The first work displayed in the landmark “Monster Roster” exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art is Leon Golub’s four-foot-square lacquer-on-masonite Siamese Sphinx II (1955). Depicting a mythological two-headed creature against an abraded, rust-colored background, it is a dark, forbidding, and—yes—monstrous painting that sets the tone for all that follows.
Organized by John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, co-owners of the Chicago art gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey, along with Smart curators Jessica Moss and Richard A. Born, this eye-opening show contains more than sixty paintings, sculptures, and works on paper. It offers the first in-depth look at an unfairly forgotten Chicago movement that began in 1948, when students were banned from an annual regional exhibition sponsored by the Art Institute of Chicago. In response, Golub, then a junior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, established a counter-salon, Exhibition Momentum, which lasted for nearly a decade and featured many of the Monster Roster adherents.
A loose group and not a self-identified association, the artists shared a similar dark aesthetic that led a young art critic and member of the group, Franz Schulze, to coin the name in a 1959 ARTnews review. The Monster Roster’s collective energy reached its apex in the 1950s and dissipated by 1968 (the show loses punch and focus after 1960). The demise roughly coincided with the rise of the Hairy Who and the other Chicago Imagists, a much more famous but very different group that combined comic-book imagery, surrealism, and fetishism in their work and that learned from the earlier movement that it was possible for Chicago artists to go their own way.
The Monster Roster produced predominantly somber, unsettling works suffused with Cold War insecurity and existential angst. Some of the sixteen artists, including Golub, June Leaf, Nancy Spero, and H.C. Westermann, went on to achieve lasting recognition, but most are little known today. Turning away from New York and the Abstract Expressionists, who had a near lock on the American art scene at the time, these defiantly figurative artists looked to European, non-Western, and even classical sources for inspiration. Especially influential was the work of Jean Dubuffet, who gave a much-discussed talk on Art Brut in Chicago in 1951. Dubuffet’s influence is particularly visible in Dominick Di Meo’s three craggy “Torso” paintings from 1962. “Art brut fit right into the Chicago aesthetic,” Di Meo says in the catalogue. “Grit, surface, the street. It was everything un-art in a way, which was very attractive to us.”
The Monster Roster’s clear leader was Golub, who is represented by ten works, none more striking than his monumental 6½-by-13½-foot lacquer-on-canvas Reclining Youth (1959). Based on a section of a classical Greek frieze from the Pergamon Altar portraying a soldier pondering his impending death, the image shows a patchily rendered, introspective figure who seems at once peaceful and fearful.
Also key are the works by Nancy Spero, Golub’s wife, including a trio of broodingly elegant, gray-on-gray paintings, and Homage to New York (I Do Not Challenge), 1959, a text-driven, feminist work that feels a few decades ahead of its time. Displaying two faces sticking out their tongues on either side of a tombstone inscribed with the initials of famous New York artists, it is a jab at New York—exactly what its title says it isn’t.
There are also notable works by the movement’s lesser-known artists, including George Cohen’s mysterious, seemingly Native American–tinged painting Emblem for an Unknown Nation (1954); Di Meo’s aggressively rendered Two Personages (ca. 1950), which shows a pair of drip-painted, red-and-black heads; and Cosmo Campoli’s cast-plaster Absalom, Absalom (1958), a spherical mass of heads and faces topping a chairlike body.
A welcome rethinking of American art history has been under way in recent years, as curators and scholars strive to give women, minorities, and overlooked movements outside New York their due places in the narrative. This exhibition should be the first step in reassessing the Monster Roster artists. Several in the show, including Di Meo, Campoli, and Evelyn Statsinger, deserve their own museum surveys. Further, viewers elsewhere in the country should have a chance to see the Monster Roster’s work and make their own judgments about these Chicago artists who dared to challenge the art establishment and face down the demons lurking in postwar America.