Chicago

Chicago

“I can no longer go into my studio, close the door and work. It is not soundproofed against the cries of children, nor sealed against the smoke of burning buildings or the tear gas of the police . . . .” Although not all artists spoke so eloquently, this statement expressed the feelings of the great majority about the malaise which is the result of the conflict between their inner world of feeling and the harsh events around them, specifically those which occurred here in August. The mood was easily felt and the conflict was apparent in a series of exhibitions which opened in late October and early November.

The boycott which was announced by the painters and sculptors living outside Chicago to withhold their work from exhibit here for two years was admittedly a valid and legitimate action but like most such actions it would have had only symbolic value. Such a prohibition would not have affected the mayor and his supporters but would probably have had a negative effect and consequently three events were planned and carried out, one by a gallery, one by the artists and galleries combined, and the third by the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Claes Oldenburg, who had been here and had been beaten by Chicago police, felt compelled to cancel his show at the Feigen Gallery writing that “. . . a gentle one-man show about pleasure seems a bit obscene in the present context . . . .” To replace his show the gallery invited almost 50 artists to participate in a Richard J. Daley exhibition. As might have been expected it was a mixture, in terms of both quality and of content. Artists such as Noland, Stella, judd, and Tony Smith were represented by examples consistent with their recognized styles; others commented more specifically, such as Rosenquist with his “sliced” portrait of the mayor, Tinguely’s scattered Chicago Collage, George Cohen’s symbolic falling figures or Ed Flood’s witty Marked for Evidence. Oldenburg, who was included, showed a group of viscid red Chicago Fireplugs and a drawing of Mayor Daley—a monument which hopefully will never be built. It was like some head of John the Baptist.

The Feigen show was initiated by one gallery alone. Ten galleries were involved in the next event, Response To Violence In Our Society, which occurred on November 2nd. There were showings in each gallery and a special show of work by Chicago artists. As a benefit, the proceeds from admission and a portion of all sales went to the American Civil Liberties Union which has undertaken the defense of those arrested during convention week.

The events of August served as the theme for much of the work and this gave a focus to the shows, but in an attempt to broaden the subject a few galleries showed work such as the dreamlike violence of Callot or Goya, or the acid-filled prints of Grosz (at Pro Grafica) and prints by Kollwitz (at the Main Street Gallery). More contemporary was the graphic work of William Weege, collage, offset and silk screen (at the Richard Gray Gallery). Interestingly, the work by students from art schools in the area (at the Rosner Gallery) was one of the best shows and contained some of the most scathing denunciations of the situation.

The special Response show itself, of paintings, prints, constructions, etc., by more than 60 Chicago artists, was hung in the lobby of a design studio, convenient to the participating galleries, and was largely invitational. There was a stature given to the exhibition by those artists who were able to address themselves to the theme within their own stylistic means. Violence seemed to be furtive and insidious in Don Main’s First Amendment—Victim, covert and haunting in Vera Berdich’s etching Necromancy, brutal in Ted Halkin’s Minor. Art Green’s Lawnodor and Karl Wirsum’s Gesundheit played upon the grotesque, and Ray Yoshida’s Comic Book Sequence # 2, Right Profile hinted at the unseen subject in an understated fashion.

Those artists who seemed to be best equipped to depict the events of August with any sense of immediacy were the photographers such as Charles Reynolds (at the Galleria Roma); Dennis Gardner, Fred Schnell, and Nina Boal (at Lo Guidice Gallery) and Jerome Aronson (at Rosner). Theirs were sharp, clear documents which needed no titles or comment—combinations of the expressive and the factual which lie outside the realm of painting.

The events of August also gave impetus to an exhibition entitled Violence in Recent American Art, although its inception was not due to those events alone. The show which was at the Museum of Contemporary Art included some 50 works by 35 artists.

The premise that the artist serves as commentator for society was set forth in the catalog essay by Robert Glauber, the guest director for the exhibition, and read, in part, “. . . here is the artist as reporter rather than mystic, caught up in the harsh realities of his world.” The essay also listed categories such as, “War Violence,” “Racial Violence,” “Personal Violence,” “Gun Violence,” “Psychological Violence,” “The Climate of Violence.”

Such headings were adequate for some of the work included in the show but they had the quality of headlines for a feature article in a newspaper. (This quality was in keeping with the catalog which was printed in tabloid form and included excerpts from news stories reporting violence.) Here, as in the Response show, its effectiveness on either polemical or didactic grounds was debatable. Throughout each exhibition the problem common to each of the artists who participated was that of defining the character of the confrontation and understanding the necessity to keep freedom of action in the face of pressures to degrade and distort his work.

In the MOCA show two directions stood out clearly: the straightforward presentation of the theme such as in Peter Holbrook’s Battle of Grant Park, 1968 consisting of a series of vignettes like a proof sheet of photographs. It was cool and detached, yet it had impact. Holbrook’s effectiveness was heightened by comparison with Clayton Pinkerton or James Strombotne, for example. James Wines’s Assassin III, blurred and tentative, was an intensely evocative image. Warhol’s Elvis II, and Ed Paschke’s painting of Oswald in his Purple Ritual were both expressions of their respective myths and were repellent and appealing in almost equal degree. Paschke’s is like some old and out of focus photograph; Warhol’s is like an ancient movie poster and each has an ambience of nostalgia curious in the light of its hieratic quality.

The work of such artists as Mallary, Edge, Raffael and Wiley tended to suggest the ominous and threatening, violence unseen. Raffael’s Baggie, Covered Baby, Face, Covered Face was a painting assemblage, enigmatic and ambiguous, with greater cohesiveness than his work has had in many previous instances. Malcolm X, by Douglas Edge, was as cryptic as an object by Man Ray and cryptic will also define a major quality in William Wiley’s works, some of the finest in the show. Violence was but one of his themes: the interplay between art and life is the underlying condition of his work. His Movement to Black Violence, Homage to Martin Luther King, Jr., an impervious black tape ball, was an ambivalent object with highly symbolic power. There were a number of fine pieces in the show although in each of these shows quality was not the sole guide and it would be a mistake to judge them on this alone.

Together the shows made for a beginning of the fall season unlike any other.

Whitney Halstead