Page from the
Johann Elert Bode,
Akemi Nakano Cohn,
Taking Root, 1995
Akemi Nakano Cohn,
Flaming Youth, (n.d.)
Exciting Event, (n.d.)
chicago reportby Victor M. Cassidy
Chicago is "The City that Works" -- even in art! Every year, the
city's Department of Cultural Affairs sponsors more than 35
exhibitions, predominantly by local artists, at the Chicago Cultural
Center, a handsome 19th-century building on Michigan Avenue. The
consistent high quality of these shows -- we've had them for 20
years now -- has led many to compare our Cultural Center to
Two recent exhibitions at the Cultural Center exemplify the breadth
and excellence of its programs. The first is "Recent Prints" by Ray
Martin, Chicago's premier lithographer and the creator of about 30
artists' books. The second is "Awestruck by the Majesty of the
Heavens," a show of 61 works on paper from Chicago's Adler
Trash we carry and leave behind us
"Recent Prints" includes work from Martin's continuing Detritus
(1995- ) suite of lithographs. This series is "concerned with the
detritus of our existences," the artist says. It is about "the physical
trash and also the emotional and psychological 'trash' that we carry
with us and leave behind us."
On walks through his neighborhood, Martin collects crushed soft
drink cans, broken toys, torn candy wrappers and the like. He scans
these found objects into a computer and manipulates many of the
images. Some of his reworkings are "computer Cubism" -- all four
sides of an object shown at once. In others, he opens up an object to
display its interior or combines two images.
The artist makes four-color separations from his scans, "doctors"
the inks, "tones down" the colors and prints. We see elegant,
deceptively simple lithographs -- invigorating reinterpretations of
the found object.
Since 1960, Ray Martin has headed the printmaking department at
the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Widely respected for his
work and his teaching, he has inspired hundreds of printmakers.
Majesty of the Heavens
The Adler Planetarium & Astronomy Museum on the shore of Lake
Michigan is best known for its star shows, which have delighted
families for decades. The Adler's library owns many rare
astronomical books and engravings that it has no way of exhibiting
in public. Anna Felicity Friedman, a curatorial assistant, has sorted
through this collection, assembled a show, and written a catalogue.
"Awestruck by the Majesty of the Heavens" is a lively, informative
exhibition that marries art and science.
People have always observed the heavens and recorded the
movement of the stars, but it was not until the development of the printed book
in the mid-15th century and the invention of copper-plate engraving
about 100 years later that modern astronomical literature was born.
Though the engravers of celestial charts and atlases are mostly
forgotten today, they were serious artists who did excellent work.
Perhaps the grandest piece in "Awestruck" is Hartmann Schedel's
woodcut page from the Nuremberg Chronicle (1493). It shows the
Aristotelian planetary system with the earth at the center
surrounded by 13 spheres representing water, air, fire, several
planets and the fixed stars. Beyond the spheres is the kingdom of
God with the heavenly host and the deity enthroned.
Jan Jansson's Wind Chart (1650) shows the winds configured around
the points of the compass. The winds assume the forms of the races
of man. "Awestruck" also includes a handsome depiction of the
constellation Leo, which was engraved in 1782 by Johann Elert Bode,
a self-taught German astronomer.
Comeback for the Terra?
The Terra Museum of American Art has long been one of Chicago's
more problematic institutions. It was founded during 1980 in a
converted suburban flower shop by Daniel Terra, a self-made
millionaire. The original museum was low-key and fun, a maze of
rooms jammed with cowboy and Indian sculptures -- and numerous
paintings of ladies in white dresses on windswept hillsides.
In 1987, the Terra went big-time and moved to Michigan Avenue.
