Weekend Reading

Recollections of books carried back and forth on the elevated train -- in a long-term, though belated, attempt to learn something about the world.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Old Guard and The Avant-garde

Modernism in Chicago 1910-1940 (essays delivered at a 1988 symposium concerning"the coming of Modernism to Chicago") edited by Sue Ann Prince

Some notes on each of the essays (just for my future reference)

1."The Chicago Setting" by Neil Harris --- or as it should have been titled -- "Chicago's Cultural Claims" -- which, for the period in question -- seem best described by Ben Hecht "Americans (in 1913) thought that Art was men who wore long hair and talked like sissies; naked women in a garret; something J.P. Morgan was interested in .... any statue in a public park. In 1923 Americans think Art is something that doesn't look like a photograph.... anything a Russian does; turning colored lights on the orchestra in the movie palace".

I realize that studies of popular culture -- in which the artworld is just a high-end shopping center -- is a growing business in postmodern academia - but I'm a lot more interested in the individual players -- the artists, critics, and collectors. Was Chicago modernism a "false spring"? So far -- it's turned out that only specialists really care about it's roster of early heroes - and their paintings have minimal value on the auction block. But maybe that's just because these few, particular painters weren't as good at doing what they did -- as some of their non-modernist contemporaries were, of whom there were many, many more.

The acceptance of Modernism has been the pinnacle of Chicago civic pride for the past 80 years -- culminating in planting the flag of Picasso in Daley Plaza. But when that flag is finally taken down -- it just might turn out that Chicago has a lot more to be proud of concerning its own cultural legacy.

2."A Modest Young Man with Theories: Arthur Dove in Chicago, 1912" by Ann Lee Morgan -
who asks why this show (a year before the Armory show) was received "more intelligently and open-mindedly than their eastern counterparts"

But I fail to see a problem -- since Dove's paintings are aesthetically pleasing --- like the patterns on a fine carpet. Why shouldn't conservative minded people like them ? The issue of representation vs. abstraction just didn't seem as important to the art critics of that time as it is to the art theorists of today.

3. "Lorado Taft, the Ferguson Fund,and the Advent of Modernism" by Allen Weller.
In some ways the most fascinating essay of the bunch, since the author is old enough to have actually HEARD Lorado Taft give a lecture, and he gives a new twist (for me) concerning Taft's later work. He also raises the issue of the scandalous misappropriation of the Ferguson Fund. Is this the first time the report of this public disaster has been discussed - other than in a newspaper ? Of course, the problem is that neither of these issues are especially relevant to "Modernism in Chicago" -- and the Ferguson issue demands a fuller examination. Who were the trustees that pushed it through -- who were the trustees who objected ?

4."Modernism and Chicago Art - 1910-1940" by Susan Weininger - which introduces the reader to Raymond Jonson, Szukalski, Rudolph Weisenborn, Ramon Shiva,Emil Armin, and Anthony Angarola -- as the leading Modernists of that time and place.

"Michigan Ave. Bridge" by Anthony Angarola (1893-1929)

"His work is of the modern but it is not that new color school or that sensational or cubist school. I stop and looked in Amazement. I thought and thought more and more of the wonderful simplicity in which he caried out his scheme.. his subjects are the deep, underneath stuff"
(Angarola writing about Arthur Davies"

5. "Declarations of Independents: Chicago's Alternative Art Groups of the 1920's" by Paul Kruty.
I found this a fascinating essay -- as it records Weisenborn's dream to build a "Gallery of Living Artists" that led up to the 1928 Arlimusic show that was presented to the leading German art critic, Julian Meier-Graefe, who dumped it -- and effectively ended the dream.

How can a "no-jury" society be anything other than temporary ? Why expect anyone to have the patience to visit an exhibit that's all inclusive ? (I tried it once with "The Chicago Open" --and it's even more depressing than a street art fair)

What this essay needed was an examination of all the other independent organizations that were mounting exhibits at that time - since I think it's only in retrospect that the "no-jury" shows were any more alternative than the rest of them. All Chicago artists were beginning to be locked out of the Art Institute which was looking to NY and Paris for cultural leadership, and pulling farther away from local art.

6."Of the Which and the Why of Daub and Smear - Chicago Critics take on Modernism" by Sue Ann Prince.

