“More of Beauty and Less of Ugliness”
The fine arts in Chicagoland
See Illinois (unpublished)
Chicagoans like to boast of their city’s Culture. That is like Paris bragging about its deep-dish pizza. Chicago is no Florence. The civic benefactors of its golden age did not midwife the birth of new art, they merely bought art made for other places, other patrons, and other purposes. It did not devote itself to the adornment of great cathedrals or basilicas, unless one counts the cathedrals of commerce for which the place is noted. (Donald Miller notes that in the absence of achievers in other aesthetic realms, the city’s pre-eminent artists in decades before 1893 were designers of commercial buildings, Louis Sullivan and John Root.) While its writers enjoy renown—see From Wau-Bun to Bellow, plus other pieces under “Illinois books”—the city has given American music no Copeland or Ives, no Glass or Adams, nor has it enriched American painting with a Hopper or Pollock. But if Chicago’s fine artists did not enliven life in America, they certainly enlivened the history of Chicago.
These notes are taken from my never-published guide to Illinois history and culture. (See Publications for more about that project.) Sadly, this summary is by now badly outdated in many ways. But as an introduction it will do.
In a city that was trying to provide its citizens with clean water, spending on such fripperies as art would have been not merely unseemly but obscene. Art was a luxury that, like good water and paved streets, for which Chicagoans had to wait until the city was developed enough to afford them. That had happened by the mid-1800s. Chicago by then was where the money was, which is why its drew artists from across the state, with the result that the history of painting and sculpture and serious music in Illinois is for all intents and purposes the history of the fine arts in Chicago.
Real art did not appear in the city until after the Great Fire. There was lots of money to buy paintings, to pay for study terms in Europe, to invest in folderol such as clubs and societies needed to promote and promulgate the craft. Painters in particular sensed opportunity in Chicago as did any other kind of businessperson. Most of the city’s early adepts made livings doing portraits—indeed came to city to do it “Chicagoans’ seemingly insatiable appetite for likenesses of themselves,” as critic Wendy Greenhouse put it in her essay, ““More of Beauty and less of Ugliness’: Conservative Paintings in Chicago, 1890–1920.”
Chicago sustained a market for paintings, and the appurtenances of an Art Scene. But few painters were able to make a proper living doing what used to called “idealistic” paintings.” The problem was local collectors assumed art from Europe and the eastern U.S. was better. Many artists had to work as commercial artists or sign-painters or teachers and did Art in their own time—like a jazz musician who must take jobs playing in the theatrical pit or in “society or “commercial” orchestras, or writers take day jobs a reporters or (more likely these days) professors. “With its combination of studios, salesrooms, and clubrooms,” writes Susan Greenhouse in Chicago Painting 1895–1945, “the Fine Arts Building reified the close relationship between the artistic and the commercial that formed the necessary basis for Chicago’s creative endeavors.”
Perhaps for that reason, many Chicago artists were respected as craftsmen even while Art was never quite respected. “Real” artists in those days were invited to private salons of the well-to-do, yes, but only as entertainers. For years, the well-to-do kept artists as they might keep exotic birds.
It was not until artists created their own society and began listening to each other rather than to their patrons that Chicago began to flourish creatively. They gathered in clubs and societies—to commiserate, to promote (Art as well as their artworks), and to inspire. The Bohemian Club, for artistically inclined women, was formed in 1882; the Chicago Society of Artists, often described as the nation’s longest-lived such organization, dates from 1888.
The result was a shift in the social and geographical locus of culture in Chicago. For years salons were exactly that, as artists held forth in the homes of the rich; as the 1800s waned, artists began to occupy their own ground, on and near South Michigan Avenue. The Auditorium, the main venue for most performing arts this side of the circus, had opened in 1889, and was joined a few years later by the new Art Institute building three blocks away.
But the center of making art, as opposing to watching it, was the 1889 Fine Arts Building. Originally the Studebaker Building (it housed a carriage works of that firm), the Fine Arts was, in effect, an artists’ community with elevator, bohemia in a box. Painters and sculptors maintained studios there; musicians and dramatic coaches held classes there; publishers kept offices there; culture clubs had rooms there. The Fine Arts was where you went if you had appointments to meet sculptor Lorado Taft, cartoonist John Tinney McCutcheon, or Poetry magazine at their offices. Maurice Browne’s Little Theatre staged plays in the Fine Arts Building; Margaret Anderson published the first issue of the Little Review out of Room 917 of the Fine Arts in 1914.
The artists of the established Michigan Avenue studio society were as close as Victorian women dared get to bohemians. (Their husbands, who were acquainted with real rascals in their business lives, were unimpressed with the raffish but often cartoonish artistes, of which sculptor Stanislaus Szukalski was a good example.) Ladies of taste toured these studios as they might tour the better tea rooms, as a diversion from shopping, or rather, as a form of shopping.
Display rooms during the day, the studios functioned in off-hours as impromptu social clubs. The studio of book illustrator W. W. Denslow (who in 1900 illustrated Baum's soon-to-be-famous The Wonderful Wizard of Oz) was where George Ade and John and George McCutcheon gathered for lunch.
The most famous of these studio societies met informally every Friday afternoon, first in Taft’s studio (then in the Athenaeum Building), later in Ralph Clarkson’s studio on the tenth floor of the Fine Arts Building, to which they repaired for “a samovar and sociability” after concerts by the Theodore Thomas orchestra in the Auditorium Theatre next door. The group took on the name “The Little Room,” from the name of an intermittently vanishing chamber in a contemporary story by Madelaine Yale Wynne.
Regulars included such now-familiar names as Henry Blake Fuller—who portrayed the scene in his Under the Skylights—Hamlin Garland, Harriet Monroe, Floyd Dell, and Elia W. Peattie, plus among many other lesser lights. Attendees included non-artists with advanced views; they included such lovers of the ideal as Jane Addams, whose credentials as an uplifter were impeccable, and Hull House architect Allen Pond. Historian Rima Lunin Schultz caught its significance exactly when she wrote that the Little Room “represented a transition stage between the Victorian world and modernism.”
These informal gatherings proved so stimulating that the regulars yearned for a proper club that would be devoted to literary and art matters as other clubs were devoted to business or politics. In 1907 Chicago novelist Hamlin Garland persuaded several fellow members of the Little Room to join him in rooms on the two upper floors of Orchestra Hall. These scholars and authors originally called themselves the Attic Club but soon thereafter took to calling themselves the Cliff Dwellers after Fuller’s 1893 novel of that name. The Cliff Dwellers were men and women professionally engaged in the arts or interested in the arts—never a large group in old Chicago but one with influence out of proportion to its numbers.
The eventual founding membership was a who’s who of the young city’s cultural elite—Charles Hutchinson, the Art Institute maven, conductor Frederick Stock, society architect Howard Van Doren Shaw, and Francis Hackett, who had become literary editor of the Chicago Evening Post’s Friday Literary Review in 1905. Herbert K. Russell, a biographer of Edgar Lee Masters, has noted, “Typical attendees might have included editors of The Dial (which published university professors and presidents), the founders of the publishing house Stone and Kimball (vendors of fine books printed at Harvard), and others from Chicago’s literary elite.” (Henry Blake Fuller (who, being a native and knowing the city better than they did, demurred.) Publisher Henry Regnery liked to recall as one of the great Cliff Dweller occasions the dinner given in 1914 by Harriet Monroe to honor William Butler Yeats, on which occasion Vachel Lindsay came up from Springfield and read his new poem, “The Congo,” which he did with such eloquence and expression that one of the waiters fainted.
The atmosphere at such gatherings was anything but bohemian. President Garland insisted on a no-booze pledge—temperance and uplift were inseparable in minds of most of his class—and when he was ousted by thirsty faction Garland left Chicago for the East. He would write later that he could never come back to the city without a sense of dismay at the way it had disappointed him.
The Michigan Avenue scene did not endure. So popular was it that demand for studio space drove up rents; in time-honored fashion, this year’s hot new place created the next hot new place as younger artists sought cheaper quarters elsewhere. Clark Street between Randolph and Adams became a venue for more adventuresome minds, as did Hyde Park and the future River North, where Judge Lambert Tree in 1894 built the Tree Studios, a sort of a residential Fine Arts Building, and set up a trust to subsidize its operations to keep rents low. (Among its tenants over the years were sculptor John Storrs, and Edgar Rice Burroughs and, more recently, to actors Peter Falk, Burgess Meredith, and Charles Laughton.) As Bucktown and Wicker Park did in the 1970s and ‘80s, and Pilsen and River West do today, each new arts district would succeed one that had become too expensive, and worse, too respectable for real artists.
The White City
The pinnacle of the local Art as Uplift movement was the White City of the World Columbian Exposition. When Chicago’s bourgeoisie rose up on behalf of genteel cultural ideals, they didn’t storm the ramparts, they built some—the fair’s White City, which was intended not only to show the world Chicago’s finer side—indeed, to show that it had a finer side. The exposition would introduce the rest of the world to Chicago’s own progress toward gentility. The World Columbian Exposition, which advanced thinkers saw as a retreat was seen by most Chicagoans, including most of its artists, as proof of advance; it was not its aptitude for the new (the value of which they remained unconvinced of) they wanted to boast of. Rather, backers hoped to show the world they could match the best of the old.
They largely failed to persuade a doubting world that it was as cultured as any city is Europe, not because the city lacked interesting art—interesting, that is, to the jaded critics of Europe and the East—but because the fair organizers failed to put it on display. (An exception, perhaps, was the entrance to Louis Sullivan’s Transportation Building.) What the fair’s backers did was not introduce Chicago art to the world, but introduce the world’s art—mainly Europe’s—to Chicago. Among her contributions to the World’s Columbian Exposition, Bertha Palmer organized the fair’s exhibition of modern European paintings, which gave locals an opportunity to sneer at peculiar European fads such as Impressionism.
The fair’s impact on the local building arts was (and is) widely debated. (See elsewhere this section.) For a generation thereafter the buildings of Chicago, so boldly modern in their structural and mechanical aspects, were decorated with classical motifs. Thus the commercial buildings in this capital of the corn trade sprouted acanthus leaves. This is generally reckoned to have been a step backwards, although the Guide was more generous. “However unfortunate this may have been for the progress of indigenous art,” it offered in 1937, “it did establish an art-consciousness that was tempered by a high standard of appreciation.”
Chicago’s two world’s fairs had roles in inspiring the decoration of the city’s public spaces. Indeed, some historians assert that the American mural movement really began at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893; certainly it inspired local commissions, such as the murals that decorated the better hotels, such as the Congress, LaSalle, Palmer House, and Sherman, and in private clubs, theaters, and restaurants.
Typical were the works of Oskar Gross, the Viennese-born and trained painter whose work caught the eye of the traveling Daniel Burnham. Gross moved to Chicago in 1902, where he became a busy ornamenter of buildings. Gross was a successful artist in local terms. Working out of his studio at 19 East Pearson Street, he was named to the faculty of the establishment Chicago Academy of Fine Arts, portraitist of local luminaries such as Dankmar Adler and Amos Alonzo Stagg, and a member of all the clubs to which proper Artists then belonged.
Such works are seldom merely decorative, and often tend towards the pedagogical, even the polemical. The five private dining room of the Lake Shore Athletic Club Building at 850 N. Lake Shore Drive features fifty panels designed by Otto E. Hake whose themes are, broadly speaking, patriotic, depicting what the men who commissioned them regarded as the progress of Chicago. The walls of the lobby of the Tribune Tower bear a mural depicting man’s struggle for freedom of speech. The murals that grace the Memorial Hall (built to honor Elks who fell during World War I) of the Elks National Memorial Headquarters Building at Lakeview and Diversey Parkway offers allegorical murals by Edwin H. Blashfield (“Fraternity,” “Charity”) and Eugene Savage (“The Feast on Mount Olympus,” “Armistice”) and wall panels by Edwin Blashfield on the theme of peace.
Broadly speaking, religious painting long been instructional as well as inspirational. The Chicago Loop Orthodox Synagogue on S. Clark Street has ten murals, one for each of the Ten Commandments, whose meaning is conveyed by symbols because of the traditional Jewish ban on the depiction of figures in art. Secular versions of such works—with the same broad purpose—were added to the ceremonial spaces of public buildings to celebrate the triumphant moments of the civic past. The City Council Chamber, with murals by Frederick Clay Bartlett, is one such space.
The 1893 world’s fair closed more than a century ago, but the genteelism it embodied survived as an attitude if not a movement. (Its loyalists did abandon their belief that gentility might reform the city.) Richard Nickel, the architectural photographer who died while attempting to rescue bits of the Louis Sullivan Stock Exchange from the bulldozer in 1972, is usually offered as people’s hero. But Nickel was no Regular Guy. His educated taste was that of Chicago’s haute bourgeosie. He dismissed his fellow Chicagoans as “slobs” (The town returned the sentiment; when the Chicago City Council passed a resolution in his praise after his death, it spelled his name incorrectly.)
Genteelism really found its niche, of course, in the city’s suburbs. The seeds of the movement were carried there by Chicago’s middle-class evacuees, who fled there in part to heal from wounds they had suffered in the city’s culture wars of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If Chicago’s culture is excessively crude, that of the suburbs is generally reckoned to be too polite.
Dill Pickle Days
For a brief spell in the early 1900s, it seemed as if things might be different. A rambunctious generation of artists came flooding into the city at the turn of the 20th century. Francis Hackett, who arrived in Chicago in 1905, spoke for his generation when he described the Little Room was “a polite islet in brawling Chicago.” The problem was that newcomers such as Edgar Lee Masters—a self-styled literary revolutionary and a country boy to boot—rather liked the brawling. A whole generation of Chicago artist felt out of place in the Michigan Avenue studio scene. Robert Morse Lovett, recalling the era in The New Republic in 1929 sneered at this “spurious Chicago—with its little theaters, studio teas, artists' balls, with Hamlin Garland talking single tax, and Gunsaulus talking art.”
If the Cliff Dwellers gathered in their Michigan Avenue aerie to escape Chicago, the bohemians huddled in the Dill Pickle Club to savor it. It seems unlikely that much of note was said there; it attracted people eager to congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness. Harold S. Sinclair became famous as a writer in and about Bloomington, but he had been born in Chicago, in 1907, and moved back to the city in 1920s. There, according to his son, he sought out the literary crowd that hung out at the Dill Pickle Club. Sinclair would recall those years in print:
Ah me! Gorgeous memory. How we sat around and read poetry by candlelight and discussed Sherwood Anderson and read Joyce in the Paris editions and listened ecstatically to Honegger and Prokofieff on a thin-voiced phonograph. Shades of Henri Murger! It was beautiful; we talked about Life and were bitter about Sacco and Vanzetti. But nobody wrote anything worth a tinker’s hoot.
The people who manage such spots tend to be better hosts than business people, and it closed in 1932. Chicagoans of intellectual bent—including, or maybe mainly those who were born too late to ever go there—look back on the Dill Pickle the way sports fans recall the Bears team of 1983. They bask in the memory of it to salve the hurt of the absence of any such thing in the city’s present.
