Imagist Legacy at Art Chicago: An Interview with Lynne Warren
Scholarship and feeling drive Lynne Warren’s curatorial practice. At a time when art world writing is more descriptive than critical, Warren’s posts on the blog Sharkforum try “to reassure people that they can have their own opinions.” Warren is a curator who has been long and intimately invested in the Chicago community. This May, she will curate “The Hairy Who and Imagist Legacy in Contemporary Art” for the art fair Art Chicago. As a curator for Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art and author of thirty MCA catalogues on Chicago artists, history, and alternative spaces, Warren is an apt delegate for charting manifestations of Chicago’s legacy in the contemporary art world. Dana Boutin spoke with Lynne Warren to discuss the “Hairy Who” exhibition and the relationship between Art Chicago and the MCA.
Dana Boutin: How did this show come about and what are its parameters?
Lynne Warren: Art Chicago invited me to curate a show of artists that were, in my judgment, either influenced by or followed the heritage of the Hairy Who artists, the so-called Imagists. We have a rather unwieldy title for the show, but it refers to the Chicago based-artists who emerged in the mid-1960s and dubbed themselves the Hairy Who; other artists became associated with that group and later became more widely known as the Imagists. The Imagists work is the classic Chicago style, consisting of brightly colored imagery, mostly figurative in nature, with a hierarchical structure of how imagery is arranged on the canvas or paper. Their subject matter tended to be inspired by resources and sources that are vernacular: comic books, jukeboxes and popular culture materials like signs and folk art. I looked at currently working artists who are in that heritage, who look at the same source materials, or are formally following the Imagists. They had to be artists that were represented by dealers that were in Art Chicago. The dealers submitted one to six possible pieces by artists they felt fit the criteria. I selected fifteen different artists, each showing one piece, from ten galleries.
DB: What is the spectrum of media?
LW: There’s a broad range of materials, including painting, prints, a sculpture by the well-known international artist Susana Solano. I don’t think she would say the Imagists influenced her, but the work fits within their formal ideas. There are two photographers from Diana Lowenstein Fine Arts in Miami; one of them, Carlos Betancourt, creates collages of flowers in a bilateral, almost mandala-like arrangement. That bilateral symmetry is a distinctive characteristic of Imagism, especially of Karl Wirsum’s work. Bernard Williams is presenting a striking work of small, portrait-like heads in grids. They remind me of one of my favorite Imagists, Christina Ramberg. Unlike most Imagists, Christina Ramberg worked with dull colors. The work, Self Similarity Set # by Williams is largely monochromatic.
DB: Is it the first time you worked with these artists?
LW: I was not familiar with some of the artists at all, which is generally not how I work. I feel strongly that the curator’s familiarity with the work makes a big difference in how well the audience gets the work. The show isn’t the same it would be if I knew each one of these artists and selected the work in person. Ineffable human qualities do get embedded in exhibitions. That’s the difference between a slide jury and a one-person show on which the curator has worked for ten years. One of the shows that really knocked my socks off (and I don’t even like this artist very much) was the show organized by the legendary Walter Hopps in the early 90s, of work by Robert Rauschenberg. The way the show was put together, the curator made it look so good. It was this amazing effort of knowledge being put forth, so much so that I might not have gotten as much out of a show of another artist whose work I like better, if it were not curated in the same careful way. These things are really hard to quantify, but the craft of putting a show together is just as much a craft as that of an artist.
DB: How did the relationship between Art Chicago and the MCA develop?
LW: Historically, the MCA’s relationship with the various art fairs over the years was that we ran the opening night gala party and were the beneficiary of the gala. When Merchandise Mart stepped in to revitalize Art Chicago, we were not involved for a couple of years. But we are again this year with the “First Focus” event.
DB: Do Chicago artists have a relatively warm or hands-on approach to their subjects?
