Chicago has reoccurring amnesia when it comes to art. Every couple of decades a new group of artists hit the scene with a new aesthetic that rivals anything that comes out of the major world art centers. They have a good run, are written and talked about in the mainstream local media, gain a little national and international attention, then fade away almost to oblivion. Why is that?
I was in school during the Imagists’ heyday of the early and mid ’80s. (Included with the Imagists are the Chicago Abstract artists as they had a similar sensibility and were just as well known.) They ruled this city back then. Many of them taught in this city’s institutions and most of them were regularly featured in Chicago Magazine. The work was engaging and challenging, yet still accessible for most people. Though not as big on the national scene, I had always thought that they were part of an important movement and had cemented their place in art history.
Somewhere, somehow along the line, their influence seems to have diminished considerably; much more than I had thought. Though I haven’t been to The Art Institute of Chicago in a while, I don’t remember seeing any work from this group on my last few visits. The Chicago and Vicinity Show is long forgotten and Phyllis Kind left town a long time ago. Three and a half years after the passing of Ed Paschke and there’s no signs of a major retrospective yet. The ’85 Bears seem to have more longevity.
Despite the apparent fading of the Chicago Imagists movement, this is still one of the strongest periods in Chicago art. It is one that could be important in the larger art world, which in turn would bring more attention to this city and its reemergence as a major world art center.
There have been great recent attempts to rescue major Chicago art from the trash bin of forgotten art. The DePaul Art Museum hosted an incredible exhibition of the work of Julia Thecla, an important but largely forgotten artist from the 40s and 50s. Corbett vs. Dempsey’s mission is to reintroduce important Chicago art from the past. The Chicago History Museum’s current “Big Picture — a new view of painting in Chicago” is a fine overview of Chicago art history. Russell Bowman has a show on Chicago Imagism from 1965-85 right now.
While these are really great efforts, I can’t help but feel there is a certain amount of “where are they now” to this renewing interest in Chicago art while the Art Institute and the Museum of Contemporary Art only focus on bringing the “world” to Chicago. Because of the stature of the Art Institute and MCA in the art world, most of what they do gains instant credibility. Some major Chicago-focused shows would be deemed important just by association. For instance, instead of the Chicago Imagists being a sidebar in the current Jeff Koons show at the MCA, the Imagists are deserving of a major exhibition of their own…or how about a Monster Roster/Hairy Who/Chicago Imagists Exhibition. Perhaps a certain amount of space in the new contemporary wing of the Art Institute could be devoted to showing Chicago work. A continual incorporation of Chicago art in their exhibition schedules would help to keep this city from forgetting its past artists, help its current artists get the exposure they deserve, inspire new generations of Chicago artists and help this city truly be the world class city its political leaders say it is.