Most led lives of what Veblen might have called conspicuous poverty. At one time the fortunes of Margaret Anderson declined so drastically that she moved to a tent on the shore of Lake Michigan near Ravinia, in today’s Highland Park. (Some sources put the encampment on the beach of Lake Michigan at Lake Bluff.) With only one blouse to her name, the famous anarchist-lesbian-Modernist was obliged to wash it in the lake each morning before she went into the city for whatever business had to be done for the day. The tent became famous, even if its hardships were exaggerated. Anderson’s idea of roughing it was as different from everyone else as her ideas about everything else; her “tent” was in fact a compound whose tents were fitted with wood floors and Oriental rugs.
The Chicago artists’ bohemia was as much a state of mind as a place. For all the talk of remaking art, even the world, what Chicago bohemians were really up was remaking themselves. Most were from small towns of the Midwest. Masters’ roots were in Petersburg and the Lewistown he would make famous. Sandburg was from Galesburg. Floyd Dell, usually described as hailing from Davenport, Iowa, in fact was born in the tiny town of Barry in the wilds of Pike County, Illinois, and grew up there and in nearby Quincy.
No one finds romance in his hometown, and that certainly included the few artists of note who had actually grown up in Chicago. Certainly Robert Fuller—the only one of the important writers of the time who was a born and bred Chicagoan—regarded the Athens by the lake with the contempt that comes with too-long familiarity. To him, Europe was what Chicago was to its small-town expats.
These refugees from the rural had more in common than the horse dung on their shoes. Historian Donald Tingley notes that many were escaping overprotective mothers or ineffectual fathers. Alike in origins, they were alike in their reactions to exile. The strangeness, the terrors of the city tends to drive its citizens toward the comfort of old ways rather than open them to new ones, and these artists were no different. As so many ethnic immigrants did, they re-created the village of the country in the city, or rather re-imagined them on their own, more liberal social terms. The result, in Chicago in the ‘20s, was what Richard Lingeman has described as a somewhat parochial bohemianism.
Weininger notes that by the late 1920s, an inward-turning America was no longer scorning the small town as backwater but celebrating it as the fount of civic virtues then badly in need. She notes that the work done by Chicago painters of the period both on their own and for the government-supported art projects of the 1930s, emphasized the farms and villages and the urban villages of the Chicago neighborhoods, “making it seem as if Chicago were a quiet, agreeable small town.” State and Grand by Chicago-born Aaron Bohrod is one of many examples of the latter.
The Bohemianism that began as revolt quickly became merely a style. Soon Chicago’s bohemian life already become a caricature, what Sherwood Anderson reportedly once derided as “those goddamn artists out of the Funny Papers." Ben Hecht (who titled his 1964 collection, Letters from Bohemia), looking back to his years in that community:
There were several reasons for my friends’ finickiness about being hailed as “artists,” modesty being the least of them. The word “artists” offered a picture of fellows with odd haircuts who were partial to floors rather than chairs as sitting places. Such characters, abounding in the larger cities, relished being thought “different.” They proclaimed themselves by beards, sandals, sheepskin jackets, and unemployment as being Bohemians or free souls. If they continued after adolescence to favor tight pants and hobo romances, and refused snobbishly to write, paint, or compose anything salable, they acquired the title, artist. They found a peculiar status in looking down on success as bourgeoise and belittling.
Bohemians were usually children of the middle class, and never were the marginalized people they saw themselves to be. Poverty seldom stays very romantic for very long—certainly the poor don’t find it so—and few artists stick to it beyond their youths. One who did was Nelson Algren, who soldiered on for decades as a one-man literary movement dedicated to down-and-outism; A. J. Liebling, who ran into him in 1950, just after The Man with the Golden Arm had been published, noted approvingly that Algren “had stuck by his West Side Poles after all the rest of the stark Chicago realists had fled to Hollywood.” ‘
A favorite hangout of this set was Riccardo’s, a bar and restaurant modeled after a Parisian Left-Bank café; the Chicago version was on the left bank of Rush Street. Riccardo’s became “legendary” in the postwar period mainly because it catered to writers who wrote about it. The restaurant also counted artists, actors, and journalists among its regulars, some of whose loyalty owed much to the owner’s sympathetic attitude toward their characteristic—and in some cases chronic—lack of cash.
In 1947, owner Ric Riccardo commissioned six Chicago painters to create 4-by-8-foot paintings to adorn the place. The works were to represent Architecture, Painting, Sculpture, Dance, Drama, Music, and Literature. Riccardo, who was himself an accomplished painter, depicted Dance. (Riccardo’s more enduring contribution to Chicago culture was deep-dish pizza, which he co-invented with the co-owner of the restaurant Pizzeria Uno in 1943.) The others included a Cubist-style Literature by Rudolph Weisenborn. The paintings alarmed and amused patrons at the restaurant for 25 years until Riccardo’s went broke and closed in 1991. Happily, the paintings were rescued, and are on loan to the Union League Club, which occasionally allows the public to view them.
Partly because so many of its talented citizens fled to Hollywood—or New York City—Chicago never did grow into a national arts capital. This vexes its opinion elites more than it does most of its citizens. Newspaper editors still feel compelled to scold the locals for their philistinism. These days the musical mood in Chicago is rather like the 1890s. Audiences have to be coaxed into the concert hall with promises of, if not musical sweets, then some very well-cooked chestnuts. (The symphony orchestras that are drawing bigger and younger crowds are in Los Angeles and San Francisco, both of which are led by conductors very like the young Theodore Thomas.) The addition of more recent works, and showing of more of the works it already owns, might boost the Art Institute’s reputation among connoisseurs of modern and contemporary art but not among a public that—a century after it was introduced—still disdains it. Attendance at Chicago’s professional sports teams in recent years has been running roughly twice that of the Art Institute. The most popular art exhibit in Chicago for decades was "Cows on Parade," invited in part to mark the city’s past as Packingtown, USA—even though the breed of cow chosen was not the sort that populated the Stockyards.
Apart from Poetry, magazines devoted to the fine arts have been too delicate for Chicago’s brutal climate. (The TriQuarterly, nestled as it is in the campus of Northwestern University, is an exception, and in any event is more a national journal published in Chicagoland than a Chicagoland journal.) The New Art Examiner lasted nearly 30 years after its founding in 1973, but while it at least stooped to mention Chicago art and artists—other national magazines did not—it did not champion them either; it closed in 2002 after long decline, and nothing has taken its place.
This is hardly a new situation. “I came to New York because of live TV,” explained performance artist Laurie Anderson in a 2001 interview. “It was the '50s and we'd be watching TV [in Glen Ellyn] and everything seemed to come from New York. The newscaster would say, "This is the news at seven o'clock," and you'd look at the clock and it was only six o'clock. I'd say, "I'm going to New York because it's darker, it's later, it's more exciting. They seem to know something that we all don't.
Serious about serious music
The European musical fine arts have always been in the blood of a city that welcomed so many people born and raised on that continent. “Classical music” survives as the folk music of the educated classes, whose patronage sustains a musical life of gratifying richness. The region supports a world-class symphony orchestra and a world-class opera company and one of the premier summer musical festivals in the nation. If serious music never met the hopes of the improvers—it does not civilize the masses, merely entertains the already civilized—it meets admirably the needs of its promoters eager (still) to impress the world.
Serious music arrived with the first people from Europe—Germans mainly—who provided both audiences and performers. Such groups set about recreating the sounds of their homelands in much the same way they sought to recreate the civic institutions and churches of the homeland, in the former case through choral societies (adult and children) and teaching institutes.
For decades, serious music in Chicago remained the province of the amateur and the touring ensembles. Itinerant opera companies, recitalists, and orchestras began making stops as soon as Chicago had entrepreneurs crazy enough to build halls to house them—most lost money—and audiences rich enough to buy tickets. Periodic music festivals—a sort of musical Olympics—sated local appetites temporarily, but it was not until the 1890s that the city was able to sustain a professional musical ensemble of note.
Conductors of orchestral music were entrepreneurs in those days. They formed their own ensembles and toured under the leader’s name, much as the dance band leaders of a later era would do. One such was Theodore Thomas, a German violinist, opera conductor, and impresario who first dropped by the city in 1869. He was a popular success; in 1871 at a concert at the Crosby Opera House, he conducted a concert that literally brought down the house, as the building was burned to the ground by the Great Fire later that night.
Thomas concocted programs of the sort that cause critics to sneer these days—“Ballroom Night,” “Symphony Night,” “Une nuit francaise,” and “Request Nights.” But according to most accounts, Thomas refused to pander to the tastes of a public that would have been perfectly happy to hear selections from operettas and similar fluff. He is often described in histories as a musical missionary who aimed to stimulate the higher natures of their audiences; this recommended him to the city’s turn-of-the-century civic leaders, who were themselves embarked on a conversion of the city’s heathen millions and wanted to the city’s own resident professional orchestra. (This determination to improve rather than merely entertain dogs the classic music to this day.) Thomas was asked to settle in Chicago and direct a subscription orchestra.
When Thomas formed his orchestra in the 1890s, there were not enough musicians of professional caliber in the city to fill its chairs. Thomas brought in sixty men from New York to augment the twenty-four local musicians he hired, insisting it was an artistic necessity. In 1891 the Chicago Orchestra debuted, and by 1905 had its own hall. Orchestra Hall on Michigan Avenue, which opened in 1904; built just for the purpose, the building was a measure of Chicago’s growth, and of the desire of the patrons of orchestral music to escape the lingering taint of the opera house. The new hall was built because according to some accounts the empty seats in its usual venue—the massive, 4,800-seat Auditorium—depressed the musicians. the new Orchestra Hall was nearly half that size—2,500 persons. (Like the Auditorium and as the Civic Opera House was a generation later, OH was developed with office space above it to generate rents to defray the cost of the orchestra.)
The dedicatory concert, led by Thomas, was held on December 14, 1904. The maestro died three weeks later. As a gesture of respect the band in 1906 the orchestra was named the Theodore Thomas Orchestra, by which it was known until 1912, when it was given the name it is known by today around the world—the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. The present CSO management likes to describe the present band as the “living soul” of Maestro Thomas.
Since 1904, “music” of the posher sort in Chicago has pretty much meant the CSO. The band has gone on to become one of the world’s premier ensembles, as the CSO itself incessantly reminds the city. Its fans recount the number of Grammy awards it has won the way their great-grandparents used to boast about the number of cattle that went through the stockyards in a year.
The Germans held the kind of sway over music in old Chicago that the Irish had on its politics. Thomas was German, as noted, and the city’s best players were German or German-trained for decades. Rehearsals of the CSO were conducted in German until the U.S. joined the war in Europe in 1914. When the supply of European-trained players was cut off by immigration restrictions after World War I, the CSO was obliged to found a training orchestra (in 1919) to develop local talents—an institution that survives as the Civic Orchestra. (The CSO remains in the charge of foreign-born artists; in 2005 for example the CSO was under the direction of a Israeli born in Argentina, or that the or two recent composers in residence were Chinese and Israeli, its principal guest conduct for years was French.)
The assistant conductor of the CSO when Thomas died, Frederick Stock, had been recruited to Chicago out of a band in Cologne. The young Stock was the man named Thomas’s successor. Stock broadened the orchestra’s popularity with tours and pops and kids concerts. Under him it mastered a repertory more extensive and catholic than that of any other American orchestra of his day. It played new music—not a conspicuous part of programming in recent decades—from difficult new voices such as Mahler and Stravinsky, often years before they were heard in New York City. Just as important to his longevity was the fact that Stock had the essential gift of being able to play wealthy patrons as he might his violin.
The CSO has been the best-endowed and the best- known classical music ensemble in Chicago for decades, but it has never been the only one. Usually such ensembles were less competitors to the CSO than alternatives or complements to it. The classical world long excluded women and people of color by fiat, for example, and by its pricing policies excluded audiences whose income was lower than their taste in music. One solution to the first problem was the Woman’s Symphony Orchestra (1925). Chicago being Chicago, it was assumed that bringing classical music to African American audiences, and providing opportunities for black players and composers, would require a black orchestra. The role has been filled by a succession of mostly short-lived ensembles since the World War I era. By far the most accomplished, not to mention the most durable, has been the Chicago Sinfonietta, founded in 1987 by and still under the baton of Paul Freeman. The orchestra says its “musicians truly represent the city's rich cultural landscape,” which in the universally understood code means they are not all white.
In 1934, a municipal summer orchestra was organized by musicians union chief James C. Petrillo, who hit on the idea of free concerts as a way to give work to local musicians who had been idled by the Depression and the spread of recorded music in settings that used to require live music. A bandshell created near 11th and Michigan in Grant Park to host concerts during the Century of Progress Fair was the summer orchestra’s main venue from 1935 through 1977.
The series begun in 1935 has continued, under different sponsors and formats, ever since. In 1943, the Chicago Park District initiated a program featuring a single resident orchestra, the Grant Park Orchestra. Now a professional ensemble (drawn substantially from the Lyric Opera orchestra), the GPO has been led by the likes of Leonard Slatkin, David Zinman, Zdenek Macal, and Hugh Wolff, all of whom have had major international careers.
All classical music ensembles are open to the charge that they function as museums of a form of music that is essentially dead, that the people devoted to it are as much curators as creators. Whatever the merits of the charge, classical musicians do sometimes act consciously as historians. Chicago has become a center of early music scholarship—mainly through projects of the University of Chicago Press and the Newberry Library—and performance, through such nationally regarded groups as Music of the Baroque and the Newberry Consort as well as the chorus His Majestie’s Clerkes (now known as Bella Voce).
Serious music used to be the province of the city. There were ticket-buyers (and donors) in the suburbs, but never enough in one locale to sustain a local performing ensemble. However, one spot in the suburbs has been hearing, if not making, fine classical music for decades. In Highland Park on the North Shore, a refined amusement park was built solely for the purpose of increasing ridership on the Chicago & Milwaukee Electric Railroad at Ravinia.
The first music heard in its open-air pavilion the evening of the park's opening in 1904 was "Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home" played on a steam calliope, from where there was no way to go but up. Early programming was seriously intended but the summer audience, apparently, was not. Offerings such as a Wagner request night might have had something to do with fact that the park at Ravinia went bust by 1910.
North Shore residents—some no doubt worried that someone else would buy it and offer attractions that were genuinely popular—bought the park grounds and founded a new company to mount summer festivals of serious music. Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra supplied summer programs; these were an upscale version of the band concerts that could be heard on a hundred Illinois town squares every summer evening. Opera was added in 1912 for those who liked a little excitement with their music, and indeed Ravinia became known for years thereafter as a summer opera showcase.
The switch to opera wasn’t enough to draw moneymaking crowds to Ravinia but it was enough to draw Chicago businessman Louis Eckstein, an opera buff, who took control of the festival in return for covering its annual deficits. Under Eckstein’s patronage, Ravinia's "Golden Age" of opera began in 1919 and lasted more than a decade. The Great Depression put even North Shore residents on budgets, and the Guide wrote, “Like a faded diva, Ravinia has seen great days.” It closed for a while but reopened in 1936, organized this time as the not-for-profit Ravinia Festival Association, which still runs it.
