Betty Rymer Gallery

During this summer’s Democratic National Convention, local officials and party leaders amicably declared that the city of Chicago was not to blame for the riots that took place in the summer of ’68, the last time the Democrats convened here. With the benefit of twenty-eight years of hindsight, the argument is that those times were so contentious, the anger and passion about Vietnam and race relations so palpable, that massive upheaval was inevitable no matter where the Democrats chose to meet. This collection of fifty-seven works of art dating from 1967–69 succeeded in evoking the raw tensions of the time, and also indicated that Chicago’s role in the troubles of ’68 might not have been as inadvertent as the city’s PR department would like to paint it.

By 1968, the group of artists who would come to be known as the Chicago Imagists had begun their careers, and curator Lisa Wainwright’s inclusion in “1968” of works by Don Baum, Roger Brown, Ellen Lanyon, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca, Seymour Rosofsky, and Ray Yoshida helped ground the show in a local vernacular. The strident and aggressive tone of some of these works suggests that the demonstrators who made their way to Chicago in 1968 would find cooperative colleagues here. In Vietnam, Chicago, Czechoslovakia, 1968, Rosofsky juxtaposed painted maps of the places listed in the title with tombstones and nuclear explosions, surmounted by a grinning imp of chaos and evil. Paschke’s Tet Inoffensive, 1968, is an emblazoned target, with a replication of a nineteenth-century male portrait at the center, closely flanked by the grinning visage of John Wayne. At the edges of this piece, amidst a curious mixture of Asian texts and militaristic bunting, Paschke set four roundels, two depicting Ho Chi Minh and two featuring a detail from the Eddie Adams photograph of the summary execution of a suspected Vietcong member. Paschke’s placement of Caucasians at the center of this bullet-ridden target is a powerful metaphor for the conflicts that animated this most explosive of years.

The remaining works were clustered around several major themes. In addition to tracking the shifting stylistic strategies of that time, a period when Pop art began to be countered by Minimalist and Earthworks efforts, Wainwright also mapped the visual articulations that surrounded the rise of Black Power, and the early stages of feminist thinking. The political urgency of those times, a period when artists such as Ad Reinhardt and Mark di Suvero took stands, if not overtly in their art, then in the form of donated work for antiwar fundraising (di Suvero’s L.B. Johnson: Murderer serigraph of 1967, for example), was addressed throughout the show. In Murry de Pillars’ Aunt Jemima, 1968, a newly empowered African-American matriarch seems to explode off a box of pancake mix, her clenched fist raised in anger and defiance. Throughout the exhibition was an atmosphere of heightened stakes, the sense that artists felt both compelled and duty-bound to use their skills in the service of the struggle. Yet Wainwright also documented how this energy began to abate, as some sought an escape from the hothouse of social activism. A 1969 floor sculpture by Carl Andre, Peter Young’s aimless and lovely No. 28, 1968, and a 1968 string piece by Fred Sandback seemed cool and aloof, intimating that political breast-beating was not the only path taken.

James Yood