When the collection was seen in a professional setting, it became
clear that that there was not enough first-class art in it to fill a
museum. Soon, stories about Terra's vicious temper began to
circulate. He fired one museum director after another. There were
reports of financial shenanigans. The quality of exhibitions varied
Terra died on June 28, 1996, and there are indications that his
museum is returning to respectability. Stuart Popowcer, the current
director, told ArtNet that the Terra's focus on late 19th century and
early 20th century American art will continue, but that he's made "a
lot of changes" in the past six months. He will run the Terra "like a
business," he says, but with fuller participation from its 40-plus
Popowcer "absolutely" wants attendance to exceed the current
80,000 to 100,000 visitors each year. He foresees a "continued
diversification of shows" and points with pride to "Across
Continents and Cultures: The Art and Life of Henry Ossawa Tanner," a
1996 exhibition which was enthusiastically received by Chicago's
The Terra's current show -- "An American Century of Photography
from Dry Plate to Digital: The Hallmark Photographic Collection" --
may indicate just what form the Terra's "diversification" is going to
take. The 253 photographs in this survey include work by all the
famous names -- Hine, Coburn, Stieglitz, Weston, Arbus, Weegee and
many more. There are gifted amateurs too, like a farmer named
Bentley who spent twenty-five winters of his life photographing
snowflakes and got to be quite good at it.
"An American Century" is selected with care, taste, and intelligence
-- and very professionally installed. No other Chicago museum would
have given us this attractive survey. We hope the Terra continues to
In the galleries
Nicole Alger showed portraits at Lyons-Wier & Ginsberg Gallery in
January and February. The artist lived abroad for several years,
studying in Paris and Florence. This is her second solo exhibition.
Alger is such a straightforward, classically accomplished kind of
painter that she's easily underestimated. But her work is very
skillfully made -- and bursting with life and personality. Alger's
paintings stick in the memory. We need more artists like her!
If Alger's work is easy on the eye, Akemi Nakano Cohn's definitely is
not. Her brightly-colored silk hangings, which she exhibited in the
suburbs during February, are dense and busy, reflecting her cultural
Born in Japan, Cohn came to the U.S. in her early 40s, studied art,
moved to Chicago and married an American. "There is a tension in
my work between the Eastern values in which I was raised," she
says, "and the Western values to which I have been adjusting."
To make her hangings, Cohn uses several traditional Japanese dye
methods, mostly Nassen techniques in which she mixes dye
chemicals into a rice paste to create color and resist. She may also
screen print, appliqué, embroider, interlace, and stitch her work.
Plant images in Cohn's hangings suggest the slow growth in her
personal outlook. Words like transplant, variety and immigration
also appear, along with Japanese characters. Cohn is a difficult
artist, one with much to say.
Art Institute on the Net?
Jack Brown, director of the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries at the
Art Institute of Chicago, recently lectured about art on the Internet.
He said that the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco , the Biblioteca Ambrosiana in
Milan, and the Uffizi in
Florence, have substantial
numbers of works in Internet image bases. You can see 60,000
images at San Francisco's site. The Ambrosiana has put up nearly
half of the 12,000 drawings it owns and will continue until all are
Will the Art Institute follow suit? According to Brown, "image bases
mean that people can see museum holdings without damaging the
objects or taking staff time." Still, a degree of control is lost. "The
Art Institute has limited staff and hardware resources," he adds,
"and many ways we can share our collections with the public. We're
still in the talking stage here."
Dealer and crusader
During the Sixties, Carl Hammer, a high school English teacher,
purchased a country house with his then-wife and began to decorate
it. The couple filled the place with work by amateur artists of all
kinds and obsessives who had eccentric personal visions. These
people, whose work was disdained by the mainstream art world, are
called naives and outsiders today.
"The Civil Rights Movement was big when I was building my
collection," says Hammer, "and my students were all excited about
the issues. I took up the cause of the outsider, not just in art but in
life. This was the vision of the gallery I opened in 1979."
On his gallery's inaugural night, Hammer met Lee Godie, a street
woman who drew colorful self-portraits all day on Michigan Avenue
and sold them to passersby. Godie sometimes went to the School of
the Art Institute of Chicago, sat down on the floor and drew. She
kept her possessions in bus station lockers and slept in cheap hotels
downtown, paying day by day.
Godie started a one-sided romance with Hammer. She saw him as a
prospective lover, proposed marriage several times (Hammer is tall,
slim, and youthful-looking), and thought he was courting her
whenever he wore a tie. He became her dealer, built her reputation,
and helped her earn more from her work.
Lee Godie, Bill Traylor and other naives are cornerstones of the Carl
Hammer Gallery. Today he represents a "50-50 mix" of outsiders and
professionals. Still, he says that his gallery will always have "an
"I'm a self-taught collector and dealer," Hammer states. "It took me
years to establish my tastes. When you collect art by unknowns, you
don't ever buy anything you feel you should like."
VICTOR CASSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.