LW: There is a definable style to almost any place. In Europe, art looks different from art here, even if the artists work with the same conceptual aesthetic or handmade aesthetic. Chicago follows its own vision rather than slavishly following the overriding mainstream. Craftsmanship is an important part of the Hairy Who. In the generation that emerged from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the late 1980s, their conceptual investigations are carefully handcrafted and personal, rather than merely theoretical, works. The show I curated last summer, “Everything’s Here,” in conjunction with the Jeff Koons exhibition exemplifies this point. Koons didn’t copy visual styles here but rather found his own style by coming to Chicago. He modeled himself on the ideal of how Chicago artists operated: being independent, autonomous, and using their own personal iconography, which is a term that Jeff Koons uses a lot. Artists have to find their own style, personality, ilk, and veracity.
DB: At a recent panel discussion at the Renaissance Society you talked about the distinctive art of a community, like that of New Orleans, versus the homogenization resulting from globalism.
LW: I think people will increasingly seek emotional connectedness rather than esoteric or intellectualized art. It’s difficult to come up with a consistent, personal vision when you travel all over the world to install work. The concerns addressed and emotions going into the work are different when you’re alone in your studio.
DB: How has the MCA’s vision of its role in Chicago changed over the years?
LW: Our mission has evolved and become better articulated, but it hasn’t basically changed. The idea is to bring in the best art from elsewhere, to present the best art from here, to offer space where people could interact with the art of living artists, and to be a vital place to have engagement, both programmatically and educationally. In the early years, galleries showing all-white artworks or Dan Flavin with his fluorescent lights, for example, were so new to people that a very basic education effort, namely assuring that this indeed is art, was part and parcel of presenting the art. Now, people are savvier and our education efforts are more sophisticated and holistic.
DB: Would you say it’s important for you to organize exhibitions outside of the walls of your home institution?
LW: It’s good for curators to go beyond their comfort level and do new things because you always learn something from it. But curating at the MCA is such an all-encompassing job that it’s very difficult to do much outside. I do some outside writing, like catalogue essays, for different artists. But timewise, it’s very difficult to work at any large institution and do much outside curating.
DB: What makes a large art exhibition a success?
LW: Large exhibitions like art fairs or Documenta have to consider a different audience than those of the Art Institute of Chicago or the MCA. When you have an established institution, marketing surveys and the personal observations of the staff can help identify the interests of the audience. This information doesn’t necessarily indicate exactly what shows to present but rather the mix of shows and how to present them in order to best appeal to the audience. Big international art fairs or even commercial art fairs can lack any sense of who the audience is. There’s certainly nothing institutionally driving such organizations in terms of knowing an audience, and therefore structuring it in a certain way. At Documenta 12, I frankly found very little that interested me, either in ‘discoveries’ of artists I wasn’t familiar with or in the presentations of the artists I knew well. I had gone with a German woman who was what I would call a pretty sophisticated follower of visual art. She was puzzled and didn’t know what to look at, even though she was a very sophisticated woman. And my son, who was seventeen at the time and who knows a lot about art since his mom is a curator, absolutely hated it. He couldn’t find anything to connect with. So if you have an example of these three different “audiences,” and none could connect particularly, then I think there’s failure on the part of an event. Commercial art fairs such as Art Chicago try to balance satisfying the most elite contemporary art audience as well as the more casual art viewer, which is a difficult task. Also, part of the problem is the spectacle aspect of these big, international fairs; absorbing it all is almost impossible.
DB: How do you think the downturn in the global economy will affect these events?
LW: There are fewer galleries involved this year at Art Chicago, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Large exhibitions can counterproductively exhaust viewers. The staff of Art Chicago is dedicated and committed. They’re working under difficult circumstances in terms of assuming the problems of the previous fair organizers and the current economy. If it doesn’t turn out to be the great success everyone hopes for, it’s not because they haven’t tried. We’ll see.
Dana Boutin is an M.A. candidate in New Arts Journalism at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Ever since she saw the poet, art critic, and MoMA curator Frank O’Hara’s abstract descriptions in “Poem (The clouds go soft)” interacting with Jasper Johns’ gently smeared handprints in the collaborative lithograph “Skin”, she has studied words and images.