It is hard to think of too many world-class performers and conductors who have not ventured north over the years, from Sir Thomas Beecham to James Levine and Jascha Heifetz, Artur Rubenstein, and Gregor Piatigorsky. Listening to serious music accompanied by the hum of mosquitoes rather than the snores of seatmates was not a new idea; the Ravinia festivals owed much to the summer Chautauquas of old.
Outdoor venues pose their challenges. "Ravinia," snorted the famed British maestro Sir Thomas Beecham in 1940, "is the only train station in the world with a resident orchestra." The noise of commuter trains rumbling through the festival grounds has exasperated performers and concertgoers alike for decades. Unable to prevent the intrusions, the festival commissioned several new orchestral pieces paying homage to the train which debuted in the early 2000s one of which included a scored for the trains arrival—possible only because of the on-time performance; it is nice thing to have players who make their cues. The commissions were inspired in part by a sense of history. Ravinia, like Highland Park and the rest of the North Shore, was a creature of the railroads. and the trains—run these days by the Union Pacific for Metra, the commuter rail agency—are essential to delivering audiences.
The classic operas are no longer staged at Ravinia, although the CSO still spends parts of its summer there. Recitalists and chamber groups fill out the classical bills but they have been joined by artists of other genres. The inevitable search for audience drags programmers toward the same middle ground occupied by pop in all its forms. Were the authorities to unearth Mr. Eckstein on an evening when, say, the Cowboy Junkies perform, they would likely find his corpse with bony fingers stuck in its ears.
If Eckstein is offended, it would be by what is played, not how it sounds. In 2003, the Tribune lauded Ravinia for having two of Chicagoland’s five best venues for listening to live music— Bennett-Gordon Hall (“an ideal indoor venue for chamber music, recitals and recording”) and the Festival pavilion itself (“you actually can hear the music.”) It’s working; some half million people go to Ravinia each year.
Music has been created as well as performed in Chicago, of course. Ragtime was one of the musics that influenced early jazz, mainly through its syncopations. However, ragtime was in one key respect the antithesis of Southern blues and jazz of the sort being played in 19th century Chicago. It is totally written-out piano music, and as such did not allow either the improvisation that is jazz’s central feature or the informality of blues.
The “King of Ragtime” was Scott Joplin. A Texan who had settled in St. Louis, where he played piano in brothels and cafes. Joplin went to where the work was, as professional musicians must, and in 1893 that was Chicago and the world’s fair. There he heard the early masters of the new style such as Plunk Henry, Johnny Seymour, and Otis Saunders and, building on their work, later wrote the piano rags, marches, and waltzes that made him famous.
Joplin also was a “serious” composer who produced a ragtime ballet, The Ragtime Dance, and a ragtime opera, Treemonisha. Joplin began the latter work in Chicago, to which he had returned for a time in 1905 or 1906; that unfairly neglected work was finally produced for the stage in 1972.
Perhaps the first local composer of note of serious concert music was John Alden Carpenter, who was born in 1876 in Park Ridge. He was socially prominent (his second wife was the mother of Gov. Adlai Stevenson’s wife) but while most Chicago businessmen of his class were content to subsidize music, he wrote it. From 1897 Carpenter, like Charles Ives, gave his days to business and his nights to composing. Carpenter composed in many forms, and his work was familiar to American concert-goers in the early 1920s, and he was the only American commissioned to write a score for Diagilev’s famed Ballets Russes.
Carpenter was avidly interested in vernacular culture and set to music verses by Langston Hughes and created a ballet score based on George Herriman’s celebrated comic strip Krazy Kat. Such a catholic taste might have seemed perfect in an age in which the gulf between high and popular culture had pretty much ceased to exist, but he was never quite a success. His Ballet Rouses score (“Skyscrapers”) was never staged, and his once-popular “Adventures in a Perambulator” (written in 1914 for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and its conductor Frederick Stock) was selected by Walt Disney to accompany a sequel to Fantasia that was never made. Taste needs talent to go with it, and biographer Howard Pollack likens him to an American Nielsen or Roussel—a competent but minor figure.
After Carpenter, Leo Sowerby was reckoned by some to be the Midwest’s most distinguished composer. The Michigan-born Sowerby was the first American winner of the Prix de Rome musical scholarship and won a Pulitzer Prize in1946 for Canticle of the Sun. Sowerby wrote piano sonatas, cantatas, chorale preludes, more than 300 songs, even jazz pieces for Paul Whiteman. He wrote much organ music too—Sowerby was organist and choirmaster at St. James Episcopal Cathedral for 35 years, ending in 1962. He was respected enough that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned his third symphony for its jubilee; the CSO had premiered his violin concerto in 1913, when he was but 18. But Sowerby, like Carpenter, is a figure of the past of Chicago music, not its present.
Mention must be made of Philip Glass. That seminal figure in 20th century American music has Chicago roots. A Baltimoran, Glass entered the University of Chicago as a 16-year-old, where he took up mathematics and philosophy as well as music. Glass left for further training at the Julliard School in New York City, but he returns often to Chicago, where he has collaborated on stage works with such companies as the Court and Goodman theaters.
Then an Indianan, George Perle came to Chicago in the 1930s to study composition at DePaul University and earned an advanced degree at Chicago’s American Conservatory of Music. Perle is one of those American composers in the 12-tone style that is more respected than listened to. His achievements are significant—a Pulitzer Prize, a MacArthur Fellowship, stints as composer-in-residence for the San Francisco Symphony and Tanglewood Festival, a career as a distinguished teacher.
Ned Rorem, the celebrated diarist who has a less controversial (but probably more enduring) life as a composer of song and chamber music, owes much to his childhood and youth in Chicago. Born in 1923 in Indiana, he was a Chicago boy when he took up the piano at ten; he studied at the Music School of Northwestern University for two years before the wider world beckoned.
The Business of Music
Music-making is a business as well as an art. Indeed, catering to the needs of the world’s musicians with the tools of their trade was an industry in the Chicago of the latter 19th century. The city’s advantages as a transportation and manufacturing center made it a venue for concert bookers, sheet music publishers, and instrument manufacturers of national importance.
Lyon & Healy began making instruments in Chicago in 1885. Among its innovations were included the affordable upright piano (in 1871) and the Spinet piano and the Hammond organ in 1935. (The pipe organ at the CSO’s Orchestra Hall was made by the firm.) Lyon & Healy remains one of the world’s two major maker of harps.
Lyon & Healy’s old retail building, “The House of Everything Known in Music,” still stands in the South Loop at Dearborn and Jackson; since 1981 it has been part of DePaul University’s Loop campus. The Lyon & Healy factory is at 168 North Ogden Avenue, where also sits, since 2005, Lyon & Healy Hall, a small (170-seat) performing arts space meant for harp concerts and music classes, among other uses.
Among the other still-remembered brand name instrument makers in Chicago was the Ludwig Drum Co. Ludwig was German-born drummer William F. Ludwig, who became a businessman during a 1908 gig in the pit at the Auditorium playing for a vaudeville show. He realized that the then-standard wooden bass drum pedal he was using, which was designed to pound out circus rhythms, was not up to the demands of jazz and ragtime. Ludwig built his own foot pedal (wood at first, then metal) and formed a company in 1910 to make it in a rented barn. Ludwig later also improved the tympani. The firm went through various permutations over the years as its product line expanded before emerging in the 1950s as the Ludwig Drum Company. The firm’s factory at 1728 North Damen Avenue was kept hopping in the ‘60s. Beatles drummer Ringo Starr favored Ludwigs, and orders from wannabes poured in. That boom faded, the firm was bought up in the 1970s, and today Ludwig makes only timpani and mallet instruments such as marimbas in Chicagoland, in a factory in LaGrange.
Most of the instrument makers are long gone, having gone bust or moved to places where labor is cheaper. The W. W. Kimball Company built pianos beginning in 1885. It used to be that companies went from Indiana to Chicago to make it big, but no longer; in 1959, the now-fading firm was purchased from the Kimball family by an out-of-state firm that closed the company’s plant in Melrose Park and shifted operations to Indiana, where it has again become one of the world’s largest manufacturer of pianos and organs. ●
Seriously intended concert music was never solely a province of Europeans, but the city’s stages offering serious music had to make room beginning in the 1960s for some unexpected newcomers from elsewhere in America. Jazz, for instance, no longer aspired to be dance music but art music of an increasing esoteric sort. The trend was reflected in the name of what is perhaps Chicago’s most accomplished purveyor of this new kind of jazz, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, which is hailed by some critics, if not always by audiences, as the finest and most influential avant-garde jazz ensemble of the 1970s and ‘80s. In the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the Art Ensemble helped pioneer the fusion of jazz with European art music and indigenous African musics and their Americanized offshoots. It was very modernist, very experimental, and so limited in appeal that several Chicago practitioners had to form a collective known as the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) to help sustain themselves professionally.
Fusion of other kinds is the forte of Laurie Anderson. While often categorized as rock musician, Anderson is a performance artist whose celebrated multimedia works borrow from film, mime, visual projections, dance, rock music, and spoken and written language. (When she performs in Chicago it is in such venues as the Art Institute.) Anderson grew up in Glen Ellyn, one of eight children in a well-to do family. She studied as a classical violinist with the Chicago Youth Symphony before heading off to college and career in New York City in the 1960s.
Cities—or rather the cultured elites of cities, who tend to think of themselves and their hometowns as one—judge their status by their ability to support their own resident opera companies. Historians are no different from music critics and civic boosters in overestimating the significance of this particular art form. The 1974 edition of Illinois: A Descriptive and Historical Guide, gave opera—essentially a Chicago phenomenon—eight full pages while devoting only five pages to education in all of Illinois. This is dubious—Bears fans make much the same claim about the civic significance of their team, with about as much reason.
Going to the opera is widely taken as proof of one’s sophistication. Rather, being seen at the opera was such proof. Being there was an opportunity for class display, status showing off, and civic boosting. Even so, opera has never sold enough tickets in Chicago to pay its bills. The history of its many resident companies is all about singers and maestros in the pit, the great voices and the great roles, but the real history is about the great fortunes that paid for it all. The Chicago Opera company that was encamped at the Auditorium in the ‘teens and ‘20s was subsidized by Harold McCormick, heir to the farm machine fortune, and his wife, Edith Rockefeller, until the end of the 1921-22 season, which went out in the blaze of glory, the blaze being the director burning through about a million dollars of McCormick money. One much-circulated anecdote—like so much else about the opera, one that perhaps ought to be taken skeptically—McCormick’s moan when he got the bill could be heard in every speakeasy in Chicago.
The willingness of the city’s rich men—none of them famous for the refinement of their taste in music and theater—to subsidize this most comprehensively expensive of the arts is a puzzle. Harold McCormick divorced Edith Rockefeller to marry a Polish singer, Charles Swift of the meat-packing Swifts one of the company’s sopranos, and J. Ogden Armour was much enamored with Mary Garden, and although he never quite got to the point of marriage with “Madame Directa,” he did show up unexpectedly wherever she might be singing. While it would be going too far to suggest that the tycoons underwrote the opera house as a sort of brothel, it is not going too too far.
Grand opera of course combines the dramatic stage and the vocal and instrumental arts—usually to the detriment of one of them, but there is no challenging that as an experience the opera is the aesthetic equivalent of the Chicago deep-dish pizza. Claudia Cassidy in her 1979 history of the Lyric, wrote this.
At its best is a glorious fusion of music, theater, ballet, stage direction and design, the revelation of lighting, each art complementing, contrasting, intensifying the others. It is a concentration of theater forces, a heightening of emotional impact, often an irresistible force. It can be a molten outpouring of high drama, a glittering interplay of high comedy, a dazzle of bravura song, a stripping of the skin from quivering nerves—see Wozzeck —a labyrinthine maze of the psychopathic, the psychotic, the miasmic.
(“In writing about opera,” observed Saul Bellow kindly about Cassidy’s writing style, “one cannot be stingy with metaphors.”)
Chicago made its acquaintance with that peculiar art form known as grand opera in 1850, when Bellini’s La Sonambula was staged. The performance did not ignite a craze for such work (although assume that the fire that destroyed the building a few years later was not set by critics.) Until well into the 1860s, America's best touring opera companies would no more think of playing in Chicago than they would play in a mining camp or a revival meeting; a few concluded after playing here that they had.
That reputation as a backwater changed, thanks in so small part to the Crosby brothers, Albert and Uranus, the Massachusetts entrepreneurs who founded Crosby Opera House on the north side of Washington Street near State. The Crosbys may not have known opera but they knew Chicago; they innovated a tactic that opera backers would use again and again in Chicago by building retail, office, or hotel space around their stage to generate the income that the theater itself would not.
The ultimate architectural union of commerce and art was the Auditorium, whose developer Ferd Peck sought to subsidize from the income from the offices and hotels and shops in the building, to make opera affordable by people who didn’t own carriages. (Peck did not contrive a means to make it enjoyable, assuming that was unnecessary.) The Auditorium was formally opened in 1889 by President Benjamin Harrison, with Harriet Monroe reading a dedicatory ode and Adelina Patti—the Maria Callas of her day—singing.
Chicago had a proper opera house but no company. The city made do for decades with out-of-town companies that settled in for seasons of varying length, although by early 20th Chicago become a rich enough pickings that the best companies, conductors and singers appeared here regularly; the Metropolitan came to Chicago for six seasons, for example.
Barring accidents, an opera house once built stays built, but opera companies are much less durable. the history of the art form, in Chicago is littered with home-town companies—whose histories make a very tangled genealogy indeed. Most were subsidized by rich businessmen trying to distract the public from their dastardly deeds—a role lately taken over less generously by corporations eager to achieve the same cleansing effect.
The Chicago Grand Opera Company was founded in 1909, went bust during the first world war, and was reconstituted in 1915 as the Chicago Opera Association by Harold McCormick, who was obliged to close in 1921 after it ran through more money than his family’s farm machinery factory ever had. The Chicago Civic Opera Company succeeded it in the line of fire, a project of utilities magnate Samuel Insull; alas, the Insull utility empire collapsed, as did the city’ economy shortly thereafter in the Depression, taking the Civic Opera Company down with it. The Depression killed opera at Ravinia too, and for seven years the second largest city in America had no resident opera at all.
The urge to stage and see opera still nagged at Chicagoans, and more modest ventures were again formed, blossomed and withered. Some years, city opera lovers made do with watching favorites sing at Ravinia, where the mosquitoes some nights had the best arias.
It was not until 20 years later than another full-fledged company, drawing on the money being made in the war and postwar boom, would be founded—the Lyric Theatre, today the Lyric Opera, which shames it predecessors by still being in business a half century later. Today the Lyric is the only U.S. opera company besides the Met in New York that deserves to be talked about with the great companies of Europe. (Saul Bellow wrote that the driving force of the organization, Carol Fox, will be remembered, together with Jane Addams of Hull House and Harriet Monroe of Poetry magazine, as one of Chicago’s greatest women, which suggests that as an historian Bellow is a great opera fan.)
