Saturday, February 16, 2019

Todros Geller at the Spertus Institute

Poet of Black Thoughts

“Strange Worlds” (1928) was the most unforgettable painting in “They Seek a City: Chicago and the Art of Migration”, an exhibit mounted by the Art Institute of Chicago in 2013. Beneath an angled steel girder of the Chicago ‘L’, the hustle and bustle of the Loop is contrasted with the piercing red eyes and angular face of a wizened old immigrant from eastern Europe. The spell of the familiar is broken as workaday downtown Chicago is viewed as strange through the eyes of a stranger.

Strange worlds

That remarkable canvas was not permitted to travel the three blocks south on Michigan Avenue to the Spertus Institute,possibly climate control was the issue. Drawing mostly from their own collection, however, curators at the Spertus have assembled a variety of similar work by the same artist, Todros Geller.

An ominous feeling pervades most of these pieces, even in the folkloric “Yiddish Motifs”, (1926) a portfolio of seven woodcuts depicting Jewish life in Chicago. These are not the heroic workers or simple, honest peasants of Social Realism. These are Jews, a people who have intermittently but persistently been persecuted worldwide for over two millennia. The themes are ordinary enough, but the designs have a flat, angular dynamic that owes much to the German expressionism of that time. The storefronts on Maxwell Street feel a little too claustrophobic, the horseradish grinder a little too intense, and the Chasidic dance more desperate than joyous. There is nary a whiff of sentimental nostalgia. This is not Marc Chagall.

The exhibit includes many cityscapes of Chicago. They are all dark and foreboding, emphasizing the heavyset clunkiness of typical factories or residential property. It’s a cold, dark, scary world—even the Michigan Avenue bridge which, as seen from below, towers above the viewer like a medieval fortress.

Most dramatic are the pieces that seem to express the threat looming over the Jewish diaspora in the decade preceding the Holocaust. The historical narrative chosen was the story of Sabbatai Zevi, the seventeenth Century self-proclaimed Messiah who converted to Islam when confronted by the Turkish Sultan. Geller depicts him with sympathy rather than contempt. The biblical narrative chosen was the book of Job. Possibly feeling that Job’s suffering was too great to be depicted, Geller focuses our attention on his three philosophical friends who notably fail to empathize with his situation. He depicts them with oversized heads, much like the comic coneheads seen on Saturday Night Live forty years later. More tragic is his woodcut from 1937, “The past shall not be repeated”. Given its own vitrine in the center of the gallery, it depicts a mass execution of Jews being burned at the stake. The design is rent with fire, terror and dismay. It might be considered a psychotic, paranoid vision except that it turned out to be all too prophetic.

The Past Shall Not be Repeated

This is identity-based art, though more as a “hedge against assimilation” for the hundred thousand Yiddish speakers in Chicago rather than to confirm the moral superiority of an elite and compassionate art world. Aesthetics is mostly not given high priority. None of the oil paintings have the mystery, glow, liveliness, and appeal of “Strange Worlds”, which only appears here as a rather mediocre reproduction. “The Poet of Black Thoughts” (1929), however, has a lot to offer. Four elegant blackbirds swirl around the thoughtful face of a sensitive young poet. It may be the earliest example of the kind of self-centered, whimsical, psychological realism that would soon dominate figure painting in Chicago.

Saturday, November 17, 2018

The Hairy Who at the Art Institute of Chicago

Why did the Hairy Who shows attract so much attention back in the 1960’s? All six of them have been partially recreated at the Art Institute of Chicago, so now we can see for ourselves. Not only do the large paintings consistently deliver a wallop, but the six participating artists are quite different from each other - beginning with the two painters who hatched the project at the very beginning: Jim Nutt and Art Green.

