THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
History is a funny thing. The significance of events in history can be measured by their impact. How much money was made or lost? How were laws upheld or challenged? How many people show up? How many died? But even events of great consequence can slip through the cracks. The history of art is even more vulnerable to this kind of informational bottleneck, but the recently published Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now offers insight into the overlooked cultural history of one of America’s great cities.
Chicago earned the nickname “Second City” for a number of reasons not exclusive to, but still suggestive of the idea that it stands in the shadow of the vast metropolis of New York, New York. It is not without good reason that, when we think of the great achievements of modern American artists, we think of New York. There were great artists who produced great works there and are lauded to this day.
But time and critical discourse have shown us that a select group of critics favored a select group of artists to elevate in status and public profile. Without getting too deep into the weeds of how patrimony dictated the furthering of modernist western values, I will just say that much has changed in the way that the history of art is written, and the changes are recent.
Notions of formal and conceptual strength and aesthetic value have been re-examined and further democratized in the 21st century. The circulation of images and ideas has leveled the cultural hierarchy, leaving the high-end contemporary art market more confused and dislocated than it has ever been in modern times. Though this has not made the lives of artists much easier, the role art plays in social and political discourse is highly active. With exhibitions in Chicago like the Smart Museum’s “The Time is Now!” or the Chicago Cultural Center’s “African American Designers in Chicago: Art, Commerce and the Politics of Race” gaining national attention, we are seeing how a facet of American art history is being unearthed, re-examined, and re-presented.
In the introduction to Art in Chicago, the book’s editors, Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino, allude to the past to set the scene for Chicago’s future. The 1933/34 Century of Progress world’s fair in Chicago recreated the home of Afro-Caribbean trapper and city founder, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, presenting it as a dingy log cabin when, in truth, this man, who ran a successful trading post, also kept a collection of fine objects. The objects omitted from the world’s fair display included two paintings, mirrors, and windowed French cabinets.
Taft and Cozzolino go on to describe a kind of anxiety around the role of culture in Chicago. The contentious reception to the arrival of modernist abstraction has been well-documented in art history, but the reactions to the seminal Armory Show in New York were amplified to extremes in the reaction to Chicago’s own “International Exhibition of Modern Art” at the Art Institute. Community leaders denounced the exhibition, and some even sought bans. Students of the Art Institute even held a bizarre mock trial of a caricature of Henri Matisse for “art crimes” and burned reproductions of Blue Nude. That these reactions earned Chicago a reputation for lacking in cultural sophistication is likely a contributing factor in keeping the city on the margins of America’s art historical narrative.
This reputation may have been to its benefit, however. The book makes a persuasive proposal that Chicago, as a metropolitan art center, was and still is ahead of the curve. The activist spirit and diversity of Chicago, paired with its dismissal by the art world elites, may have enabled this city to be the incubator for much of what we see in contemporary art today.
Social practice art was arguably born in Chicago with Jane Addams’ Hull House project, while more traditional art practice like painting and sculpture showed early signs of radical form in works such as Manierre Dawson’s 1913 painting Untitled (Wharf under Mountain) or the precisely crafted miniature rooms of Narcissa Niblack and Frances Glessner Lee.
An “outsider” mentality continued to manifest itself in Chicago as artists like Nancy Spero and Leon Golub rejected the perceived position of New York as the leading representative of modern art. They were not just rejecting the economy of the art world but also the notion that one school of thought could be representative of this world. It was during the late ’50s through the ’70s that artists in Chicago chose not to accept the reign of abstract expressionism as the sole mode for aesthetic production.
In addition to Spero and Golub, artists such as Ivan Albright, Evelyn Statsinger, and Ray Yoshida remained dedicated to the exploration of figuration and allusions to cultural forms both old and new. Pop cultural and mass production were explored through material concerns, yielding works like Albright’s Poor Room and H.C. Westerman’s Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea, which were couched in symbolism more so than detached minimalism.
This tendency toward artistic practice driven by the extraction and manipulation of cultural material is a defining characteristic of Chicago’s art legacy. Carried forward in traditional forms by artists like Yoshida, Yoshida’s Hairy Who disciples, and other groups like Momentum and AfriCOBRA, this mode of production would reconnect with the socially interactive roots that have characterized Chicago’s conscious consideration of the role of culture in society. This is profiled in Rebecca Zorach’s chapter, “Making Space: 1961-1976,” wherein she chronicles the emergence of organizations and collectives that elevated and defined black artists in Chicago, resisting not only the Eurocentric modern art world but the ways in which boundaries of physical and cultural space were drawn to exclude the black community.
John Pitman Weber and Oscar Martínez, People of Lakeview Together, 1972 (now destroyed). Photograph: Georg Stahl Mural Collection, University of Chicago Library.
Zorach’s tracing of the complexities of physical and cultural space led by organizations like OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) are yet another marker of how Chicago has been at the forefront in generating forms of practice that, during their time, were not considered to be art by elite decisionmakers of the time but which are today being taught in higher education and deployed by artists around the world.
This kind of activism and organization around culture and the democratization of artistic authority for which art paved the way did not exclude traditional media. Instead, it took them to the streets with murals that brought the Black and Latinx communities into the Chicago art world with vigor. Though not all of the street murals of the 1970s are still on view today, anyone who spends time in Chicago will notice not only the sheer quantity of murals but also a mural culture that is boldly placed and meticulously crafted.
Many cities, particularly NYC and LA, have thriving public art scenes. But Chicago is unique in how the city itself feels like a museum turned inside out. Having this history in print breathes even more life into this ongoing outdoor exhibition on Chicago’s city walls.
Decades of art, being utilized as the means of advancing social discourse and elevating communities, not only reshaped the social fabric but transformed artistic practice. In past issues of the Examiner, we have delved into notions of exhibition as form and the cyclical feedback loop between the making, display, and discussion of artwork.
Chicago generated and still has a bustling community of artists who also organize exhibitions and write about art (myself included). The contributing authors and editors of Art in Chicago do not merely chronicle the recent progress and issues that arise around this unique but fickle economy; they also present tangible dialogue between artists, writers, and curators in an extensive series of interviews that comprise the latter half of this book.
I have barely been able to touch on the wealth of knowledge and history this comprehensive text has to offer, let alone the cultural ambitions that can be garnered from the discussions in it, which include Tempestt Hazel, Theaster Gates, Chris Ware and Michelle Grabner, just to name a few. It is a resource and reference that feels essential not only to anyone who is interested in art but also to anyone who is interested in urban life and culture, as well as politics and history.
I can’t help but refer back to Chicago’s old “Second City” nickname and its implication that Chicago will forever exist on the margins of the cultural vanguard. If someone still believes the center of the art world has stayed fixed, despite the radical changes brought on by globalization in the 21st century, this same person may see this book as a grasp at relevance. They would be sorely mistaken.
What this illuminating compendium shows us is that Chicago’s art history is not the same as that of New York and that Chicago is not simply overshadowed by New York. Instead, Chicago has always been uniquely relevant. In fact, much of Chicago’s art history foreshadows our contemporary moment given today’s expanded field of social and political discourse, which is both more inclusive and more contentious than in recent decades.
Presenting this history in such a comprehensive format has the potential to serve purposes beyond the recording of recent art history in Chicago. Taft’s and Cozzolino’s text is one that I and many others will return to while pursuing a deeper understanding of human cultural expression and the ways in which that continues to shape our civilization.
Evan Carter is a contributing editor of the New Art Examiner. He earned his MFA degree in 2017 from the University of Chicago and wrote about documenta 14 in a prior issue of the Examiner.
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