The CSO commissions new symphonic works, but these are seldom received with more than politeness by audiences that still regard Stravinsky as challenging modern music. As was true a century ago, it is the opera (especially the Lyric) that entices audiences with new music, mainly from composers such as John Corigliano and William Bolcom who write in styles usually praised as “accessible,” meaning styles that are based or at least make friendly use of, the popular music of the day.
While there may be more significant art forms in the history of Chicago, none is more entertaining than grand opera, which offstage was more comedy than tragedy. What the fan sees as passion is often only pretension and vanity. Backers were forever overestimating the audience and underestimating the costs. They persevered nonetheless, to impress their wives, or New York, or someone.
Samuel Insull was one of long line of such businessmen. He became involved less from love of art than social ambition, or rather social resentment at the prestige that people like Edith Rockefeller McCormick enjoyed as the patroness of the Auditorium. Insull’s new company would have to match or beat the facility as well as the cast, costumes, and sets. Insull in the winter of 1927 announced that he would build a second opera house, this one designed by Graham, Anderson, Probst, and White, that would stand in the West Loop on the block bounded by Madison, Market, and Washington Streets and the Chicago River.
”He made several fatal blunders,” wrote Mary Garden in her memoir. “To begin with, he went and built his opera house in the wrong part of Chicago. The crowds wouldn’t bother to go there because it was out of the way. Then, it wasn’t really an opera house, but more like a convention hall.” The main auditorium of the Lyric’s new house was 12 stories high and it seated more than 3500, which is half again as many seats as the Auditorium, which itself had more seats than the city had opera fans.
The cost proved to be huge too—$16,000,000, which is nearly ten times that amount in today’s dollars. To offset it, the building housed offices meant to generate cash. This, as noted, was an old idea tried by the Crosbys and later by Peck at the Auditorium. Alas, the Civic Opera Building opened just as Depression cut the guts out of the lease market, and the Lyric survives on corporate largesse and the donations of the city’s rich.
Chicago has other opera companies. Typical of the best was the Chicago Opera Theater. The COT does those things that a company like the Lyric cannot or will not, such as offering lesser-known (and often more interesting) repertory, serving as a shop for young talent, and taking opera to the schools to excite new audiences and new artists. Such organizations play a vital in role in city life and a perilous one when undertaken without either large audience or generous governments.
One way or another, Chicagoans over the years had the chance to hear the greats. The Auditorium was a venue of the best voices for the first quarter of the 20th century, the names of a few of which—Caruso, John McCormick—still ring bells today among even the non-opera fan. Maria Callas sang Norma in the debut season in the mid-1950s of the new Lyric Opera, and since then hardly a voice worth hearing has not appeared there.
A few of those voices belonged to native sons and daughters of Chicagoland. In Opera in Chicago Ronald L. Davis calls Emma Abbott Chicago’s “first real operatic discovery,” since she came from Peoria as a girl in the early 186os and sang at the Sherman House, returning in 1879 as a mature singer. Alma Powell—a singer, teacher, and impresario of the early 1900s in New York and Europe, was a child of Elgin and was tutored for a time at t the Girls’ High School of Chicago. Baritone Sherrill Milnes was born in Hinsdale, 1935, spent much of youth in Downers Grove, and as a young adult taught voice at the New Trier High School in Winnetka. Then he enrolled in Northwestern University for postgraduate work, where that he was persuaded that his voice could carry a career, and after an apprenticeship that began in 1958 with the chorus of the Chicago Symphony, Milnes went on to become one of the most respected opera voices of his era. Dawn Upshaw is an unrivaled recital performer, but she occasionally takes to the operatic stage, usually in contemporary works. Upshaw grew up in Park Forest, where she and her sisters performed folk music in local grade schools. (Upshaw was introduced to classical music while a student at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington.)
When one says “opera diva” in Chicago, one means Mary Garden. Garden was born in Scotland in 1874 but grew up in Chicago. She studied in Paris and debuted in New York, but it was Chicago that she dominated for twenty years, mainly by being Mary Garden. She was a singer with the Chicago Civic Opera from 1910-1931 and general director of the Chicago Opera Association in 1921–22.
Opera fans tend to be infatuated or venomous, and thus not reliable chroniclers. Garden crossed paths with one newspaperman who was anything but starry-eyed—Ben Hecht. “She once swung a cane at me for having written she had arrived in Chicago ‘with a maid, poodle and expanded waist line,’” wrote Hecht in Gaily, Gaily. He also recounted the evening at Cléopatre when she dozed off on-stage on her Roman couch while waiting for her cue—which may explain why much of her audiences identified with her.
The most famous of Mary Garden’s performances was as Salome in a 1910 production by the Chicago Grand Opera Company. It scandalized the city when the soprano (according to the famous quip from the Chief of Police) “wallowed around like a cat in a bed of catnip” and kissed the severed head of John the Baptist. It was not the cops however but the company’s own management that closed it down after two shows—mainly because it offended the wife of her patron, according to Garden.
Theater and dance
Dance always struggled to find an audience in Chicago; the Chicago Allied Arts, Inc., founded in 1924 was a ballet company with its own orchestra that offered then-new dance to then-new music by the likes of Honegger, Milhaud, Stravinsky, Schonberg as well as local composers like John Alden Carpenter; it closed after three seasons. Yet the city and its suburbs nurtured three of the doyennes of modern American dance, all roughly contemporaneous, all lowers of that brief blossoming known as the Chicago Renaissance.
Born in 1905, Ruth Page moved to Chicago as a girl from her native Indianapolis. As a dancer she was the first American to dance with Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballet Russe, in 1925; as director she commissioned new works on what then avant garde of modern dance, what her admirers call “creative bomb thrower.” (Her ballet on West Indian, themes she was joined by an all African American cast including the then-unknown Katherine Dunham. a fellow Chicagoan who danced to original music composed by the African American William Grant Still.)
In a long career, Page was associated in one way or another some of the greatest artists of the 20th century from Irving Berlin and Aaron Copland to George Balanchine. Prokofiev, and Gershwin. Stravinsky played for Ruth's rehearsals, and she was the first American choreographer to employ Rudolf Nureyev after his defection from the Kirov Ballet to the West, in 1962.
Admirers recall her as “the grand lady of Chicago dance.” Page co-directed the Chicago Works Progress Administration (WPA) Dance Project , among many other local ensembles. As a choreographer she drew on the city for themes. (her 1929 ballet, Sun Worshipers, was later titled Oak Street Beach.) A Chicago street is named in her honor, but there are more pertinent memorials. the Ruth Page Foundation on North Dearborn, housing the Ruth Page Center for the Arts and the Ruth Page School of Dance. The Chicago dance community annually gives the Ruth Page Awards for outstanding dance achievement in Chicago, a dance series is produced in her honor by Northeastern Illinois University, and an annual Ruth Page Week of Dance is presented by the Ravinia Festival.
Doris Humphrey was born 1895 in Oak Park. She made a precocious study of folk and gymnastic dance—she opened her own school in Oak Park at age 18. As a young dancer she made a living on vaudeville and concert stages around world; this journey of many thousands of miles began with a small step indeed, in the form of a tour of Midwest railwaymen’s clubs. Unlike Page, Humphrey made her mature career outside Chicago, mainly in New York City, where she taught and danced and invented dances for her own ensemble, for Broadway productions of the classics, and for such patrons as the Metropolitan Opera; she wrote a standard text on choreographic method before dying in 1958 in New York City.
The third of Chicagoland’s famous servants to Terpischore was Katherine Dunham. Born in Chicago 1909, Dunham studied at the University of Chicago and Northwestern University. Beginning in 1931, the African American Dunham was director and teacher at several dance schools she established in Europe, the U.S., and the Caribbean, including Chicago. Later in the ‘30s Dunham performed at the World Columbian Exposition and with the Chicago Opera Company, supervised the Chicago City Theater Project on Cultural Studies, and was also dance director of a working class theater company. She toured as a dancer and choreographed many works for opera, stage, television, and film productions, appearing as a performer in several of the latter. Later her career took her downstate, to artist-in-residence posts and professorships at Southern Illinois University on the Carbondale and Edwardsville campuses, all of which she recounted in the 1959 autobiography, A Touch of Innocence.
Dance’s flag is carried these days by Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. The company was founded by choreographer Lou Conte in 1977, when he began rehearsing four dancers in his studio in the then-not-at-all trendy River North at 125 W. Hubbard Street. Eclectic and energetic, the company began with four dancers performing at senior citizens homes in Chicago; by the mid-80s it was being booked on national tours; by 1991 regularly it toured Europe. (The switch in 1992 from Hubbard Street Dancers to HS dance Chicago signals the company’s intentions to be known as more than a local company.) The dancers so impressed Thwyla Tharp that that queen of modern dance chose Hubbard as the living repository of six of her classic works.
Conte is one more on that long list of Downstaters who made it big in Chicago. Born in Du Quoin, raised in Taylorville, exposed to ballet and jazz dance in Decatur—yes—and persuaded to be a professional dancer by a teacher at Southern Illinois University. He moved to Chicago in 1972, and started choreographing for local musicals and dinner theaters and teaching to make a buck. In 2002, he was one of six individuals named Laureates of The Lincoln Academy of Illinois, the highest honor the state bestows upon Illinois residents.
When he was a young dancer, Conte had wanted to join the Joffrey Ballet, then in New York City. While his company rose, that major company Joffrey suffered (mainly) financial woes, and in 1995 moved to Chicago, mainly because rents were lower. It has made itself at home. The company these days is the resident ballet company of the Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University. In 2008, The Joffrey Ballet is scheduled to move into its snappy new Loop facility, The Joffrey Tower at 8 East Randolph Street at State and Randolph.
The Joffrey starred in director Robert Altman's 2003 film, The Company. The highly-regarded film dramatized stories gathered from the company’s dancers, choreographers, and office staff, many of whom also played in the film. One famous dance sequence, set in Chicago's Grant Park amphitheater during a lightning storm, recalls an actual incident in Ravinia, when the company literally danced up a storm.
Painting and sculpture
For decades Chicago could not afford Art. But that changed by degrees, as some of its magnates (more often their wives) began thinking more of spending money than of making it. By the Civil War, the taste of this class was—slowly—catching up to its wealth. Privately, the city’s merchant princes bought paintings for their parlors and their clubs. The Union League Club owns 200 works, for example, including an 1872 Claude Monet painting titled "Pommieres en fleurs" that was bought in 1895 for $500 that today is worth tens of millions.
In the main, Chicago’s first generation of Medicis did not function as did the patrons of old, in supporting unfinished painters rather than buying finished paintings. This was partly because local tradition did not sanction such arrangements, partly because there were no local artists worthy of support. As Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz has explained, Chicago’s nobles of commerce chose instead to be patrons of arts institutions, whose role was to instruct painters as well as the public by exposure to great art—great art, that is, as judged by the nobles.
Often the nobles’ taste was quite astute. Many of the Monets, Renoirs, and Manets that dazzle the tourists at the Art Institute, for example, once hung on the walls of Bertha Honore Palmer’s lakefront mansion. By October 1912 art patron Arthur T. Aldis had persuaded the New York exhibition's organizers, Walt Kuhn and Arthur B. Davies, to include a Chicago venue in their plans. The Chicago lawyer and art patron, Arthur Jerome Eddy, an early convert to Cubism and the Post-Impressionism, was largely responsible for bringing the Armory Show to Chicago.
The pastime that their fathers sneered at could be indulged by the children and grandchildren. Frederic Clay Bartlett was the son of a wealthy local businessman. He studied painting at the Art Institute (where his father was a Trustee) and in Europe, and returned a capable rendered of landscapes in the Impressionist and Post-Impressionist styles. (A mural by Bartlett adorns the restored Bartlett Gymnasium at the University of Chicago, 5460 S. University Avenue; he also decorated with murals the sanctuary of Chicago’s Second Presbyterian Church on South Michigan Avenue.)
Bartlett was hardly alone among Chicago’s rich men businessmen in marrying younger woman; he was unusual in marrying one who wrote poems and music and had a taste for then-avant-garde painting by the likes of Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh, Modigliani, Seurat, and Gauguin. Bartlett had purchased Seurat’s “La Grande Jatte” for $24,000, and Chicagoans thought he was crazy until they learned that a French syndicate had later offered him $450,000 for it, Cezanne’s “Basket of Apples,” and Van Gogh’s “Bedroom at Arles.” Such works composed what is now known as the Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, which Bartlett gave to the Art Institute in 1926 in memory of his second wife.
Of course, some of the monied men who bought art in Chicago preferred conventionally pretty pictures of familiar scenes, and were offended by the new art from Europe. In the 1890s, collector Charles Yerkes endowed a prize to be awarded member of the Chicago Society of Artists that was not in the Impressionist style. George F. Harding was one of the many Chicago swells who liked his art “red-blooded,” and amassed European arms and armor and paintings and sculptures of cowboys and Indians, charging cavalry, and the like. Harding was far from the only Chicago collector who looked West for art rather than East toward New York and Paris, to the Plains Indian, the prairies and the deserts, and the mountains. In 1910, when Robert Riddle Jarvie was commissioned by Art Institute president Charles Hutchinson to make a silver punch bowl for the artsy Cliff Dwellers Club, Jarvie borrowed from pottery styles of the Mesa Verde Pueblos. Their take was nostalgic, even wholly fantastic—Edward Kemeys’s bas-reliefs for the Marquette Building are typical in being as artistically skilled as they are anthropologically naive.
Edward E. Ayer and Mayor Carter H. Harrison Jr. were among the significant Chicagoans who found in works inspired by the Southwest at the turn of the 20th century the kind of wholesome American art that offered value for money. Harrison paid stipends out of his own pocket to artists who painted the daily lives of modern American Indians, and, in 1914, set up a fund of public money that was used to buy from Taos artists Gustave Baumann Walter Ufer, and Victor Higgins, whose work found eager audiences back in Chicago. The two men also became avid collectors. Lumber king Ayer had been raised in Harvard, in McHenry County, then a remote farm town that was decades away from being a suburb, and as a young man rode with the U.S. Cavalry in the Indian Territories. Ayer collected artifacts and books about the cultures he’s seen in the West, which he later contributed to the Newberry Library, the Art Institute, and the Field Museum.
Taste did not necessarily die out with the generation of the city’s museum founders. Chicago still had an art-collecting elite, but it was not the old elite, many of them Jewish (see below). Certainly, businessmen continue to collect, only now some of them bent to build corporate collections, using funds of the companies that they owned or ran. LaSalle Bank N.A. has a highly regarded 5,000-piece collection of 19th- and 20th-century photography, begun in 1967 by the chairman of LaSalle’s corporate predecessor; Chicago's Bank One has a varied collection including tapestries, mosaic and sculpture. Sara Lee Corp. had accumulated a sizeable collection of not-quite-great Impressionist and post-Impressionist European paintings; in 1998 it donated 52 of them to 40 museums around the world; the gift was valued at the time at more than $100 million.
