Message from Degas,
Mallet, Civil Engineer.
Mounted Turkish Cavalry
Officer, c. 1834.
Burning Figure, 1985.
oil on canvas.
chicago reportby Victor M. Cassidy
"Art in Chicago 1945-1995" runs at the
Museum of Contemporary Art until Mar. 23,
1997. Special projects coordinator Lynne
Warren took five years to assemble this
first-ever survey of art in Chicago since
World War II--200-plus works by more than
150 artists. She has done a thorough,
conscientious job of it.
"Art in Chicago" combines painting,
sculpture, printmaking and photography in a
broad, chronologically arranged presentation
of everything important that has happened
here for the past half century--the Bauhaus
influence immediately after the War; the
Monster Roster (Leon Golub, Seymour
Rosofsky, and other painters who used
distorted imagery); the Imagists; the
alternative spaces; and today's pluralistic
Bizarre curatorial decisions and a
suffocating installation weaken "Art in
Chicago," however. The show includes a "1968
Room," an enclosed area with memorabilia of
the war in Vietnam and protest activities in
Chicago that are said to have involved
artists. We get videos of Lyndon Johnson
making speeches (why? He certainly wasn't an
artist!) and US soldiers discharging
automatic rifles (they're not artists
The "1968 Room" also contains a pointless
assemblage by Chicago artist Don Baum and a
limp miscellany of political artworks. Even
dumber than this is "Black Light-Planet
Picasso," a recreation of an inconsequential
one-night black light show held 15 years ago
in a loft.
"Art in Chicago" is acutely overcrowded,
particularly in its final two sections. This
writer counted five floor-mounted sculptures
in one area. Martin Puryear's Old Mole is
jammed together with his Greed's Trophy and
works by other artists. Often it is
impossible to view a piece without seeing
others behind it.
On the bright side, it was rewarding to
revisit the work of three very capable
Chicago artists. Neil Goodman is a strong,
serious sculptor whose arrangements-in-space
of semi-abstract forms (Triptych) suggest a
Cubist influence. One of the city's most
gifted sculptors is Diane Simpson. She
begins with the forms of women's clothing
(Ribbed Kimono) and makes them into
Steven Heyman has looked long and carefully
at the color-field painters. His Siblism
consists of 18 smallish canvases united by a
wandering line that glows against a rich
blue background. The line is actually raw
canvas which has been repeatedly varnished.
Heyman calls his imagery a "metaphor for
"Art in Chicago" summarizes 50 years of art
making in this city. Was it all worth it?
YES! Chicago's artists have produced
wonderful things. There is every good reason
to celebrate them.
Still, Chicago is no place for artists to
build a national reputation or make a living
from their work. They must go to the coasts
for that. But those who simply want to
create new work and win the esteem of their
peers--these are the artist's traditional
rewards after all--find Chicago a great
place to be. "Art in Chicago" proves yet
again that our art is a too much of a well-
THE LATE DEGAS
"If Degas had died at 50, he would have been
remembered as an excellent painter, no more;
it is after his 50th year that his work
broadened out and that he really becomes
Degas." This remark, by Auguste Renoir, is
the premise for "Degas: Beyond
Impressionism," the first exhibition devoted
exclusively to the artist's work of the
1890s and 1900s (Degas died in 1917). The
show of 90-plus paintings, drawings and
sculptures just closed at the Art Institute
Degas was rich and had no need to sell.
During the last decades of his life, he
retired to his studio and drew the same
images over and over again until he got them
absolutely right. We see these masterpieces
and learn how hard this great painter worked
to make them that way. "Degas: Beyond
Impressionism" will inspire any artist and
delight Degas connoisseurs.
Though Degas drew nudes obsessively, he took
so little interest in his subjects that he
often traced their outlines from earlier
works instead of hiring models. His women
are virtually (sometimes quite literally)
faceless. Often posed in an awkward way,
they project no sexuality and never come to
life as individuals. Degas saw the figure as
form. The most rewarding room in this
exhibition presents his figure sculptures
next to his working drawings.
