Lynne Warren’s roaming through the Highland Park mansion of art collectors Douglas and Carol Cohen, looking for Chicago imagists. She’s specifically in search of paintings from 1968, the third and final year of the legendary Hairy Who shows at the Hyde Park Art Center. A group of six young artists from the School of the Art Institute–James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum–staged exhibits that were as theatrical and irreverent as their funky paintings. After exhibit organizer Don Baum mounted his last imagist show at the art center in 1971, the so-called movement became the focus of national and international exhibitions such as “Made in Chicago,” which became the U.S. entry in the Sao Paulo Bienal of 1973.
Warren, a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, plans to reconstruct part of the 1968 show for the upcoming exhibit “Art in Chicago, 1945-1995,” the first comprehensive examination of the city’s postwar art history, which opens November 16. So far she’s assembled about 10 of the 50 or so artworks from the final Hairy Who show, along with posters, artist-produced comic books, thrift shop items, and other ephemera. Her partial remounting of the 1968 show will even go so far as to reproduce its linoleum walls and wallpapered floors.
Warren and her team of three assistants have devoted the last five years to organizing the much-anticipated show. They’ve filled out grant applications, done historical research, collected archival material, recorded interviews, convened community meetings, consulted advisory committees, established criteria for choosing artists, searched private and corporate collections, visited artists’ studios, written essays and video scripts, and coordinated the publication of a comprehensive catalog.
Now Warren’s making her final rounds. The Cohens’ home is a veritable museum of modern art, full of paintings, drawings, and sculptures, most from the last 50 years. There are works by Calder, Cornell, Dubuffet, Matta, Miro, Nevelson, Mapplethorpe, and others. Carol Cohen explains that she and her husband have been acquiring art for three decades, though they haven’t purchased anything for a few years. They got some of the artwork from her parents–Lindy and Edwin Bergman, internationally renowned collectors who began acquiring surrealist art in the 1950s and then donated much of it to the MCA and the Art Institute. Right from the start of their collecting the Bergmans also bought work by Chicago artists, as did local collectors Joseph Shapiro, Lewis Manilow, and Ruth Horwich, all of whom would eventually help start the MCA in 1967.
The Cohens’ commitment to Chicago artists is evident throughout their home. There’s an H.C. Westermann sculpture in the living room and many imagist paintings: a Jim Nutt in a bathroom, a Gladys Nilsson in a hallway, a Roger Brown in a study. Though Nutt and Nilsson were part of the Hairy Who, the Cohens’ works date from much later than 1968.
“One thing that’s marked serious Chicago collectors over the years is that they go after things they’re interested in rather than the latest fad,” says Warren. “They don’t always stick with trends in art. They tend to have one-of-a-kind collections because they follow their inclinations.”
We’re led to a bedroom, where Warren pauses to study two early works by Ed Paschke, Gypsy Encampment and Black Mass, both from 1972. They’re small works on paper–the first in oil and color pencil, the other in ballpoint pen. They look nothing like the artist’s later hard-edged paintings, with their neon colors and often violent or sexually charged subject matter. Both pieces include figures that appear to merge into landscapes. Cohen shows Warren some photos of a 1970 Roger Brown painting called Emergency Room, which is now owned by one of her sons. A loan could be arranged, she says, if Warren’s interested.
But Warren’s noncommittal. She likes the three artworks, but they’re not what she came for. Paschke and Brown, two of Chicago’s most celebrated artists, weren’t part of the Hairy Who anyway, though Baum did include them in other seminal 1968 exhibits at the Hyde Park Art Center: Paschke in the “Non-Plussed Some” and Brown in the “False Image.”
Warren says she’ll be in touch and climbs into her Toyota to drive back to the city. She explains that these visits are a routine part of her job. “It’s always good to know what other people have in case any future projects come up.”
“Art in Chicago, 1945-1995” has undoubtedly been Warren’s most challenging project. The issue of which artists have been included–and which ones haven’t–is bound to be debated for years to come. After all, the exhibit sets out to define the official canon.
“There were no existing models for this,” Warren says, “because in Chicago no art history has ever been recorded.” She cites only two previous historical surveys: “Chicago: The City and Its Artists, 1945-1978,” which appeared at the University of Michigan Museum of Art in Ann Arbor in 1978, and “Surfaces: Two Decades of Painting in Chicago,” which was at the Terra Museum of American Art in 1987. While those exhibits were each defined by the vision of a single curator, “Art in Chicago” has taken a far more inclusive approach; Warren has consulted advisers representing specialized fields and various communities–artists and administrators, collectors and curators, dealers and patrons, historians and critics. The show will attempt to accurately reflect the breadth and diversity of art making and collecting here during the second half of the 20th century.
Yet, no matter how many advisers were consulted or how extensive their research, the question remains: What prevents “Art in Chicago” from being “Lynne Warren’s Art in Chicago.”?
“It’s intended to be a very broad overview, to try to capture things before they’re completely lost,” she says. “You can’t look back and try to revise history–it’d be a totally different show. You have to try to tell it like it is.”
Though 1960s imagism has become the art movement most closely identified with Chicago, it has a longer history than most realize. Art historian Franz Schulze first coined the term in his 1972 book Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945 to refer to a larger group of postwar figurative artists. Schulze had long argued that the city fostered an indigenous psychological expressionism. Nearly a quarter century later, he’s still trying to set the record straight, reclaiming the term imagist for three generations of artists working here before the label was appropriated by critics and dealers who built their careers promoting those associated with the Hairy Who scene.
Early on Schulze had dubbed the idiosyncratic imagists working in Chicago during the 1940s and ’50s the “Monster Roster.” Noted for their distorted and often grotesque depictions of mythological subjects and existentialist themes, the Monster Roster included Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Seymour Rosofsky, and Evelyn Statsinger. When Chicago art historian Peter Selz became a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, he featured the work of Campoli, Golub, and Westermann in a 1959 exhibition, “New Images of Man.” The New York critics panned the show, and some Chicago artists never forgot it.
In his introductory essay to the “Art in Chicago” catalog, Schulze discerns two predominant schools among the city’s postwar artists: the imagists, dedicated to the interpretation of the human figure and influenced by surrealism and the exotic, and the rationalists, centered in Laszlo Moholy-Nagy’s Institute of Design and inspired by the utopian ideals of the Bauhaus. While these two traditions continue to shape the art produced here, Schulze says, Chicago now boasts a more diverse community. What’s changed since Fantastic Images?
“The city’s art world is much larger,” says Schulze, a professor of art at Lake Forest College since 1953. “Chicago as an art center is much more ambitious. It takes itself more seriously and is taken more seriously by the international art world. You cannot isolate one approach, school, or attitude. As a consequence, nothing is as dominant here as it was in the 50s, 60s, and 70s.”
The figurative tradition has undoubtedly been a defining force here; some would say that the history of imagism isn’t yet complete. But Chicago also has a strong, if neglected, abstract tradition in painting and sculpture going back to the 1940s. Women and artists of color have always been active here (the MCA’s exhibit will open with the works of painters Gertrude Abercrombie and Archibald Motley Jr.). Chicago has a rich history of community-based art and of alternative artist-run galleries. It made a major contribution to world photography, as artists like Harry Callahan, Nathan Lerner, Arthur Siegel, and Aaron Siskind began to come out of the Institute of Design in the 1940s. The city has supported a thriving neoconceptualist movement during the last decade, with artists working in an international idiom rather than a distinct “Chicago style.” But these are only some of the city’s art histories. There are many more.
Presenting artistic developments within the context of the larger economic, social, and political life of the city, “Art in Chicago” will bring together 187 works by 149 artists working in a variety of media (not including time arts–performance, film, video, and sound installations–which will be presented separately). Spread out over 12,800 square feet, the show will be supplemented by original exhibit announcements and catalogs, artists’ books, photographs, and other documentary material. A time line will relate the significant events for each year of the show. “When I started doing this project, it became clear that it wasn’t just a story about art,” says Warren. “It was a story about the city.”
