Lit | Visual Arts

Losing the Thread

A new book highlights Chicago’s many art movements but fails to tie it all together

Living in Chicago often means talking about it near-constantly—a grand, if not always consistent, tradition. One layer of the conversation is the trumpeting of glorious public accomplishments: the tallest skyscrapers, epic lakefront public works projects, no little plans being made. By the same token, Chicagoans seem to take some pleasure in public failure—the more grandiose and conspicuous the better—whether watching a gangster, a governor, or a sports franchise take the proverbial L. It’s a sacred local activity: if an outsider (usually a New Yorker) tries to get in on the action, Chicagoans circle the wagons.

Art in Chicago, the ambitious new attempt to fit the city’s art history between the covers of a book, has the energetic feel of this Chicago conversation, and reading it is enjoyable in the same ways. As it explicitly pushes against the New York-centric art world narrative, though, the book indulges in boosterism, both in its framing of Chicago’s place in art history, and in its description of itself as the first to tell the tale. The 400-page, multi-author work delves deep into the history in a treatment more academic than popular, but passes up the opportunity to reflectively showcase the tenser dynamics of Chicago’s art world.

Art in Chicago derived its funding, as well as its fuschia and orange branding scheme, from Art Design Chicago, an initiative by the Terra Foundation for American Art that funded a slew of exhibitions and events across the city highlighting often-underappreciated jewels from Chicago’s artistic treasury. Taking the lead from Los Angeles’s recent “Pacific Standard Time” exhibitions, Art Design Chicago is part of a broader movement to honor and excavate the art histories of particular geographies and their institutions, as opposed to art scenes or movements. As such, the most consistent aspect of the book’s editorial agenda is the case it makes for the worthiness and relevance of its place-based lens.

But the connection to Art Design Chicago also makes the book somewhat of a confusing product. Published in October, it seems not to have been intended to sell in exhibit gift shops; in fact, the book has no relationship to the project’s exhibits themselves, though there is some overlap between contributors to the book and exhibit organizers. These Art Design Chicago-affiliated initiatives represent some of the year’s most exciting cultural projects, including the Art Institute’s landmark Charles White retrospective and “The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side,” the Smart Museum’s show on the Black Arts Movement, which a glowing New York Times review described as Black artists from the South Side “getting their due.”

Part of "The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago's South Side, 1960-1980," currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago through December 30 (Courtesy Smart Museum of Art)

Part of “The Time Is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960-1980,” currently on view at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago through December 30 (Courtesy Smart Museum of Art)

The catalog that accompanies “The Time is Now!,” edited by Rebecca Zorach and Marissa H. Baker, opens with a concise timeline of Chicago art and history from the 1930s to 1980, and incorporates a diverse range of perspectives in shorter, more engaging essays and edited conversations placed around large figures and graphics. Art In Chicago’s project is in a different vein. With seven chapters on periods of Chicago’s art history each written by a different author or authors, editors Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino’s project grapples with Chicago’s insider-outsider status in the art world, negotiating between its geographic focus on a city that is not the capital of the modern world or modern art, and its interest in artistic tendencies outside the central thrust of art-historical narratives. For Art in Chicago, this means recognizing and discussing Chicago schools like the Imagists of the post-war period and the artistic movements of women and minorities. Taft and Cozzolino also editorially sell Chicago as “ahead of its time” in the development of modernism; since young Chicago missed out on the academic painting of the old world capitals and East Coast redoubts, they argue, it didn’t have much of an art story until the rebellion and renaissance of modernism.

These main lines of argument are worthy and well-made, and the book owns up to the gaps and overlaps its academic collage entails. But in a project like “The Time is Now!,” the works on exhibition are curated by the same hand that edits their catalog, with a focus and unity of intention that carries out a cohesive editorial and curatorial agenda while allowing the South Side artists in question to speak for themselves. More important than the gaps in treatment that Art in Chicago’s approach entails (inevitable for such a monumental subject) is the lack of such cohesion. While the sheer wealth of material makes for exciting reading and means there is something for everybody, the book would benefit from a stronger, more unified critical stand.