Several recent historians of the city’s cultural history—Horowitz, Bluestone, and Gilbert, among others—have explored how Chicago elites used culture as a means of social reform, as they saw it. The nobles’ ambition to make Chicago a city worthy of them through Art was shared by most of the artists of the day. For decades after it had come to be derided in other capitals, Chicago painters and sculptors clung to notion of Art as idealized representation. When new techniques such as Impressionism emerged, they adopted the new tools to that old task, and always within context of good taste and rigorous academic training. The agendas of patron and artists merged until well into the 20th century, and artists committed to that agenda—Lorado Taft most famously—became civic leaders too, in a way.
For decades, Chicago and Chicagoland artists were not only conservative but a bit parochial, nearly all having been trained at the School of the Art Institute. Their work remains of interest for the same reasons it was of interest when it was new, which is that they painted new things—Chicago and hinterland, from Wisconsin to Indiana—rather than painting things in new ways. The same impulse toward regional roots that informed the emerging Prairie styles in architecture and landscape design, and which brought vernacular Midwestern speech into the writing of the Chicago renaissance poets and novelists had its counterpart in painting in the form of regionalism.
Chicago’s daubers and chiselers lived lives of respectable bohemianism that often were in conscious imitation of the lives led by their counterparts in other—one is tempted to say “real” —cultural capitals of the world. They feuded, and issued pronouncements, and repaired in the summers to colonies in Brown County Indiana, and Eagle Nest on the Rock River and at Fox Lake and the Des Plaines valley Chicago’s art community had its old guard, its would-be-rebels—all the usual factions. And they like to think of themselves as cutting edge—and they were, in the social context of the Midwest of the period, simply by virtue of being interested in painting and the arts. However, perhaps because of their dependence on the elites as patrons, they were remarkably bourgeois in their habits and opinions compared to, say, the writers of the Chicago Renaissance that would burst forth as World War I neared.
In a big enough city there will be exceptions to every rule, and Manierre Dawson was the exception to the rule that Chicago painters were not innovators. Dawson grew up in Chicago and earned a degree in civil engineering in 1909 from the Armour Institute. While employed by the architectural firm of Holabird & Roche, Dawson—who had had no art training to speak of—produced a series of non-representational paintings that in the opinion of more than a few critics made him America’s first abstract artist.
A visionary? Idiot savant? The explanation would seem to be simply that Dawson‘s early works owed mainly to his engineering training—as much stylized engineering plans as abstract art. Certainly his early works had little influence on his later style. He abandoned abstraction after a trip to Europe, which made him, in the words of one writer, “probably the only American artist of his generation to return from Europe more conservative than when he left.”
In a 1939 review in the Chicago Daily News, critic C. J. Bulliett sneered at what he called the "Pewee Picassos" and "Midget Matisses" touted by the Art Institute as significant even though they were painting in styles that had passed “about the time the banks crashed in 1929.” Certainly Chicago painters and sculptors were conservatives in the broader aesthetic sense. They cleaved to notions that art was good to the extent it was beautiful. Greenhouse suggests that the fact that the city was so wonderfully ugly created a abiding yearning for Beauty rather than Truth, which was rather too plainly on view in Chicago of the day compared to a European capital.
Beauty of course meant the Beaux Arts notions of classical refinement—a Paris boulevard, not the river docks. An interesting exception, a man who saw and appreciated the city that was rather than what ought to have been, was the Canadian-born African American artist James Needham. Beginning in the 1870s—fully a half-century before the social realists of the Ashcan School began to “celebrate” it—Needham rendered the working parts of Chicago on canvas. Most of his colleagues, however, simply invented beauty in everyday Chicago when they could not find it. Alfred Juergen’s 1915 Impressionist painting Lasalle Street at Close of Day used what art historian Wendy Greenhouse called “the soft-focus lens of gentility” to convert the business district into the equivalent of Monet’s haystacks.
Social Realism of the Ashcan School did eventually find a place in Chicago, a city that was perhaps bit harder by the Depression than any U.S. big city. Carl Hoeckner was the leading proponent of social realism in Chicago, but he was not alone. Chicago-born Aaron Bohrod studied at the School of the Art Institute in the 1920s before seeking instruction elsewhere; returning to Chicago in 1930, he took to painting the city and its working class in the unblinking style of the Ashcan School.
Another portraitist of the street was Archibald Motley, Jr. became in the 1930s and ‘40s one of the first successful black artists in this century. Motley (uncle of novelist Willard Motley) did it by committing scenes of African American life to canvas; a 1914 graduate of Englewood High School, he also studied at the Art Institute before setting up his easel in Paris.
By the late 1920s and into the ‘30s, painters’ political attitudes were more advanced than the aesthetic with which they advanced them. Susan Weininger notes that Chicago artists thinking modern but not painting modern. What one critic calls “one of the rarest and boldest works of the Midwest WPA portfolio”—Rudolph Weisenborn's "Contemporary Chicago" in the Nettlehorst School in Chicago—was executed in the Cubist style that had by already gone moldy in Paris, where it had originated some 30 years earlier. Like the Camden Town Group painting in London at about the same time, painters—to quote critic Iain Sinclair) the Chicagoans produced “samples of benign tourism” in the form of snapshots of a muscular Chicago that was beginning to atrophy; like their British counterparts, Chicago artists of the period were “lyrical obituarists.”
By the 1930s and ‘40s, uplift and patriotism sold better than revolution and grime. Artists working for the Federal Arts Project of the Works Progress Administration alone produced many dozens of murals in the 1930s and early '40s to adorn the walls of schools, libraries and other public buildings across Chicagoland. (See “The Federal Art Project” elsewhere in this section.) City of Chicago schools were the principal beneficiaries of what some critics derided as artistic “makework.” Ralph Henricksen's "19th and 20th Century Family" in West Pullman School on South Parnell. Thomas Jefferson League, 1939 a street map of Morgan Park Clissold School on West 110th Street. "The Life of Luther Burbank" by Andrene Kauffman from 1938 adorns the Burbank School on North Mobile. A 1940 series of eight small panels by Ralph Henricksen depicting the history of Chicago from Fort Dearborn to the Century of Progress Exposition was installed at the Hookway School on South LaSalle Street.
Weininger also reminds us that that government propaganda of the era as expressed by the WPA artists was essentially nostalgic in ambition as well as method. It celebrated the farm and small town, including the small towns that were Chicago neighborhoods. Given the difficulties and disappointments of life in Chicago, it is hardly a surprise that some African American painters might look back upon their past in the South nostalgically. Painter Horace Pippin—born in Philadelphia—studied at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago; during the 1940s, he was active in the South Side Community Art Center, which was sponsored by the WPA’s FAP. Pippin gave us a Norman Rockwell version of the sharecropping days in his painting from 1937, Cabin in the Cotton.
Surprisingly, given the often indifferent maintenance they received, more than 400 of these murals survive. That makes the Chicago public schools the proprietor of the nation’s largest mural collection from the early 20th Century. The process of identifying and saving these works was educational in itself, as it lead to the rediscovery of the artists who created them and draw attention to their themes, which were pedagogical in a broad sense.
To say that Chicago painters tended to be imitators rather than innovators is to slight their considerable technical achievements. Watercolorists, for example, don’t get much better with a brush than was Irving Shapiro. Skilled imitators of styles invented in other places they may have been, but imitators they were. Jerome Blum for instance was capable, well-traveled, and well-schooled Post-Impressionist, a member of the set that included such literary innovators as Sherwood Anderson and Theodore Dreiser. Lloyd Smith, in his book about Chicago art life, Left Bank, called Chicagoan Jerome Blum “the Midwest Gaugin,” which is a little like calling Johnny Halliday the French Elvis Presley.
Beauty and craftsmanship in any style were the hallmarks of Chicago painting and sculpture throughout the first third of the 20th century. When Modernism broke out from Europe, as might the flu, it was sneered at. The disdain extended to the local artists’ community, to which Expressionist and Cubist styles were still alien in every sense. (Only one local artist, Grace Gassette, was included in the Armory Show.) Chicago greeted Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Kandinsky, and the rest as if they were vandals, and among the protesters were local art students and faculty. In a remarkable moment with Chicago’s cultural history, outraged students at the Art Institute burned Matisse works in effigy after the “Armory Show”—officially the International Exposition of Modern Art in 1913, at which such works were first seen in Chicago.
Greenhouse makes the point that most Chicago artists assumed that Modernism in its various guises was a mere fad, if not an actual fraud, and that they were too hip in matters art to be taken in. Indeed, to the local art community as a whole—artists, critics, collectors, curators, dealers—what was noteworthy about the Armory Show was not that it was booed, but that it was shown at all. Chicago; what better proof could there be of Chicago’s remarkable open-mindedness and cultivation?
In the 1930s, galley owner Katharine Kuh devoted her gallery to that generation’s new artists. She was not only the first seller but practically the first customer. (She would recall that she could buy a Kandinsky at local auctions for as little as $5.) Kuh eventually became the Art Institute's first curator of modem art. But the showroom was picketed by anti-modernist vigilantes who flattered themselves with the name Sanity in Art, who demanded that only American art be shown in Chicago. The new art was mostly from or inspired by Europe, to be sure, but many of adepts in the new styles were New York Jews, who were un-American on two grounds to a large numbers of Chicagoans in those days.
That happened in the same year that local collector and patron Josephine Logan took up the mantle of champion of academic painting founded Sanity in Art and wrote a book with the same name, both used to attack all the modernist –isms, plus primitive art to boot, indeed all what she called “false gods that have been forced upon us in the museums." (Among these were Cezanne, Seurat, van Gogh, and Gauguin.) Eleanor Jewett, art critic for the Chicago Tribune—enemies noted that she got the job because she was related to the publisher; in college she had majored in agriculture.
Creating excitement “within spitting distance of the Stockyards”
It took until the 1950s that the modern finally became the accepted as a language of officially sanctioned Chicago painting. Katharine Kuh was a St. Louisan whose marriage to a local businessman brought her to Chicago. Divorced by 1935, she opened the first gallery offering avant-garde art in the city, at 540 North Michigan Avenue in the Diana Court Building. Art dealer, curator and critic, who witnessed at first-hand the arrival of Modernism in America, She sold or studied with or befriended a Who’s Who of modern art—Alfred Barr, first director of New York’s Musueum of Modern Aart, Mies van der Rohe, Brancusi, Edward Hopper, Duchamp , Mark Rothko, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Wassily Kandinsky, Isamu Noguchi, along with art photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. After Kuh closed the gallery she joined the staff of the Art Institute, eventually becoming its first curator of modern art (among her projects was the first major Van Gogh exhibition in the U.S.) and for 17 years the art critic for The Saturday Review.
Art + Auction magazine wrote that Kuh, as a contemporary art dealer in Chicago during the Depression, “was unabashedly in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Another critic added that New York was artistically far more exciting, but Kuh “was determined to create excitement within spitting distance of the stockyards . . . introducing unheard of and unwelcome artists to Chicago, where a handful of prescient adventurers were prepared to pay a pittance for pictures their neighbors considered evidence of madness.” [Publishers Weekly, Signature review] She herself, in her memoirs, recalled how in the 1930s the term "modern art" was in the Middle West “a label of opprobrium . . . . It almost seemed as if the daring imagination that Chicago had expended on commerce exhausted its ability to cope with visual innovations other than in the field of architecture.”
Kuh never made enough money from her gallery to live on, and closed it after only eight years. At least she continued to live in Chicago; many painters who found the local pickings too slim left for Europe or the East Coast of the U.S Thus was set in motion the vicious cycle which also is seen in film, publishing, and music—the city fails to hold on to its most gifted talents, which perpetuates the opinion that the city produces nothing of merit, which means that locally produced art is undervalued, which means that challenging artists can’t make a living and have to leave.
In a city in which genuinely path-breaking art has been rare, mere originality is often over-praised. Ivan Albright certainly was original. Ivan Albright was born in south-suburban North Harvey with his identical twin brother Malvin, who also grew up to be a sculptor and painter. The Albrights had homes and studios in several towns around Chicago, including Hubbard Woods and Warrenville. Ivan achieved probably his greatest celebrity when he was commissioned to paint a portrait of the protagonist for the 1945 MGM film The Picture of Dorian Gray. His work tests the vocabulary of critics, who have used words such as haunting, fascinating, opulent, morbid, idiosyncratic, seamy, and cynical to describe it. (The Art Institute owns more Ivan Albright paintings than any other museum.)
Chicago artists included few real innovators until well into the 20th century. An exception was H.C. Westermann. The British contemporary painter, Anthony Green, has described Westermann’s work as “something that was completely American . . . . a straight-forward bloke who made things that were sardonic and witty, strange, sometimes violent. His works have a sort of raw poetry to them—rugged, masculine and tough.” Perfect praise for a Chicagoan. Westermann studied at the Art Institute beginning in 1947, where he was something of a cult figure and finished his degree there after a stint in Korea. He settled at 25 East Division Street, which he renovated in exchange for room and board and picked up the skills that would figure in so much of his art. Many of his best works were based on experiences as witness and part in battles in the World War II Pacific such as his “Death Ships” series from 1947 to 1952. He was still considered under-recognized in 2002, when the MCA put on a major retrospective.
Abstract Expressionism was a peculiarly New York idiom. The Chicago painting that has attracted the eyes of collectors, curators, and critics shares traits with the works of Chicago artists in other media—Sandburg’s poetry, Dreiser and Farrell’s fiction, the blues and early jazz, and (to cite the most recent contributions) its improvisational comedy and it theater. All are determinedly untutored, impatient with technique, contemptuous of theory, and usually defiantly out of step with critical trends on the coasts.
In the late 1960s, enough such artists were at work in Chicago that critics on the coasts—always alert to the movement of herds—noticed them. They were dubbed a “school,” more a term of reportorial convenience than curatorial accuracy. The “Chicago Imagists” first appeared as such in a group exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. The group never formally organized, and was linked primarily, perhaps only, by its members’ independence from New York/East Coast trends and their disdain for New York critical opinion. A 1969 show at the MCA cemented the Imagists’ reputations and by 1973 their work was being shown nationally.
The Imagists included Robert Guinan, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, and, perhaps the best known, Ed Paschke, whom one critic called “surely . . . Chicago's cardinal figure.” Paschke was raised on the Polish Northwest Side, trained at the Art Institute—like going to Paris on the el—made a living doodling for Playboy before he made it big; he was chairman of the Arts and Theory Department at Northwestern University from 1977 until he died in 2004—an event of sufficient moment that it was reported by the BBC.
Painting usually ranks supreme among the visual arts, but among Chicagoland visual artists it is photographers who are widely thought to rank highest. Chicagoland was the home and often the subject of several major figures in contemporary American photography. Indeed, the Tribune’s veteran art critic Alan Artner in 2005 wrote that Chicago’s greatest contribution to modern art was in photography, not painting.
