceptualist group. But that doesn’t mean they hated the other group. I always felt he was a bit wrong. I think he always felt that if you supported the neoconceptualists then [you] had to be against him, and that’s just not the case. I never saw what I considered real evidence of a conspiracy. He reminds me of Roger Brown a lot. He took energy from these supposed antagonisms–they’d get him angry, get him in a creative frenzy. In the 80s he felt a need to destroy in order to create. He’d get steamed and say, ‘I’m going to show these so-and-sos.’ It was always Wesley against the world. The other group never rose to the bait. They just shrugged their shoulders. There was no reciprocal anger. They just ignored him–which made him even more angry.”
In the mid-80s Kimler was a prolific painter and drinker; some critics and colleagues, put off by his big-mouth macho swagger, began comparing him to Pollock, another legendary boozer–a comparison that still haunts Kimler. “Of course my painting, my lifestyle, was out of control in the 80s. But a lot of people’s were. I was a wild personality, a destructive drunk, and I paid the price. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that’s gotten back to me about myself–none of it true. But let’s not obscure the fact that I was a hot topic, one of the most talked-about artists in town.”
Kimler’s breakout year was 1986. His Chicago gallery shows were reviewed in Art in America, ARTnews, and Artforum, though not all the reviews were laudatory. He was profiled in Chicago magazine, and he had two exhibits in New York that year, including “Recent Art From Chicago” at the Artists Space. In the catalog Yood wrote of Kimler, “We may be witnessing the early stages of the emergence of a national reputation, the first to come out of Chicago since the success of Roger Brown and Ed Paschke in the 1970s.” In their annual critics’ poll issue, New Art Examiner writers voted Kimler among “Chicago’s finest young artists” (he tied for second, behind Gary Justis). But an anonymous critic writing in the same issue said Kimler’s fall ’85 show at Frumkin & Struve was among the season’s worst: “He totally failed to make use of his considerable aesthetic sensibilities and…produce[d] a gallery full of sofa paintings.” Then he was paid $8,000 to create a painting for a mass-circulation Cracker Barrel print ad, which prompted some in the local art community to call him a sellout. Kimler says, “I told them to fuck off and to go back to waiting tables.”
In 1987 the Terra Museum staged a major art survey, “Surfaces: Two Decades of Painting in Chicago.” The 55-piece exhibit featured the work of 25 artists from the 1970s and ’80s and included work by imagists, other figurative painters, and several abstractionists, as well as nonobjective works by emerging neoconceptualists such as Tony Tasset and Mitchell Kane. The paintings were chosen by Judith Russi Kirshner, who was then the museum’s curator.
Kimler wasn’t included in the exhibit. He says he’d rather not discuss it, but then says bitterly, “Some of these people weren’t even painters–they were kids who’d gone to the right school, belonged to the right club, and who were being promoted by their teacher. It was becoming obvious that a small group of tastemakers–who remain today–were beginning to assert their power, and if you weren’t involved in this academic clique then all avenues were essentially closed to everyone else.”
Kimler went on painting. He caroused, he bitched about the local art scene. He got divorced, though he says he and Barnum are still the “very best of friends.”
In the fall of 1988, at the height of the art boom, Kimler fled town for California. He spent six months in Eureka, in the “fog and redwoods,” then moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in a 12-step program. He’d had a show at the high-profile L.A. Louver Gallery the year before and thought the city’s art climate would be welcoming. It was also home to many painters he admired–Ed Moses, Jim Hayward, Roger Herman. Kimler settled in Venice, in a studio near the beach. “I had a big tropical garden and spent a lot of time walking up and down the boardwalk. I worked on getting my health back, getting my life together. I was sort of an empty shell. When I was confronted with myself, I didn’t know what to do. I had no fuckin’ idea who I was, what I was about at the time. I started really looking at various painters and painting styles like I never had and began learning from them. I worked on my techniques and painting chops, always figuring I would come back and have new skills to use.”
Kimler came back to Chicago in the fall of 1992 and rented the big studio he’s in now. His paintings didn’t lose their figural underpinnings, but they became more abstract, more complex. The layers were thicker, the colors brighter, the brush strokes more deliberate. “Before I was describing,” he says. “Now I was showing.” He began painting over some of his old canvases, putting his new techniques on top of the old. He says that it was a way of revealing how he was building on his own style and on a certain historical tradition.
It wasn’t long before he was back complaining about the city’s institutions, chiefly the Museum of Contemporary Art. He said they weren’t supporting the local scene because they didn’t stage more exhibits of established, mid-career artists. The more he worked at perfecting his medium, the more he felt ignored. “Here if you’re over 25, forget it. I’m all for young, emerging artists–I like Rebecca Morris, John Santoro, Jennifer Mannebach, Dessa Kirk. But think about that show we had at the Cultural Center two years ago, ‘Contemporary Abstraction in Illinois.’ You had two or three Chicago abstractionists of some quality, and then you had a bunch of emerging artists of very mixed quality. If you had a show in LA called ‘California Abstraction,’ they would’ve had their best artists. In LA they get the idea that an art scene is not a dress rehearsal.