The show will recount the city’s art history through five chronological segments, each covering ten years and broken at mid-decade. Every section begins with an established generation of artists and ends with younger practitioners who’ve gained acclaim by the period’s end–usually by reacting against the work of the preceding generation. The first segment, “A Decade of Momentum, 1945-1956,” is named for the highly influential Exhibition Momentum salons, which began in 1948 to showcase works by ID and School of the Art Institute graduates and students who’d been shut out of the Art Institute’s important “Chicago and Vicinity” shows. The final portion of the exhibit is called “(Un)Assigned Identities, 1986-1995,” which, Warren says, will reflect general currents and not be a “Hot Picks of ’96.” Each segment contains the work of 20 to 25 artists, though the last section has 46, because, Warren explains, “there are more people working here now than ever before.” A sixth segment, “Time Arts Chicago,” was separately curated by research associate Dominic Molon.
Warren stresses that the exhibit won’t just focus on the mainstream art world of galleries, museums, and collectors; she’s taken great pains to show what was happening in community-based movements beginning in the late 1960s and in the nonprofit galleries and alternative spaces started in the 1970s, with the founding of such artist-run venues as Randolph Street Gallery, N.A.M.E., and the feminist cooperatives ARC and Artemisia. For example, the exhibit’s third section, “The Entry of the Imagists Into Chicago, 1966-1976,” may be dominated by the Hairy Who and their acolytes–it’s named after Roger Brown’s The Entry of Christ Into Chicago, a comic riposte to early expressionist James Ensor’s The Entry of Christ Into Brussels (Brown has Christ parading down Michigan Avenue on a flatbed truck)–but that’s only part of the segment’s story. The decade also saw the growing political activism of the local art community due to the Vietnam war and the civil rights struggle. The “1968 Room,” put together by assistant curator Staci Boris, will spotlight Chicago artists’ response to the 1968 Democratic convention; the community mural movement, which gave rise to the nation’s first African-American and Latino public murals; and AfriCobra (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), an art collective inspired by the Black Power movement. Warren says that the mural movement, AfriCobra, and the ID school of photography “are probably more internationally well-known outside of Chicago, and valued very well among the art world, than they’re known within the city.”
Warren says that from the outset her team was “intent on exploding a lot of myths and stereotypes.” Chief among them was the notion that Chicago was an isolated, provincial backwater unsupportive of sophisticated art practice, favoring only a figurative, psychological tradition. The city’s distance from New York has unquestionably instilled in artists here the idea that they must move away to fully realize their potential. The relative lack of critical and financial support as well as the example of influential postwar artists who left to advance their careers–Golub and his wife Nancy Spero, Westermann, and June Leaf had all moved away by 1961–contributed to an inferiority complex that prevented Chicago from seeing itself as a major contemporary American art center. The city’s emphasis on the figure was seldom noted in New York, where abstract expressionism ruled as the international style of the day.
“A lot of people aren’t aware of what went on here in the 40s, 50s, and 60s,” says Ellen Lanyon, a figurative painter who now lives in New York. Contrary to the popular notion that the city’s galleries were all run by North Shore housewives, Lanyon says, “We had good galleries,” pointing to such prominent dealers as Richard Feigen, Allan Frumkin, Richard Gray, and B.C. Holland. She also says that the newspapers were more actively writing about the local art scene than today. “There was terrific art coverage. There was the Momentum scene, the Monster Roster scene. The newer generation tends to forget that, and one does feel bypassed. But this show will make it more evident than ever that Chicago had a big contribution to figuration and narrative art.”
Lanyon–whose 1962 painting Fregene is included in “Art in Chicago”–was an influential force. With Golub, she was among the School of the Art Institute graduates and students who formed Exhibition Momentum. She’s also a “Chicago and Vicinity” show veteran. In 1971 she founded WEB, a women artists’ group that led to the creation of ARC and Artemisia. Having divided her time between New York and Chicago for a good part of the 1980s, she and her husband, abstract painter Roland Ginzel (also featured in “Art in Chicago”), moved to Manhattan in 1985. Lanyon feels as if she left town just when the Chicago art scene was starting to take off. She continues to exhibit here (at Printworks Gallery) and says she often thinks of moving back.
“New York may be the mecca of the art world, but I’ve always considered myself a Chicago artist,” she says. “Just because a person goes away doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their place. I always came back and was always a part of what was going on in galleries. I’ve always felt Chicago had something to offer that was unique and felt strongly that people should realize what they have and quit complaining.”
Brooklyn native Evelyn Statsinger, who continues to exhibit at Jan Cicero Gallery, has always felt strongly about Chicago too; she recalls the 1940s and ’50s as a “very exciting” time to be an artist in the city. She showed her obsessively detailed, surrealist-inspired pen, ink, and crayon drawings in the first Exhibition Momentum and later became associated with the Monster Roster and the imagists. In 1952, at the age of 25, Statsinger had a solo exhibit at the Art Institute. Her 1949 work In the Penal Colony is featured in “Art in Chicago.”
“The attitude was very different at that time,” she says. “You were just doing what you were doing–the gallery scene wasn’t like a gallery scene. It was an open place, and artists were very friendly with each other. People didn’t think about exhibiting or selling so much. It was about the work. It was a hardworking city, and I liked its anticulturalism, though that might sound like a strange thing to say. My dealer Allan Frumkin told me I should go to Europe, and I said, “Why? I think Chicago is a wonderful place.”‘
Warren says the second-city complex has hampered too many artists here. “Myths are powerful things, and the myth that Chicago is a second-rate city is continually perpetuated. For better or worse, the power was in New York and artists had to measure themselves against that.” On the other hand, as Warren notes, the second-city complex may have actually been a blessing in disguise because it encouraged individualism. Many of the artists who remained in town adopted a “defiant, antimainstream philosophy.” They decided to do their own thing and often ended up creating unique bodies of significant work. More than any other regional center of artistic activity, Warren says, Chicago developed autonomously.
Theodore Halkin, a first-generation imagist, partly attributes the city’s quirky aesthetic to the late Whitney Halstead, an art history instructor at the School of the Art Institute. In the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, Halstead urged students to study objects at the Field Museum of Natural History, not as mere ethnographic curiosities but as singular works of art.
“His interest in primitive and naive art, his focus on surrealism, had an enormous influence on a lot of the Chicago artists who went to school there–Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown,” says Halkin, who also taught at the school for 30 years. Halkin’s represented in “Art in Chicago” by a mixed-media piece on plywood from 1962. “Artists take from wherever they can find inspiration. You’re part of the compost heap. You’re like fertilizer, so other things can grow. That’s the way it should be.”
Halstead used more than 60,000 slides to illustrate his lectures, a collection amassed from his extensive travels throughout the Americas as well as from museum exhibits. The unique mix of Western, non-Western, surrealist, folk, and self-taught art left its mark on many students. As a student at the school in the early 1960s, Nutt operated the slide projector for Halstead’s lectures. Nutt says, “I wasn’t getting a lot from reading about art. But he’d talk about a work and then bring in lots of other images. The connections he brought to art made a light turn on again and again. He’d show a slide of an impressionist painting and then one of a Japanese print, for example. It was a very visual way of looking at a particular piece of art. It exposed me to more images than I was aware of.”
Warren points out that many of the ingredients people often cite as shaping Chicago art–the city’s renowned surrealist collections; the widespread interest in folk, outsider, and ethnographic art; the elevation of the commonplace; the lasting influence of Jean Dubuffet’s 1951 Arts Club lecture on l’art brut, “Anticultural Positions”–have historically stirred only certain strains of artistic activity in the city, not the whole pot. “These cherished assumptions have certain grains of truth, and are so palatable that you don’t push yourself to look for deeper or less obvious influences,” she says, adding that the WPA and social-realist art of the 1930s had as much influence as surrealism on the postwar generation of artists.
