20190714From the Archives: A Look at Chicago’s Budding Art Scene, in 1955, by Museum Pioneer Peter Selz
Peter Selz. COURTESY BERKELEY ART MUSEUM AND PACIFIC FILM ARCHIVE Peter Selz, the founding director of the Berkeley Art Museum in California, died last month at 100. Today we turn back to the October 1955 issue of ARTnews, which included an essay on Chicago’s budding art scene by Selz and Patrick Malone. The essay focused on five artists—Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Ray Fink, Leon Golub, and Joseph Goto—whom the two believed typified the Windy City’s art scene at the time. Though the artists lacked a style that bound their diverse work, Malone and Selz said they shared a “deep concern with the human image.” Their essay on the “Chicago school” follows below. —Alex Greenberger “Is there a new Chicago school?” By Patrick Malone and Peter Selz October 1955 An enthusiastic appreciation of younger talents developed in the Windy City Behind the plastic surgery along Chicago’s lakefront lies the real city. It has been variously christened hog-butcher, slum-city and hustler’s haven. It also has a distinguished cultural heritage, and today, inviting comparison with the originality of its architectural and literary traditions, there are certain recent paintings and sculpture by five young people who are potential leaders of a younger “Chicago School.” These artists—Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Ray Fink, Leon Golub and Joseph Goto—do not compose a unified group, nor have they a unified style. They share, however, a deep concern with the human image, which re-emerges in their work after an age of abstraction to direct the sensations of the spectator toward more specific responses. They also have in common their war experiences and education: all of them attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. All have taken part in Exhibition Momentum which brought them into close contact and enabled them to clarify their roles. Cosmo Campoli teaches at the Institute of Design of Illinois Institute of Technology and directs its Junior Workshop. His sculpture reaffirms man’s affinity with nature. The cave paintings at Altamira, which he saw while traveling on an Art Institute of Chicago graduate fellowship, interested him less than the calcareous formations in an adjoining cave. The stalagmites and stalactites brought fangs and teeth to his mind and the dripping cave became a vast mouth, leading to his concept of Jonah and the Whale. For about four years he worked on the problem of how the artist could create a form which would communicate this experience of nature’s internal structure, and finally made two versions in lead of Jonah and the Whale. The teeth, or stalactites, were made from twigs, textured with foam-glass, and cast in lead before being welded to the cave-like mouth. The scales of the whale suggest the heaving waves of the sea. The figure caught within the mesh from which there seems no escape is an extremely personal identification: “I tried to make Jonah look as I would feel if I had been in a whale.” Campoli is preoccupied with the image of man related to birth and death: Jonah caught in the whale’s mouth, the child emerging dead from his mother’s womb, the bird mother feeding its young. He created earth-like surfaces, “as far removed from our own slick, sterile surroundings as possible,” to confront the spectator with the primordial aspects of humanity. His sculpture is frequently disturbing in its expression of terror but this experience is relieved to some extent by the very fact that the artist has come to grips with those conflicts which alarm many of us by its mastery over materials and extraordinary sensibility to formal structure. We must agree with his own recent statement. “My sculpture is not made to match walls, to please or not please anyone, or to make some damn dog happy, but to have its own personality and exist as a strong personality exists. My sculpture is, and shall be, strong enough to make an ash tray alongside of it look only like an ash tray.” George Cohen’s paintings and collages show a prime concern with the created object, which has its own reality and exists simply for itself. Cohen stopped painting about the time he completed his formal art training: “I knew techniques but not what to say. Therefore, connected with the question of meaning, I turned to the study of art history after I came back from the war.” At present he teaches painting and art history at Northwestern University. In his painting Avenger he fuses forms, creates his figure out of apparent contradictions, and presents the observer with a frightening dream image of hostile aggression. It lacks traditional proportion and harmony, but Cohen has also destroyed the clichés of distortion. He believes that “making art is the shattering of values—the more pieces that fall, the deeper the power of the work.” When asked if he does not wish to create new values, he points out that these result invariably from the work. The figure in Dancing Girl is made of aluminum foil and set against a black background with bright stripes of color. While a great deal was left to chance in his earlier work, Cohen now exercises careful control and has made many drawings to achieve the final contours of this figure. As in Byzantine mosaics, the light seems to come from the figure itself. The image makes an intense impression, indeed, it is so profound, it seems to persist even after the lights are switched off. Unlike many contemporary painters, he does not encourage the viewer to evolve his own associations. He has also “shattered” conventional space illusions—which is ironically emphasized by the addition of mirrors—the ultimate in illusion. Cohen is fascinated by the mirror because of its multiple associations and because it transports the observer into the work. In Anybody’s Self-Portrait, mirrors are combined with the dismembered parts of a doll in a strange, hypnotic construction that includes three pairs of eyes—two of which belong to the viewer. As he looks more closely, the viewer becomes aware of his multiple, distorted reflections which violate his image just as the doll has been cut apart. The doll’s arms and legs—used in much the same spirit as the same elements were used by Bellmer—are reminiscent of votive offerings at sacred shrines. The similarity of some of Cohen’s work to Surrealism is only a surface resemblance; he is not concerned with destruction for its own sake, but rather points up our tenuous existence. Ray Fink, instructor and graduate student at the Institute of Design, is less concerned about calling attention to the state of man and the world. He says, “My sculpture contains no sedative or revolutionary message; it simply reflects my way of life, and the emphasis is on creation.” Verbal understatement is characteristic of Fink but is belied by the strength of his work. In making a sculpture for the U. S. Steel exhibition in 1953, the title of exhibition, “Iron, Man and Steel” suggested the word “Triptych,” which immediately called up religious associations. These were sufficiently strong to suggest a religious subject. Christ and the Twelve Apostles, as well as the formal arrangement and the final title, Triptych. Over one-hundred preparatory drawings and woodcuts preceded the models which gradually became more abstract as the work progressed. The making of an abstract sculpture was not decided upon in advance but was more a matter of Fink’s becoming fascinated with certain major forms and movements as he worked.