“Mixed Emotions: Chicago’s Ambivalence Toward its Own Art"

“Mixed Emotions: Chicago’s Ambivalence Toward its Own Art"
Art & Antiques
May, 1990
p. 155 (Reprinted in the Chicago Sun-Times, June 16, 1990)

I wake up in the middle of the night contemplating writing about art in Chicago, where I lived for many years. Lying there in the dark, I'm convinced that no matter what I write everyone will hate me. I keep telling myself- it's only art. But in Chicago it's a subject as sticky as politics. Everything is taken so personally and the art world is so factionalized that if I write something good about one group, I risk losing credibility with another. It's one of the reasons I moved to New York. There I might be thought strange, but wouldn't be ostracized, if I let slip that I liked the work of, say, both Chris Burden and William Bailey.

In 1976, when I left, Chicago offered little encouragement to a painter, especially an abstract painter. There were unlimited opportunities to exhibit in local galleries, but the rewards rarely amounted to more than a review in the local art tabloid, the New Art Examiner. The newspapers, the city's bastion of famous collectors, and its major institutions - the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) - hardly seemed to recognize that Chicago art existed. Further, if you didn't do funky imagist stuff (like the Hairy Who, Ed Paschke, Don Baum, et al), you weren't considered a bona fide Chicago artist. As abstract artists we were accused of ripping off New York and getting our ideas from the “intellectual” art journal,Artforum. I was one of thirty or forty artists who moved to New York within a two-year period; although considered second-rate in Chicago, most have done better in New York, and some have become well known. I was among the first of that exodus. To support myself I went to work at Artforum.

The move enabled me to become more catholic in my tastes. Seen in depth, many New York artists I'd admired lost their appeal. Since they weren't crammed down my throat, I began to appreciate the Chicago imagists and felt less tied to abstraction in my own work.

The move also made me recognize the love-hate relationship I have with Chicago (similar, I suppose, to the one I now have with New York). I miss the lake, the expanse of sky, even the weather. Chicago is a service-oriented city where waiters are waiters, not actors, and where gas-station attendants still wash your windows. If anyone wants to know what happened to the work ethic, it's alive and well and living in Chicago. But fond as I am of the work ethic, in Chicago this means labor is what counts and ideas are suspect. I think it's the literalness of the city that's made it so resistant to abstract art and has put the emphasis on craft. In a town where pedestrians don't cross against the light, artists paint within the lines - no messy art here.

Going back I found that everything is changed and everything is still the same. The galleries that were just babies in the mid-'70s have grown up and established ties with New York. Collectors of every kind have multiplied and Chicago's imagist art has been accepted into the New York mainstream. The contentious New York Art Examiner has gone national, losing its regional impact. The biggest asset, however, has been the art fair, now ten years old, which brings dealers, curators, and international attention to Chicago.

After noticing that artists still living in Chicago, like Martin Puryear, were becoming nationally known, I began to think that Chicago may have become one of the best places for an artist to live, now that New York is no longer affordable. Although it's still cliquish, there's a sense of community that no longer exists in New York nor, I'm told, in the spread-out urban chaos of L.A. "It's like New York twenty years ago" is a frequent comment.

The older artists say if you stick it out in Chicago all you get is respect, which doesn’t pay the bills. But then most artists, no matter how successful, feel they don't get enough recognition; in Chicago it's easy to blame it on the city. There's no question that the route to fame and fortune is still through New York. But even so, being in Chicago could be an advantage. If you're a big fish in a small pond, you're sought out by visiting artworld biggies; in New York you're just another fish. David Russick, twenty-eight, who showed last summer at New York's Gracie Mansion Gallery, is aware of the opportunities for his generation that weren't then, and aren't now, available to the artists who blazed the trail in Chicago. "It's like being in a race” he says, "and we're not all at the same starting line.” But what really keeps artists in Chicago is what they call "the dialogue": art talk, contact with other artists. "More artists are staying here because more artists are staying here;” says Phil Berkman, a conceptual artist who chose not to leave. " Here you can have an intelligent conversation about art - and that's worth staying for.”

