Dennis Adrian. Photo: Mary Baber.

Dennis Adrian (1937–2018)

Dennis Adrian, the art historian, critic, educator, curator, collector, and tastemaker whose championing of Chicago art helped introduce the city’s postwar artists to an international audience, has died at eighty years old. He is survived by his partner, the curator Richard A. Born. In addition to formerly serving as assistant curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago, Adrian authored many books, including The Chicago Imagist Print (1987) and Chicago Imagism: A 25 Year Survey (1994), as well as monographs on H.C. Westermann, Ed Paschke, and Roger Brown

Born in Astoria, Oregon, with what he once referred to as an “innate curse of aesthetic,” Adrian studied at the University of Chicago from 1952 to 1959 and at New York University from 1959 to 1960. Around 1955, he began working at the Allan Frumkin Galleries in Chicago and New York, where he first learned the ins and outs of the art industry. He invested what little money he had in drawings and prints by artists like Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró, and Lovis Corinth. He managed the Allan Frumkin Gallery from 1959 to 1965 and first discovered the Imagists at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1967 before introducing them to the eminent Chicago gallerist Phyllis Kind. In the late ’60s, he taught art history at both the Philadelphia College of Art and Roosevelt University in Chicago. During this time, he was a regular contributor to Artforum and Artnews, as well as to local publications such as the New Art Examiner and the Chicago Daily News.  

As he became an authority on Chicago’s art scene, Adrian contextualized and advocated for the Imagists, the Monster Roster, the Chicago Seven, and other artists from the area, helping to establish the city as a globally recognized art world hub. But it was his enthusiastic support for the second wave of Imagists that solidified both his legacy and that of the underground artists he helped legitimize institutionally. Aside from curating and writing, he mentored local collectors, facilitating acquisitions that often became gifts to museums across the nation. He later bequeathed much of his own collection to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. In 1979, Adrian was among several curators who helped organize “Who Chicago?: An Exhibition of Contemporary Imagists,” an influential show of works by artists affiliated with the Hairy Who movement, including Jim NuttCristina Ramberg, Ray Yoshida, and Roger Brown, that toured throughout the United Kingdom. In 1987, Adrian received a Guggenheim Fellowship for fine arts research. 

Adrian sought to elevate artists from the fringes of the mainstream, which often meant looking outside of New York. For one of his earliest articles for Artforum, published in the January 1966 issue, he extolled the sculptor H.C. Westermann, who would later become a lifelong friend, in the first of his many reviews praising the artist's work. “Stating comfy banalities with an obsessive intensity of feeling, Westermann can be profoundly disquieting,” Adrian wrote. “Nor do violent images presented with rich materials and hallucinatory perfection of craft do anything to soothe the squirming viewer; Westermann’s paradoxical objects point up the willful folly of our attempts to reconcile what we know with what we like to think.” Other artists he boosted include June Leaf, whose view of the world, he once wrote, was “one of inter-relating public and private theaters of existence.” In 1985, a selection of his criticism and essays was collected in Sight Out of Mind.