Primarily, this essay presents the great antagonists of the Chicago artworld of that time: Eleanor Jewett of the Chicago Tribune (the villainous reactionary) vs. Clarence J. Bulliet of the Chicago Evening Post.(the heroic champion of modernism) -- with a brief mention of the notorious Josephine Hancock Logan, author of "Sanity in Art"

Bulliet wrote a popular book called "Apples and Madonnas" --- which began with the sentence: "An apple of Cezanne is of more consequence artistically than a madonna by Raphael"

Sue Ann Prince dismisses Logan's work as "filled with contradictions" -- since she claimed not to wish to restrict artistic freedoms even as she moralized how artists should practice their art. (but I fail to see how advocacy entails prohibition - in the arts or anywhere else)

What especially interests me is reference to Bulliet's last book "The significant Moderns and their Pictures" -- with it's provocative claim that Modernism was dead - it had run its course from Cezanne to Picasso - and now consisted of puny imitations.

7."Modernism and Design"- not really an area that interests me - but I guess I'll have to keep an eye out for ads from the Container Corporation of America. What seemed most interesting here -- was that that I had difficulty distinguishing the work of the conservatives vs. the modernists -- and the high recognition given to the graphic design of Moholy-Nagy (I just don't think he's that good)

8. "The Little Review" - I guess this tiny journal became quite famous after it moved to NYC and Ezra Pound became its foreign correspondent -- but it sure looks like some artsy college kids having fun before dad finally makes them get a job.

9.Katherine Kuh Gallery - An informal Portrait by Avis Berman. This chapter serves as an introduction to the autobiography that Avis eventually finished for Katherine -- and celebrates her as the heroine of modernist culture in the great cow town -- although Mrs. Jewett and I would disagree. Looking through the list of artists shown at her gallery 1935-1941, the only locals I recognize are Angarola, Jonson, and Weisenborn

10.Traditions and treands - taste patterns in Chicago Collecting by Stefan Germer. - which includes a look at my favorite collector: Martin Ryerson. Germer notes that "formalism" allowed Ryerson to collect back in history- outside the Renaissance stuff --back to 14th C. Italy. Any news about Ryerson is fascinating to me -- because I've noted which A.I.C. items came from his collection --and overall -- his stuff is the best. I can see how formalism encouraged him to look outside the Renaissance tradition -- but I don't think it accounts for the specific places where he went (big collector of Homer) - and didn't go. (for example -- nothing Asian or African)

11. Charlotte Moser essay on the school of the art institute - the "Classic point of view" defined by Kenyon Cox in the Scammon Lectures : search for perfection, clearness, reasonableness, self control, permanence, continuity. The study of plaster casts of classical sculpture required to
bring "beauty and character" to one's art (Charles Francis Browne, 1916,Minutes of the School Committee) " To maintain in the highest efficiency the severe practice of academic drawing and painting from life and from the antique, from objects, and around this practice as a living stem, to group the various departments of art education." (1913 school catalog)

The school goes from primary to secondary importance after the death of W. French in 1916, then flourishes in the 20's as it added an industrial arts program which eventually joined with the Assoc. for Arts and Industries - and income from the school is taken to meet the expenses of the museum. (in 1935 this Assoc. went off to begin a Chicago Bauhaus under Maholy-Nagy.
The addition of art history to the curriculum in 1920 - taught by Helen Gardner.

12. From the Armory show to the century or Progress - the Art Institute Assimilates Modernism. Some interesting quotes from William M. R. French -- who seemed to have a knack for telling people what they wanted to hear (and keeping his job) -- and the attempts of early donors - like Bartlett - to have their works grouped by donor instead of art historically.


But as it turns out -- there's a much more thorough -- and rather biting -- critique of this book on JSTOR -- called "Cultural Culs du Sac" by Robert Twombly --who, as the title would suggest, is not convinced that Chicago does not deserve its cultural obscurity - at least in the realm of high brow painting.

Twombly is an architectural historian -- has published books about Sullivan and Wright -- so he's got to be an expert on famous Chicago architecture --and remains surprised why anyone would pay much attention to its painting -- or as he put it -- "try to make a silk purse out of a sow's ear"

He's interested in international modernism ( what other kind is there?) and he's just not buying all this civic boosterism - except for those heroic champions of the Modern in Chicago: Clarence Bulliet and Katherine Kuh.

His favorite essays are #2 - the one about Lorado Taft, and #10 about Chicago collectors.
The Germer essay does stand out for its social typology of Modern art collectors -- it seems so nifty - but does it really get to the reasons that specific preferences were felt and subsequent purchases made ? I consider Ryerson to have been such an astute aesthete -- I'm doubting that the "social meaning" of his choices were of much importance to him.