Jim Nutt paints human figures that are so uncomfortable they seem to be jumping out of their own skins. Brutally distorted, boogers erupt from the nose; elaborate sores blossom from the flesh. As human beings they are horribly and/or humorously afflicted - yet as paintings they are wonderfully crafted with a variety of materials. The colors bold and beautiful, the designs restless and dynamic; the back painted plexiglass illuminating the room with an eerie glow

Art Green paints ideas. If a human body, or anything else, needs representation, it’s notational rather than expressive. The identity of the objects depicted is obvious: a fiery smokestack, a heavy cannon, an ice cream cone, an automobile tire. The juxtapositions, however, are so puzzling, puzzlement itself appears to be the intended meaning. Our manufactured world is a rent with contradictions. The one piece that delivers that message most explicitly is “Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic” According to the artist, it depicts Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, as he “applied his rational mind to an irrational situation” (the war in Vietnam)

Karl Wirsum, added to group by Don Baum, presents the madcap, boundless energy of a hyperactive ten year old rather than any emotional or philosophical angst. Yet there is nothing careless or juvenile about his work. He has compressed all that high voltage into the strong colors and jagged lines of a graphic design. Most of the characters he presents are fun, wacky, and mysterious rather than afflicted or alienated. The outrageous, nubile women of his “Show Girl” series might be threatening -  but only to a pre-adolescent male.

Jim Falconer is closer than any of the others to canonical modern art instead of various kinds of popular, commercial graphics. His impressive “Can in Sky” recalls the dynamic, loosely figurative surrealism of Arshile Gorky. It was not included in any of the Harry Who exhibitions, however, which featured his more cartoonish creations. It’s not surprising that he chose to opt out of the last Hairy Who show at the Hyde Park Art Center, or that his most recent Chicago show was utterly non figurative. Joining the Hairy Who was just something he did in his mid twenties – it did not establish the direction of his career.

All these artists grew up in the 1950’s, a time when gender differences were more sharply drawn in America than they are today. Girls played with things that were soft and cuddly; boys played with things that were threatening or creepy. Boys were expected to grow up to make, fix, or sell stuff - girls would grow up to be consumers.  Boys were exclusively focused on themselves - girls were more sensitive to human interactions. Both the form and content of the work done by the two women in the group differ from their male counterparts in a similar way.

Suellen Rocca is more puzzled than anxious about gender identity. Her contour lines are wavy and comforting rather than tight and threatening. Her graphics relate more to mail order catalogs rather than cartoons or comic books. Her work invites calm, meticulous study rather than forcing an emotional reaction.

Gladys Nilsson is more concerned with social interaction.   Don’t girls develop social skills before boys do? Her watercolors resemble the graphic styles of those children’s books that present a gentle, humorous world that may be strange but is never really threatening. Her silly characters appear to be stoned if not tripping as they float across the page like brightly colored balloons.

Compared with the most renowned exhibition ever organized by American artists, New York City’s 9th Street Art Exhibition of 1951, the Hairy Who shows were rather modest. The number of artists involved was six instead of sixty, and their careers had yet to emerge. They were hardly announcing the arrival of a new avant garde to accompany a new social order, spiritual awakening, or understanding of the human condition. Instead, like the popular music of the time, they announced the arrival, and discontent, of a new generation. They were born in the same years as Bob Dylan (1941), Jerry Garcia (1942), Jim Morrison (1943). Jimi Hendrix (1942) and David Crosby (1941). Propelled by commercialization, this was a generation that would arrive with much greater fanfare than any that had preceded it.

Artworld fashions come and go. The artists and collectors of New York would soon move beyond the the abstract expression that was trending in 1951. But adolescents in the modern world will always rebel against the responsibilities of adult life and the injustice, irrationality and glaring stupidity of convention.  And so, fifty years later, the brash defiance of the Hairy Who continues to resonate. A remarkable variety of Chicago’s most talented artists also respond to the world with youthful dismay and sometimes accompany the display of their work with mass produced paraphernalia - offered not with irony but with sincere admiration. Think of Tony Fitzpatrick and his collection of bird figurines, Marcos Raya with his Mexican plastic skeletons, Phyllis Bramson with her porcelain romantic couples, and David Leggett with a vitrine full of children’s toys relatable to racial identity.

One might note that like the artists listed above, the Hairy Who's art demonstrated many of the traditional skills of making visual art - especially contour line drawing.  But unlike them, the Hairy Who demonstrated little or no concern for social justice.

As Richard Vine noted in his review of “Art in Chicago since 1945”, this work has the “in-your-face quality that once made art in Chicago intellectually mordant-and outrageously fun.” And just like the 1997 show he saw at the MCA, this show at the Art Institute creates a “tension between the often irreverent, high-energy works on display and the institutional sterility of their setting.”

But when will we get a uniquely Chicago kind of art that can seriously exemplify any kind of social or spiritual ideals? Will we always be the smart alecks who sit in the back of the classroom and draw clever/cruel caricatures of the teacher? When will Chicago art ever grow up ?