The early chapters of Art in Chicago give a sense of the dynamics that shaped Chicago’s art scene, the standout collections at the Art Institute, and the conditions that spurred the creation of the book itself. Wendy Greenhouse’s deft and informative opening chapter about the decades before and immediately following the Chicago Fire demonstrates how Fine Art with a capital “A” (as opposed to craft, architecture, folk practice, and incidental art) is primarily something that can be collected and exhibited, which requires relationships between artists and patrons, mediated by gallerists, dealers, and museums. As Chicago grew, the city identified a class of patrons, but art production in Chicago lagged as those capital “P” patrons, chose to patronize artists with an established pedigree.

The realities of a rising (mid)western polis posed a contradiction: was Chicago’s relationship to art that of an agglomeration of new money trying to buy status, an industrial behemoth trying to pretty itself up, a fixture in America’s project of frontier colonization, or the potential site of something new? In Greenhouse’s telling, after the devastating fire humbled the city’s elite, they committed to founding and funding cultural institutions. This wave of investment in culture allowed members of the Second City’s art scene to incubate new concepts: the idea that “art works,” that form follows function, and that fine art isn’t limited to ornamentation. Chicago gained attention and respect from more prominent art centers, and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago quickly became, as a newspaper bragged in 1895, “The Best Place in the World to Begin an Art Education.”

Around the turn of the century, Greenhouse points out, Chicago’s tastemakers were compelled by Lorado Taft’s utopian vision of art as “something to give us greater solidarity—to put a soul into our community—to make us love this place above all others.” (In constructing his monumental, place-making sculptures, Taft notably relied on young female apprentices in what one woman who worked for Taft described as an “art sweat shop [sic].”) The use of art to mark and create space placed Chicago as a leader in the creation of civically-oriented works and the use of artmaking as a progressive strategy for the edification of women and immigrants. Art at Hull House, for example, was a major forerunner of WPA-era and mural movement public art.

Greenhouse writes that with the rise of modernism around the turn of the century, businesses and art world boosters conspired to fill downtown office buildings with original art, convinced that men who worked around art during the day would be inclined to purchase art to fill their homes. But as Chicago art took off, it found itself on the defensive, nursing what Greenhouse describes as an “offended sense of marginalization based on hometown identity.”

Playing a game of catch-up with New York perpetuated a depressed art market with fewer opportunities for innovation. As Jennifer Jane Marshall details in her chapter “Routes to Modernism, 1913-1943,” Chicago’s downtown art institutions incubated conservative tastes even as they stood up for local art. As the Art Institute hosted the Armory Show, a landmark exhibition of modern art from Europe and America, Chicago’s art students staged a farcical aesthetic trial of Matisse in absentia, burning reproductions of the painting “Blue Nude” outside the museum entrance on Michigan Avenue. The frontier city missed its chance to to celebrate and nurture the avant-garde, and the city where form follows function missed the chance to own modernist art production.

In her chapter titled “Making Space, 1961-1976,” Rebecca Zorach highlights the ways in which Black artists created their own art communities, forms of exhibition, and institutions in response to their exclusion from mainstream arbiters of taste. This section, which covers the Wall of Respect, socially-engaged activist art, AfriCOBRA, the wide-ranging impact of Margaret Burroughs, and the South Side muralists, is one of the most significant chapters in Chicago’s art history, yet feels overwhelmed in the middle of the book, sandwiched between the text-heavy chapters that precede and follow.

The scholarly focus given to each section by its multi-author approach—the book’s distinctive form and one of its strengths—is unfortunately dropped for the last section on contemporary art. Here Art in Chicago’s editors selected artists and curators to highlight through interviews, reflections, and, in the case of Kerry James Marshall, one of the most accomplished painters in Chicago’s history, a single-page comic panel. The editors “felt it best to leave the recent history to those who had lived it,” they write.

It feels a little bit like inside baseball, however, and it’s hard to see how someone wanting to get oriented to the art landscape in Chicago is well-served by this decision. Would it be clear to them that Marshall’s 2016 traveling retrospective “Mastry was one of the most important painting exhibitions—and embassies of Chicago’s art—in the contemporary era? The approach leaves important critical threads loose. The story of Lorado Taft early on, for example, creates opportunities to compare Taft’s partnership with the early UofC and labor organization within his enterprise to Theaster Gates’s ongoing projects. Rather than questioning Gates’ own labor practices, or his participation in the “artwashing” of the University of Chicago’s gentrification projects in Washington Park, the editors favorably compare his Rebuild Foundation to Hull House as a social practice endeavor.

