The Long View On Chicago’s Artistic History: A Book Review of “Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now

“Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now,” edited by Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino, with chapters by Wendy Greenhouse, Jennifer Jane Marshall, Maggie Taft, Robert Cozzolino, Rebecca Zorach and Jenni Sorkin. University of Chicago Press

As a cultural hub, Chicago always has contained a multitude of art communities, organization and scenes. “Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now,” edited by Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino, addresses Chicago’s art world in historical precedents and in its contemporary trajectory. The first five chapters address the many art-world eras of the city, from the nineteenth century to the twentieth, and ends with conversations by contemporary artists and scholars. The inception of Chicago’s art world, according to this book, begins with Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, a Haitian-born, Afro-Caribbean fur trader who settled at the then-trading post and housed an impressive art collection which included “mirrors, French walnut cabinets with glass doors, a feather bed and two paintings.” The city—acknowledged in the introduction as having been named after the Miami-Illinois indigenous word for wild onion plants, Shikaakwa—has a strong history with civic engagement. It is a city that has, according to Taft and Cozzolino, the “strength of art education, the prominence of women in the arts and the flourishing of African-American cultural institutions, the constancy of activism and social practice” and these assets continue to attract people from all over the world to the city. Chicago’s art worlds began with the now heavyweight art organizations. This includes the Art Institute of Chicago, World’s Columbian Exposition, Fine Arts Building, Municipal Art League and women’s empowerment organizations such as at Hull House (started by Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr).

The book points out that none of these organizations are absolved of critique and that as a city, Chicago must look to its past to improve in the future. Early art organizations were invested in a top-down model of thinking Chicago was a place “with none or lacking history” and thought to educate the masses through European models. For example, Taft states that at the beginnings of the Hull House, while the organization sought to empower immigrants and poor people with creative endeavors and culturally specific craft traditions, “most [efforts] had tinges of cultural appropriation” or “rich white lady knows best.” Art in Chicago also documents the simultaneous romanticization and erasure of the indigenous communities of the region. “The evocation of Native American heritage was a means of celebrating Chicago as an authentically American place and also of feeding the anti-modern nostalgia that was one response to urbanism, but it did not acknowledge Native Americans as actual citizens of modern Chicago.” Linking this history to a more recent time, the book recalls the 1992 Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña’s “Couple in the Cage” performance at the Field Museum of Natural History. In the performance, they inhabited a cage wearing “newly discovered” Amerindian clothing and “dramatized the Western cultural practice of dehumanized spectacle: displaying subjugated peoples of color as primitives, exotics, even zoo animals.” This act is a critique of museums and their relationships to colonialism, as the institutional collection of indigenous people’s remains and their ritual objects are usually tied to the nation’s appropriation of their land. Chicago as a city provides a way of challenging sedimented ideologies through bold participation in the arts.

OBAC Visual Artists Workshop, “Wall of Respect,” 1967 (now destroyed) /Photo: Robert Sengstacke

After the founding of the South Side Community Art Center in 1941 as part of the New Deal, the Black Arts movement rose to prominence parallel with the Black Power Movement in the sixties and seventies. At the SSCA, black artists such as Charles White and Gordon Parks, and Morris Topchevsky, a Russian-Jewish immigrant, taught and exhibited their work. In Chicago, black artists have always had to make their own cultural spaces. The founding of organizations like OBAC (Organization of Black American Culture) in 1967, inspired the ascendance of many others, including AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), Kuumba Theater and the OBAC Writers Workshop. Organizations such as these continue to challenge the city’s legacy of excluding African Americans from cultural institutions. For example, the iconic “Wall of Respect” mural, designed by Sylvia Abernathy in 1967, featured “black heroes in the realms of politics, music, athletics, drama, literary pursuits and religion.” It adorned the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in a time where Federal Housing Administration’s policies, in essence, affirmed the legal redlining of Chicago’s neighborhoods, a history with repercussions that continue to the present day through gentrification. The “Wall of Respect” was also a counterpoint to the unveiling of Chicago’s Picasso in 1967, during this time the city’s officials celebrated Picasso’s work and ignored the “Wall of Respect,” a cultural pulpit for the South Side black community where meetings, protests and rallies were held.

Arts and activism have always intertwined in Chicago. In October 1989, responding to the AIDS epidemic, ACT UP Chicago created a “freedom bed,” a large, street-bound theatrical installation featuring an oversized bed. It was a protest “in response to Illinois state legislation that mandated HIV testing for certain government workers.” It became a site where people held performances regarding sexual health and reproduction.

Dawoud Bey, “Lauren,” 2008. From the series ”Young Chicagoans,“ commissioned as part of Character Project /Courtesy of the artist and Stephen Daiter Gallery

The book closes with conversations by contemporary practitioners including Michelle Grabner, Hamza Walker and Tempestt Hazel, Gregg Bordowitz and a comic strip by Kerry James Marshall. This last section features a snapshot of the contemporary cultural moments in Chicago, involving both Chicago as “a site of destination and departure.” A conversation between Stanislav Grezdo, curator of the Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art and Cesáreo Moreno, curator of the National Museum of Mexican Art, reflects on the necessity of establishing cultural spaces to address the needs of specific communities. Moreno shared the reason for creating the National Museum of Mexican Art in 1987 by a group of teachers, saying “[They] did not really know anything about art or museums. What they did know was that although twenty-five percent of the students they were teaching were of Mexican ancestry, there was nothing in the curriculum that touched on their history or their culture.” The nature of Chicago as a city that contains multitude is reflected in many organizations that continue to shape the legacy of the city throughout time. Studs Terkel reportedly once remarked that “All roads lead to Chicago.” All roads lead to community and Chicago is a place where anyone can build them. The nature of the city is like a magnet, attracting, repelling, shaping, building and rebuilding hybridity as it spans time and space. (Hiba Ali)

“Art in Chicago: A History from the Fire to Now” Edited by Maggie Taft and Robert Cozzolino University of Chicago Press, 2018

Published in Newcity Chicago