Art in Chicago may not have had an overarching style or aesthetic, Warren believes, but it certainly shared an ethos, or a characteristic way of viewing the world. “What I found out by looking at this whole thing is that there actually is a very deep common thread, and that is humanism. There’s not a great deal of interest in purely formal things here. I think there’s something to be learned from the experience that the Chicago artists’ milieu, for better or worse, forced them to take matters into their own hands because there wasn’t a lot for them, like exhibition or teaching opportunities. There was a social activism and political awareness that was not in the forefront in New York. We didn’t have a whole lot of prewar models, where you had these major artists who younger artists could learn from in a student-to-master way that you had in New York. There’s a certain more humanistic type of art making that Leon Golub exemplifies, and you see the same sort of attitude over and over and over again. And it’s even underlined in a lot of the imagist work. . . . The formal aspects of things is just not interesting to people here.
“You can call that provincialism, you can call that being backward. But now when you see that what’s important in the international art world–looking toward social and political activism, looking toward human concerns, expressing outrage about various things, or commenting on media and all those issues which are so in the forefront today–that’s what Chicago did all along.”
MCA director Kevin Consey says that 50,000 serious artists have worked in Chicago since 1945–which means that more than 48,800 of them won’t be included in this exhibit. Sure, all of the Preordaineds and No Big Surprises and Widely Assumeds are here. But quite a few, Warren says, “were very big names once but have been forgotten about.” For example, she mentions abstract painter Richard Koppe, an ID, and later UIC, instructor who was widely exhibited in the 1940s and ’50s. Koppe was a frequent “Chicago and Vicinity” prizewinner, and his work was featured in international touring exhibits. But his paintings were rarely seen after he committed suicide in 1973. Koppe, like most of the artists in “Art in Chicago,” has a single work in the show, though some of the more influential figures–including Baum, Brown, Callahan, Nutt, Paschke, Westermann, Richard Hunt, and Martin Puryear–are represented by multiple works, often in more than one decade.
“The list,” as it became known in local art circles, was fairly complete by late 1994 and “99 percent set” by last fall, Warren says. The MCA tried to keep the list secret to head off preconceptions that would inevitably be formed about the show.
“You look at this list of 150 names,” Warren says. “You’re a pretty well-informed person about Chicago art, but only half the names will mean anything to you. Half the names are all the Chicago imagists and a lot of the people showing right now–these are the names you recognize. The image that pops in your mind is, “Lots of imagists, lots of neoconceptualists. God, this is a show about imagism and neoconceptualism!’
“You don’t recognize Joseph Goto’s name, an amazing abstract sculptor from the 1950s who I believe is going to be a real rediscovery. You don’t recognize Marion Perkins’s name, one of the first artists to use a black aesthetic. You don’t recognize Emerson Woelffer’s name, an abstract painter of the ID school. You don’t recognize Evelyn Statsinger’s name, even though she was in Time magazine in 1954 as one of the most promising artists in the United States. A lot of people may not recognize Alejandro Romero’s name. They may have heard of Paul Sierra, but they can’t bring an image to mind.”
She points out that the 18-member advisory committee would occasionally suggest names of artists overlooked by the curators and that the criteria for determining the significance of a work or artist was established during several meetings with members of the art community. “This show attempts, as much as possible, to take the curator’s ego out through the whole methodology and tries objectively to look at how the art community developed here. This is an organic history, not a beauty contest.”
Consey calls the exhibit “historically true to a fair and accurate study.” But history–especially art history–is not objective. Personal bias and lobbying on behalf of tastemakers are inescapable in any curatorial endeavor. “Art in Chicago” has been no exception. Nearly everyone contacted for this story has used the same phrases to describe both Warren and her exhibit: Sure to be controversial. An impossible job. A no-win situation. She’s on the hot seat.
Schulze likes and admires Warren, but his cautious assessment of the show is typical. “To the best of my knowledge, they did as thorough, careful, and scrupulous a job as possible putting out their view of things with no payola involved. Nonetheless, Lynne has been in Chicago so brief a time . . . she runs the terrific risk of being scalded by people and will draw a hell of a lot more fire than praise. An awful lot of people will be angry because it will be difficult for them to sit back and talk about the show objectively.”
“This is good for Lynne, but she knows how ugly it’s going to get,” says Jeff Abell, editor of the Chicago Artists’ Coalition’s Chicago Artists’ News as well as the “Time Arts in Chicago” section of the exhibition catalog. “She’ll be congratulated with one hand and slapped with the other. It’s a contentious art world, as any art world is. After the show opens, people will look forward to the fires burning and smoke smoldering. She’s brave to put herself through it.”
“There’s probably been lots of politicking and phone calls and rubbing of shoulders and eating of lunches,” speculates Deborah Wilk, former publisher of the New Art Examiner and now a publicist with Shields Communications, a PR agency representing galleries, art fairs, and auction houses. “It will come from the museum, it will come from the board, other artists, too. Collectors will try to use their influence. They’ll say, “This is a gross omission. How could you do this and not include so-and-so?’ I don’t think anybody has any illusions about all the jockeying going on–everybody has an opinion they think is objectively right. Certainly some people have a more vested interest than others.”
Yet the list hasn’t exactly been a closely guarded secret. A lot of the exhibitors knew they’d been chosen as long as a year ago, and several versions of the list have been circulating in the art community. Rumors, speculation, and second-guesses–who’s in, who’s out, why–have been buzzing around town all year.
Predictably, most of the attention has been focused on the exhibit’s more recent segments. The majority of those artists are still in town. Being included in “Art in Chicago” not only validates one’s career, it has the potential of enhancing one’s status–and stock–in the art world. Many galleries are showcasing artists included in the show during the opening weeks, hoping to cash in on the action.
“When the list was leaked, I heard some people were in, and then it changed or names were added,” says Tony Tasset, a conceptual artist who has received international attention in recent years. (Tasset is in the show; his wife, painter Judy Ledgerwood, is not.) “I realize that Lynne’s writing history in this one show, and that’s her prerogative in a way. But it didn’t seem like a fair way to do things. All of this controversy will take away from what might be a good show.”
Warren admits that “there was certainly a lot of lobbying going on from various quarters” and that some names were added later in the process. One source who had access to an early version of the list thinks the neoconceptualists were given short shrift due to Warren’s bias and suggests that sculptor Joe Scanlan, who now lives in Brooklyn, and painter Gaylen Gerber were added when it was brought to her attention that they’d both been included in 1992’s Documenta IX, making them among the first Chicago artists to be in the prestigious international exhibition of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany (painter Jim Lutes, already in “Art in Chicago,” was also in the Documenta).
Scanlan and Gerber each say they have no idea how they made it into “Art in Chicago.” Gerber–whose entry is an all-gray painting that was shown as part of an installation at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago in 1992–says it’s “creepy” because he’s internationally exhibited and doesn’t have gallery representation here; he feels removed from the local politicking. Scanlan, who at 35 is one of the youngest artists in the exhibition, is showing three candles in the shapes of a milk carton, a meat tray, and a Pop Tart. Scanlan says he’s never been involved in exhibits here that didn’t go through “11th-hour changes. It shouldn’t be seen as a secretive process. It’s not like electing a pope.”
Warren says that Scanlan and Gerber were among a number of artists who’d been considered all along but could’ve gone either way. “There were a lot of artists we waffled on,” she says. “But it wasn’t like we stopped the presses or anything.” She says that Scanlan was added because his solo exhibit at the MCA, scheduled for fall 1997, had been postponed until winter 1998, “and we felt that was reason to put his work in.” Gerber was added because some MCA staffers and “Art in Chicago” advisers felt he belonged.