Suellen Rocca,"Game"

Karl Wirsum

Jim Falconer, "Can in Sky"

Art Green,
 “Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic”

Phyllis Nilsson, "Physically Outphyted"

Jim Nutt, "Miss E. Knows"


Chris Reeves reviews the show in  New City, and concludes:

 However, the work in this show speaks to a 1960s custom that gets too short a shrift in contemporary art-historical conversation: the notion of riskiness, of attempting something so wild and hairy (excuse the pun) that it almost doesn’t make any sense. That these works in smaller spaces on two floors can be more uncomfortable, hilarious, daring and baffling than the entirety of an international art showcase that takes up the whole of Navy Pier is a testament not only to the spirit of the 1960s, but what’s missing in contemporary art today.

By contrast, I am consistently more baffled by many things at Art Expo. Often I ask: Why are they showing me this? Why should I pay any attention to it?   Most of the pieces in the Hairy Who shows make a lot more sense to me -- but then -- I was also born in the 1940's.

And I would not say that riskiness or wildness are qualities worth pursuing.

Just being fully alive and trying to comprehend and deal with the consequences is wild and risky enough.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Charles White at the Art Institute of Chicago

"Preacher", 1952

This has been a summer of twentieth century American figurative art at the Art Institute of Chicago. John Singer Sargent presented the glamor of wealth, Ivan Albright shared the terror of mortality; but Charles White addressed something much more momentous: the ongoing struggle of America’s racially identified underclass. It’s the catastrophic national disgrace that’s embedded in our nation’s founding documents. After two hundred and fifty years of armed and political struggle, responses to the African-American experience still drive the campaigns and agendas of each and every national administration – as well as American popular music. White’s work has the prophetic gravitas required– especially his stark black and white linocuts. As pictorial space collapses, all energy is pulled into his figures – especially the powerful heads and hands. They are solid and earthbound like nothing else in American art.

Often, his work reached beyond the world of art collectors. The exhibit includes a study for his 1943 mural, “The contribution of the Negro to American Democracy” at Hampton University. It demands  social recognition and respect, while it's angular, imploding planes have all the jagged intensity of Picasso’s analytical cubism. The exhibit also includes his 1956 drawing “Oh Freedom” that was reproduced for a 1960 NAACP rally in Los Angeles that featured both John F Kennedy and Martin Luther King. It depicts a sturdy young man scattering seeds with an open, confidant gesture. Other than Abraham Lincoln and John Brown, all of the people that White depicts are black -- and all of them are sturdy.

White’s art participated in the consecutive political movements of his lifetime: from Communism to Civil Rights to Black Power. Yet it feels too vulnerable and personal to be just propaganda or political cartoon. As quoted within gallery signage, he once declared “Paint is the only weapon I have to fight what I resent”.

Born just one year after Jacob Lawrence, White is far removed from the ebullient aesthetic of the Harlem renaissance. His work is about struggle, not celebration. Often it is grim and unpleasant to view. When reduced to one shape and one color – like his linocut portraits - the pieces can be quite powerful and enjoyable, with faces honed by suffering.. Otherwise, they often feel confused, distorted, and cluttered. Over the course of his forty year career, however, one might note how his faces become more natural and his designs more lyrical.

It’s quite a journey from “Soldier” (1944) to “Banner for Willy.”(1976). Both work with tragic themes: an African American soldier fighting to preserve an unjust society against an even worse opponent -- followed thirty years later by a eulogy for his murdered uncle. Brutal, angular distortions have been replaced by more natural figuration within an almost beatific design. The artist has moved from black is strong to black is beautiful - especially in the most recent piece in the exhibit, “Sound of Silence” (1978), done one year before his death. A serious, vigorous looking youth seems to be conjuring up his inner spirit that takes the form of a twisting, fulsome conch shell. Nothing is going to stop that young man from leading the kind of life that he wants.

