Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  
Back to Reviews 97


chicago report

by Victor M. Cassidy  

Nathan Lerner
The Roundhouse, 1936

Nathan Lerner
Paper on String, 1938

Nathan Lerner
Japanese Landscape, 1975

Bob Thall
Kennedy Expressway and
Cumberland Road, Chicago, 1991

Stephen Marc
62nd Street between Langley and Champlain, 1987

N.C. Wyeth
The Mysterious Island, 1918

N.C. Wyeth
Old Pew, 1911

Jan van Eyck
The Annunciation, c.1430-35

Nola Romano
Texas Angel, 1997

Nola Romano
Medieval Time, 1997

Picasso in Daley Plaza
   Summer is supposed to be quiet time in the art world, but nobody explained this to Chicago. We had two major photography exhibitions, a wild ride in a hot air balloon, a special showing of van Eyck's Annunciation, a discovery in a FORPNEP, and a birthday party for an enigmatic lady.

"These are people"
Nathan Lerner, the Chicago photographer, died early this year. In mid summer, the Illinois Art Gallery honored him with an 89-print retrospective, "Nathan Lerner (1913-1997): A Lifetime of Photographic Inquiry."

While he was in school, preparing to become a painter, Lerner started taking pictures to perfect his sense of composition. During the early '30s, he stopped painting and photographed Chicago's immigrant poor, producing a series about Maxwell Street, the site of an open-air market.

Years later, Lerner called his Depression-era photographs "not [a] protest against a policy or government," but a plea to "look very closely and you will see that . . . these are people." The Roundhouse (1936), with two workmen dwarfed by the radiating pattern of the railroad tracks beneath their feet, comes from this time.

In 1937, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, the Hungarian-born avant-garde photographer and painter, founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago. Lerner enrolled, fell under Moholy's spell, and experimented intensively with photo-abstraction. He created a light box with holes in the top and sides where light enters to illuminate dowels, string, and strips of paper within. Paper on String (1938) is one of his light-box photographs.

Lerner joined the New Bauhaus faculty and eventually became educational director there. In 1949, after a policy dispute, he departed, opened a design office, and virtually stopped taking photographs.

The artist married a Japanese pianist in 1968 and visited her homeland. Japan rekindled his interest in photography; he went back seven times, photographing outdoor scenes primarily. Look closely at his Japanese Landscape (1975) -- it is not what it seems.

Harbor of Humanity
In June and July, the Museum of Contemporary Photography showed 145 photographs by 29 men and women drawn from its permanent collection. Called "The City: Harbor of Humanity," this exhibition was guest-curated by architectural historian and critic Franze Schulze. According to Schulze, the show is "meant to see the city from as broad a perspective as possible, concentrating on its modern form."

"The City: Harbor of Humanity" contains a huge variety of works, loosely grouped according to subject --downtown architecture, industry, people emerging from a museum and the like. Two of the better image-makers are Bob Thall and Stephen Marc.

Thall records the relationship between Chicago architecture and its surroundings. Kennedy Expressway and Cumberland Road (1991) shows sleek new office buildings rising above a sterile concrete parking lot near O'Hare Airport. Route 59 near Route 34 Naperville, Illinois is an abandoned barn at night with a brightly-lighted suburban strip mall just across the road. Another photograph depicts Marina Towers, a downtown apartment complex, as seen from rotting railroad tracks.

Stephen Marc, a black photographer, shows us the world of ordinary African Americans. In 62nd Street Between Langley and Champlain (1987), men casually play chess on the hood of a car. Marc has also photographed families on a picnic, teenagers dancing, a baby at the beach, and more.

A lost world
If you have read Treasure Island , Robin Hood, Rip Van Winkle , Kidnapped and other beloved books of boyhood, you know N.C. Wyeth. During the early decades of this century, he illustrated those works and many others. His editions are still in print.

Newell Convers (N.C.) Wyeth (1882-1945) was the greatest illustrator of his time, a superbly accomplished craftsman who gave visual life to the imaginative conceptions of others. He was a gifted man, but never a real artist, not even for a day.

This is our take on "N.C. Wyeth and His Grandson: A Legacy," which runs at the Terra Museum of American Art through Oct. 26, 1997. The exhibition presents paintings, preparatory drawings and published illustrations by N.C. Wyeth and Jamie Wyeth, his modestly talented grandson.

Mysterious Island (1918), an oil painting that became the cover of the adventure novel by Jules Verne, shows Wyeth at his best. Five males, one grasping a dog, cling to the riggings of a hot air balloon (the basket is gone) as a storm drives it over the ocean. At the center of the action is a boy who doubtless believes that it is men who have adventures in this world while mother and sister stay home.

It would be hard to find a more vital painting than Mysterious Island. Economically conceived, it is perfectly composed and beautifully colored. Equally exciting is Old Pew (1911), a terrifying image of the blind pirate in Treasure Island .

When Wyeth made his paintings, the world was much as he showed it. White males were everywhere in command. Most people had a clear sense of right and wrong; the bad guys usually lost. Times have changed, not always for the better.

The way it should be
Jan van Eyck's Annunciation (c. 1430-35) is on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago until Sept. 21, 1997. The work was brought here from the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., in memory of the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin.

Martha Wolf, the Art Institute's curator of European painting before 1750, calls Annunciation "a precious remainder, a fragment of an even more complex object once placed on an altar for use during the celebration of the mass. It was made to offer praise to God and the Virgin Mary," she adds, "to commemorate Christ's incarnation in human form, and to bring earthly prestige and heavenly life to the patron who commissioned it from van Eyck."

Annunciation, which is probably the surviving left wing of a triptych, looks to be about 18 inches wide and 36 inches tall. Larger than life, the Virgin Mary stands in a church with her hands upraised, responding as the angel Gabriel speaks to her. Above her head, the Dove of the Holy Spirit descends. Virtually everything in the church -- wall, carpeting and interior architecture -- is decorated with Biblical scenes or Christian symbols.

Wall panels accompanying Annunciation explain that though van Eyck did not invent oil painting, he practiced it supremely well. He is famous for the realistic detail in his work and for his sumptuous colors. All these are here: he gets a tremendous amount into a small space. Though it does not convey great religious intensity, Annunciation is a beautiful and moving work of art.

The exhibition includes an infrared photograph that reveals van Eyck's underdrawing and shows the changes he made as he worked on Annunciation. This photo was made with a thermal imaging camera that is receptive to the infrared range of the color spectrum. Infrared light penetrates most pigments, but is blocked by materials that contain carbon -- black chalk and the gray or black paint used for underdrawing.

We are pleased to report that the Art Institute did not hype Annunciation for months in advance of the opening or place a tschotschke shop at the exit. All it did was present great art in a dignified setting and provide information that put the work into context. That's the way it should be.

What's a FORPNEP?
You read it here first. Chicago's newest kind of art gallery is the FORPNEP-- a FOR Profit that Never Earns a Profit. FORPNEPs are found spaces in odd corners where someone with an unreasoning passion for art hangs shows and sells a piece from time to time.

FORPNEP entrepreneurs are typically young artists who start by showing their own work and that of friends. The successful ones build a collector following and a stable of artists whose work is rarely commercial -- and sometimes quite good.

Imperfect Fluids, a FORPNEP directed by Lee Wells, had its ninth curated exhibition in August and early September. Called "Success Stories," the show featured four graduates of the School of the Art Institute -- Nola Romano, Vince Darmody, Frank Pollard and Melissa Oresky -- whose works are said to contain "millennial views of unreasonable images."

Romano's bright, skillfully painted acrylics caught our eye. According to the artist, the woman in her paintings looks the way she wishes she did. Romano's imagery projects her state of mind. She was unhappy when she painted Texas Angel, in which a woman lifts her skirt to show the green head of a villainous female floating between her thighs.

Aging gracefully
On August 14, Chicago's 162-ton steel sculpture by Pablo Picasso celebrated its 30th birthday. The work is installed in Daley Civic Center Plaza, across the street from City Hall.

Picasso never visited Chicago. In 1967, he provided a maquette for the sculpture, which was fabricated at an Indiana steel mill, then trucked to the site and assembled. To this day, nobody has decided just what the work is. Many think it a woman, but others call it an "angel" and some say it's "horse-faced."

The Picasso was the first of many public sculptures to be erected in downtown Chicago. Today we have outdoor works by local and international artists: Alexander Calder, Marc Chagall, Jean Dubuffet, Virginio Ferrari, Richard Hunt, Jean Miro and Jerry Peart.

The birthday party featured a speech from da Maire (that is, Mr. Daley), a jazz concert, cake, and a musical procession. A good time was had by all.

VICTOR CASSSIDY is an art journalist based in Chicago.