“But here in this town, where we’re so worried about what’s new and what’s hip, we just can’t look at something for being interesting, provocative, unique, and original work. The powers that be here trot out their young genius of the moment rather than watch someone grow and mature and, after years of looking and effort, actually get interesting. The artists I love and admire were in their 30s, 40s, and 50s before they really started clicking. De Kooning didn’t have his first show till he was 44. It takes a long time to become a good painter. It’s a lifelong project.”
If Kimler feels so strongly about the LA art scene, why didn’t he stay there? “I don’t love LA,” he says. “I’m sort of a rainy-day, gray kind of person. It’s pretty bright out there, and that bothered me. The art market crashed in the early 90s, and it was getting expensive. I felt like it was just the time to move on, to turn the page in my life, so I did. I love Chicago, and I feel very deeply about Chicago. And I have a lot of friends who are artists here.”
In the summer of 1994 Kimler talked to Ed Paschke about ways to reenergize Chicago’s moribund and increasingly cautious art scene. The two went to Tony Fitzpatrick with an idea–reopen World Tattoo Gallery, which had closed that February, as a collective, with jury-chosen artists covering the costs of their exhibits. Fitzpatrick, who still held a lease on the space, bit.
The inaugural exhibit, “The Real Deal,” featured the work of Kimler, Fitzpatrick, and Paschke and ran through the fall of ’94. Kimler says that the artists did “really well,” and just the idea that three big-name artists had staged their own show without dealers, who usually get 50 percent of any sales, scared local dealers. (Kimler’s regular gallery, Struve, and Paschke’s Phyllis Kind each pocketed 10 percent of the sales). But after the show World Tattoo shuttered its doors for good.
In the mid-80s, when she was the MCA’s associate curator of exhibitions, Lynne Warren admired neither Kimler nor his work. For one thing, she was put off by the hype. “He was the next new hot commodity,” she says. “Neoexpressionist painting was coming back, and he was doing what was in sync with what the art world was accepting. I didn’t know him personally, but I heard this buzz coming up from the people aligned behind him–collectors, things written about him, the myth of the tortured artist. As a curator, I’m very suspicious of forces, of vested
financial interests, rallying behind artists. I’m suspicious of the system as much as I’m accused of being part of the system. I was reacting against everyone’s pressure that he was a big thing, yet his paintings weren’t there for me.”
Warren says she didn’t start warming up to Kimler until the fall of 1993, when the museum hosted the last of four community roundtable discussions to solicit feedback for the upcoming “Art in Chicago: 1945-1995” exhibit. “He publicly apologized for giving the MCA too much grief,” she recalls. “He’d changed his life around a lot, and I think he realized that being part of an art community was a very important thing. When he was emerging, he was used by the art system as much as he used it, and I think he learned from that experience.”
In 1994 Warren and Richard Francis, then the MCA’s chief curator, went to Kimler’s studio. “I was quite impressed, having seen his earlier work,” she says. “Before he was not focused and not using his talent. But when I came back I could see that he was a serious person who understood the burden of having talent. It’s easy to become a conceptual artist, an installation artist, but painting requires practice. He was one of the first people I met of my peers that I felt really understood how difficult it was to make a good painting–how much exploration, patience, and grief it entails. I felt like he deserved a chance, a real good venue.”
The show “Wesley Kimler,” with ten large-scale paintings–many too large to be viewed properly in the narrow hallway where they hung–opened at the MCA in early June 1995. It was part of a series of exhibits the museum had begun the year before to showcase the works of emerging and mid-career Chicago artists (others were Jeanne Dunning, Jim Lutes, Dan Peterman, Kay Rosen, Vincent Shine, and Hollis Sigler). The titles of three of Kimler’s paintings came from the minimalist-realist stories of Raymond Carver, whose life of drink and redemption Kimler believed mirrored his own. In her catalog essay, Warren commented that Kimler’s earlier works, “as much as they longed to be, were not about truly felt experience. It was as if the ‘art’ was the ‘alcohol’ of Carver’s stories. ‘Art’ got to control things, dictate what the paintings looked like, have all the fun.”
The critical response to “Wesley Kimler” was mixed. James Yood was fairly positive in the New Art Examiner. Garrett Holg’s review in the Sun-Times, “Powerful Poignance: Kimler Makes Bold New Start,” was celebratory. He wrote, “Some critics argue that the idea of the authentic gesture, which is the foundation of abstract expressionism, is no longer valid….Kimler’s recent paintings leave little doubt that it is still coursing with a vital pulse.” But Alan Artner in the Chicago Tribune was skeptical. He’d written favorably of two Kimler exhibits in the mid-80s, yet this time the headline read “Kimler’s Renewed Effort Falls Short.” About half of the review dealt with the artist’s lifestyle during the 80s, describing how the “warmed-over Abstract Expressionist” attempted to live up to Pollock’s example through his “hard-drinkin’, hard-drivin’ antics.” He also wrote that the MCA paintings were largely derivative and undisciplined.