Much of the work in this show might best be called illustration as formal concerns take a back seat to emotional political narrative. One exception would be “Harvest Talk” (1953), the artist’s most explicit homage to the Soviet Social Realist art of that time. Not only do the characters feel as real as a documentary, but they flourish within rather than fight against the pictorial space that envelops them. It seems to sanctify both the men and the work that they are doing. Most postwar American art has been about the self expressive individual - defying social norms with heroic resistance, flagrant irony, or bitter alienation. This piece, however, celebrates humans in community with each other and the planet. It’s such a masterpiece. (though one might note that the Noble Farmer is a trope in Nazi as well as Soviet art)

"Harvest Talk", 1953


Lee Ann Norman's New City review  also draws attention to "Harvest Talk", and adds some additional biographical information, including the following:

Most (Los Angeles) artists fell into one of two camps: those who valued traditional figuration to convey black pride and those who preferred newer techniques such as performance and abstraction, or assemblage to achieve those means. Eventually, White became influential enough to convince the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) to focus on L.A. artists and include contemporary work rather than solely existing to compete with New York’s Metropolitan Museum or Chicago’s Art Institute and their dedication to old European masters. Soon, LACMA became one of the only places black artists living on the West Coast could show their work outside of their own neighborhoods.

This seems to suggest that White convinced someone at LACMA to show "the newer techniques" of African American expression, as well as the kind of "traditional figuration" that he himself practiced.  I wonder where one might find the source of such information.


In the exhibition catalog, Kerry James Marshall also discusses the current retrospective while paying homage to his mentor:

"---- Simply emulating his work wasn’t enough for me; I tried to be Charles White in every way I could."

He singles out "Seed of Love" and "Black Pope (Sandwich Board Man" as " the most poignant creations of Charlie’s oeuvre. Put those alongside Francisco de Zurbarán’s Saint Serapion, and Saint Francis of Assisi according to Pope Nicholas V’s Vision"

He also notes that:

By the time I enrolled at Otis as a full-time student in January 1977, a revolution was under way. A catchall department called Intermedia—where conceptual art, video, performance, installation, and land art were routine—was advancing the newest wave of art theory. Those insurgents had just about completed their dismantling of traditional, humanist craft workers. The final stroke was the takedown of a medieval bronze statue in the campus quad of the she-wolf suckling Romulus and Remus, dragged down by a rope tied to the bumper of a truck driven by the chairman of that department. When the dust settled, everything I was drawn to Otis and Charles White to learn seemed to crumble as well.

This might suggest that, as far as Kerry James Marshall is concerned, the "traditional humanist craft" as practiced by Charles White could not co-exist with the new techniques introduced into art schools in the 1970's. He further noted that of the four black students then studying with White, he, Kerry James Marshall, was the only one who would have an art career "built primarily on figuration"

And then there's this provocative paragraph:

It was always clear with Charlie that to make good work, one had to know a thing or two about more than how to draw or paint. He had a scholar’s interest in history, which informed the work he made. He often said your work should be about things that mattered but reminded us all to concentrate on making the best drawings we could, adding, “the ideas will take care of themselves.” Similarly, the art historian and theorist Rosalind Krauss, writing about the conceptual photographer Cindy Sherman, critiques the tendency of analysts to privilege meaning in an artist’s work over the mechanisms that structure our comprehension of it: “Sherman’s doll photos are a statement of what it means to refuse to an artist the work that he or she has done—which is always work on the signifier—and to rush headlong to the signified … the constructed meaning, which one then proceeds to consume as myth.”

At this point in time, such a statement might seem reactionary, conservative, and backward.

If, or when, the status of "the newer techniques" falls below that of traditional figuration  -- such a statement may appear prophetic.

Among African-American artists who address African-American identity,  the conceptual/installation/perfomance/assemblage types seem to be the majority among those who show in prominent local venues: William Pope L., Rashid Johnson,  Theaster Gates, David Leggett, and Tony Lewis are names that come to mind -- I'm sure I could recall more if such work interested me enough to go see it.

On the figurative side, the sculptor Preston Jackson is the only Chicago artist, other than Marshall, whom I can recall.  Nina  Chanel Abney, Greg Breda,  and Jennifer Packer have all shown recently in our area, but none live nearby.


Deanna Isaacs in the Chicago Reader quotes the show's curator, Sara Kelly Oehler, that the artist:

 was dedicated to correcting the record on the African-American experience.

She goes on to note:

His larger-than-life portrayals of African-Americans (both famous and anonymous) radiate substance, presence, and agency. They were deliberate correctives to the rampant misrepresentation of blacks in white-controlled mainstream history and art.

