PRINT October 1965

Twelve Chicago Artists

THE EXHIBITION “TWELVE CHICAGO PAINTERS” ORGANIZED BY the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis shows four paintings by each of the artists. It is a good show, handsomely installed, simple and unpretentious. In age, the artists range from 23 to 35 and none of the paintings are less recent than 1963; most of them were painted in 1965. Jan van der Marck, curator, and in charge of the exhibition, makes no unwarranted claims for a cross-section view nor does the show purport to be a sampling in either breadth or depth. It is admittedly a selection. These artists are very much a part of the current Chicago scene and though other choices, equally valid, could have been made, the Walker in “reporting on new talent” is filling a need too often and too long neglected. Although the work of these artists has been seen in exhibitions and in the galleries of Chicago, it indicates the lack of interest in local artists that such an exhibition should occur in a city several hundred miles away.

If there are no great discoveries here these are nevertheless painters of talent and on the whole their work is highly competent—some of it with a look of harshness purposely left unrefined, some almost too finished, manicured. In general the overall effect is one of great facility but little daring and nothing very adventuresome. The “tooling up process” has been thorough and has enabled “production” to get under way. Such jargon seems appropriate and one feels compelled to ask if the result will change as the market fluctuates.

There is no set of qualities which distinguishes these works from contemporaneous work in London, Los Angeles, New York or even, probably, Minneapolis itself, and if much of today’s art, this included, deals with imagery from the current terrain and visual evidence from the technical and scientific spheres the result is in one sense almost geographical, i.e. “American Scene painting,” and in another, temporal, or “20th Century scene.” The majority of the paintings by these young artists are cool and for the most part impersonal. Colors and shapes are often hard-edged and the acrylic polymer paint used in some of them creates a film which covers the canvas evenly and which seems neither dull nor glossy, thick nor thin. With the possible exception of three of the painters (Holbrook, Schnackenberg and Kokines), their statements are laconic and made with singular lack of emphasis. Even in the work of the three artists just mentioned the painterly quality results from their domination over the material rather than any give and take as a direct response to it.

In most respects the painting of George Kokines eludes this description. He paints with a rich, full-loaded brush and he, for one, is responsive, though almost reluctantly so, to the sensuous quality of paint and its interaction with the canvas texture. Consistent with his development over the past five years is an unabashed romanticism too heavy and dense ever to reach the lyrical, but personal and expressive. Heavy, almost sluggish in mood, the images appear and barely seem to emerge from the paint itself, images that are fragmentary or are vague, indefinite signs, letters, etc. They seem to have the ability to arrest the brush in its track and they act to veil the inherent richness of pigment and the dexterity of the hand. In the paintings DSC and Carrousel there is an unresolved and ambiguous tension between the informal handling of the pigment, the dotted squares, the circle, the letters, and, in the latter, even the orange slice, a tension and ambiguity which contribute to their power it should be added. The drama of the process in which forms become images or images themselves dissolve in paint and brushwork is emphasized by Kokines’ use of color; strong reds, scarlets, oranges and a recurring rich ultramarine dominate, with unexpected small touches of tans and yellows and a pale blue. His color sense and his rich brushy texture, both of which exhibit expressionistic tendencies, are unique in this exhibition.

If the image is hesitant in Kokines’ work it is transitional and in a state of flux in Roy Schnackenberg’s, who masses spots of color in such a way that images appear and coalesce out of the indefinite and amorphous, almost atmospheric environment. Subject and background overlap, blend, often merge together and distinctions between animate/inanimate and interior/exterior states are blurred. The painting Still Life exemplifies this approach. Although it has never achieved status as a full fledged style this theme, in which subject and background interact in a complicated fusion, has held the attention of a number of recent artists many of whom have been based in Chicago or have exhibited in Chicago galleries, e.g. Robert Barnes, Vytautas Virkau and Ray Reshoft. In paintings such as Picnic With Minnie Included image fragments and shapes cluster in the lower right corner, suspended against the plain ground broken only by echoing ripples. His color, high keyed and astringent, is applied in a competent and skillful manner without the sensuousness of Kokines and allowing our interest to remain involved with the images.