Hungarian expatriate painter-photographer Moholoy-Nagy founded Chicago’s “New Bauhaus” in 1937. The landmark Chicago institution included the School of Design (1939–1944) and its successor institution the Institute of Design (1944–present). Stephen Daiter, a dealer in modern art photo, ventured in the Encyclopedia of Chicago that the New Bauhaus became “the seminal location for the education of the modern artist-photographer from the 1930s through the 1960s.” Aaron Siskind, widely regarded as the most important and influential practitioner of abstract photography in America, was on the staff there. Detroiter Harry Callahan, whom Artner in 2006 called "the greatest artist to ever form an artistic vision in Chicago,” was hired In 1946 by Moholy-Nagy to teach photography at the Institute of Design. In 1949 the Institute merged with IIT; Callahan in turn invited Aaron Siskind to join the faculty of IIT, and Siskind taught photography at IITs Institute of Design for twenty years, becoming Director of the Photographic Department in 1959.
Edward Weston was born in Highland Park in 1902, and began his career as a landscape photographer by shooting in and around Chicago while working as salesman with Marshall Field & Co. before heading West. The famous contemporary fashion and portrait photographer Victor Skrebneski studied painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago and then at the Institute of Design; a successful fashion shoot for Marshall Field’s sealed his professional fate, and Skrebneski spent next several decades working for global clients out of his Chicago studio.
Many “Chicago” graphic artists is several media were nurtured by its suburbs, and more than few chose to live and work outside the city as adults. They include art photographers Walker Evans (who grew up in Kenilworth, the son of an advertising executive) and David Plowden, an Easterner who in his 40s moved to Winnetka. Painters Herman Menzel moved to Hubbard Woods (now part of Winnetka) in 1943, where his wife owned her childhood home. Alfred Juergens lived in Oak Park.
A few good painters also took the suburbs as their subject matter. Albert Henry Krehbiel was a Post-Impressionist who trained at the Art Institute and later in Paris and became a fixture on the teaching staffs of the Art Institute and the old Armour Institute of Technology, IIT’s parent institution. Krehbiel did some Michigan Avenue street scenes but the local works for which he is best known are scenes along the Des Plaines and Chicago rivers.
Among lesser talents were Les Schrader, a lifelong Napervillan and self-taught artist whose day job was painting signs for Naperville’s world-known Kroehler Manufacturing Company. In 1946, the town’s first hotel, tavern, and county court house, the 1834 Pre-Emption House, which had fallen in disrepair, was razed. Its lost galvanized Schrader to a memorial portrait. The painting (displayed in the local hardware store, his first gallery hanging) spurred public demands for more such pictures. Over the next 35 years Schrader did 42 paintings of local historic scenes, which the Naperville Heritage Society sensibly purchased in 1982; the collection today may be seen, fittingly, in the lower level exhibition hall of the replica Pre-Emption House at Naper Settlement Museum Village.
Evanstonian Walter Burt Adams was influenced by American painters Edward Hopper, James McNeill Whistler, and Grant Wood, which shows in the forty canvases of Evanston he executed between 1931 and 1977. “May 1st” from 1952 shows the city’s 1908 Carnegie library building as it appeared in the 1930s; it is located on the fourth floor in the reception area of the Administrative offices. Evanston Public Library, 1703 Orrington Avenue.
Adams was more than a hometown painter—when young he exhibited his paintings at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and at the Art Institute of Chicago. Like so many talented Chicagoans, Adams (who died in 1990) was born and raised elsewhere—Wisconsin, and raised in North Dakota—and came as an 18-year-old to Evanston, where he ran an artist’s supply shop, and which he did not leave for more than a half century. ●
Not surprisingly, Chicago buildings have been the focus of much fine work of this sort. Ken Hedrich (“Don’t make photographs, think them”) has been to Chicago’s great buildings what Monet was to France’s haystacks. Hedrich made his firm of Hedrich Blessing, founded in 1929, one of (some critics say the) most renowned specialist in the field in the world. Hedrich (whose descendants carry on the firm) was both meticulous and imaginative; he famously waited nearly a year for the light to be just right before taking a photo of Winnetka’s Crow Island School.
Most daring visual artists are, or see themselves, as outsiders in some way. But “outsider art” has it own standards, its own traditions. Outsider art is a subgenre (with “folk,” ”popular,” ‘naïve,” and “self-taught”) of vernacular art. Imagination and the urge to express oneself don’t need training to exist, only to be realized in certain ways. Officially, the term refers to anyone with no formal art training who work outside the mainstream art world of galleries, collectors, and museums but also art created not only by the untutored, the unhinged, the outcast, the outlaw—all of which artists have been regarded, and in some circles continue to be regarded.
The local appreciation of outsider art has roots in the 1950s, when artist Jean Dubuffet delivered a lecture—a manifesto in fact—at the Arts Club of Chicago. He praised he so-called “primitive” arts of Africa, Oceania and other non-western cultures— an early expression of what comes to be called multi-culturalism. It was hardly a new idea—Picasso and Matisse were among the many who drew from such sources.
Chicago has produced several artists who fall into the category of outsider, such as janitor Joseph Yoakum and William Dawson. However, the city’s best-known outsider artist, indeed one of the most accomplished Chicago artists, period, was Henry Darger. Darer was sent to live in a boy’s home at the age of eight. Probably schizophrenic, he was moved to a state institution from which he escaped at age 17, eventually finding employment at St. Joseph’s Hospital. He is known to the world only because of his 12-volume, 15,000 single-spaced saga (illustrated by hundreds of watercolor paintings) he titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, as caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. “Darger’s little Brownies, sporting whimsical genitalia and short dresses,” wrote critic Katy Siegel in 1997, “make the Hairy Who look like Cub Scouts working on their first badges.”
If outsider art is defined by untutored-ness, a certain rawness of style, and subjects disdained by the academic and the official, then most Chicago painters since World War II have been outsiders. Painter Anthony Green made the point explicitly, describing the work of H. C. Westermann and the Hairy Who as “a bit like the art of the self-taught and the insane.”
Indeed, nothing could be more outside than Chicago itself. Many an artist has found that being from Chicago, living and working here was an artistic statement of sorts; Tom Palazzollo signed some of his films “Tommy Chicago,” and Judy Cohen rechristened herself Judy Chicago. (The latter’s famous multimedia installation, “The Dinner Party”—a triangular banquet table with place settings shaped to suggest the genitalia of 39 notable women—started life in a three-flat in Lakeview.)
Outside the museum walls
Not all the art to be seen in Chicago is secreted behind museum walls. Hundreds of artworks—murals, statues, and monuments of various kinds—decorate Chicago streets and parks. Some are purely decorative, but many if not most touch on history in some way. Whatever their merits are art, such works, which are durable in ways that public memory is not, are the carrier of culture’s history gene.
Mural painters produce outside art of a very literal sort, having been painted in the city’s streets. A second murals movement began in the late 1960s, when a group of African American artists adorned a building wall on the South Side with the painted expression of the black experience. Led by William Walker, the artists formed the Chicago Mural Group in 1970, and found many groups eager to commemorate or incite in this way the movement of people rendered outcasts because of their sex, class, or ethnicity into mainstream society. A typical example of such work (except in its prestigious locale) is “Communidad Si. It Takes a Vision” done in 1991 on the ninth floor foyer of the Harold Washington Library.
The outdoor mural by its nature is doomed to a short life by exposure to elements, vandalism, and demolitions. Walker’s 1977 Childhood Is without Prejudice, painted at the at the Bret Harte School in Hyde Park, which his daughter attended, had to be restored only 16 years after it was painted. But murals have been treated badly in every kind of setting. A painted history of the press decorated the ceiling beneath which zillions of commuters trudge each day through the concourse connecting the old Chicago Daily News Building at Madison and Canal (now known as the Riverside Plaza Building) to the (now) Metra station across the street. For decades these works were arguably the most-seen murals downtown. Familiarity in this case bred anything but contempt; when the Tribune asked readers in 1985 to name their favorite Chicago buildings, places, spaces and things, the Norton murals was one of the most often named. But in 1993, the building’s owner had the 180-foot-long, 18-foot-wide mural removed and put into storage, where it remains.
The Federal Art Project
Artists like to think of themselves as free, but it is amazing, reading the stories of Chicago’s painters, how many relied at crucial stages of their careers on subsidies from the federal government. They went to school on the GI Bill, they decorated post offices for the WPA, they lived on grants from the National Endowment for the Arts.
The most sustained of these federal support for artists as well as Art—and the one that returned the richest returns to the public that paid for it—happened during the Depression era. The Depression was a great boon to painters and sculptors in Chicago, if only because it discredited the money-making culture from which they were permanently estranged or at least ambivalent; for a time, much of the world saw things the ways the artists did—a new and no doubt confusing experience for most of them.
More important, the Depression prompted Washington to actually paid them to do art rather than have them roam the streets. A succession of federally funded arts programs began in 1933— the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP), the Treasury Relief Art Project (TRAP), and finally the WPA’s Federal Art Project, which was to be the last and largest. The FAP paid artists to adorn Illinois tax-supported institutions that were willing to pay non-labor costs of production. Schools and libraries thus got first-rate art on the cheap, and the artists stayed off the streets where they were likely to interfere with traffic.
Inevitably, most of the FAP works in and around Chicago were done by local artists. They numbered in the hundreds—nine panels titled “Scenes of Industry” painted by Edgar Britton at Highland Park High School, frescoes, murals, and sculptures at the University of Illinois Medical Unit, murals in dozens of schools in Chicago and its suburbs, Chicago City Hall (selected by Mayor Edward J. Kelly), post offices, and various Chicago Park District field houses; hundreds of such works in Chicagoland schools and park field houses have been restored.
Dozens of local artists of note, such as Walter Burt Adams and William Panhallow, were able to keep a brush in their hands because of the FAP. As a WPA artist during the Depression, Aaron Bohrod painted murals in Downstate post offices. Ric Riccardo, who was born in Italy, did work for the WPA during the 1930s.
The WPA-sponsored works were in many cases intended to acquaint viewers with the history of the region, which by the 1930s was already receding into a fog. Typical was the six murals Lake Bluff’s William Henderson painted on the main floor of Joliet High School depicting Marquette and Jolliet among the Indians. The Lakeview Branch post office offers instruction to patrons waiting in line in the form of "Chicago - Epoch of a Great City," painted by Henry Sternberg in 1938.
However noble their intentions, the WPA murals-painting program also roused popular ire. In 1936, Malcolm Hackett delivered "Pre-Glacial America" to Lincoln School in Oak Park, whose residents are said to have declared it too avant-garde. After a long quarrel over what to do with it, the mural was finally peeled from the wall and conveniently mislaid.
In spite of careless handling, many of these artworks have survived the 70 years since the New Deal in better shape than the institutions that the FAP also set up. A rare exception is the Georgian Revival-style mansion built at 3831 S. Michigan Avenue for grain merchant George Seaverns, Jr. in 1892. The building was converted in 1940 for use by the South Side Community Art Center as part of the Federal Art Project, and is the only on of the more than 100 centers established nationwide by the WPA during the 1930s and '40s that has been in business all these years. Given a new interior at the time in the then still-new New Bauhaus style, the center has been important in training African American artists. ●
Many of Chicagoland’s public murals were painted by first-rate artists. The artists who did the Daily News murals was John W. Norton, whose adornment of the Tavern Club on Michigan Avenue in 1931 won the Gold Medal of Honor from the Architectural League of New York, Frank Lloyd Wright hired him to help decorate the Midway Gardens, and his were among the works enlivening pavilions at the Century of Progress World's Fair in 1933-34. In 1936 Archibald Motley was commissioned by the WPA to paint "Negro Children" for Nichols School in Evanston. As happened so often, the work was removed, but it is unclear whether it was destroyed or merely misplaced. Motley today ranks among the big name black American painters, and “Negro Children” would probably command a price in the 100s of 1000s at auction. Jacob Lawrence, one of the country’s great painters, did the mosaic, Events in the Life of Harold Washington in the main lobby of the Harold Washington Library.
In her fine guidebook to Chicagoland murals, Mary Lackritz Gray notes that the earliest murals in Chicago date from the turn of the 20th Century. These are usually mythological scenes in the grand European-inspired manner made popular by the World Columbian Exposition. The dancing figures painted on the proscenium of the Auditorium stage, painted in 1889, are typical, as are the 15 murals by Jules Guerin depicting commerce of 14 countries throughout the world that decorate the lobby walls of the Merchandise Mart. Scenes from Chicago History was painted in 1915 by Philip Ayer Sawyer in the Gary School auditorium on West Thirty-first Street; its educational value is dubious, as it shows a female Spirit of Chicago presiding over symbolic figures of Music, Art, and Literature in a city whose true muses were Money, Power, and Ambition.
Ayer was not the only Chicago artists who came to agree with its civic leaders that Chicago itself was a fit subject of commemoration as the century progressed. Gray notes that such works became more regional in theme and more naturalistic in style through the Great Depression. But while the myths depicted in paintings of the Depression period—of brotherhood, for example, in an era of class and racial polarization —featured events and characters recognizably contemporary and American, they were myths nonetheless.
Wishful allegories are still being painted, although their inspiration owes to new social issues. One, along Hubbard Street between Ogden and Halsted, consisted of images of a rain forest and other eco-minded themes. Another, painted along the railway embankment along Western Avenue, shows demonstrators protesting the threat of World War III. Local 1114 of the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America in 1973 commissioned a history of the union for an interior stairway of the union hall at 37 South Ashland Avenue. In the resulting Solidarity Murals, work mainly of John Pitman Weber and José Guerrero, the workers determine their own future, and stand in solidarity against the injustice based on age, sex, nationality, race, creed, or politics that had always torn the real city apart.
Such works usually aspire to the inspirational, although they usually end up being merely hortatory. The style has changed less since the Depression than have the issues, save to become cruder, but the city’s newer public murals are no less animated by an optimism of a sort familiar from the Depression, and no wonder—in these neighborhoods, it’s been the Great Depression for 75 years.
Public murals serve two purposes—to catch the past, or to celebrate the future. In the days when Lincoln Square was German, there was no need for murals to trumpet the fact. That ethnic heritage has been diluted by new neighbors from new places. As the old past disappears from everywhere else in the neighborhood, it is being fixed in images on walls—the large wall mural at 4662 North Lincoln depicts scenes from the German countryside—to keep it from slipping away.
If the city’s murals commemorate a vanishing past, they also celebrate the present. Mexico has a tradition or mural art (the WPA murals were modeled after the Mexican government’s broad sponsorship of muralists during the 1920s, and many of the Chicago muralists of the New Deal era went to Mexico to study with these great innovators of that nation. That tradition is expressed in Chicago Mexican neighborhoods. The exterior walls of Casa Aztlan a social service center on South Racine, are covered with brightly colored murals that as one report put it, “reflect many of the concerns of the neighborhood.” When developers recently threatened to gentrify parts of Pilsen, a group of local artists protested the best way they knew how: They painted a mural. Spread across a building on Bishop Street, just off 18th, it's a kaleidoscope of bright colors, complete with a portrait of labor organizer Cesar Chavez and an activist carrying a poster charging the developers with "ethnic cleansing."