Warren says she expected second-guessing from her advisers. “I’d be disappointed if they said everything was fine. They all had types of art they were interested in because of their strong, diverse backgrounds and experience.” Critic Dennis Adrian, for example, was the authority on work produced in Chicago. “We were like central command, getting input from different people.”
Jane Wenger wasn’t on an earlier list, but she got in the show through sheer chutzpah. In 1976 she cofounded a short-lived but influential photography gallery within Artemisia. The women’s cooperative had been inaugurated three years earlier by such now well-known painters as Phyllis Bramson, Hollis Sigler, and Vera Klement. Wenger exhibited frequently in the late 1970s and had an environmental installation at the MCA in 1981. Since bronzing her camera in 1985, she has pursued a career as a real estate broker.
When Wenger heard about “Art in Chicago” last fall, she called Warren and wanted to know if she was going to be in the show. Warren told her probably not. Wenger asked why not. Warren said it wasn’t because her work wasn’t any good, but because she hadn’t made art in a long time. Wenger told Warren, well, she ought to be in the show.
“I made a big splash here,” says Wenger, whose black-and-white photos focused on abstract depictions of the human body. “I was doing things no one else was doing. It was work that had a place and time and that influenced people. It wasn’t easy to absorb. I felt I fit the criteria. I said, come and look at my work. But Lynne said she knew my work. She said, “Don’t ask me, talk to the younger curators.’ But I said, “They weren’t even alive when I was doing this!”‘
Wenger encouraged Boris and Meloche to come to her studio, which they did late last year. They told Wenger they liked her work, but Wenger didn’t hear anything from the MCA for months and figured she hadn’t made the cut. But then she ran into Warren at a party earlier this year, and Warren told her she’d made it into the exhibition. “Lynne told me that she was very excited because what I was doing then was what a lot of people are doing now.”
Few people have worked longer at the MCA than the 44-year-old Warren. She’s been there nearly 20 years, and considers herself a true survivor. Unlike most curators, who tend to start out at smaller museums or exhibition venues before making the big leagues, Warren rose through the ranks–she began there as a secretary in the curatorial department. (A local art critic was once heard to refer to her as a “typist.”) She learned her job through hands-on experience. Though she’s never worked anywhere else, except as an occasional guest curator, she feels that her sustained contact with the local art scene has made her a natural to organize “Art in Chicago.”
One former museum associate, however, feels that Warren’s lack of wider exposure to the art world may have been a liability. “Some have questioned her experience. She came from being a second- or third-level curator to someone of real curatorial influence in a short time. I’m not sure it was entirely justified. She was a controversial lady around town. She always wanted to be considered an intellectual, and this will give her an opportunity to show her stuff.”
Warren spent her early childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. Her father was an instrument engineer for Monsanto in Boston; her mother grew up in Manchester, New Hampshire, where, Warren claims, she served as the model for Veronica in Bob Montana’s Archie comics: a “popular redheaded girl with a 40s page hairdo.” When her father was transferred to Saint Louis in the 1950s, her parents decided to give up their comfortable suburban life to raise their seven kids in a log cabin near Pacific, Missouri. “He had a “Go west, young man’ spirit,” Warren says of her father. “It was a very rustic upbringing–no plumbing, no heating, no electricity. I was raised barefoot on a subsistence farm and wormed regularly.”
Warren moved to Chicago in 1971 and, after studying aesthetics at the University of Chicago, received a bachelor degree in art history from the School of the Art Institute in 1976. She worked as a stenographer for a company that did court transcriptions. Warren joined the MCA staff as an education assistant in 1977, though she admits to some reluctance. “The first show I ever saw there was “White on White’ in 1971,” she says. “The paintings were depressing and sterile. I didn’t want to work in what I thought was an aesthetically impoverished environment. I didn’t think working at a museum was for me. I had to be talked into it.”
Warren lost her job when the education department was eliminated in 1978. “I was given the job of delivering the news, which I felt very badly about,” says John Hallmark Neff, MCA director from 1978 to 1983 and now director of the art program at First Chicago Bank-NBD. “But I felt when I had the opportunity I’d try to restore the situation by bringing people back who, had I been given the choice, shouldn’t have been let go in the first place.”
Warren was rehired as a curatorial secretary in 1979. From there, she rose to curatorial assistant, assistant curator, associate curator of exhibitions, and a six-month stint as acting chief curator in 1987. She served as associate curator of collections from 1990 to 1995, and since 1993 has been the curator of special projects as well. “I got good on-the-job training from various people,” Warren says. “Working with curators helped me learn how to do huge, complex shows–how to analyze them and figure out how to present them.”
Warren has organized or co-organized “about 50 large and small exhibits” at the MCA since the early 1980s, including many that have highlighted selections from the permanent collection; she wrote most of the essays for the accompanying catalogs and brochures. She says she’s worked on hundreds of other exhibits and takes particular pride in the numerous traveling shows she has designed and supervised, including “Leon Golub” (1985); “The Mies van der Rohe Centennial Exhibition” (1986); and “The Spiritual in Art: Abstract Painting 1890-1985” (1987).
Warren has also curated many exhibits with Chicago connections. In 1984 she organized “Alternative Spaces: A History in Chicago,” which explored the role of artist-run spaces; it was accompanied by a book she wrote on the subject. A year later, Warren curated four simultaneous one-person exhibits of young local artists Paul Rosin, Ken Warneke, Jin Soo Kim, and Jo Anne Carson. “A New Generation from SAIC,” a 1986 show, featured work from area and New York artists recently graduated from the school (including Elizabeth Newman and Tony Tasset). “Chicago Artists in the European Tradition,” which included the work of Gary Justis, Jim Lutes, Arnaldo Roche Rabell, Mary Lou Zelazny, and six others, appeared in 1989.
She’s also curated a number of one-person exhibits at the MCA by established Chicago artists: sculptors Tom Czarnopys (1988) and Richard Rezac (1990), painters Wesley Kimler and Jim Lutes (1995), and conceptual artist Dan Peterman (1995). All of these artists are represented in “Art in Chicago.”
Warren says she’s acutely aware of her role as an MCA curator and how she’s perceived by the local art community. She has to keep artists at a discreet distance yet remain informed about what they’re doing. She has to draw a line between the personal and the professional; it comes with the territory. That’s not to say she isn’t allowed to like some local artists’ work–Kimler and Lutes are among her favorites–but she has to avoid the appearance of impropriety. Though fluent in contemporary art discourse, she’s down-to-earth. Even walking around Wicker Park, where she’s lived in the same house for 20 years (she bought it 5 years ago), hardly anyone recognizes her. She prefers it that way.
But the gossip does get back to her. She knows that artists have accused her of being aloof, perhaps arrogant; some Wicker Park gallery owners complain that they’ve never seen her in their spaces, even though she’s just around the corner. And this includes one dealer who has two artists in “Art in Chicago.”
“I’m not part of the hip crowd,” Warren says. “I don’t go out and socialize.” More scholar than scout, she leaves it to other MCA curators to keep their fingers on the pulse of the scene. But Warren, who is married and has a young son, says she does get out to see new art.
“She’s definitely the most versed curator on what’s going on in Chicago, and she’s much better than anybody else about going to galleries and studios,” says Paul Klein, director of Klein Art Works. (Two years ago Klein met a few times with the MCA’s chief curator Richard Francis and offered to help endow a separate “Chicago Room” in the new museum, a temporary exhibit space for local artists. The idea was eventually rejected.) “But none of the MCA curators is doing enough. They need to be prodded perpetually. It’s probably not even appropriate to gripe because we’ll never be satisfied.” (One of Klein’s artists, Justis, has a work in “Art in Chicago.”)
Roberta Lieberman of River North’s Zolla/Lieberman Gallery has been a friend of Warren’s since 1982, when the two juried an exhibit of Wisconsin artists at Beloit College. “I enjoyed being with her for the day,” says Lieberman. “We pretty much agreed on everything. We were simpatico. Since then, we’ve spent a lot of time together. I respect her as a curator and as a wife and mother. She’s a thoughtful person, and every project that she’s been involved in, she gets it done in an accomplished way.” (Four Zolla/Lieberman artists are in “Art in Chicago”: Czarnopys, Lutes, Susanne Doremus, and Buzz Spector.)