One interesting example might be White's posthumous portraits of Bessie Smith.

Here is a photo - presumably used by the singer and her promoters to promote her career.  She looks sassy and playful -- not  incongruent with a singer best known for "rough", provocative sex songs.

Here is Charles White's linocut portrait of the singer as a soulful, serious, suffering person who, if she sang anything, would be singing prayerful hymns.

Which portrait is an accurate portrayal?  Which is a rampant misrepresentation ?

Like his friend, Harry Belafonte, White would probably have been concerned with the celebration of recreational sex, drugs, and violence promoted by African American performers in the decades after his death.

He might also have been concerned with the aestheticization of failure as embodied by Theaster Gates' sculpture in a  recent show at Richard Gray

In both cases, it might be said that black artists are presenting negative portrayals of  black people for white businessmen to sell.


Deanna Isaacs also shares an intriguing theory concerning the conch shell that appears in some of White's last paintings.  According to his son, it's a reference to the Caribbean origins of their family.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Arte Diseño Xicágo at the National Mexican Museum of Art

Enrique Alferez,"Eve" (detail)

The legacy of Mexican art and design in Chicago is primarily political. Inspired by the Bolshevik revolution as well as their own, Mexican painters and printmakers in the early decades of the twentieth century addressed that struggle between basic human needs and the accumulation of enormous wealth that continues today. They portrayed the innocence, endurance, and good intentions of working people, often with an emphasis on community, resistance, and iconic heroes. Outstanding among the printmakers was a collective named the Taller de Grafica Popular, established in Mexico City in 1937. Morris and Alex Topchevsky, Eleanor Coen, Max Kahn, Elizabeth Catlett, Margaret Burroughs, Charles White, Mariana Yampolsky, and Misch Kohn were all artists who traveled from Chicago to Mexico to work with the TGP.

Mariana Yampolsky

Especially powerful are the prints of Charles White now on display in a special exhibit at the Art Institute. In this exhibit, it’s the vibrant linocut depictions of ordinary Mexican rural life by Mariana Yampolsky that stand out. Also remarkable is the dream-like depiction of cotton pickers in a linocut by Margaret Burroughs, who is perhaps better known for founding the DuSable Museum of African American History in her own living room. Right next to her oil portrait of Harriet Tubman hangs Elizabeth Catlett’s linocut portrait of the same national hero. That’s just one of many fascinating juxtapositions scattered throughout this exhibit.

Margaret Burroughs, "Cotton Pickers"

Not all of the Chicago area artist-/activists honed their visual skills in Mexico. Inspired by Jose Guadalupe Posada, an earlier political cartoonist, the work of Carlos Cortez delivers its message with simplicity, commitment, and vigor. Maria Varela was a civil rights activist who taught herself photography to promote voter registration in the American South. As it turned out, her feel for visual narrative and design could tell quite a story, even if the subject was only a pair of human hands.

Not all of the art in this show is overtly political, either. There are a few coffee tables and a portrait of the first Mayor Daley executed in mosaic by Genaro Alvarez, a modernist designer based in Mexico City. There are also some very lively small beasts and monsters created by Maria Enriquez. Her youngest son, Mario Castillo, is credited with painting the first of the many Chicano murals that would proliferate throughout Latino neighborhoods across the country. Curiously enough, the theme of that work, ’Metafisica’, as well as his work that followed, is more about self- realization and historic native cosmology than any political movement or discourse.

H.C. Westermann, "Portrait of Luis Ortiz"

And then there’s the Ortiz family, The father, Luis Ortiz, created a bold kind of abstract painting that feels as strange as Surrealism. Apparently his own physical presence also made quite an impression on other artists. The show includes several portraits of him, including one by H.C. Westermann, who shared his background as both acrobat and veteran of World War II. His son, Errol Ortiz, was among the first Chicago Imagists in the 1960’s. His geometric human figures, while not electrically charged like those by Karl Wirsum, feel more ancient and profound.

Many of the artists in this show will be familiar to those who follow our local art scenes. Yet surprisingly enough, the exhibit gives the most floor space to the one artist whom probably nobody has ever heard of: Enrique Alferez (1901 – 1999), a figurative sculptor who spent most of his long career making public sculpture in New Orleans. His life story is as amazing as his work. Born into a traditional sculptor’s family in Zacatecas, he ran away from home at the age of twelve and spent the next ten years in the army of Pancho Villa. Eventually escaping across the border into Texas, his path crossed that of Chicago’s great Beaux Arts sculptor, Lorado Taft, who was lecturing in El Paso. Following Taft back to Chicago, he would attend the Art Institute and live among the apprentices in Taft’s studio.