In the case of African Americans, public painting is less matter of celebrating race pride than of instilling it. Typical of this subgenre is the Wall of Respect at Forty-third Street and Langley Avenue, which has been described as the first outdoor mural created specifically for a community; William Walker oversaw the work of some twenty African American artists in portraits of black political and religious leaders, musicians, writers, and sports figures meant to instill pride and self-esteem in its viewers. (The building was demolished in 1971.) Jacob Lawrence’s Events in the Life of Harold Washington at the library that bears the late mayor’s name was intended, he has said, to teach that success comes through learning and hard work; the artist left Washington’s face blank so that viewers might see themselves in the figures.
Most Chicago murals however are not manifestos to the downtrodden but adornments to commercial power. Among the notable ones picked out by critic Alan Artner are Clouds over Lake Michigan, a ceramic mural by Ruth Duckworth in the lobby of 400 S. LaSalle Street, from 1976; Ceres, a five-story work from 1930 by John Warner Norton that now graces the Chicago Board of Trade Building atrium addition at 144 W. Jackson Boulevard. A Testimonial to World Trade, a series of eight murals from 1923-24 murals by Jules Guerin—illustrator of the Burnham Plan and decorator of the Auditorium Theatre—are hung on the Bank of America’s second floor at 231 S. LaSalle Street.
Many would argue that Chicago’s greatest sculptures are its buildings, and indeed the city’s architectural landmarks can be understood as expressions of aesthetic aims beyond their prosaic purposes. But that is to use “sculpture” in a rather poetic way. Most people still understand sculpture in term of statues and carved decorative panels of one kind or another or the sort that Chicago, happily, has in abundance.
The collection of public bronzes in Lincoln Park, for example is remarkable for its high cultural tone. Hans Christian Andersen, William Shakespeare, Goethe, and Beethoven look on, no doubt disapprovingly, at the thousands who spend their times jogging and rollerblading and sunbathing in the park instead of in their studies. Grant Park statues have a more political tone but are no less high-minded, numbering among them as they do likenesses of Abraham Lincoln, Alexander Hamilton, and Civil War hero General John Logan. Pride of Jackson Park is The Republic (Golden Lady) by Daniel Chester French and Henry Bacon; the bronze from 1918 (at 24-feet high it is but one-third the size of the original) a replica of the gilded-plaster centerpiece at the World's Columbian Exposition.
Sculpture changed in the twentieth century, but Chicago didn't. The construction of the Ferguson wing of the Art Institute in 1958 was preceded by a short-lived legal controversy. A trust fund had been set up by Benjamin F. Ferguson in 1905 to pay for new statues and monuments for the city’s parks. Much of that money was never spent, in part because the newer styles in sculpture had few fans in Chicago, and the museum's trustees did not wish to spend good money on what most people would regard as bad art. The money ended up being used to expand the Art Institute instead by the addition of a new wing that bears Ferguson's name.
There is an inevitable tendency for people to regard the city’s public statuary as street furniture rather than works of art. Attempts to inculcate an appreciation of sculpture as sculpture are made periodically. Back in 1908 and 1909, the Municipal Art League arranged for Jens Jensen to mount outdoor art exhibitions in Humboldt and Garfield parks, which became outdoor art galleries. A similar approach was tried in 2022, when works by Tacoma art glass master Dale Chihuly were displayed amongst the greenery in the Garfield Park conservatory. Alas, revelers at a private party held in the facility carelessly broke one of them; wrote one columnist, “You wonder why we get stuck with things like fiberglass furniture and cows on parade?”
Perhaps the most famous encounter between Chicago and modern sculpture was the unveiling in 1967 of the Picasso at Daley Center. Picasso might have been the only modern artist many Chicagoans, including the then-mayor, had ever heard of, but heard of him they had, and a lot of them (some accounts say 15,000, others 50,000) people showed up to see what the master had concocted as a centerpiece for the city’ new civic center plaza. It was quite a show: The Archbishop of Chicago was there, the CSO was the opening act, and Gwendolyn Brooks read an original poem.
What those 50,000 people saw when the wrapping was dropped was—what? That the thing was fashioned from Cor-Ten Steel (the same material as the Civic Center, whose front yard it graces), weighed 162 tons and loomed 50 feet tall was plain enough. A citizenry accustomed to representational art was baffled by it. People—most people—who assumed that statues were “of” something guessed that it represented an Afghan hound, a baboon, maybe a sea horse; poet Lisel Mueller memorialized it as “Picasso’s unworldly bird.” Chicago aldermen can’t always be assumed to be speaking for their constituents, but that can’t be said for the councilman who reacted to the unveiling of the Picasso statue on Daley Plaza by saying the city ought to send it back and put up a statue of Ernie Banks in its place.
Many assumed Picasso was pulling the city’s leg; it so offended one alderman that he introduced a resolution to have it removed. (That objection may have guaranteed its survival on the plaza; many Chicagoans assume that anything that offends an alderman can’t be all bad.) Building historian Carl Condit, writing years later, noted, that the presence of such a work by an artist of vaguely communist sentiments across the street from the City Hall/County Building, bastion of Chicago’s political machine, “could only be regarded as a complex ironic joke.”
The Picasso was far from the only major work to be scorned by the public intended to be edified by it. In 1989, Frenchman Jean Dubuffet was asked to do a piece to adorn what became one of the Loop’s more important public spaces, the plaza of the new State of Illinois Center (later the James R. Thompson Center, after the Illinois governor who championed it). The sculptor responded with a work in fiberglass, Monument with Standing Beast. The local papers occasionally give space to recurring complaint that the Dubuffet sculpture in front of the Thompson Center should be sold, or at least removed. It has acquired a number of nicknames from the people who must pass it every day, who have likened it to a decaying tooth and a pile of melting snow (which would have made a fitter subject for Chicago). One Sun-Times reader opined that the work demonstrates the timelessness of art: “It was crap 20 years ago, it's currently crap, and it will still be crap 20 years from now.”
Many Chicagoans are of the opinion that what is wrong with such works is not that they are mediocre modern art, but that they are modern. Shortly after the unveiling in 1981 of “Chicago” by the Spanish master Joan Miro on Brunswick Plaza on West Washington Street in the Loop, a local machinist splashed it with red paint, explaining later that he didn’t like it.
Claes Oldenburg’s 1977 20-ton latticework baseball bat, Batcolumn, installed—one shrinks from the word “erected” —at the Social Security Administration Center Madison and Jefferson streets, has inspired much ribald comment and some political jibes—it has been likened to a policeman’s billy club—but little admiration. Frank Stella's Melville inspired The Town-Ho's Story: With Postscript & The Gam, which stands—happily—inside the Metcalf Federal Building rather than outside it, where more people would have to look it; one local wrote that it “looks as though hauled directly from some west side landfill.” Such works are reminders that having works by great sculptors is not the same as having great sculpture.
The best-loved works of sculpture in Chicago are not necessarily popular because of their superior artistic merit but because they stand in places where lots of people see and become familiar with them. The Bowman and the Spearman at the Congress Street entrance to Grant Park are among these. Also on the list are the bronze lions by sculptor Edward Kemys that have stood guard over the Art Institute entrance since 1894; they are works of such power that they survive periodic indignities such as being decked with Bears helmets during that football team’s brief reign as Superbowl champ. And while people still aren’t sure what the Picasso is, they no longer are bothered that they don’t. Familiarity has soothed contempt and a proposal to remove the work would no doubt be met with a storm of public protest. It is part of the city history now, and beloved for that.
By the 1960s, public art abandoned the hero in bronze trousers in favor of modernist abstractions. Chicago has as good a collection of these modern works as any city. One of them is perhaps the best-known—perhaps one should say most recognized— sculpture in the city is “The Picasso,” which has graced Daley Center Plaza since 1967. Its unveiling began a golden age for monumental public art in Chicago and Chicagoland. Across the street in the Brunswick Plaza on Washington Street stands Joan Miro’s 40-foot Chicago (originally The Sun, the Moon, and One Star when it was unveiled in 1981) is tucked into an alcove between buildings. Marc Chagall's mosaic The Four Seasons adorns the east side of the plaza next to the recently renamed Chase Tower; completed in 1974, the work is abstract, very pretty, but not especially involving. Alexander Calder's bright orange Flamingo (1974) at the plaza of Mies’ Federal Center on Dearborn is a lesser work by a major sculptor that is not helped by its location; so vast is the space enclosed by that plaza that even a work that stands 53 feet tall looks dwarfed.
As Chicago suburbs grew in wealth and pretension, they too added to the region’s inventory of public art. More than 72 pieces of outdoor sculpture, including modern works by Harry Bertoia, Andy Goldsworthy, and other noted artists, can be seen in the garden of Farnsworth House in the Fox River valley. In 1989 the Block Museum in Evanston opened its Sculpture Garden, designed by Chicago architect John Vinci.
The Art Institute of suburban sculpture gardens is located at Governors State University in University Park. There, the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park offers one of America's largest outdoor collections of such works. Paid for by the foundation set up by one of Park Forests’ developers (after which it is named), the park was developed by his son, the protean collector connoisseur and civic booster Lewis Manilow. Manilow’s farm house in the area (later donated to GSU, which uses it as a conference center) was a gathering place for the many sculptors Manilow befriended in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such as Mark di Suvero, John Henry, Richard Hunt, John Chamberlain, and Jerry Peart. The grounds now contain some two dozen works, including pieces by such luminaries of contemporary art as Martin Puryear and Bruce Nauman.
Mention “Chicago sculpture” to a cross-section of average Americans and those that make a reply at all will probably cite The Spindle, a 40-foot tall sculpture of eight cars impaled by a massive steel pipe by California artist Dustin Shuler that appeared in the teen comedy film, “Wayne’s World.” The work stood for 18 years in a Berwyn shopping center. It was commissioned by the center’s owner and is one of several modern works on the site. Public art of this sort is surprising in a blue-collar town, although more than a few local residents have used livelier terms.
The inscrutability of modern art often is only thing that locals find tolerable about it. Most of the additions are committee-chosen works by safe artists such as the popular Richard Hunt, abstractions that, because their meaning is unclear, excite no controversies, and thus are favored by timorous public officials. Visiting aliens, inspecting the ruins of an empty Chicago, may conclude that sometime in the 1970s or so Chicago was taken over by a race of metal beings, who erected monuments to themselves; Virginio Farrari’s Being Born (originally installed in front of Field’s State Street store, later reinstalled at the intersection of Ontario, Ohio, and Orleans streets) they might conclude, is to these aliens what St. Gaudens’ Lincoln is to us, a moving portrait of a great leader.
But just when one was ready to conclude that the golden age of public sculpture in Chicago was finished, Millennium Park opened. The bandshell of the Pritzker Pavilion by Frank Gehry is more sculpture than architecture. The massive stainless steel Cloud Gate by British artist Anish Kapoor, has already everywhere recalled by the affectionate nickname, The Bean. Nearby stands the Crown Fountain—named for a donor—an interactive fountain designed by Spaniard Juame Plensa consisting of twin 50-foot high glass block towers that display computer-controlled images. The works on display there caused a stir like nothing since the unveiling 40 years earlier of the Picasso fours blocks to the west, only in the former case the reaction has been not puzzlement but almost universal delight.
Chicago has produced a few sculptors of note. Chief among them is Lorado Taft. Taft was born in western Illinois and grew up in Urbana before decamping for art training in Paris and a career in Chicago. A leading critic and teacher of his day, Taft was one of a generation of poets and novelists who wanted to lift Chicago up out of the mud all the way to heaven, without stopping anywhere in between. Taft sought to express the Timeless and the Universal in such works as Fountain of Time (1922). This massive procession of 100 figures that stands west of Midway Plaisance took 14 years to build and not many more than to fall apart; the steel-reinforced concrete work was recently restored after decades of neglect.
Taft was not the only Chicagoan to take up a chisel with artistic intent. Richard Bock was a German immigrant who learned carving from his furniture-maker father. Raised in Chicago and trained as a carver and modeler, Bock won a scholarship at the Mechanic's Institute of Chicago, where he studied drawing and geometry modeling and plaster casting.
Back in Chicago in 1891 after the unavoidable stint at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris, Bock opened a studio and went to work providing sculptures for the World's Columbian Exposition, whose architects were commissioning statues by the regiment. Later, Bock was awarded the contract by Louis Sullivan to decorate the architect’s Schiller Theater Building aka the Garrick Theater in downtown Chicago. It was on that project that Bock met Louis Sullivan’s then-head draftsman, Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom Bock would have a long a productive professional relationship in pre-World War I years; examples of his work from the period can still be enjoyed at such landmark building at the Dana-Thomas House in Springfield, the Heller House in Hyde Park, and Unity Temple and Wright's own studio in Oak Park. After a busy career in Chicago and later in Oregon, Bock retired in 1932 to his home in River Forest, and died in 1949.
Wright also gave outlets for the work of Wisconsin-born painter and designer George Niedecken, who studied in Chicago and whose hand adorned the Robie and Coonley houses, and Burnham and Root’s Rookery Building downtown.
The much-traveled Martin Puryear came through Chicago in 1982, when he did "Bodark Art" for the Nathan Manilow Sculpture Park at Governor State University. (See below for more on that park.) Puryear is much honored—the MacArthur and the Guggenheim are among the prizes and fellowships he has won, and in 1992 he was elected to the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters.
Richard Hunt was born in Chicago in 1935 and grew up on the South Side. Hunt's librarian mother saw to it he had violin lessons and took him to the symphony, but it was to study art that he enrolled in the Art Institute school in 1953, where he came into contact with refugee teachers and students from Europe who broadened his view. Hunt now resides, but more than 30 of his abstractions in metal are to be seen in Chicagoland. He is widely, and perhaps inadequately described as the foremost African American abstract sculptor. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of his work is that it is still being made in Chicago, where he lives.
If one can learn about the history of art from studying the paintings and sculptures and other works in its art museums, one can learn a lot about the history of art in Chicago by studying its art museums.
Art Institute of Chicago
Say “Chicago culture” to most Americans and they will reply with “Art Institute.” The Art Institute is what the Stockyards used to be—the one thing everyone who comes to Chicago feels they must visit. It, with the CSO, are to Chicago arts what the Sears Tower and the Hancock are to its architecture—not the best buildings, but the ones that stand out in the minds of the larger public.
The sophisticate will want to visit the Art Institute because they’ve heard it is a good museum. To the down-home, if not downscale traveler, a trip to the Art Institute appeals because they've never been to one before. (The last are usually pleasantly surprised to find that the Art Institute is the coolest mall in town.) The Art Institute is the home of iconographic works—American Gothic by Grant Wood, Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, Seurat’s Sunday on the Island of Grand Jatte, El Greco’s The Assumption of the Virgin, and enough Monets to paper the walls of Soldier Field. Average annual attendance of late is more than three million; the scene at its Michigan Avenue entrance steps is what many a Downstater thinks of as the big city as its most invigorating.
Art Institute’s history is much ventilated, although frank accounts—usually in the form of memoirs and journalism—are rare. Frankness becomes its story, which is filled with enough power struggles and temperamental personalities and big money to make one wish that some of the moments from its past had been painted by its artists as frequently as the Bible or the great wars.