Both of these aspects of color and pigment are absent in Peter Holbrook’s painting. Harsh and contrasty his color is consistent with his images which are recognizable, intentionally coarse and insistent. Of equal emphasis throughout all areas of the painting they are inundating and agglomerative in effect. As with the work of Peter Saul, whose influence is frankly evident (Untitled #4) the commonplace has been raised to the level of the colossal in scale, not in significance. Although the great profusion of imagery should intensify their impact, the equality of treatment in all areas results in diffusion.

We have been accustomed to an art which is selective, selective of the sources from which it draws and restrictive of the variety with which we are presented, although recent developments indicate that artists often refuse to involve themselves in such decisions. In the presence of the paintings of Raymond Siemanowski the viewer is tempted to use terms such as “pastiche” or “eclectic,” and eclectic they are in their scramble of idioms. In their defense one must admit to the eclectic nature of the world they reflect, in which images from mass media, readily recognizable readymade slogans, optical effects and even late Matisse—and more—all rain down upon us. It is a collage world and Siemanowski’s art gives it back to us. Although actual collage is used only briefly, each painting is divided into compartments—each section painted in bright, sharp colors and the hard-edged shapes are incessant, unremitting and staccato in their beat. Color is almost impersonal in its application, as mechanical as the halftone silk screen images (Four Views of Super Q). Any attempt to focus these components or to achieve a synthesis, the possibility of which is indicated by Siemanowski’s talent and virtuosity, is singularly lacking.

If Siemanowski uses the commonplace and banal at one level only and limits himself by his sources, a certain narrowness of range is also found in the work of Stanley Edwards. Although his use of color suggests a latter-day Fauve, his paintings are calculated, smooth, enamel hard in finish and each of the candy-like color areas is sharply edged. The marzipan effect is heightened by the use of bright colored plastic “stick-ons,” novelty emblems such as hearts, stars, buttons, etc. Because they are so small they fail in their function as readymades and their decorative power is slight, almost trivial. The sweet inviting quality of his color is however somewhat restricted by the hard-boiled application and the impervious, smooth surface. Admittedly there is a consistency between the faceless figure and its grey color, both of which act as a foil against the colored awning stripes of the background, as in The Relative, and somewhat less well handled in Double Portrait.

In The Twins, and Baby In A Mail Box, giant-sized baby faces painted in grisaille stand forth against an area of hard shapes in bright colors. Monster images of monster size, they carry overtones of neither satire nor fantasy and are drained of humor. Edwards’ painting, bright, sweet, gaudy is somewhat thin and limited in its scope, relieved only slightly by a hint of the incongruous.

The “Sea Cars” series of paintings by Maurice Fouks are more drawing than painting. Single, elaborately designed car forms are placed rather casually against the unpainted canvas ground. The extreme stylization is limited to curvilinear shapes which suggest rudimentary double images. Their artless character may serve the artist in paintings with greater content but in this series, flat areas of color, absorbed into the canvas, each area delimited by a light outline, create a coloring book effect and little more.

Color is the one component with which Hilton Brown is most concerned and neither quality of pigment or texture of canvas is allowed to interfere; their presence is barely felt in his greatly simplified though carefully considered color schemes. Careful, tight control is exercised over sharp-edged arrangements in which color is played against color. Something of the decorative power of this element is apparent but color and shape are unrelated and their joint expressive possibilities remain unrealized. Some areas are filled in with an informal linear pattern, a textural device that is informal, almost trivial in nature and is impossible to reconcile with the rest of the painting (Gatsby’s Guests). This inconsistency, to be welcomed in some of the work of his contemporaries, is out of character in Brown’s painting which is on the whole rigid and categorical in approach.

William Gram’s paintings represent that phase of non-objective art in which forms function almost like machine parts. In Fragmented Circulations or Geometric Estimations circles suggestive of flywheels and gears are broken and segmented by bands (or with the above analogy in mind, belts). The Constructivist painters, or Delaunay’s structural schemes come to mind although in Gram’s work the surface is dense and the color is dark, heavy and often leaden.

The sober, dry paintings of John Cannon form an ensemble and gain from their presentation as a group. Still and quiet they seem becalmed, giving little indication of any poised balanced equilibrium (Red Square). These are statements issued without qualification, compromise or modulation. Squares confront rectangles—an encounter that leaves both unchanged and their serenity unruffled.