PASSING ON THE TRADITION
"The secret of art," Degas observed, "is to
follow the advice the masters give you in
their works while doing something different
from them." He believed that art grows out
of art and that the artist assumes his place
within the great tradition of European
culture by transforming and transmitting
what he has inherited. This is the idea
behind "Edgar Degas: Passing on the
Tradition," a perfectly amazing show
organized by the Art Institute's department
of prints and drawings. It runs until Jan.
"Passing on the Tradition" includes works on
paper by Degas' mentors (Ingres, Delacroix),
contemporaries (Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet,
Valadon) and some artists he collected
(Rembrandt). Works by different artists are
juxtaposed with those of Degas to show how
the tradition was passed on.
Degas' At the Cafe des Ambassadeurs
(1879/80), for example, hangs between a
predecessor work--Daumier's The Usefulness
of a Family for a Singer (1857)--and one
that he influenced--Frankenthaler's Message
from Degas (1972/74). The gallery label
explains that Daumier's "penetrating vision
and daring compositions furnished Degas with
ideas for new ways of exploring the subjects
of modern life."
Daumier shows the singer's family in a box
at the theater, noisily cheering her
performance after one of them has tossed a
bouquet onto the stage. In Degas' soft
ground etching and aquatint, a performer
bows to the audience in a smoky cafe. There
is only a suggestion of narrative in this
The Frankenthaler is abstract, though the
forms recall the geometry of the stage as
seen from an angle. We learn from the
gallery label that Degas' "evocative use of
aquatint" so fascinated Frankenthaler that
she was "inspired to research old technical
manuals for the secret of his process." Her
atmospheric Message from Degas is "the fruit
of this effort."
There are other, equally illuminating
juxtapositions here--self-portraits by
Rembrandt, Degas and Matisse, for example.
We get a splendid wall of Ingres, much
gorgeous Delacroix, and many unfamiliar
Valadons. The show loses its shape as it
moves to the present, but it is still a
magnificent holiday feast.
IN THE GALLERIES
Tom Czarnopys, a sculptor, and Pala
Townsend, a painter, show at the Illinois
Art Gallery until Jan. 17, 1997. This
attractive two-person exhibition is
especially well curated, installed and lit.
Czarnopys grew up in a rural area of
Michigan. As a boy, he went bow hunting in
the woods, drew animals and learned
taxidermy. In art school, he struggled to
make something fresh from this background.
His first successful works were fiberglass
casts of his own body covered with tree
bark. More recently, Czarnopys has shown
blocks of glycerine with natural materials
inside and patinated metal plaques imprinted
with fallen leaf stains from a Michigan
forest floor. The artist wants to eliminate
the boundary between himself and nature, he
Pala Townsend's shimmering large-scale
abstract paintings present themes she has
worked with for the past 20 years. Her
inspiration is an old-growth rain forest in
Portland, Oregon, where she grew up.
Townsend's technique of layering passages of
color in sequence suggests light, water,
atmosphere, and sometimes the presence of a
figure. In the paintings shown here, the
artist has "singled out" these motifs, she
says, from the "embracing theme of the
forest." She has found a way to "express
movement and luminosity simultaneously in
each single stroke [of the brush]."
On view in a barrio coffee shop in another
part of the city is an impressive group of
abstract paintings by Marcos Raya, a
Mexican-American muralist, installation
sculptor and painter. Raya's Night Nurse is
included in "Art in Chicago, 1945-1995."
This harrowing piece comes from the artist's
alcoholic years when he lived on the streets
and landed often in hospital detox wards.
Raya says he makes his abstract paintings
from time to time, when he's not busy with
narrative work. The fresh imagery in these
paintings is exuberantly Latino.
AN INQUIRY ABOUT HAIR
How does it feel to lose your hair? What
does it mean to cut your hair? Chicago fiber
artist Anne Wilson--whose recent work
incorporates hair--asks these questions as
part of an Internet research project.
Responses can include stories, anecdotes,
personal recollections, dreams, debates or
commentary, she states. They will be
credited to a writer/participant or may
remain anonymous. Wilson may curate
contributions by other people into this
ongoing Website and she may compile them
into an off-line collection. Wilson teaches
at the School of the Art Institute of
Chicago, and has shown at the Art Institute,
the MCA and at major international
exhibitions in Switzerland and Poland..
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based