Started in 1879, the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (the name was changed in 1882) had as its larger aims to prove to the world that Chicago was not a boor with cow shit on shoes. It was meant to show off the taste of the city’s business elite, who financed it, supervised acquisitions, and donated their own collections. First housed at State and Monroe, in 1893 it was given its present building at Michigan and Adams, which had been built for the World Columbian Exposition, whose World Parliament of Religions met in it. Much added to since, today’s Art Institute complex is a great place to look at art, and at art lovers.
Having raised the city out of the gutter, literally, Chicago’s big men wanted to raise its arts out of the gutter too. As some reached middle age, making money bored them (just as being married to a man interested only in money bored many a wife) and spending it became an amusement. Some gave out of vanity; there is no collector of paintings that did not fancy herself a Medici. The names above the gallery doors at the Art Institute in particular are not there one suspects to attest to their wealth but to their taste. Some acted out of civic patriotism; they undertook to decorate their ugly squalid city, as a home-owners might adorn painting on the wall, to impress visitors. But others sincerely wanted to introduce the masses to the civilizing experience of the Arts.
The Art Institute from the start therefore had what would today be called a complex program. For one thing, it was meant to put Chicago on the nation’s cultural map—hard to do when the institution had no collection to speak of. When grain trader Charles Hutchinson went to Europe to fill the Art Institute’s pantry, he bought as if he was trying to corner the market. The stories of these buying expeditions to Europe are comic legends, that like most comedy, exaggerated for effect. “There is hardly a leading name in the business of the place but is to be found beneath a picture given or lent to this gallery,” wrote English journalist George Warrington Steevens, who visited in 1896.
Chicago is conscious that there is something in the world, some sense of form, of elegance, of refinement, that with all her corn and railways, her hogs and by-products and dollars, she lacks. She does not quite know what it is, but she is determined to have it, cost what it may.
Later, those walls would be covered with donated works from the private collections of Chicagoans. In the process of demonstrating their own taste, Chicago’s public-spirited collectors also sought to elevate the city’s taste. The rich didn’t donate so the public could enjoy these works—it was widely assumed that they could not—but so they might learn from them. A city in which the middle class was more like, say, the Palmers was assumed to be a better city.
Steevens took note of the practice. “Mr. Phil D. Armour, the hog king, giving a picture to the gallery, and his slaughter-house man painfully spelling out the description of it on Sunday afternoon,” he wrote, “there is something rather pathetic in this, and assuredly something very noble.” In a sense of course the Armours were giving the workers paintings that the workers had paid for, since the rich could afford them out of the profits they had made by sweating their workers.
The most singular thing about the history of the Art Institute is that its founders for the most part collected what was then new art. This was partly a matter of cost—the Chicagoan may have been millionaires, but the prices of Old Masters were beyond them, and in any event few such painting came on the market, and they were in a hurry to build their collections. (Quality works from that period in the Art Institute’s collections are scant to this day.) New art was cheaper. But there is good cheap new art and bad cheap new art, and surprisingly often Chicagoans knew the difference. The Impressionists and Post-Impressionists that at first amused and later annoyed the French art establishment were hung by the city’s Bertha Palmers in her drawing room with no qualm.
A tour of the building today is to spend time with these worthies. Henry Field was fond of the Barbizon School of landscape painting and gave forty-one canvasses that include Song of the Lark by Breton. Businessman Edward V. Butler was a fan of George Inness; he gave the Art Institute eighteen paintings by that significant American painter. Mrs. W. W. Kimball, widow of a piano maker, bequeathed twenty paintings valued at $1,000,000—real money in 1921—a Rembrandt, works by the Englishmen Reynolds, Turner, Constable, and Gainsborough, and Monet (of whose works it now owns 33) and Corot from France. Frederick Clay Bartlett firmly established Post-Impressionism in the Art Institute in 1926 by presenting the Helen Bartlett Collection in memory of his wife and collecting colleague. George Harding’s Western paintings, including 32 by the great Frederick Remington, came to the Art Institute in 1982. The most popular with today’s public of these bequests are the 52 works from the estate of Bertha Palmer in the form of French Impressionists such as Renoir, Corot, Millet, Manet, and Monet. (It was Bertha’s taste that made the collection worth owning but her husband paid for them, so the paintings are known as the Potter Palmer collection.) The names of these and other collectors who decided to share the wealth—Ryerson, Birch-Bartlett, Buckingham, Nickerson—still adorn the galleries; grateful visitors will at least pay them the respect of reading them.
These days the names adorn not pictures but entire galleries. The Art Institute’s reliance on the wealthy is just as pressing today as it was 100 years ago. The original building of the Art Institute is decorated with the names of the great painters and sculptors of the West; its recent additions are emblazoned with the names of the patrons who paid for them. At today’s Art Institute, notes D’Eramo, “the subject of the art museum is not the artist or the art itself, but the donor.” This is overstated, but more true than not.
A great museum takes more than money, more even than great paintings, and the Art Institute curators may have been beholden to the city’s rich collectors, but from the start they worked to make the place worthy of its boosters’ ambitions. It has added superb collections of drawings and prints, ceramics, non-European art, and two libraries, the Ryerson (the fine and decorative arts) and Burnham (architecture and related fields). The result is a national center of first-class scholarship and curation.
Since its start, the Art Institute was a hobby of the rich, which until well into the 20th century meant that for all intents and purposes that the building on Michigan was a suburb of Lake Forest. The people who sat on its boards had the virtues of the city’s WASP elites—money, and the power to get things done—and the vices. Veteran gallery owner and dealer Dorothy Feigin has recalled that by the 1940s Chicago’s founding merchant elite had gone to their graves, and most of their paintings had gone to the Art Institute. But while their heirs did not inherit their parents’ collections, they did inherit the Art Institute. In the 1950s, the city’s flagship art museum was being run by people of no particular interest or expertise in new art, and the Art Institute was on ways to becoming a museum in every sense, a mausoleum of dead movements.
More recent Chicago collectors had been enthusiastic patrons of such hard-to-digest movements as surrealism, German Expressionism, and New York-style abstract expressionism. Much of this was too dicey for the still-matronly Art Institute. By the 1940s the great Chicago art collectors were such people as Florene and Samuel Marx, Claire Florsheim Zeisler—who bequeathed to the Art Institute four major Klee paintings and a Miró—Muriel Kallis Newman, Jory and Joseph Shapiro, Nathan Cummings, Adele and Arnold Maremont, Rose and Morton Neumann, Lindy and Edwin Bergman, Niesen Harris—all Jews, or with Jewish backgrounds.
The WASP elite never welcomed Jews to the inner sanctum of the city’s cultural flagships, which left the Art Institute cut off from new art, new patrons, and new ideas. In her memoir, My Love Affair with Modern Art, Katharine Kuh noted that Chicago collector Muriel Kallis Newman was among the first locally to recognize the meaning of Abstract Expressionism. She amassed a fine collection of works by Pollock, de Kooning, and their colleagues but willed it to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Because she was a woman and an unconventional young collector who didn’t need piles of money to buy well in a field where she was an early convert,” Kuh wrote, “the trustees of the museum ignored her.”
In recent years the Art Institute directors are a more inclusive group—the elites of today are in many cases the city’s former social outcasts. (If the elites now includes more kinds of people than they used to, the Art Institute is still about showing off the elites.) The museum embraced the 20th century in art at the 21st century began, with the construction of a large new addition to house art of the past 100 years, including contemporary installations and film and video.
The Art Institute’s original mission—to present to an ignorant and often disbelieving Chicago public works by the cutting-edge European artists of the day—was, a generation later, taken on by the universities. Throughout the 1920s and 30s The University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society, Founded in 1915, presented works by Picasso, Brancusi, Mondrian, Noguchi, Miro, Moholy-Nagy, Marc Chagall, Sergei Prokofieff and Gertrud Stein (It was not only local audiences that were exposed; ; exhibitions in 1934 of Alexander Calder mobiles and (in 1936) of paintings and drawings by Ferdinand Leger were the first solo exhibitions of these artists in this country.) Society exhibitions in the 1970s introduced Chicago to the work of Bruce Nauman, Joseph Kosuth and Julian Schnabel; in the ‘80s it featured the first Ed Paschke retrospective, work by Jenny Holzer, Cindy Sherman, Louise Bourgeois, and Jeff Koons, and the first Midwest exhibition of German neo-expressionists.
David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art
The David and Alfred Smart Museum of Art was founded in 1974 and named for David Smart, the founder of Esquire Magazine, and his brother Alfred. Who largely paid for it. It was at first simply a repository for the bric a brac that had accumulated at the University of Chicago over the previous 80 years or so—Greek and Roman antiquities Chinese and Japanese objects Renaissance and Baroque paintings and sculpture late 19th- and 20th-century sculpture and drawings, even furniture by Frank Lloyd Wright from the Robie House. It has since made acquisitions on its own, mainly in the areas of Asian art, graphic arts, and 20th-century paintings, sculpture, and decorative arts.
It is the fate of even the newest art works to become historical artifacts. No art movement stays new very long; the distance between the avant garde, the cutting edge the contemporary and, finally, the passé gets shorter all the time. The Art Institute has long since been dismissed by some as a plush mausoleum of dead movements, although it has begun collecting works in styles such as Abstract Expressionism that were the epitome of modern art. But it was always the aim of teaching museum like the Art Institute to collect the best, and what is the best of an era cannot be known except to the perspicacious until after that era is over.
Museum of Contemporary Art
It was to showcase such newest art that the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), opened in 1967. Not a museum as first but a a European-style kunsthalle devoted to showing rather than holding art. The MCA started in part to institutional support for the experimental, the daring, and merely stupid. (one of its key backers was Joseph Randall Shapiro, who collected surrealist works.) It was all very ‘60s—was first housed in a building that once housed Playboy Enterprises, which was devoted to contemporary art of a certain kind. The Art Institute has described its relationship with the MCA as a sibling's relationship.
“Sibling” indeed—the MCA is like the younger brother who feels obliged to be noisy and a bit naughty to get attention. It made a splash in 1969 with the first wrapping of a public building in the U.S. by Christo—the MCA’s own—and the first U.S. exhibition of Frida Kahlo in 1978. Readers will note that it is more than 20 years since the MCA has staged an exhibition of national note; it is hard to maintain a cutting edge in a city that remains, in terms of its tastes, rather dull.
In 1996 the MCA opened a new museum building on the site of the former National Guard Armory at 220 E. Chicago Avenue. The MCA boasts that it is the largest building for the display of contemporary art because it far from the best. Kamin called in “a cold, colorless culture palace,“ a “blown opportunity” by Berlin architect Josef Paul Kleihues.
National Museum of Mexican Art
What is now the National Museum of Mexican Art in East Pilsen began life in 1982 as the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum. For years it organized only temporary exhibitions for lack of a permanent home. Not a museum or rather not only one, but a cultural center that hosts performing arts festivals that attract cream of Latin American artists. From the start its mission is explicitly educational. One of the co-founders, Carlos Tortolero, has stated that "We want to teach non-Mexicans what we really are like so they understand and honor us. To connect with them, we've made our museum a welcoming place.”( With some success; about a third of visitors in recent years have been non-Hispanic.) The MFC also pursues the social mission of the flagship Chicago museums—to teach the city’s about art, and more broadly, the cultural heritage they are heir to. For that reason, no admission fee is charged.
Mary and Leigh Block Museum
Suburban art museums usually offer more museum than art. This is particularly the case with the Elmhurst Art Museum, which is built around Mies van der Rohe’s McCormick house. In 1980, the distinguished Chicago art collectors Mary and Leigh B. Block donated funds to Northwestern University for the construction and endowment of a kunsthalle. In 1998 the gallery became the Mary and Leigh Block Museum when it was put in charge of the university collection of art, such as valuable The Old Master prints. Since then the Block has, like the Smart, sought to complement the holdings of other museums in the region; the result to date is nearly 4,000 works, mostly prints, drawings, monumental outdoor sculpture, and photography.
Bumpkins no more?
For purposes of guidebook writing, the city and its suburbs may be said to contain three largely distinct arts publics. One lives along the lakefront, and is as familiar with Orchestra Hall and the Art Institute galleries as a farmer is with his barn. Their tastes run to mostly middle-brow art that has been sanctioned by the big museums on whose boards they sit and whose operations they help pay for.
They are joined by a second public, the small but crucial art-for-art’s-sake crowd consisting of cognoscenti, critics, and collectors (many of them from out of town) and artists themselves. It is these smallish cities within the city—the membership of the Art Institute numbers only 50,000 people—that concern themselves with the fine arts, broadly defined.
The third public for the arts in Chicagoland is the middle-class, much larger than it used to be, consisting largely of tourists (including tourists from Chicago’s own suburbs). This public ventures into museums for blockbuster shows in the hope of being dazzled or otherwise entertained, which museums, increasingly dependent on ticket money plopped down by this larger audience, try hard to deliver.
But if Chicago is not Paris, or even London, neither is it Chicago any longer. These days, sneering at the city’s bumpkin-ish attitude toward the fine arts will mark the sneerer, not the city, as a rube. In world terms, the Art Institute is a first-class art museum of the second rank. The Lyric’s productions attract reviewers from abroad and remains one of the great opera houses. The CSO’s reputation was inflated during the Solti years but remains a globally respected ensemble. Hubbard Street and the transplanted Joffrey Ballet Company have given Chicago with a reputation as a dance center bigger than the small local audience for it. And if the city’s contribution to the living culture of the day is widely seen as less imposing, if it has been a less than a fecund home to the fine arts since the 1950s, well, few U.S. cities outside New York and Los Angeles have been.
It is unlikely that many Chicagoans not dependent on the tourist industry are much troubled by their city's status as a backwater. Chicago’s legendary regular guy—a category that includes many a woman—prefers to spend his time in other ways. As rendered by comics from John Belushi to Mike Myers, at any rate, he is a person one might want to take a tractor pull, not a ballet performance. These Chicagoans regard art museums and symphony concerts as wastes of their time and other people’s money; there are many Peorians and Urbanans who have been to the Art Institute more often than hundreds of thousands of Chicagoans.
Chicago is the land of Da Bears, a city whose style—in acting, music—favors the untutored over the refined, and honesty over artfulness. Chicago’s lack of polish is well-remarked by visitors. (The local pronunciation renders “Goethe” as “go-ee-thee,” presumably because in Chicago that is only a street name and not a German writer.)
Pat Colander, in Hugh Hefner’s First Funeral and Other True Tales of Love and Death in Chicago, describes what he calls the “Second City voodoo:” the stance that if one can’t be best, the next best thing is to be the worst. “Maybe our forefathers,” Colander writes, “knew that striving for real achievement was too painful and lengthy a process. Better to grab the berth no one wanted: the most unholy climate, the rankest charlatans, the greediest thieves, the most vicious gangsters, most blatant liars, and most amateurish culture.” It is impossible to say where this joke originated—“Chicago was founded when someone visited New York and said, ‘I like the crime, the crowding and the poverty, but I think it should be colder’—but it is told in Chicago. ●