Warren also knows her critics accuse her of not liking conceptual art–a claim she finds specious. In 1992 she curated the MCA permanent collection exhibit “Conceptualism-Postconceptualism: The 1960s to the 1990s” and wrote the brochure essay. She served as a guest curator for several shows at Randolph Street Gallery in the mid-1980s and edited RSG’s catalog for “Dull Edge,” a 1986 show that presented the first grouping of Chicago-based neoconceptualists Jeanne Dunning, Hirsch Perlman, and Tony Tasset. Warren says that one of her favorite artists, Phil Berkman, was a pioneering conceptualist in the 1970s (they also worked together, as Berkman was the longtime security chief for the MCA, and, yes, he’s in “Art in Chicago” too).
“A lot of people grant me and other curators more power than we have,” says Warren. “The artist-curator relationship can be a difficult and problematic one. But I think it’s a natural thing. An art community will always define itself in opposition to the prevailing institutions. I can see why artists develop stereotypes about curators–it’s understandable. I think a lot of local artists think I’m against or critically opposed to what they’re doing or that I’m trying to work against them. In fact, I just ask a lot of questions. I don’t swallow anything whole.
“It’s a difficult thing to be an artist. Most artists are loners, and it’s tough for some of them to wear a social hat. But I wish more of them would just pick up the phone and call. Your responsibility is to know your local museum, to know its exhibition programs and its curators’ various expertises. You can’t expect to stay in your studio and have something happen. It’s not our responsibility to be personally involved with every artist.”
Kevin Consey first floated the idea for “Art in Chicago” in 1990. Newly arrived from the Newport Harbor Art Museum in Newport Beach, California, where he’d been director for six years, Consey was upset by what had happened with “The Chicago Show,” an exhibition of area artists at the Chicago Cultural Center sponsored by the Art Institute, the MCA, and the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs. The show, he says, “was neither respectful to the artists nor an example of rigorous scholarship.”
“The Chicago Show” had intended to present “a cross-section of Chicago artists with . . . different cultural and professional backgrounds,” according to a press release put out by the Department of Cultural Affairs. An ethnically diverse, five-member “blind” jury–which included Warren–selected the work of 84 white artists and 6 artists of color, including 2 Latinos. The ad hoc Alliance for Cultural Equity, led by Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum executive director Carlos Tortolero, boycotted the exhibit and called for its cancellation, charging that minority artists had been unfairly ignored. The Department of Cultural Affairs then invited 20 black, Latino, and Asian artists to be in the show and agreed to include an apology in the catalog. But half of the new invitees declined to participate; they said they were insulted to be chosen because of issues of race, not quality. These artists later staged their own exhibit at the Cultural Center.
“We realized we needed to create a serious, humanistic piece of scholarship which would serve as a benchmark for the history of visual art in Chicago, something that could become a significant milestone,” says Consey. “Lynne volunteered. We said, “Let’s explore the possibility for a year,’ and then she began to investigate and develop the conceptual idea.”
Wishing to avoid another imbroglio, the MCA assembled its team of leading arts administrators, historians, and patrons who, among other things, would help ensure a diverse representation of artists. These people–ranging from Rene Arceo, arts director of the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, to Ronne Hartfield, director of museum education at the Art Institute, to James Yood, a critic and art historian at Northwestern University–advised Warren on artists from communities and eras and media that may have been overlooked. But Warren says she didn’t have to go out of her way to find work by minority artists; Chicago’s history easily yielded them.
Founded in 1941 through the efforts of such cultural activists as Margaret Burroughs, the South Side Community Art Center played a key role in nurturing the careers of postwar black artists like Eldzier Cortor, Marion Perkins, and Archibald Motley Jr. Many local African-American artists today exhibit in the international art arena, including Richard Hunt, Martin Puryear, and Kerry James Marshall.
“Art in Chicago” also has a variety of Latino artists–from the Mexican muralists to Puerto Rican Arnaldo Roche Rabell to Cuban Nereida Garcia-Ferraz. But one Latino artist included in the show thinks the selection process smacked of tokenism, specifically questioning the way in which two works by Latino artists ended up in the exhibit. Warren went to the home of a prominent collector of Latin American art and picked the paintings off the wall. “It’s like they said, “I got rid of two Latino artists on the list–bang, what’s next?’ They didn’t go to the dealers, didn’t go to the artists’ studios. They were there on the wall and they just got them. Do I think that’s fair to everyone in town? Of course not.”
“It’s as if they looked at things they liked in books and then went out and got them,” says a prominent gallery owner whose artists are well represented in the show. No one from the MCA, this dealer says, ever contacted him. He learned about which of his artists would be included in “Art in Chicago” through the rumor mill.
“It makes sense they’d go to collectors rather than directly to the artist,” says Ann Wiens, senior editor of the New Art Examiner. “The museum must rely on the generosity of collectors to build the MCA’s collection since their budget for purchasing art is extremely limited.”
Community outreach, many Chicago artists feel, has never been one of the MCA’s strengths. But in 1993–two years after the Henry Luce Foundation awarded a major research grant for “Art in Chicago”–the MCA took the unprecedented step of convening a series of five meetings to inform the art community about the upcoming exhibit and to solicit feedback. Three hundred people were sent invitations. The four primary meetings–held throughout the summer and fall at the Chicago Cultural Center, the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, the Hyde Park Art Center, and the MCA–were attended by 110 artists, critics, dealers, collectors, educators, and community activists. A time-arts discussion, attended by 40 people, was held at the Cultural Center in the summer of 1994. Out of these meetings came guidelines for the research and selection processes, the exhibition and catalog, and educational programming.
“There was a great deal of suspicion,” recalls Warren, who presided over all but one of the meetings. “People came to check us out to see how committed we were. The thing I got back from people was that they seemed to feel we were sincere and committed, especially some of the artists who have worked longer in the community.” The discussions offered participants a chance to air their concerns about the MCA, and suggestions were made for the museum to foster a more open and accessible relationship with the local art community. Participants hoped that “Art in Chicago” would signal a new beginning for the MCA and not be just a one-shot deal; Warren says she was told the museum should continue exhibiting Chicago artists without “ghettoizing” them–and not just stick local artists in a few group shows to appease them. In 1994 the MCA began a series of solo exhibits that featured important local artists at mid-career: Lutes, Kay Rosen, Vincent Shine, and Hollis Sigler; the museum also hosted an exhibit of work by Jeanne Dunning organized by the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C.
The most strongly voiced concern about “Art in Chicago” was the criteria for inclusion: What makes a Chicago artist? There were conflicting opinions. Some participants thought only those artists currently living in Chicago should be considered, while others argued that the length of time an artist spent in Chicago shouldn’t matter.
While there were no hard-and-fast rules, the MCA decided that an artist must have lived in Chicago at some point in his or her career, must have created a significant body of work here beyond his or her school years, and must have made an important contribution to the development of art in Chicago. Artists who were born or trained in Chicago but did no mature work here–Claes Oldenburg and Joan Nelson, for example–were summarily excluded.
Warren says she had a harder time deciding on artists of international stature who had a major presence here (as frequent exhibiting, visiting, or well-collected artists) yet didn’t actually establish residence. “My original concept was to include influences, but there were space limitations,” she says. This meant Dubuffet, Matta, and Peter Saul were out. Some artists who could’ve been considered–Robert Barnes, for example–were also eventually dropped because organizers felt they didn’t spend enough time here.
