Retrospective

From the Archives: A Look at Chicago’s Budding Art Scene, in 1955, by Museum Pioneer Peter Selz

Peter Selz.

COURTESY BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE

Peter Selz, the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum in California, died last month at 100. Today we turn back to the October 1955 issue of ARTnews, which included an essay on Chicago’s budding art scene by Selz and Patrick Malone. The essay focused on five artists—Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Ray Fink, Leon Golub, and Joseph Goto—whom the two believed typified the Windy City’s art scene at the time. Though the artists lacked a style that bound their diverse work, Malone and Selz said they shared a “deep concern with the human image.” Their essay on the “Chicago school” follows below. —Alex Greenberger

“Is there a new Chicago school?”
By Patrick Malone and Peter Selz
October 1955

An enthusiastic appreciation of younger talents developed in the Windy City

Behind the plastic surgery along Chicago’s lakefront lies the real city. It has been variously christened hog-butcher, slum-city and hustler’s haven. It also has a distinguished cultural heritage, and today, inviting comparison with the originality of its architectural and literary traditions, there are certain recent paintings and sculpture by five young people who are potential leaders of a younger “Chicago School.”

These artists—Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Ray Fink, Leon Golub and Joseph Goto—do not compose a unified group, nor have they a unified style. They share, however, a deep concern with the human image, which re-emerges in their work after an age of abstraction to direct the sensations of the spectator toward more specific responses. They also have in common their war experiences and education: all of them attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. All have taken part in Exhibition Momentum which brought them into close contact and enabled them to clarify their roles.

Cosmo Campoli teaches at the Institute of Design of Illinois Institute of Technology and directs its Junior Workshop. His sculpture reaffirms man’s affinity with nature. The cave paintings at Altamira, which he saw while traveling on an Art Institute of Chicago graduate fellowship, interested him less than the calcareous formations in an adjoining cave. The stalagmites and stalactites brought fangs and teeth to his mind and the dripping cave became a vast mouth, leading to his concept of Jonah and the Whale. For about four years he worked on the problem of how the artist could create a form which would communicate this experience of nature’s internal structure, and finally made two versions in lead of Jonah and the Whale. The teeth, or stalactites, were made from twigs, textured with foam-glass, and cast in lead before being welded to the cave-like mouth. The scales of the whale suggest the heaving waves of the sea. The figure caught within the mesh from which there seems no escape is an extremely personal identification: “I tried to make Jonah look as I would feel if I had been in a whale.”

Campoli is preoccupied with the image of man related to birth and death: Jonah caught in the whale’s mouth, the child emerging dead from his mother’s womb, the bird mother feeding its young. He created earth-like surfaces, “as far removed from our own slick, sterile surroundings as possible,” to confront the spectator with the primordial aspects of humanity. His sculpture is frequently disturbing in its expression of terror but this experience is relieved to some extent by the very fact that the artist has come to grips with those conflicts which alarm many of us by its mastery over materials and extraordinary sensibility to formal structure. We must agree with his own recent statement. “My sculpture is not made to match walls, to please or not please anyone, or to make some damn dog happy, but to have its own personality and exist as a strong personality exists. My sculpture is, and shall be, strong enough to make an ash tray alongside of it look only like an ash tray.”

George Cohen’s paintings and collages show a prime concern with the created object, which has its own reality and exists simply for itself.

Cohen stopped painting about the time he completed his formal art training: “I knew techniques but not what to say. Therefore, connected with the question of meaning, I turned to the study of art history after I came back from the war.” At present he teaches painting and art history at Northwestern University.

In his painting Avenger he fuses forms, creates his figure out of apparent contradictions, and presents the observer with a frightening dream image of hostile aggression. It lacks traditional proportion and harmony, but Cohen has also destroyed the clichés of distortion. He believes that “making art is the shattering of values—the more pieces that fall, the deeper the power of the work.” When asked if he does not wish to create new values, he points out that these result invariably from the work.

The figure in Dancing Girl is made of aluminum foil and set against a black background with bright stripes of color. While a great deal was left to chance in his earlier work, Cohen now exercises careful control and has made many drawings to achieve the final contours of this figure. As in Byzantine mosaics, the light seems to come from the figure itself. The image makes an intense impression, indeed, it is so profound, it seems to persist even after the lights are switched off. Unlike many contemporary painters, he does not encourage the viewer to evolve his own associations. He has also “shattered” conventional space illusions—which is ironically emphasized by the addition of mirrors—the ultimate in illusion.

Cohen is fascinated by the mirror because of its multiple associations and because it transports the observer into the work. In Anybody’s Self-Portrait, mirrors are combined with the dismembered parts of a doll in a strange, hypnotic construction that includes three pairs of eyes—two of which belong to the viewer. As he looks more closely, the viewer becomes aware of his multiple, distorted reflections which violate his image just as the doll has been cut apart. The doll’s arms and legs—used in much the same spirit as the same elements were used by Bellmer—are reminiscent of votive offerings at sacred shrines.

The similarity of some of Cohen’s work to Surrealism is only a surface resemblance; he is not concerned with destruction for its own sake, but rather points up our tenuous existence.

Ray Fink, instructor and graduate student at the Institute of Design, is less concerned about calling attention to the state of man and the world. He says, “My sculpture contains no sedative or revolutionary message; it simply reflects my way of life, and the emphasis is on creation.” Verbal understatement is characteristic of Fink but is belied by the strength of his work. In making a sculpture for the U. S. Steel exhibition in 1953, the title of exhibition, “Iron, Man and Steel” suggested the word “Triptych,” which immediately called up religious associations. These were sufficiently strong to suggest a religious subject. Christ and the Twelve Apostles, as well as the formal arrangement and the final title, Triptych. Over one-hundred preparatory drawings and woodcuts preceded the models which gradually became more abstract as the work progressed. The making of an abstract sculpture was not decided upon in advance but was more a matter of Fink’s becoming fascinated with certain major forms and movements as he worked.

