The narrative of art history is never complete. There are always untold stories that are in danger of being lost to memory entirely, especially if you don’t live in New York City. The New Art Examiner was Chicago’s only major art periodical and is still sorely missed by most of those who remember it. Regrettably, the New Art Examiner had no life outside of the archive, which is difficult to access even for those interested, myself included. If you want a copy of the New Art Examiner, you have to seek it out—the copies I have are borrowed from Duncan MacKenzie of Bad at Sports.
Like many print publications that died, the New Art Examiner has no web presence; its previous web address (see below) leads you to a legal resources website. It was therefore with some sense of relief that The Essential New Art Examiner (Northern Illinois University Press: 2011) was finally published. Edited by Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born (a former ArtSlant contributor) and Janet Koplos, the form of the book is a collection of articles, reviews and essays culled from the lifetime-run, 1973-2002, of the New Art Examiner magazine. As Derek Guthrie wrote in his introduction about the book, “This means that the New Art Examiner will not be airbrushed out of cultural history.”
Framed anecdotally by most as the little magazine that could, The Essential New Art Examiner reveals a feisty magazine that, as I’ve noted before, would run a transcript of a speech by influential art critic Hilton Kramer that he gave while in Chicago and the very next issue run an interview with artist Hans Haacke where he thoroughly attacks Kramer. (Haacke wins the round, by the way.) Likewise, the book contains a fair number of essays analyzing Chicago Imagism in a laudatory way, as one might expect, but it also contains two important essays from Frank Pannier, an abstract painter taking the counterpoint to the figure-based Imagists. Giving an idea of the rowdy debate surrounding the ascension of the movement in the 1970s, now enshrined in Chicago and gaining notice elsewhere, Pannier calls Chicago Imagism an, “infectious manifestation of visual gonorrhea.”
As one might hope, The Essential New Art Examiner provides an important historical perspective of art in Chicago and nationally. To this day alternative art spaces continue to be a strong force in Chicago, and Lynne Warren writes a brief history of N.A.M.E. Gallery for the book, an early alternative space in Chicago founded by Jerry Saltz and Phil Berkman among others. Alice Thorson’s essay “Young Chicagoans Prefer Engagement to Avant-Gardism,” from 1982 laments the migration of artists to New York and the outsourcing of major public art commissions, a still relevant complaint. The culture wars of the 1980s are addressed in several articles, with a distinctly as-it-is-happening tone.
Of course, one can also track the evolution of the Chicago art scene, in María José Barandiarán’s “. . . In a Place Like This?” the author reviews the major 1995 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, “About Place: Recent Art of the Americas” curated by Madeleine Grynsztejn, the museum’s Associate Curator of Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture. The next year Jeff Huebner assesses the new building for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art in “Bigger, Better, Faster, More?” and consults Grynsztejn, who is now the acting department head of Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture. Today in 2012, the Department of Twentieth Century Painting and Sculpture no longer exists at the Art Institute of Chicago (it’s now the Department of Contemporary Art) and Madeleine Grynsztejn is the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
This is not to say that the book is free of faults. With the amount of information included, the book is in desperate need of an index. There are a number of proofreading oversights, for instance, “tide” is substituted for “title” in two separate pieces (Hamza Walker’s “Public Domain” and Steven C. Dubin’s “Art’s Demise”) and in the most egregious error, Phyllis Bramson’s cover image for the book, Decoys, is credited to “Phillis Bramson.” There are several articles that seem completely irrelevant today, like the one attacking the heroin chic advertising trend.
The editors of the volume include an excellent article from Donald Kuspit, “The ‘Madness’ of Chicago Art,” along with a negligible article from 1999 attacking Andy Warhol’s 1962 work Gold Marilyn Monroe—it’s like writing a scathing review of Jeff Koons’ Puppy in 2029, that ship has sailed. Along with another essay, Peter Schjeldahl is included with a cringe-inducing eight-page poem about himself. This led Susan Snodgrass, a former New Art Examiner writer and current Art in America writer (and a former professor of mine), to call the collection “skewed” in favorite of more recognizable names, like those above. Snodgrass noted several authors who were omitted that should have been included: Michael Bonesteel, Margaret Hawkins and Laurie Palmer, among many others.
Indeed, discovering the work an author you aren’t familiar with is part of the pleasure of reading The Essential New Art Examiner, like Steve Hohenboken’s reflections on being a gay artist working with fabric, or the fantastic essay from Joanna Frueh “Explicit—Towards a Feminist Theory of Art Criticism,” which I found I identified with very much.
Despite the shortcomings, Snodgrass and I both agree that this is a promising beginning to getting a better picture of the New Art Examiner. Indeed there are other volumes in the works and I hope they all are printed; it is one step further to a more complete art history as well as understanding the achievement of the New Art Examiner. I would go further still and say that the book is an indispensable touchstone for a new audience seeking a broader art historical narrative, one not linked to the usual power centers in the United States.
–Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago