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ART REVIEW

Second City Art, Expressed Anew

November 16, 1996|CHRISTOPHER KNIGHT | TIMES ART CRITIC

CHICAGO — A new, eagerly anticipated exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art here demonstrates how Chicago's small but feisty art world struggled mightily throughout the 1950s to get out from under the deepening cultural shadow of New York--only to be blindsided by the explosive arrival in the 1960s of that great vulgar upstart, Los Angeles. It has been a very long time since anyone thought seriously of Chicago as art's Second City.

In truth, the larger shape of postwar art in Chicago has never been exactly clear. Individual names do come easily to mind. Ivan Albright, Aaron Siskind, June Leaf, H.C. Westermann, Emerson Woelffer, Richard Hunt, Leon Golub and Nancy Spero are among those from the earliest generation who comprise an admirable roster marked by great artistic diversity. Still, no clear and cogent idea of Chicago's postwar art history has ever been possible to grasp.

At least, not until now. The MCA today unveils its survey, "Art in Chicago: 1945-1995," organized by curator Lynne Warren. Although the exhibition is not completely satisfying (more about that in a moment), you'll likely come away with a better grasp than you've had before of Chicago's last half-century as a place for making art.

I couldn't vouch for the show's historical accuracy--for any gaping holes or careers misrepresented by less than first-rate examples. Like I said, who (especially outside Chicago) has a reliable template for measurement?

Indeed, "Art in Chicago" has as one aim the establishment of just such a basic outline, against which future alterations or additions might be made. For me, one resulting revelation is a big one.

Chicago is a city long noted for being especially hospitable to undercurrents of Surrealism in its art--yet the MCA exhibition unexpectedly gives the lie to that commonly etched profile. Surrealism, with its fantastic dream imagery and affinity for irrational surprise, turns out not to be the great underground river that has flowed through Chicago's artist-studios for the last 50 years.

Instead, Expressionism is. The Expressionist impulse is everywhere to be seen among the paintings, sculptures and (less often) photographs by the survey's 146 artists.

Pick a decade. Cosmo Compoli's gnarled wad of bronze, rock and wax from 1950 is a shocking illustration of the "Birth of Death." Dominick Di Meo's 1962 fusion of a plastic torso and a charred landscape is an apocalyptic shudder.

Seymour Rosofsky's 1979 "Officer and Lady" continues his career-long painterly representation of humanity as a collection of psychically immobilized invalids. Marcos Raya's "Night Nurse" (1993) recapitulates Ed Kienholz's tableaux with mannequins from 30 years ago.

Expressionism was easily the dominant mode for progressive American painting and sculpture in the late 1940s and the 1950s. With the national ranks of art schools swelled with ex-soldier/students taking advantage of the GI Bill, it was perhaps inevitable that a postwar art of anxious, emotionally charged catharsis would emerge.

In Chicago, it has endured.

In the 1950s Chicago's Expressionist art was largely figurative, not abstract. Represented most powerfully by Leon Golub's blunt classical figures--such as the monumental "Reclining Youth" (1959), whose seemingly charred skin of scraped pigment sends a sudden atomic flash across your mind--figurative Expressionism couldn't shake the Midwest identification with reactionary Social Realist art of the 1930s. Nor could it claim the formal innovation that characterized the visceral exploitation of color, shape and texture in Abstract Expressionist art, which was rapidly being consolidated as the New York School.

And then disaster struck. "New Images of Man," the legendary bomb of an exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1959, which was mounted to promote a figurative alternative (including that of several Chicagoans) to all the Abstract Expressionism that had by then become so mannered, made it plain that figurative Expressionism just wouldn't fly as a viable alternative to the abstract kind.

A colossal flop, the show wiped out the Second City's dreams of glory. But like the inflatable clown that gets knocked down only to bob back up, Expressionism didn't dissipate in Chicago in the 1960s. Instead it turned up in a new, remarkable guise.

Chicago Imagism, a catch-all term for the persistence of figurative art during an age of abstraction, came to be more narrowly applied to younger artists otherwise dubbed the Monster Roster and the Hairy Who. Using plastic, vinyl and acrylic paints, vivid hard-edged colors and raucous comic-book style, artists like Ed Paschke, Karl Wirsum, Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown and Jim Nutt spoke a traditional Expressionist language, but in the up-to-the-minute dialect of Pop.

Wrapping existential anxiety within the up-tempo mass-culture dazzle of party-down glamour made for an electrifying contradiction in terms. "Pop Expressionism" effectively jammed the circuits.

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