He finally created a “gothic” image with hinged wings in which sharply pointed spikes and strong masses are combined by means of a series of delicate and graceful threads, implying the tenuous existing balance between “iron, men and steel.” Few sculptor are successful in making the base as integral part of the sculpture as Ray Fink. The base of Thou Sayest It is composed of welded, ready-made parts rusted to a ruddy brown which serves as a foil to the oxidized bronze figure held aloft on steel spikes. The figure is emaciated; its ribs and pelvis seem to cradle and bind at once. Its scorched and scabrous surface suggest it is a memento of some holocaust; it functions as a fetish. There is a strong fetishistic element in all of Fink’s work. This is particularly obvious in his jewelry—small cast and constructed objects.

Leon Golub is a highly educated painter. He has two B.A.’s (one in art history) and an M.F.A. He now teaches at Wright Junior College and Northwestern University. In an effort to evaluate his won painting and the art of his time, he has made critical revisions of some established evaluations of contemporary art and, in this regard, his writing is more socio-psychological than that of most artists. In a recent article, “A Critique of Abstract-Expressionism,” published in the College Art Journal, Golub wrote, “Only that rare artist who is iconoclastically remote, survives with an intrinsic and personal art. If an art form becomes too “free-floating,” that is, disassociated from representative contents, it may lose identification and become somewhat anonymous. Such anonymous objects have been functional in some collective cultures . . . and the mechanics of modern society certainly predispose towards anonymous responses.”

Golub feels that in order to avoid the dual dangers of anonymous and stereotyped responses, he must rely largely on semiconscious improvisation. He differs from many of his contemporaries by insisting on a precise denotation of image which he achieves by much reworking of the canvas. His images evolve around certain central ideational patterns: frontal figures rigidly, bi-symmetrically extended; hieratic priestly figures; double-headed monsters, seemingly atavistic; princes and kings.

His Hamlet was partially induced by a reading of Ernest Jones’s essay on Hamlet and Oedipus. Golub’s Hamlet is a thwarted prince whose bird-like leg-arms seem to twitch; his enormous hand grafted onto his dwarfed arm gestures imperiously, but impotently. The totemic degeneration of a once classic head is one of a series of ambivalences of power and frustration.

Another example of Golub’s iconography is a series of sphinxes, conceived as both totems and enigmas. In the Prodigal Sphinx, the “Assyrian” father—ritualistically scarred—reaches tenderly to the proudly withdrawn, princely son. In the Siamese Sphinx, against a startling blood-pink background, one head stares defiantly, while the other seems to accept its destiny. Both paintings present insoluble conflicts communicated with profound insight and understanding.

In contrast to Golub, Joseph Goto places little confidence in verbal explanations. He says, “Just reproduce my work.”

Although Goto began as a painter, while still a student he developed an allergy to turpentine and turned to sculpture. Welded sculpture was a natural medium for him since he had spent six years as a welder for the U. S. Army Engineers in Hawaii where he was born. His ideas for sculpture take form in general sketches. Then he begins to build the sculpture, but has no set method of working. “Sometimes I start at the top and work down, or I may start on the inside and work out.” This does not imply anything disorderly or haphazard in his methods. Indeed it is more a result of his desire to take advantage of the fact that welding stainless steel is actually comparable to painting, inasmuch as it easily permits major changes during the course of the work. The finished sculpture which he accepts as the fully developed statement is invariably different in appearance from the sketch.

Individual pieces have either a strong vertical or horizontal quality. The ascending calligraphic line of Family Tree as well as the spire-like (and spear-like) J.M.G. exemplify the vertical tendency. Basically, they are twentieth-century totem poles. When seen in a gallery, quivering and swaying at the slightest vibration, they convey the magic and taboo of the jungle. Emanak is a mechanized jungle monster. Its horizontal body armed with sharpened spikes is poised to strike. It suggests the frightening mutations which might result from the use of modern super-weapons.

In addition to these five artists there are in Chicago a number of young painters and sculptors who have deviated from established standards to arrive at a frequently troubled and very personal imagery. Among them are: Don Baum, Fred Berger, Harry Brorby, Robert Kuennen, Norman Laliberte, Franz Schulze and John Waddell. Of special interest is the recent work of Fred Berger and John Waddell. At first influenced by Moholy-Nagy, Berger later worked as an Abstract-Expressionist and now paints immense human heads in which the exuberance of his surface treatment and line as well as his investigation of spatial relationships is retained but is brought to bear on more clearly defined human emotions. For Waddell the social statement is of paramount importance. His Look and See Yourself, 2 is a huge canvas evolved during the past three years: a grimly satirical, panoramic view of contemporary culture and the threat of destruction. Its strident color, distorted shapes, and the intensity of the dynamic, linear forms add up to a frenzied portrayal of struggle.

All these artists belong to a generation which follows that of the Abstract-Expressionists. While not denying the accomplishments of Abstract-Expressionism, they are concerned primarily with self-disclosure through abstract means, and they feel that painting and sculpture can express more than the recording of the artist’s process of working. They also believe that a work of art may communicate more than ineffable sensations, that painting and sculpture can, in fact, present visual symbols which may clarify and intensify our emotions about life and its meaning.

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