Chicago

Chicago

Various Venues

The third “Hairy Who” exhibition occurred in the late spring and it was the finest to date. This was true both of the works themselves, and also of the installation. Karl Wirsum’s “skullpture” was an innovation; Gladys Nilsson’s work, while not drastically new in theme, showed her continued growth in power and her unobtrusive mastery of her means; Jim Nutt’s inventiveness is almost dazzling and Jim Falconer’s work included a series of frenzied serigraphs; Suellen Rocca and Art Green have both expanded their themes and have greater control.

But the work, fine as it was, was incorporated into a superb display, which in itself can be counted as an achievement of this group. The walls of the Hyde Park Art Center where the show was held again were covered with bright, flowered linoleum and the banal gaucherie of it acted as a foil for the works, coming as it did from the same world of the cliché and the slogan which these artists take as a starting point. Its gaudy pattern would have dominated some styles, but not this group and instead their strength and the power of their paintings and sculpture were complemented by the sheer crassness. In fact, Falconer’s serigraphs were mounted on colored linoleum panels and their intensity succeeded in dominating the ground, in fact was enriched by it.

The three shows by this group have led to a number of misconceptions and there is a good deal of loose talk about a “Hairy Who style” and about its “funkiness.” Any close examination of their work will dispel the first of these misconceptions, since there is no common style although they have a common ground—their response to those recurrent ideas, images, slogans that fill the mass media. It is also true that they each have a strong feeling for the comic strip, the stylizations used there and the episodic arrangement. They are commonly referred to as “Pop” in their orientation, and this, too, is misleading and an oversimplification. There may be a similarity of imagery to be sure: the Hairy Who may at first surprise (and appall) with their selection of subject matter. However from here on the processes they use are remarkably close to the direction used by more conventional artists, although they are often very inventive in the transformations, and also in the material (Plexiglas, inlay, etc.) that they use. Their alleged “funkiness” is only in the source material and not in the final work. It must be counted as part of their achievement that they have avoided the blind alley that much of funk art is in.

The Print Department of the Chicago Art Institute showed Photography Before 1914, one of those rare opportunities to see a portion of the choice collection which has been assembled in recent years under Hugh Edwards’ curatorship.

The overwhelming mass of photographs today makes this art universal and also commonplace. This means that as a record for the future their value is unprecedented, but this very quantity makes it exceedingly difficult to evaluate them. Also, there is a lack of good critical writing on the subject and even now, when there is so much discussion of art, this has not changed appreciably.

The idiomatic expression that “we take a photograph” contrasts with the expression that we “make a picture/painting.” This distinction has been pointed out before but its importance in realizing the differences between the two arts and in better understanding photography can hardly be overemphasized. The photographer “takes” his picture as the final act in a series of steps which are all a process of selection but this act is effective only if his sensitivity is keyed to the necessary pitch. Its unique value as a document may then result.

The greatest photographs in the show bear this out, e.g., the intense life in Fenton’s photographs of the officers in the Crimean war; the specimen-like quality of Hines’s photographs of the working children and the frightened immigrants at the turn of the century; it is also true of the Civil War views from Gardner’s Sketchbook of the War. The violence is inferred but never shown itself and the quiet stillness of a pontoon bridge or the dead soldiers after a battle heightens the poignancy of the event. There is great, almost overwhelming, immediacy in the portraits by Julia Margaret Cameron from the 1860s and these are not merely records of the faces of her sitters but with an intense power they preserve the moment of encounter between the sitter and this extraordinary artist. Stieglitz, whose importance seems to increase each year, was represented with several photographs including the lyrical Spring Showers, 1902. He never loses his fresh sense of discovery and this is evident in almost all of his work, and his prints have the spontaneity of a snapshot. The term snapshot is inadequate and the mindless banality of most casual snapshots may confuse the issue but it seems to epitomize the characteristics of the medium. One of the captions by Edwards for the show states this with a fine brevity: “. . . . the so-called ‘casual’ photograph may end by being the sincere evocation and recreation of some ordinary happening, so that one feels its significance, nostalgia, observation and humor could not have been conveyed by any other medium.”

The summer festival of music and dance at Ravinia also includes an exhibition, and this year its title was The Natives Return, indicating that the eight artists whose works were shown had lived or studied here at the beginning of their careers. With few exceptions all of the eight are now located in New York or vicinity and it was interesting to compare the evolution of their styles after leaving this area—in some it has been considerable, in others there has been little change.

Lennart Anderson, Lester Johnson, Robert Barnes, Leon Golub, George Kokines, Robert Indiana, Ivan Mischo and Cliff Westermann were included (Tony Smith who studied here in the late ’30s was unable to show his piece, as had originally been planned).

Some artists stood out, others did not. Lester Johnson’s paintings, with their impastoed surfaces scored and spattered, seem to aim for a physical presence that is seldom achieved. Even his portrait of Baudelaire takes whatever power it may have from the subject itself rather than from the act of painting.

Kokines’ painting has a gentler mood with its somewhat inchoate floating shapes. At their best they may coalesce into a semi-lyrical diffuse understatement but too often the viscous oil seems to cloy. It seems that if problems resulting from the medium and its limitations were solved, as they seem to be in his pastel drawings, the statement he seeks to make would have more of the clarity and coherence which it needs.

Ivan Mischo’s work has shown influences from a number of current trends since he started exhibiting a few years ago. This show included painted sculpture and free-form, free standing paintings in black, white and grey. They are modular designs built up of units and they contain exciting possibilities although these seem to be latent rather than realized. If they are developed this could prove to be a fertile direction.

Leon Golub was represented by one of his recent works, Gigantomachy IV, and also by works which dated back to his 1956 Birth III. The strength of his early work is such that it heightens the effects of the rhetorical heroics which characterize his later painting. If late Roman art was a source then these paintings seem to need a theme which can play against it and provide a much needed tension.

There is an elaborate process of mythicizing involved in the paintings by Robert Barnes and he creates a “screen” upon which are projected images comparable to Joycean allusions. They are complex paraphrases of time and place which revolve around the supposed identity of the personage he paints. His Arthur Craven Still Lives or his “portrait” of Tristan Tzara exemplify the idea.

Cliff Westermann has perhaps had greater lasting influence on Chicago artists than any of the others included (his influence on the “Hairy Who” group is more than evident) and his work is seen here almost annually. (This is, of course, also true of Barnes and Golub.) There are few artists who make a world that is so consummate in its craftsmanship as his. His humor is oblique and his works are filled with wry puns that skirt the fringes of his central theme. His Defoliated, with its enigmatic tree house had about it a raw, gnawed bareness and, more than any polemic on the war, it was devastating in its power to defoliate the insulating ideas which the viewer may have built up to protect himself.

Whitney Halstead