The book is far from a useless compendium; it contains many important stories and often tells them well. It will surely serve well as a resource of first resort for students of art history who want a local view. But those relying on it should be conscious where it misses the mark. Major luminaries like Judy Chicago and Rashid Johnson are mentioned only in passing. The book opens with a vignette about notional city founder Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable, noting that when he sold his home, two paintings were included, but some other sources indicate he owned twenty-three paintings in total, and the lower count reported in this book might very well eclipse other sources due to its slick roll-out.

And for such an expensive and colorfully printed book, the figures feel small and lacking in scope. An image of the murals at Lane Tech High School (Theaster Gates’s alma mater) gives readers no sense of their scale. On the other hand, the front matter features double-page detail images of an Archibald Motley painting and The Wall of Respect. It is off-putting that these stylish opening images by Black artists—saturated to complement Art Design Chicago’s fuschia design scheme and left unattributed until the book’s final page—seem selected to give Art in Chicago color, both literally and figuratively, without being put into context until much later.

There is a paradox in Art in Chicago, with its patchy focus and recurring missed connections. It might be the book’s very multivocal approach that prevents it from clarifying and analyzing the fractured and fractious separate worlds of Chicago art with a finer point. The legacy of the Great Migration and racial covenants forced African American artists to create their own institutions of art and culture. While these organizations are discussed in the book, readers aren’t left with a clear sense of how much this cultural division remains pervasive.

How is art faring in Chicago? The captions in Rebecca Zorach’s chapter on site-specific, politically radical and locally conscious art indicate that the majority of the murals it includes have not survived Chicago’s transition into a “world city,” but their fates aren’t discussed in the text itself. Bohemian spaces like the syndicalist-leaning Dil Pickle Club faded away despite sporadic attempts to re-found it. In a recent example, Rahm Emanuel’s administration nearly sold “Knowledge and Wonder,” a Kerry James Marshall mural produced for West Garfield Park’s Legler Public Library, until a huge backlash from public art activists and the artist himself halted the sale. And few younger people now might know of Hyde Park’s pre-urban renewal sheltering of bohemian art production. While a sidebar by Max Grinnell claims the ethos of spaces like the artist colony at 57th and Stony Island live on “in spirit,” it’s hard now to imagine the kind of nurturing that a young Margaret Burroughs received from the storefront galleries and studios on 55th street. Burroughs is rightly chronicled and celebrated in the book, but to this day, the Art Institute’s collection includes just two pieces of her work. Readers should know that many fixtures of Chicago’s creative networks are receiving delayed recognition by downtown art institutions.

Art in Chicago does valuable work putting many of these stories in one place, but despite its best efforts, many of them sit uneasily bound together, and a more penetrating view gets lost in the overall scheme of the book. Still, the authors have succeeded in telling the story of art in Chicago in a way that embodies the contradictory ways Chicago’s talks about itself.

Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino, eds., Art in Chicago: A History From the Fire to Now$65. University of Chicago Press. 448 pages.

The following Art Design Chicago exhibits, still on view, are recommended:

The Time is Now! Art Worlds of Chicago’s South Side, 1960-1980.” Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood Ave. Through December 30. Tuesday–Sunday, 10am–5pm. Free. (773) 702-0200. smartmuseum.uchicago.edu

South Side Stories—The Art and Influence of Dr. Margaret T. Burroughs.” DuSable Museum of African American History, 740 E. 56th Pl. Through March 4, 2019. Tuesday–Saturday, 10am–5pm; Sunday, 12pm–5pm. $10 for adults; discounts available; free on Tuesdays. (773) 947-0600. dusablemuseum.org

Change the Canvas, Change the World: A Landscape of Cultural Discovery.” South Side Community Art Center, 3831 S. Michigan Ave. Through March 2, 2019. Wednesday–Friday, 12pm–5pm; Saturday, 9am–5pm; Sunday, 1pm–5pm. Free. (773) 373-1026. sscartcenter.org

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Kirsten and Benjamin Ginzky are Hyde Parkers. Kirsten is an artist and activist. She wrote about Mothers/Men Against Senseless Killings (MASK) for this year’s Best of the South Side. Benjamin is a docent at The Oriental Institute and involved at the 57th Street Meeting of Friends.

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