Enrique Alferez, "Adam" (detail)

Most of the Alferez work in this show comes from the last decades of his life. He was a storyteller like Taft and less interested in formal power than his more celebrated Mexican contemporary, Francisco Zuniga. But his Adam and Eve diptych is still quite an achievement —– and not just because he carved these two multi-figured, eight foot mahogany panels when he was nearly ninety years old. You could not ask for a more thoughtful and skillful handling of the most profound theme in European iconography. Responding to the history of the twentieth century, which almost exactly coincided with his own lifespan, Alferez has shown Woman rising upward while Man, going nowhere, covers his face in shame.

Modern classical figurative sculpture has been so thoroughly banished into the dustbin of history, it’s as if such recent examples could not possibly exist. Sometimes it is worth less than the cost of its materials. But living outside the mainstream of contemporary art, the National Museum of Mexican Art continues to show many kinds of recent art that visitors to other museums will never see. It’s leadership holds firm to those same social ideals that drove the Mexican muralists and printmakers in the early twentieth century. They show art that best addresses the human condition as they see it.. Artworld prestige and auction value are not especially relevant.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Richard Schmid Legacy at the Palette and Chisel Academy

Richard Schmid, "Nancy and  Rose at the Met"

If John Singer Sargent had just painted the popular Spanish dancer, Carmen Dauset, in 2018 it’s not likely it would be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago, as it was in the same year it was painted, 1890. It’s way too outdated. But is it really? Aren’t contemporary viewers still thrilled by this poised young woman with the arched eyebrows, ruby red lips, and ornate, billowing gold and silver skirt? Isn’t that why the Art Institute is showing posters of this painting all over the city to attract visitors to the special Sargent exhibit now on view? Many professional artists continue to produce similarly attractive, upbeat works with more or less success. Why won’t major American museums – even the ones that claim to be encyclopedic-- ever select the very best contemporary examples of this genre for display? Perhaps the dichotomy between avant garde and kitsch has not yet been retired. We can just note that this kind of painting has its own collectors, galleries, and pantheon of celebrated practitioners, including Chicago born artist and teacher, Richard Schmid. (b. 1934). His pieces now sell into the low six figures.

The Schmid paintings in this show are not among his very best – but they do display some of his characteristic qualities. There is a precision in the layered application of brush strokes and a control of pictorial space with edges sharp or soft. There is a calligraphic intensity to the designs, and his brush always seems to have carried just the right amount of paint. His work has breezy lightness and charm rather than the power and glory of earlier masters – but isn’t that more appropriate for our less heroic age? In contrast to the slow, meticulous French atelier approach that has had such a resurgence over the past thirty years, Schmid cultivates spontaneity. As in Chinese brush painting, a rapid, alla prima execution demands a thoroughly developed, methodical process - a process which the artist has presented in over a dozen books and videos published over the past four decades. Wherever he has lived around the country, he has attracted and instructed groups of devoted students.

This exhibit also includes the current work of six of the painters who studied with him in Chicago thirty years ago. All of them have gone in their own, sometimes quite different directions. As once featured in the National Portrait Gallery, Rose Frantzen has specialized in portraits of her neighbors in Maquoketa, Iowa. In this show she offers a wall-sized critique of modern urban life from a rural, yet not conservative, point of view. Why are Christian folks carrying guns in the street and why are black people so often their targets? Scott Burdick and Susan Lyon travel together around the world, giving painting workshops and depicting local color. They both seem to prefer the brash discordance and thick paint of Russian masters like Philip Malyavin.

Romel De La Torre’s tropical sensuality seems to come from an entirely different world of sensibility - yet his portraits follow Schmid’s practice of placing a precisely drawn face against a tempestuous background of expressive brush strokes. Likewise the portraits of Clayton Beck - though the facial expressions that Beck depicts do not flatter the model. He’s more of a realist than any of the other former students. His nudes have have a brute fleshiness much closer to Thomas Eakins than William Bouguereau.