With prices for contemporary painting by recognized artists in New York starting around $10,000, and "emerging” artists in nooks and crannies you need a guide to find, Chicago is the ideal shopping center for the neophyte collector. The work is apartment- rather than museum-sized, and it is possible to put together a creditable collection of contemporary art for the cost of a single share in an Eric Fischl or a Donald Sultan (both of whom ended up in New York by way of Chicago). There was no name for the desolate stretch of abandoned warehouses west of Michigan Avenue when I worked in the New Art Examiner's offices on West Huron, and the only place to eat was Mr.Beef. Now it's " River North,” a walkable concentration of galleries, with glitzy restaurants and renovated loft buildings with marble foyers.

You can "do” the galleries in a couple of days and it's not a stuffy place; you can talk to the owners and even the assistants are friendly. Only once did I encounter a case of obnoxious "gallery attitude,” and I assumed that person was from New York.

The work is a blend of local, New York, and European artists, and I felt the ratio of good art to bad art is better than in SoHo. It's serious stuff: conceptual art, neoromantic landscapes, romanticism in general, some very clean abstraction, realism, and work that addresses the earth's problems without being shrill. Add to that the successive generations of imagists and you have a pretty healthy mix. Along the way, you might also discover some New York artists you didn't know.

Roy Boyd, Compass-Rose, Dart, Deson Saunders, Phyllis Kind, Roger Ramsey, Betsy Rosenfield, Struve, Zaks, and Zolla Liebenman are heavy on Chicago artists. Richard Gray, Rhona Hoffman and Donald Young handle mostly the New York tried-and-true. Robbin Lockett, a young dealer who works out of a tiny storefront on Wells Street, takes chances on artists she believes in. "I like that people buy from me because they listen to me and trust me," she says, "rather than because the artist was on the cover of some magazine.” The cooperatives, such as Artemisia and Randolph Street are traditionally the entry point for local artists. And the Ricky Renier Gallery, worth the hike up Milwaukee Avenue, shows new artists from Europe.

Chicago has produced more than its share of famous artists. Ivan Albright, Thomas Hart Benton, John Chamberlain, Richard Estes, Red Grooms, Leon Golub, Robert Indiana, Georgia O’Keeffe, Claes Oldenburg, Nancy Spero, John Storrs, Mark Tobey, H. C. Westermann, and Grant Wood, along with LeRoy Nieman, Walt Disney, and Halston, are all graduates of the School of the Art Institute (SAIC). I always felt that being an artist from Chicago gave me instant credibility in the eyes of New Yorkers, an attitude which may have led critic Peter Schjeldahl to refer to the "Chicagoization of New York.”

I think artists are a natural resource in Chicago. Children, who take school trips to the Art Institute and absorb the city's pride in its architecture, grow up with an awareness of art that doesn't exist elsewhere. And then there's the abundance of raw talent coming to Chicago to study (recent SAIC graduates said they had to fight the faculty's imagistic dogma and benefited most from the contact with other students); almost half of the SAIC'S students choose to live in Chicago after graduation.

Still, Chicago doesn’t celebrate its now considerable artistic wealth. The newspapers don't cover it, the coUectors don’t collect it (Feature Gallery moved to New York last year because of a lack of local collector support and has since had three artists in the Whitney Biennial), and the Art Institute and the MCA tend to act as if they wish it would just go away (MCA curator Bruce Guenther could suggest only two local artists for me to visit - a couple he knew from his days in Seattle). Chicago's famous inferiority complex - "if it's from New York or Europe it must be better”- keeps it from realizing its potential.

The MCA, where I also once worked, could turn this attitude around and benefit in the process. The museum was started by collectors and has always felt more like a private club than a public institution. In its twenty-year history the MCA has floundered, lacking a cohesive sense of its identity or its audience (its membership is only 4,500).

The museum has a new director, Kevin Consey (formerly of California’s Newport Beach Museum), and plans to build a huge new complex. A building alone, no matter how spectacular, won't attract crowds to dreary exhibitions, but if artists want to hang out there, the public will follow. Tbis can happen only if Consey is given the freedom to bring clashing factions together and put zest into the MCA’s programs.

Chicago could make hay if it looked as assiduously in its own backyard as outside of it. Remember, Oldenburg once showed at the Old Town Art Fair.

-Carol Diehl