Ah, the Chicago Question. If there is one thing that will send a conversation, panel discussion or interview into a death spiral it’s the unanswerable question of Why is Chicago the Second City? Artist and critic Erik Wenzel recently alluded to it in his farewell to the city. But Louise Lincoln, the Director of the DePaul Art Museum and curator of “Re: Chicago” tackled this prickly question head-on for the inaugural exhibition in their new building, proving why they needed a new building for their ambitious program.
Riffing off of Don Baum’s landmark 1969 exhibition, “Don Baum Says Chicago Needs Famous Artists,” Lincoln began by asking notable curators, collectors and scholars (all based in Chicago of course) to choose a Chicago artist whose work is famous, should be famous, or was famous. If you object to these terms, Lincoln concedes in the catalog that accompanies “Re: Chicago” that, "the term 'Chicago artist' remains problematic . . . so too does the adjective 'famous.'” They are problematic, but they also remain steadfastly real as artists continue to migrate from Chicago to New York and Los Angeles, and fame continues to be a major driving factor in art, as Lincoln mentions. A deeper question is the issue of the art historical canon, those artists that are included in the survey textbooks and, apropos here, those that are not. The canon is always simultaneously in flux and set, as artists are re-evaluated, the textbooks get revised.
Some of the fun of this exhibition comes from seeing work by those artists who supposedly still have yet to receive their dues. George Healy was once a significant 19th century portraitist who deserves more credit, argues noted art critic and architectural historian Franz Schulze because of his “striking accomplishments as a portraitist to the wealthy and famous.” Perhaps. His portrait here is of an unknown sitter. Robert Cozzolino makes an interesting argument in his catalog essay for the better recognition of Chicago artists’ relation to Pop Art, theorizing around what he calls “the abject,” and picks Ivan Albright because of the artist’s awareness of his own public image. Here the Second City feeling does creep in; the relation of Chicago to Pop should be more widely understood, as New York still does dominate that art historical narrative.
Gertrude Abercrombie. Split Personality. 1954. Oil on pressed board. Image courtesy of DePaul Art Museum.
This exhibition gets at issues of connoisseurship as well, implicitly asking the viewer whether they can agree to the artist’s merit, particularly as stacked up to art history. Gertrude Abercrombie is another under-recognized artist, according Susan Weininger, and I also look forward to the day her work is more broadly recognized. A feminist critique is usually included in Abercrombie’s work and Split Personality (1954) is no exception, with the artist divided in half within a domestic setting, a pitcher below her floating upper half. I do not always enjoy Surrealism; Dalí leaves one wondering sometimes how much is meant and how much just looks really good together, but Abercrombie is almost always convincing with her intellectually rigorous version of Surrealism. Here one wonders about the role of the market in elevating an artist: Dalí’s palette is usually colorful and his technique is virtuosic, two things the market loves, whereas Abercrombie does not strive for a high degree of realism and her palette is subdued. (And that leaves aside the issue of a male versus female artist in the market.) Just as Madonna played a major role in elevating Frida Kahlo, Abercrombie seems to await her own super-collector.
Kerry James Marshall. Untitled (Painter). 2010. Acrylic on PVC panel. Image courtesy of DePaul Art Musem.
Given this historical range of art on view, it is interesting to see the work of still living artists interspersed, how they rise to the challenge. Kerry James Marshall’s recognition is well deserved and will be enduring given his Untitled (Painter), 2010, looks like a masterpiece already, confident and challenging. The collaborative duo Rob Davis/Michael Langlois are already thinking about the canon and the overarching art narrative making them a good match for this show, where they conflate the New Bauhaus, minimalist painting and sculpture with rock music. Taking advantage of the new building’s high ceilings and well-proportioned spaces, they have produced a site-specific work that not only visually sizzles but also continues and complicates the Bauhaus’ theories of integrating the various art fields.
Art history is rarely just, but fortunately the record can always be corrected. “Re: Chicago” brings together some artists that surely should be added, some artists that will no doubt be added in due time and some artists that will still not make it into the rolls. Arguments for canonicity are usually made subtly in the world of art; it’s best not to admit that the canon ignored someone due to gender or location. But it is far more interesting and educational, not to mention honest, to start talking about these issues publicly. The DePaul Art Museum has once again made itself the host for an important conversation.
-Abraham Ritchie, Editor ArtSlant Chicago