In current terminology the term “Op” designates painting or constructions which are more concerned with immediate response than with any expressive content. The paintings of Stanley Tigerman and some of Strobel’s are concerned with such phenomena. Tigerman’s paintings are moderate-sized square panels over which intersecting and overlapping bands of paint are stretched. The intervening spaces, sharp and clear, achieve a level of importance equal to the lines themselves, both the cause and effect of the vibrational quality. The precise almost machine-like finish is modified but slightly by the artist’s hand and in these it seems an irrelevent factor. Although Tigerman uses color in some of his paintings this group of four is limited to opaque blacks and whites—so strong in their contrast that color seems implied. As with much other painting concerned with optical effects the field with which we are presented functions to entrap and delay the eye, never to present a single point, and each unit and color is equalized.

With such clean precise painting the viewer is distracted by titles such as I Pledge Allegiance To The Orthogon or I Pledge Allegiance To The Lozenge And To The Implications For Which It Stands (variations I, II) which encumber them. Too long to ignore completely, still they cannot be taken seriously.

Tom Strobel’s Spirals In Motion combines the virtual movement of black and white checkered circles with kinetic or motorized movement. Clear, sharp patterns demand muscular responses from our eyes, often spasmodic in nature, and when such patterns are set in motion such as these turning discs the result is a blur and the two types of movement act to cancel each other. Although actual movement has been experimented with for half a century and its possibilities are numerous, pure visual responses and virtual movement are still little known or understood. This example suggests something of their potential when combined. Oddjob’s Hat also motorized, with turning off-center circles has a hypnotic effect but its size and proportions call for a greater economy of means.

Dot Illusion and Supreme Symbol both make use of readymades, plastic novelty items, such as eyes that wink as the viewer changes position. Here the artist is concerned with a flickering changeable movement, playful especially in Dot Illusion and in keeping with such eye-catching commercial images.

Joe Zucker’s cloth relief constructions and paintings are not closely involved with optical phenomena as such although they are all-over patterns on a large scale in which there is an equal interplay of form against space. The two large constructions made up of interwoven strips of sewn cloth are refreshing, and disarming, half serious half playful. However, his two paintings are finer. One, Joe’s Painting #63, achieves a basketweave similar to the constructions. It lacks the studied elegance and precision of Tigerman’s work or the mechanical quality of Strobel’s “Spirals” but instead has been rendered almost casually with many variations in brushwork and even the pencilled guide lines are much in evidence. In Joe’s Painting #64 the yellow and white linear structures that extend over the black ground are almost fugal in their nature; it is his most handsome painting and one of the finest in the exhibition. Zucker’s work has developed greatly in the last few years and shows much promise.

In the introduction to the catalog the statement is made “There is nothing parochial about Chicago painting. All current visual idioms—hard-edge, pop, optical and a bold new figuration—are being explored by these young Chicago painters.” That parochialism is not a factor is a condition which has been made evident over the past decade by the “Chicago and Vicinity” shows held annually at the Art Institute. The evolution of a Chicago style in painting and sculpture (a term with implications similar to its use in reference to Chicago architecture) seems never to have been a distinct possibility. A local style anywhere today is improbable (and possibly undesirable) at this time. There does remain the distinct and unrealized possibility that local indigenous elements may influence the current idioms. This would serve to correct the present imbalance.

It will be most interesting to see whether local styles do exist in some of the other cities. Since the catalog refers to a series of possible exhibitions at the Walker of this nature, full-fledged styles may be recognized. If we draw only upon conclusions reached as a result of the present exhibition this would seem unlikely although we could hope for variants to appear and we can logically expect the work of individual artists to stand out.

The success of the twelve painters in this show is evident, but this success is not to be equated as yet with maturation. Experimentation with kinetic effects; exploration of some of the endless phenomena of retinal responses; use of many of the images created for our consumer culture, the commonplace and the banal are all valid areas of exploration. Add to this a more intimate personal type of expression and a style of painting which utilizes metamorphoses of an almost Surrealist nature and the range of work from these twelve painters is apparent. Their accomplishment is the result more of their great facility, often virtuosity, and their complete preoccupation with making paintings, than it is with their vision. It is both interesting and significant to note that in the work of none of them is there any indication that their conception is ahead of their ability to realize it. If such were the case the actual achievement might be less but the discrepancy would contribute an element of drama or excitement which the current exhibition lacks.

Whitney Halstead