Incensed, especially by the comments about his past, Kimler wrote a series of letters to Artner as well as to several of his Tribune editors. Artner thinks Kimler overreacted. He says he has nothing personal against Kimler; he just didn’t think that the direction he was taking with his large-scale abstractions measured up. “There’s no point in discussing a feud that doesn’t exist,” Artner says. “The work is either good or bad.”
Kimler says he and Artner cleared up any “difficulties” they’d had, and says he’d rather not talk about Artner. He adds that they made an agreement after the review ran that Kimler wouldn’t talk publicly about Artner if Artner wouldn’t write about him. Artner insists there wasn’t any such agreement, though he does say he ran into Kimler at the 1996 Art Expo and told him that if he felt that strongly about his reviews then he would have freelancers write about his work in the future. Artner says that it’s normal to rotate reviews among critics and he might write about Kimler again.
Reader critic Fred Camper panned the MCA show on WBEZ’s Metropolis. “I said I thought it was bad art, terrible art, though I don’t know if those were the exact words I used.” Thinking he might have been wrong, he went back to look at the paintings. “They still seemed sterile and dead to me, unmysterious and nonsystematic. The messiness didn’t sing. The paint just lay there.”
When Camper submitted a review to the Reader he was surprised to find two pieces of mail from Kimler waiting for him. One, he says, was a “moderately nasty but not threatening letter,” the gist of which was, “If you’d looked at the exhibit of works and didn’t see the merits of their painterly abstraction, then I would suggest that you don’t know what you’re talking about.” The other contained a white board filled with exhibition announcement cards from many of Kimler’s past shows. (Camper tried to donate the board to the MCA, but the museum didn’t want it.)
In his review Camper compared Kimler’s works unfavorably to the gestural abstract painters of the 50s, saying they mimicked their beauty but lacked Pollock’s musical rhythm and de Kooning’s visionary intensity. Some paintings were all swagger, others all clutter. He wrote, “All I see is skillfully applied globs of paint.”
Kimler says, “All that stupid Pollock and de Kooning crap again. Fred Camper–failed filmmaker, failed artist–would be the perfect art critic for the Reader if Chicago was a town of 150 people somewhere in Appalachia. His tenure at the Reader is a good indication of how grim things really are in the Chicago art world.”
A sympathetic feature ran that August in the Sun-Times, in which Lynne Warren defended Kimler. “He is trying to create a body of work that has to educate about what it is trying to do. Many artists can plug into a dialogue or some buzz words that are out there, but Wesley is doing something that’s a lot more courageous.” Warren still believes that. She thinks it’s ironic that in this age of multiculturalism people are prejudiced against work by white males. “I support Wesley’s philosophy–there’s a dying ability of viewers to look at a painter,” she says. “The context has been so radically altered from the 50s and 60s. For the most part, people in the art world these days have no interest or concern for painting that aspires to any traditional values of painting. But that’s not Wesley’s problem. It’s the audience’s loss. He’s been able to stick with his chosen thing and pursue it the best way he knows how, and I don’t know many artists that do that.”
What did Kimler think of his MCA exhibit? “I didn’t think it was my best show, by any means. First of all, it wasn’t some sort of big museum retrospective. It was a site show–I made specific paintings for it. I think the thing about me and my work is that I gamble a lot, and you win some and you lose some. I’m not afraid to take chances. I’m always experimenting, exploring, and growing with my paintings. I’ve made some really good paintings, and I’ve made some real not-so-good paintings. I’m not afraid to fail, not afraid to make bad paintings. I’m like a home-run hitter who swings for the fences–sometimes you strike out. I think in many ways the show did fall short, but I also think that those paintings led me to where I am today.”
Late one afternoon Kimler stops working on a series of small paintings that will be shown this fall at Fassbender and starts draping sheets of clear plastic over his messy worktable. Two of his parrots, he says, know better than to land on the open cans of paint, but the newest one doesn’t. He feeds the finches, then dons his trademark fedora and heads out the door.
Driving up Ogden in his ’73 Ford pickup, he says, “Being an artist is a difficult life, but it seems like a pretty nice life to me. I don’t want a fancy house in a nice neighborhood or a fancy car. I like being in my big, sloppy garret. I feel comfortable with who I am and what I do. I’m just a painter–not a philosopher–and somewhat of a thinker in my own way. I get up and go to a job every day that’s about celebrating life. When there’s some semblance of a level playing field in Chicago, no one will be more pleased than I to set aside conflicts and work toward better days.”
He’s been reading the novels of Naguib Mahfouz and plans to make a series of paintings based on them. “He’s a writer whose work speaks to the human condition in great complexity, and that’s what painting should do as well. Contrary to a great deal of contemporary opinion, I feel that as our lives become increasingly complex and technologically evolved, far from falling away, the simple act of making a painting will have added meaning. It’s a solitary act that harbors infinite possibility, that is hard to do well. But it’s what I live for.” He can’t help adding, “Solzhenitsyn said, ‘Give me bread, not sugar.’ Do we want an art that’s humanist, or do we want an art that’s institutional?” o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photographs by Susan Anderson; cover photo of Kimler; “Straits of Night no17” (1989); “Calvin the Great” (1990); “Cookies Dream” (1996).