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by Victor M. Cassidy
|Chicago's Imagist painters have earned a place of sorts in art history. Imagism is to Chicago what Abstract Expressionism is to New York, Cubism is to Paris and Vorticism is to London. From January through April, the Cultural Center is hosting "Jumpin' Backflash," the latest retrospective (we get one almost every year) of Imagist art.
"Jumpin' Backflash" is a selection of works that were shown between 1966 and 1969 by 15 different artists in seven group exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center near the University of Chicago. The artists organized themselves into three groups, which they named "Hairy Who," "Nonplussed Some" and "False Image."
The artists never called themselves "Imagists." Long after all the paintings were dry, writers and dealers created the Imagist movement. But since everyone did very well from Imagism, this never much mattered. The best-known Imagist artists are Roger Brown, Phil Hanson, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum.
"Imagist" or not, the artists have much in common. They draw upon popular culture, comics especially, but make art from the imagery instead of just appropriating or mocking it. Exuberant and irreverent, they take a healthy interest in sex, but never dwell upon vulgarity to get attention. Everywhere in this work we see clear visual thinking, excellent draftsmanship and strong color skills. "Imagism" may be a fiction, but these are thoroughly honorable artists whose work still looks fresh -- and still is fun -- a generation after it was made.
Pat Steir's Waterfalls
Pat Steir had her first one-person show in Manhattan in 1964 and has exhibited ever since in museums and galleries all over the world. Her work is in more than 30 public collections. She is the subject of a book-length monograph.
At the Rhona Hoffman Gallery here in Chicago, Steir showed waterfall paintings, Jan. 14-Feb. 12, 2000, dating from 1990 to 1993. The artist paints the canvas matte black, then touches a brush filled with white or other light-colored paint to it and lets the paint flow downward in long drips that mimic cascading water. She may also fling paint off a brush onto the canvas to suggest turbulence at the base of the waterfall.
Steir has made waterfall paintings for many years and has completely mastered her effects. The paintings are mostly large -- in the range of ten feet tall by six feet wide. They would be less monumental on a smaller scale and might lose intensity if she increased their size.
The artist knows how to dilute and apply light-colored paint so it drips down the canvas, without always running all the way to the bottom. She apparently does not size the canvas, so paint sinks in instead of standing on the surface. Impasto would distract.
The simplicity and flat perspective in Steir's work connect it to Asian art, while her paint handling recalls Pollock and even Bacon. Her improbable marriage of two different traditions puts tremendous energy into her work.
"A little bit of everything"
"It is dangerous to go to heaven when you are too young. You do not understand it and I did not learn to work in Paris." Wyndham Lewis, the English artist and writer who lived in Paris from 1903 to 1909, wrote these words about himself. They could be the epitaph of Amadeo de Souza Cardoso, the avant-garde Portuguese draftsman and painter. Born in 1887, Souza Cardoso grew up in the Portuguese countryside, went to Paris in 1906 to study architecture, started painting the next year, returned home for good when war broke out in 1914, and perished in the influenza epidemic of 1918.
Fifty-two paintings and drawings by Souza Cardoso were on exhibition at the Arts Club of Chicago until mid-March. The artist's first major show in the U.S., it was co-organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, and the Portuguese Ministry of Culture, Lisbon.
Souza Cardoso once called himself an "Impressionist, Cubist, Futurist, abstractionist, a little bit of everything." Young, handsome, and very gregarious, he seems to have met almost every artist who lived in Paris before the War -- Boccioni, Severini, Juan Gris, Max Jacob, the Delaunays, Modigliani and many others. He devoured enthusiasms and his work shows an absolute riot of influences -- Art Nouveau, Analytical Cubism, Futurism, Orphism, the Blau Reiter, Cezanne, the Diaghilev ballets, African sculpture, Beardsley, Gaugin and more.
Souza Cardoso would be completely forgotten today if he had not been such a good draftsman and colorist. There are strong graphic elements at the center of his ink drawings. His paintings glow with color, which is said to derive from Portugal's landscape. But Souza Cardoso had no gift for composition and he did not know when to stop putting imagery into his work. So most of his art is derivative, chaotic and overstuffed.
The artist made his two most original paintings -- Kitchen in the House at Manhufe and Corpus Christi Procession -- during the summer of 1913, when he fled the distractions of Montparnasse to work quietly in the house of his birth. The Falcons (1912) shows his draftsmanship at its best.
Two Renaissance portraits
There is so much great art in Europe that one overdoses while there and forgets how powerful individual works can be. We were reminded of this by two Renaissance portraits -- Donna Velata (Veiled Lady) (ca. 1526) by Raphael Sanzio and Portrait of a Man with Blue-Green Eyes (1540/45) by Titian Vecellio -- which were on exhibition at the Art Institute this winter. The Pitti Palace in Florence, which owns these recently restored paintings, lent them to the Art Institute. The Raphael has never been shown in the U.S. and the Titian only once.
Raphael's Donna Velata, whose veil indicates that she is a married woman with children, has beautiful, aristocratic features, a gorgeous complexion, and a voluminous silk sleeve that's so alive it seems to sweep right out of the canvas.
In Raphael's day, sleeves, "often expensively embroidered and usually detachable from their gowns or chemises, were considered precious objects" the Art Institute explains. The Donna Velata's sleeve is said to suggest "both opulence and, in abstract terms, the sitter's politely hidden but complex psychology."
Severely dressed, Titian's Man with Blue-Green Eyes stands by a wall, one hand on his hip, the other holding his gloves. Serious, reserved, and restless, he is so very alive that we expect him to rush off soon on important business.
According to the Art Institute, Titian's portrait seems to embody the qualities that the Renaissance associated with the perfect gentleman. Among them is "the ability to accomplish the difficult with utmost grace, to conceal one's concerns while conducting duties seemingly without effort."
No one knows who the actual subjects of these two portraits are. We would be delighted to have tea, cakes and a tête-à-tête with the Donna Velata. Our relationship with Titian's subject would be distant and much less comfortable. He is a leader, the sort of man to whom we might entrust our lives in time of war.
An "unapologetic Christian"
Tim Lowly, a Chicago artist who calls himself an "unapologetic Christian with a social conscience," showed at the Cultural Center in January and February. Lowly's paintings -- gray and white acrylic gesso and pigment on pastel -- depict his mother, his father and Temma, his physically and mentally handicapped daughter who can neither speak, hear, nor stand up.
Temma on Earth (1999) shows this 14-year-old girl dressed in shapeless clothes and lying on stony ground. At an age when she should be fussing over homework and hairdos, Temma is a pathetic lump of flesh with vacant features and gnarled hands. There is no hope for her, at least in this world. Temma on Earth should hang in a church, a Christian icon for our time.
Lowly was born in the United States and grew up in Korea, where his parents were Presbyterian missionaries. He went to college in Michigan, but felt lost after graduation and returned to Korea for a year. There he met Lim Ock Sang, a local artist, and was moved by the compassion he saw in Ock Sang's work.
Once enraged by social injustice, Lowly learned the futility of this from Ock Sang. Belligerent art, he now says, "makes me feel guilty, but does not make me love people." Rather than condemning the oppressor, Lowly identifies with the oppressed. He prefers parable to statement and calls his work "poetic and meditative."
VICTOR CASSIDY is Artnet Magazine's Chicago correspondent.