Barnes was mystified. He’s commonly acknowledged as an artist whose figural work in the 1950s contributed to the development of imagism. He lived and worked in Chicago from 1945 to 1956, when he moved to New York. Since 1964 he’s taught painting at Indiana University in Bloomington, but he continues to show his work here at the Sonia Zaks Gallery. “What can I tell you?” Barnes says. “It’s weird. But it’s silly to get mad. Being in that show won’t make or break me. I’m still painting.
“When my dealer in Chicago called [Warren] to tease her out, she says she hemmed and hawed and said, “Well, he didn’t live in Chicago very much,”‘ says Barnes. “They only wanted work produced in Chicago, but they didn’t have examples of my work produced in Chicago. Well, I’ve been showing regularly in Chicago for 40 years. I’m not worried about the politics in art. So much about curating shows is self-aggrandizement, about making people look like they know something as opposed to knowing something. But it did surprise me. It’s an interesting omission.”
Schulze says Barnes is being modest–he calls the omission “scandalous.” Schulze even wrote a letter to Warren this past summer, protesting the exclusion of Barnes and his peer, figurative painter Irving Petlin, both of whom studied under Matta during the Chilean surrealist’s stint at the School of the Art Institute in 1954. “The absence of Barnes is a miscarriage of justice,” Schulze says. “He was a Chicago artist. They eliminated two of the most important, talented, and central artists in the 1950s and 60s.”
Warren says that she and Schulze “agreed to disagree” on what defined a Chicago artist. “I’m not saying that [Barnes and Petlin] weren’t important” to the development of Chicago art, but she says that including them in the exhibit would’ve “opened a can of worms.” She says she would have then been obligated to add other artists–she names Tom Friedman and Rirkrit Tirajaniva as two examples–who went to art school in Chicago but worked here only briefly.
“The one cardinal rule on the “Art in Chicago’ team was “Know why someone’s not in the show,”‘ Warren says. “I don’t care if you don’t know why someone is in the show, although you should know that too. But the one thing you must know is why someone is not in the show. That means you would’ve had to give them all the respect and consideration that their endeavors deserve. I didn’t want anyone ever to answer the phone, and they’d say, “Hello, this is Joe Blow Artist from Wicker Park,’ and we would go “Who?’ “I’ve been working for 40 years, and why am I not in “Art in Chicago”?’ “Who?’ I would’ve fired someone.”
Many felt that if “Art in Chicago” were to truly set the provincial myths to rest once and for all, then the exhibit ought to travel. If any of the museum’s shows should go on the road, this is the one. But the show’s staying put (through March 23, 1997), and some say that will assure Chicago art remains in a cultural backwater.
Yet Warren insists the exhibit will reach a broad group of people–visitors unfamiliar with the city’s art history, audiences somewhat familiar with it, and a more informed art audience. She says she’s had to curate with these different constituencies in mind. “I hope that our community of artists, which has come more of age in the last 15 years, can look back and really see there’s a lot to build on and feel proud of being here,” Warren says. “For tourists, which we get a lot of at the MCA, I think it’ll be a real eye-opener.”
But since “Art in Chicago” is showing 187 works gleaned from a 50-year period–an average of 4 works per year–some think the exhibition will come off as a slight but sexy blockbuster rather than the fruit of true scholarship, a USA Today rather than a New York Times version of Chicago art history: all the art that fits as opposed to all the art that’s fit to show. Critics say the subject’s too big and complex to cram into a limited space and will end up killing the opportunity for any future shows with more depth (though major one-person exhibits of Westermann and photo-manipulator Robert Heinecken are already being planned).
“I think the show is making the effort to please too many people, but it will end up pleasing no one,” says Ann Wiens. “No one will be happy about her choices. I feel like she’s trying to be objective when it’s not possible. No matter who curated this show, they would’ve made difficult choices–it would have a different vision of what was Chicago art during that period. . . . Given that it’s impossible to please everyone, I think Warren might have imposed a stronger agenda of her own. It seems that rather than strongly representing her viewpoint, the impact of the show will be diluted.”
Warren disputes the idea that the subject’s been dumbed down in effort to please everybody. “In a sense, I really see it as a definite beginning point. I would be totally pleased if someone came back and said, “You got it all wrong, I’m doing my own show.’ Now, I don’t think that’s going to happen. But there’s nothing that would make me happier than for someone to do that.
“The show’s not about my personal taste, but who was important and why. I wouldn’t just exclude an artist’s work because I didn’t like them. I may not want it to hang in my house, but I can understand its importance because of the inherent qualities of the art. Artwork with passion and commitment usually shines through.”
Warren lays odds that if another curator had organized the exhibit–using the same methodology, criteria, and team process–it would be a very similar show, with “95 percent agreement.” She adds that there are probably some people who would’ve liked to see Judith Russi Kirshner curate “Art in Chicago.”
“Lynne has taken on an enormous challenge,” says Kirshner, the MCA’s chief curator from 1976 to 1981 and an adviser to the exhibit. “It’s a difficult, delicate, and commendable project–but there are many, many histories. You can’t get an objective chronology. Obviously the exhibit will be very subjective, depending on the lens through which one sees. It would be exciting for a curator to try and work against that, but you can’t pretend it isn’t there.”
After teaching at the School of the Art Institute in the early 80s, Kirshner became curator at the Terra Museum of American Art, where she staged “Surfaces: Two Decades of Painting in Chicago” in 1987. The 25-artist, 55-piece exhibit included its share of Chicago imagists (Brown, Paschke, Wirsum, Robert Lostutter, Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi, Ray Yoshida), as well as a later generation of figurative artists (Hollis Sigler, Ken Warneke, Mary Lou Zelazny). But the show also included a crop of new artists influenced by abstract, conceptual, and minimalist ideas (Rodney Carswell, Julia Fish, Michiko Itatani, Mitchell Kane, Tony Tasset).
“I don’t know anymore if there’s a “Chicago style,”‘ Kirshner says. “I’m not certain it says anything meaningful about the last two decades in the city. With the global communications revolution, the idea of being measured against New York is not a strong dynamic anymore. “Chicago artist’ is not the first adjective I would use. Dan Peterman is an international artist. Jeanne Dunning is an international artist.”
In 1990 Kirshner became director of UIC’s School of Art and Design. Under her guidance the school has assumed an influential position in the art world similar to that of the SAIC and the Institute of Design in previous years. While Kirshner inherited a strong department, she’s worked to build an even more diverse faculty, one with a more conceptual bent; teachers include Bramson, Carswell, Fish, Tasset, Dennis Kowalski, Inigo Manglano-Ovalle, Kerry James Marshall, Esther Parada, and Charles Wilson–all included in “Art in Chicago.”
“Lynne has a different take; it’s different from mine. But there would be a lot of overlaps as well,” Kirshner says, adding that the question of who’s included in the exhibit and who’s not “is a camouflage for more important questions. Another more interesting question might be, what will the exhibit say about this moment in time? It’s the end of the century, a time when all categories are up for grabs. It’s a battleground of shifting definitions and debates about identity. What is she trying to say now about the ideas and images coming out of this location in the last 50 years?
“I’m supportive of the project, but I couldn’t do it. I really and truly couldn’t. Some of the works might not be my taste or your taste. But I look forward to seeing the glorious rationale of her choices.”
Mitchell Kane couldn’t understand Warren’s rationale. He says he was so “confused” when he learned that he hadn’t been chosen for “Art in Chicago” that he called Consey and wrote a letter to Warren, to no avail. Kane is one of a group of conceptually oriented, internationally exhibited artists that emerged from the School of the Art Institute in the 1980s; many of them became identified as a group because they began to exhibit together at such galleries as Feature and Robbin Lockett, where Kane often curated shows of his peers. Though Kane moved to Brooklyn in April, he says that he’ll continue to exhibit in Chicago and work with other Chicago artists at the Hirsch Farm Project, an artists’ think tank in Hillsboro, Wisconsin.
