William Conger: Paintings 1958 – 2008 by William Dolan


This is one of the best shows I’ve seen in a while and since 2009 is only a month old, it bodes well for the new year. Along with the opening of the new wing at The Art Institute, with its promised display of Chicago art, things are looking up for the art scene in this city.

I’ve been a fan of Conger’s art for 30 years, going back to when I was a student of his at DePaul. His work and work ethic was an inspiration for me then as much as now. Although, I didn’t get the work ethic part until a couple of years out of school. To this day, I paint my underpaintings the way he taught us and use a palette that is a somewhat modified version of the one he recommended in “Painting 101.”

His work seemed to hit its stride in the late 70s and 80s. His personal language of shape, color, line and form was perfected by this time. Also, the work seems to be of the night. The light is bright, artificial and planned. The colors are at their reflective best and richness, not washed out by the sun. The sky is dark, sometimes with a hint of twilight.

These paintings are a product of the city. They are mechanized, yet everything works in harmony, like a well built machine. For the most part, they are not a product of nature. They celebrate the designed and built world.

His later work seems quieter than the paintings from the ’80s. The edges aren’t as sharp and jagged. It is less allegorical to gears and machinery. Perhaps this is a correllation with Chicago not being as industrial as it once was. The stuff is more playful, with its points and vectors to help you move or bounce through the work. It still maintains a serious attention to line form and color, so while it’s more playful, it’s not silly either. Most of the newer stuff also seems to take place during daylight. Perhaps, not needing to work at night anymore, he’s embraced the day.

A couple of people I talked to at the opening were not pleased with how the show was hung. They thought it to be cluttered. Paul Klein mentioned that it was unfortunate that the it was crowded. However, I felt this added to the show. His work is inspired by the environment and any good and interesting city is somewhat crowded. Also, while it is important to have good urban planning, neighborhoods and buildings may not always mesh that well together. There are interesting surprises. Likewise this show has that urban clutter. At a higher level, you can see the vastness of this city of work, yet you can go to the painting level and appreciate it in a more intimate way. I don’t think this show was meant to be seen by passing through. Like any good city, it calls you back and you will discover something new each time you visit.

William Conger: Paintings 1958 – 2008
Chicago Cultural Center – Chicago
through March 29, 2009

William Conger: New Paintings
Roy Boyd Gallery – Chicago
through March 4, 2009