How do these twenty-first century figurative painters compare with Sargent, Zorn, Chase, and the other painters of the Gilded Age now showing at the Art Institute? It does seem that the pieces on display compare better with the magazine illustrators of that earlier era - appealing to a general audience rather than meeting the aesthetic demands of those familiar with great painting. Such a comparison is not really fair, however, since the Art Institute can pick and choose pieces from museums around the country, including its own extensive collection, -- while the small art club that has assembled this show can only exhibit whatever each artist was willing to send. If you look online, for example, you will find several powerful portraits by Nancy Guzik that offer much more than the painfully sentimental depiction of a child that was sent to Chicago.

The exceptional pieces in this show are the small nudes executed by Clayton Beck and Romel De La Torre. They may exemplify the conventional male gaze - but heterosexual male eyes will probably always be fascinated by nubile flesh, and these artists have transformed that desire into fully realized arrangements of line and color.

Saturday, August 11, 2018

Jan Matulka at Thomas McCormick

untitled, 1940's

By the mid-1940s Jan Matulka was no longer considered an important figure in the art world. His work thereafter decreased in quality.” ..Los Angeles County Museum of Art

One cannot argue with that first sentence since Matulka  had no exhibitions of current work after 1943. Moreover, hardly anything he made after 1940 has entered the collections of art museums.

But did his work really decrease in quality ?

Purist Composition, 1923

Only one piece in this exhibit predates 1940, a gouache on paper titled “Purist Composition” (1923). During that period, Jan Matulka (1890-1970) maintained a studio in Paris where he followed the latest trends in Modernism. Purism, as conceived by Ozenfant and Le Corbusier, was an architectonic variant of Cubism— suitable for making an interior space feel open, bright, and cheerful. That wasn’t the only kind of Modernism that Matulka practiced – but it does seem to lead directly into the kind of painting he would do twenty years later -- with some important differences. The shapes in his “Purist Composition” are as tightly held together as the visual features of a building. The edges are as sharp as paper cut by scissors. In the paintings from the 1940’s, however, the edges have grown soft and blurry, while the shapes have begun to wantonly float away, – as if there were no longer the energy or will to bind them together. It’s a kind of disintegration, but neither tragic, unhappy, or chaotic.. The shapes still have the memory of having been together. The composition is not yet lost, – it has just begun to wander. The effect is a delightful release of tension that seems untethered to any time or place. These paintings could just as easily been done yesterday as in New York during the forties. They are markedly different from the artist’s earlier work, as well as from the angst and heroics of the kind of abstract painting that was beginning to conquer the American art world. Acknowledging such anomalies, the McCormick gallery has called this body of work “the Mystery Paintings”.

As Hilton Kramer wrote in 1970, “Mr. Matulka is not the sort of painter who established an original idiom of his own. He looked to his contemporaries and his tradition—the modern tradition— — for his models.” But the Mystery Paintings would seem to contradict that. They may echo the compositions of Cubism and Surrealism from earlier decades, and they strongly .assert that rectangular picture window that characterizes five hundred years of the European tradition. Yet they also appear to be more about the secret life of colors than anything else. These were color field paintings more than ten years before Clement Greenberg used that phrase.

Each painting feels like a separate journey to a destination unknown. Usually they are playful, energetic, and surprising. Some colorful rhapsodies may verge on the psychedelic, though mostly they are as quiet and tasteful as the Upper East Side neighborhood where the artist then lived. Do they belong in the Museum of Modern Art? Probably not. But they certainly can sustain repeated viewing - while a few might even belong in museums that take a less doctrinaire look at the history of twentieth century painting.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Ivan Albright at the Art Institute of Chicago

In the history of Euro-American figurative painting in Chicago, Ivan Albright (1897-1983) might be considered one of the game changers. Painters before him depicted people as strong or elegant or noble or charming or gritty. Painters after him depicted people as demented or goofy or bizarre or damaged. There was plenty of sentimentality in the work of those earlier painters, and perhaps the most sentimental of all was his father, Adam Emory Albright (1862-1957). The elder Albright specialized in barefoot boys romping through sunlit fields like erotic nymphs in Arcadia. It’s not difficult to guess why anyone, especially his own son, might wish to go in the opposite direction.