“I really had a hard problem, being erased from a history I felt I contributed to, a very special movement that made an impact on Chicago,” says Kane. “But I guess I was expendable. A lot of us
“Lynne probably could’ve said, “Oh, he’s a curator now, not an artist.’ I feel like the show is just going to be gallery work. But that’s shortsighted. There are a lot of artistic practices that don’t necessarily fit into gallery situations, with artists using curatorial methodologies as opposed to discrete objects. Even if she saw me as a curator, I was still making discrete objects. That’s where the befuddlement comes from. I just wish I would’ve been recognized for the different roles I played in Chicago. It’s Lynne Warren, not the museum. It’s not a battle with the museum’s agenda. It’s her agenda.”
Warren says that Kane might have been included had there been space for 200 artists.
Painter Wesley Kimler thinks the chickens have merely come home to roost. He’s made no secret of his distaste for much of the neoconceptualists’ work. Kimler says the local art scene has for too long been dominated by a “fashionable academic aesthetic” that has favored the same group of artists getting curated into high-profile local and international venues. So Kimler–who in the 1980s became a spokesperson for an abstract style that had little historical connection to the city–felt vindicated when the MCA gave him a one-man exhibit last year and included his work in “Art in Chicago.”
“In the late 80s it became apparent how incestuous the Chicago art world had become,” says Kimler, who moved to California in 1988 but returned four years later. “The aesthetics of individual artists were being supplanted by the collectivist vision of department heads at universities using their own aesthetic agendas to promote certain artists. Many conceptual artists in this town are mere illustrations of some department heads’ ambitions to wield power and have control in the art world. What use is an artist who has his or her own aesthetic to someone attempting to manipulate the end results as to what’s important here?
“But I think Lynne is letting the art speak for itself, and that the show will give us the big picture. She has maintained a professional distance and hasn’t allowed the show to be used as a promotional tool for other people’s ambitions. As long as we have a small group of people who have vested interests making up lists, this is going to remain a small town. It’s time for people calling the shots and setting aesthetic agendas to be held accountable. That kind of international-wannabe second-string conceptualism needs to be looked at, and other avenues need to be explored. This show suggests the possibilities of some other avenues.”
Some veterans of the Chicago art community feel shortchanged by the purely historical nature of “Art in Chicago.” They feel what’s in the show doesn’t necessarily reflect their best work or what they’re creating now. Edith Altman, for example, is represented by a sculpture from one of her first local exhibits in 1970. At that time she was crafting geometrical objects by stacking similar wooden pieces in different configurations–it was a style she would soon abandon. Six years later Altman was featured in the MCA exhibit “Abstract Art in Chicago.” She has explored a variety of media–ritual performances, installations, community-based work–to confront her past as a Holocaust survivor as well as issues of spirituality influenced by her study of the cabala.
“Some of us who have been working here a long time have done many, many things and are a little disappointed that they chose older pieces,” Altman says. “I understand their need to include earlier works because they want to show what was important to the history of Chicago. But I’m not history. To be put back in the 70s was a little hard. It’s a good piece, but if I could’ve had the choice, it wouldn’t be a piece I’d choose. I think it would’ve been a good idea if some of us who have a long history–and who chose to stay in Chicago–could’ve also had more current work in the show. Younger artists who haven’t had a history get a better shot of having recent work shown.”
Warren says the show isn’t a “retrospective of your life.” She included Altman’s early sculpture because she wanted viewers to know that there were many Chicago artists “doing tough, conceptual, environmental, and installational work” in the 1970s. “The early conceptualists working in Chicago are not well known,” she says. “Not that the artists weren’t written about, just that they’ve been forgotten, overlooked, or not taken seriously. It’s important to see that there was a good foundation for the current scene. We just didn’t look to New York–we were doing important things on our own.”
Phil Berkman considers himself a “woolly mammoth” of the 1970s conceptual scene. In 1973 he cofounded N.A.M.E., which nurtured the early careers of such vanguard installation artists as Dennis Kowalski, Lorenzo Pace, Robert Peters, and Charles Wilson (all in “Art in Chicago”). Berkman became known for works that incorporated performance, sculptural objects, and text. His “Art in Chicago” piece, City Security: Chicago (1973), is a series of xeroxed keys mounted on board. It was later reprinted in an issue of Tri-Quarterly on “Anti-Object Art.” He now teaches at Columbia College and continues to make what he calls “sculptural idea-oriented art.” Warren curated an exhibit of Berkman’s works for Randolph Street Gallery in 1985.
“Very few people were doing conceptual art when I came here” from the army in 1971, he says. “Art’s not created in a social vacuum, and I went the route I did through what was in the air. People were questioning the idea of making objects that galleries could sell. The idea of making art objects at all was being questioned. How could art compete with what’s going on in the world at large? It was about ideas, and that was radical. I was told by a cool minimal abstract painter when I got here to get out of town–that kind of work wasn’t done here.
“But one of the reasons I stayed was because midwesterners weren’t just doing imagist-oriented art. There was a lot going on here; a vital community existed. I think there was a dynamic in the 70s where artists felt they were underexposed, in terms of there not being hundreds of galleries here. We didn’t want to have to ask for a slice of the pie; we were just trying to make the pie bigger by having artists run their own spaces. N.A.M.E. believed in the democratic ideal that all styles are valid. We treated artists with respect and didn’t buy into an elitist attitude. It was a real education. The gallery itself became a sculpture.”
Some longtime local artists, while obviously disappointed, are philosophical about not making Warren’s final cut. Figurative painter Tony Phillips, who has taught painting and drawing at the School of the Art Institute for 27 years–and whom a number of artists have cited as a major influence–has pieces in the permanent collections of the Art Institute and the MCA. The MCA work is from “Dogs!,” an exhibit Warren organized in 1983 that then traveled for two years. The show dealt with the reemergence of figurative imagery as shown in the work of 18 contemporary American artists.
“It’s tempting to generate bitterness,” Phillips says. “But these things have to do with waves of taste and what people consider institutionally appropriate at any given time as well as other factors that have little to do with anything. It’s about who’s in place and who’s on people’s minds. People think of [artists] because they belong to a certain prescribed body of thought, and I have always eschewed those categories. I don’t easily fit into people’s minds when they scan the landscape for landmarks when they’re putting together a show. So I expected it.”
Two of Phillips’s former students, abstract painter Frank Piatek and figurative painter Mary Lou Zelazny, now teach at the School of the Art Institute. Piatek is in “Art in Chicago”; he was also in Kirshner’s “Surfaces” show. Zelazny, too, was in “Surfaces,” but she’s not in “Art in Chicago.”
Like Phillips, Zelazny takes a resigned approach and tries to see the big picture. “I think the main issue here is that it’s the curator’s prerogative to make a show the way they want to. Some people get in and some don’t according to a larger vision. It’s an interpretation, like a conductor and a symphony; that’s how I rationalize it.”
No one likes to talk about competition in the art world, but few worlds are as competitive. Warren’s show may only be one version of history, but its scope, unprecedented in its ambition, could make it the benchmark, an orchestral arrangement that will reverberate, affecting the way we recall careers and possibly transforming lives. It’s a momentous occasion to have an important institution–one that’s possibly ignored you–formally acknowledge your contributions to their version of history. It says you’ve mattered after all. You’ve been officially anointed; your life and work will be discussed in a definitive book that will be consulted for years to come.
Inclusion in “Art in Chicago” is especially validating for artists far removed, either by choice or circumstance, from the mainstream contemporary art world. How else might, say, someone like Marcos Raya–who’s managed against great personal odds to make a living as an artist in Pilsen for 25 years without gallery representation–make it into the MCA? Or such visionary outsiders as Henry Darger, Lee Godie, and Joseph Yoakum? Or such successful self-taught artists as Mr. Imagination (Gregory Warmack) and Tony Fitzpatrick?
