Red Sun, Black Moon: The L.A. Paintings 1959 – 1964


Chicago seems to have a long list of artists that are important for a couple of decades or so, then sort of all but disappear. Corbett vs. Dempsey is doing a remarkable job of helping the city with its amnesia. Their current show of Robert Donley’s early works is a prime example of the gallery’s dedication to keeping us aware of those that have contributed to the richness of the Chicago Art World.

For years, Donley created very intricate isometric aerial paintings of cities (mostly Chicago and New York). Some of these paintings contained images of local and national personalities. The detail was so fine that he sometimes used a brush with one hair. These are remarkable paintings that have found their way into private and museum collections over the years. For a brief period, he painted buildings on fire and framed the work with skulls and burning skulls. I also remember some odd walking stick-looking poles made with doll heads that had a kind of voodoo feel. I’m not sure what he did with these.

This show, however, deals with his early work. For me it was all new—paintings in the vein of Mark Rothko and other geometric abstract artists. The surfaces are flat and thin, something that his cityscapes are not. This is the early stuff. He was finding his way. They are very well done, but kind of derivative of the abstract art of the time. This may be why he rolled these canvases up 40 years ago and stashed them away. Some of the pieces were rolled up so long, they had developed horizontal cracks that kind of added a new dimension when they were restretched for the show.

The L.A. Paintings are an excellent look into the developing career of a great artist. So many artists paint over or destroy their early work, especially when they go off in another direction that more or less then becomes their trademark. I’m glad he kept these paintings. It’s a great show, but it deserves a follow-up. We also need to experience his mature paintings of cities and the crazed stuff with the skulls.

Two months into the year, and we’ve already had some great shows. Things are looking up for the Chicago Art Scene.