It’s also not difficult to guess why Ivan became attached to morbidity. The exhibition includes some anatomical illustrations that Albright drew while working at a military hospital in France during the First World War. The horrific scope of the casualties must have revealed “Snowden’s Secret” as described in ‘Catch 22’, Joseph Heller’s dark novel of World War Two : “by seeing Snowden's entrails spilling over the plane, he feels that Man was matter.. ..the spirit gone, Man is garbage." While other veterans from that era, like Otto Dix, depicted the aftermath of war with anger or outrage, Albright depicts the human condition as disgusting as a sack of putrefying meat.

If Albright suffered from PTSD, it did not seem to have interfered with his pursuit of a career focused more on fame than money. All but one of the paintings in this exhibit come from the artist’s estate. The single exception is the portrait of Mary Block, the founder of the Woman’s Board of the Art Institute and the wife of a trustee who would eventually become chairman. The artist, who married into a prominent publishing family, had friends in high places. The portrait is hardly flattering. The woman appears to be anxious, suspicious, grasping, and powerful. The artist called it “rather ghastly in a way”. As a dedicated patron and collector, Mrs. Block was probably more concerned with being included in the history of art than with her depiction as an unattractive woman. And perhaps wealthy Americans of the mid twentieth century realized that the upper crust no longer needed to be seen as kind, wise, righteous, devoted, or elegant. Wealth had become its own validation. It still is.

Every decade, or so, the Art Institute hauls out some of its Albright collection and puts it on temporary display. This time the theme is “Flesh”, so the show does not include “The Door” or “The Vision of St. Anthony”. Albright certainly painted a lot of flesh – but only the sagging and decrepit kind. No firm young bodies; no tender, voluptuous skin; nothing that looked healthy and vibrant. Actually, what he depicted does not look like human flesh at all – it’s more like blistering, peeling, artificial leather – unnatural in both texture and color. Like album cover art for death metal bands, it’s on the border of horrible and humorous, with a target viewership that is more about adolescent rebellion than adult responsibility. Two paintings assure us that the work of the hands (“The Lineman”) and the work of the spirit.,( “The Monk”) are without value.

Albright’s fanatic attention to detail and philosophical-sounding titles continue to lead some critics to assert that he was applying old master techniques. Notably, the signage in this exhibit makes no such claim. So much of European painting from the fifteenth to nineteenth century was about making human figures, as well as landscapes and comestibles, appear fresh and alive. The only life that concerned Albright, other than his own, was that of bacteria and fungi.

If he were still alive, he should certainly be commissioned for the official portrait of POTUS #45.  He was a master of moral as well as physical decay. But does Ivan Albright still deserve all this attention? Isn’t the “Picture of Dorian Gray” sufficient to demonstrate his vision and place in the history of Chicago art? Do we really need a well born, well trained, well married, well connected, well respected white man to repeatedly tell us that human life is without meaning or hope ?


Luke Fidler’s review responds to “Pornography in the Classroom: Another Challenge for the Art Educator” (Blandy/Congdon -1990) – an essay that discusses an Albright painting as follows:

Fidler suggests that Albright treats his subjects, both male and female, with “tragicomic care”, while “it is not he but we who supply the violence”.   With which I’d agree – though I don’t see putrefaction as violent at all – quite the opposite. To quote Andrew Marvell: "The grave's a fine and quiet place"

 I also don’t see why the Blandy/Condon essay should be referenced in art criticism.   As it’s title would suggest (“Pornography in the Classroom”) it was apparently intended to provoke controversy rather than contemplate works of art as such.  Though it does seem that New City  is becoming ever less interested in making such a distinction.

Fidler does highlight, however, the following aesthetic quality:

one of the more intriguing characteristics of his paintings, namely that the teeming rot and discoloration bedeviling his protagonists is rarely matched by frenetic activity on the surface of his canvases. They’re uncannily smooth, amplifying the strange sheen of his palette in which few blacks are true blacks and every tone seems a little jaundiced

I confess that I found the "strange sheen of the palette" so repulsive, I did not notice whether the paint was thick or thin.

 As I had briefly suggested,  Albright's images resemble the rebellious adolescent fantasies of death metal record album covers.  If Fidler would persuade us that they are something more important, perhaps he could relate them to other expressions of what he calls the "tragicomic".  Hans Holbein's "Dance of Death" is one example that comes to mind. By comparison, however, Albright's work is dead in form -- as well as subject matter.