One of the few printmakers in the exhibition, Fitzpatrick is nationally known and collected; he may not have needed the institutional validation. “I never expected to be included,” he says. “It didn’t have to do with my merits as an artist, because I do OK–I’m in a lot of museum collections and exhibit all over the country. When I heard about the show, my first feeling was, don’t look forward to this because there’s no fuckin’ way in hell I’m going to be in it. I’ve made too many enemies–there’s lots of acrimony between me and institutions and art dealers. I’m not an art school product; I’m a statistical aberration. I’d be an absolute liar if I didn’t say I really wanted to be included, though I wouldn’t have slit my wrists if I wasn’t. I’m part of a history here. But I was genuinely surprised. I’m the one guy who’s thrilled to death to be in the show.”
Sculptor Gary Justis, who’s lived in Chicago for nearly 20 years and teaches at the School of the Art Institute, was thrilled too. “The art world is fickle. If you’re not this week’s flavor, you’re really fortunate [to be remembered]. People’s interests change over the years, and someone hot one year might be passe the next. It’s a tenuous business in terms of public attention. If you can get recognized for your work, it’s very gratifying. People who’ve worked here for so many years feel the MCA has ignored them, and they’re probably right. But now it’s as if they want to make up for the sins of the past, make amends somehow, so this was a good thing to do.
“But it’s a bittersweet thing for a lot of artists,” Justis says. “I feel really bad that a lot of artists are not included. I heard it was a definitive history of Chicago art, but I can’t agree. With so much going on, it’s difficult to put it all in one book.”
Minimalist sculptor Adelheid Mers is one of the youngest artists in the book, along with eight others born either in 1960 or ’61. She moved to the U.S. from Germany in 1988 to pursue a postgraduate degree in sculpture at the University of Chicago. A frequent Uncomfortable Spaces exhibitor, Mers’s “Art in Chicago” piece is a geometric light projection from 1994 (loaned, incidentally, by the shut-out Mitchell Kane).
“Even though I’ve been here eight years, it feels like it’s taken me forever,” she says. “People seem to think you’ve made it when you’ve made it internationally. For Chicago, I’m doing fine, but I still think on a global level. I have a toe in Europe, but I feel like I’m still at the bottom of my game. Now it’s as if [the MCA has] said, OK, you have a new home. You’ve arrived, and we’ve taken notice.”
In a third-floor studio near 13th and Wabash, Kerry James Marshall is having what he calls a “crisis of recognition.” In other words, he’s not painting. He’s signing off on a benefit-auction contract, which he then faxes to a south side gallery. In between phone calls, he plays back his messages–twice–and jots down names and numbers in a book. He’s a man in demand.
“Sometimes you can’t keep up with it,” he says with a smile, taking off his black cap and rubbing his head. “I’m a small operation. It’s really a mom-and-pop kind of thing.”
But his small operation is in the throes of expansion. After solo exhibits in Los Angeles and the Studio Museum in Harlem, Marshall moved to Chicago in 1987, working various day jobs so he could paint at night. He’s not an overnight sensation. Yet in the last few years the art world has taken notice–and deemed the 41-year-old painter to be a rising star. Despite having a one-man show at the Chicago Cultural Center in 1992, Marshall appeared to burst onto the local scene last year, when his work was featured in two high-profile group exhibitions: “Korrespondenzen/Correspondences: 14 Artists from Berlin and Chicago” at the Cultural Center; and “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” at the Art Institute (where he worked as a telemarketer in 1988).
Marshall’s large-scale paintings focus exclusively on African-Americans, drawing from folk traditions and Western European art history sources. Complex, classically composed, but utterly contemporary, his work celebrates black urban experience while challenging viewers’ preconceptions about it. It’d be tempting to call Marshall a regionalist or a social realist, but his work’s more complicated than that; it transcends race–and Chicago. Few who saw “About Place” are likely to forget his wall-sized “gardens,” a series of paintings depicting life in public housing projects with the word gardens in their names. Four of the projects are in Chicago and one is in the Watts section of Los Angeles, where Marshall lived as a boy until his family was able to buy a home.
Marshall, a native of Birmingham, Alabama, says he has “no idea” how he came to be one of Chicago’s most sought-after artists. “I try to do the best I can every time I make a thing,” he says. “I’m more interested in how I develop and grow as an artist than in how commercially successful the work becomes. I put all of my energy into trying to make the best work I can, and I don’t make work about anything I don’t care about. Maybe people appreciate that. I enjoy the idea of art as much as I did when I first decided I wanted to be an artist, at the age of five.”
Given the monumental scale of many of his canvases, you’d think that Marshall’s studio would be huge, expansive. It’s not. It’s cramped, but it seems cozy because the two paintings in progress make you feel at home. On facing walls, about 15 feet apart, the artworks each depict a figure setting a vase of flowers on a living room table. Marshall says that eventually each of those living rooms will include a wall hanging that says “We Mourn Our Loss” and will contain portraits of Martin Luther King Jr., John Kennedy, and Robert Kennedy. He says he might add a collage of other slain civil rights figures. The paintings are the first in a series of works that will appear in a solo exhibit at the Renaissance Society in 1998.
“They’re history paintings, but they’re framed in a slightly different way as moments in history,” explains Marshall. “They’re also about big academic narrative history–it’s just another stage in the same genre. They’re about the death and despair of black people during the liberation struggles of the 60s. After all the people who offered the possibilities of hope and justice for a lot of black people got killed, the civil-rights movement has been in crisis. This series commemorates that loss.”
Marshall almost made history last year, but then he just missed being in the Whitney Biennial. Instead, he ended up in the opening scene of a February 26, 1995, New York Times Magazine cover story about the Whitney exhibit. In May 1994, Klaus Kertess, the Biennial’s curator, and Paul Goldberger, the Times’s chief cultural correspondent, visited Marshall’s studio. Goldberger was writing an account of how Kertess went about choosing art for the prestigious survey of American art. In the story, Kertess says that Marshall is “fighting the good fight; it isn’t easy to be a black artist in the center.”
Marshall thinks the story painted a disparaging picture of him. All the artists pictured in the story were shown in their studios–except Marshall, who was photographed outside on his roof holding a portrait of a black man. “It was as if I was an outsider trying to get in,” says the artist, who has a BFA from the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles and has taught at UIC since 1993. “A disadvantaged African-American artist outside in [what was called] a “rundown industrial neighborhood.’ And I didn’t pick them up in an “old brown Toyota’ either.”
It’s widely assumed that Marshall will have a good shot at making next year’s Biennial. In the meantime, he has a painting–Untitled (Altgeld Gardens)–in “Art in Chicago.” Marshall, like many artists, says he didn’t hear about it from the MCA.
“You’re always satisfied when anyone puts your work in a show. But I’m the least concerned with showing work. I’m more concerned with making it–making a good painting is hard–than if anybody is going to show it. It’s something you can’t worry about. I don’t have the energy. I’m too involved.”
Warren thinks “Art in Chicago” will be controversial only because people want it to be.
“People feel more alive when they’re outraged,” she says. “It’s human nature. People like being aroused. It’s much better than just saying, “Oh yeah, that makes sense.’ Maybe every artists community is primed that way, but this one seems particularly to pick up certain balls and run with them and never put them down. It never tries to understand the other guy’s viewpoint. To me, there’s a lot of common cause among all the different factions, and the common cause is, if you support your institutions and you support your fellow travelers in whatever your endeavor is, you make it better for yourself, ultimately.
“But it’s very difficult for artists to come out and go, “Yeah, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.’ All they can think about is, “I’m not in it, how does that help me?’ It’s real tough. On an individual human basis, I have a lot of feelings for people who aren’t in the show. I wish they could all be, but, on the other hand, it ain’t practical. Is the answer to not do the show so that no one gets their feelings hurt, or is the answer to do the show so that the whole community can feel a new sense of potential, a new sense of history, that will perhaps sweep everybody along? I hope.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Randy Tunnel, Greg Miller, Larry R. Rainey.