REVIEW | Homegrown: The School of the Art Institute in the Permanent Collection
February 4, 2016
Homegrown: The School of the Art Institute in the Permanent Collection
Art Institute of Chicago
Given even just its close proximity, it is of no surprise that the Art Institute of Chicago holds a significant number of works in its collection by alumni from the very institution training artists across the street that shares part of its name: School of the Art Institute. It has been able to acquire so much of this work, in fact, that even this particular exhibition could not present them all; instead, Homegrown features approximately 120 objects, primarily works on paper. Beginning with the early 20th century and organized by decade, the display presents works by some of the most illustrious SAIC-educated artists while also prominently featuring pieces by those whose tenure at the school has at times been overlooked. While I find the majority of the pieces of the latter category (and some, obviously so); there were a few standouts amid the substantial selection on view.
Untitled by Richard Hunt (pictured above and in detail left) is a gorgeous and subtle drawing/painting that beautifully illustrates his skills as a master draftsman. Hunt elegantly and fluidly depicts the same altered organic forms derived from his careful observation of nature and found in his complex and intriguing metal sculptures. The layers and layers of lines and fields of pale color are confidently placed and then erased or smeared only to be covered by more definitive forms – these stacks goading this two-dimensional work into the three-dimensional arena. It feels like the first model for one of his iconic sculptures, if only I could roll the page.
Ivan Albright was fascinated by the aging process. He created images of everyday people that highlighted every wrinkle, hair, blemish, and bulge; working painstakingly slow, often completing only one square inch every ten hours, and some canvases taking more than a decade to finish. The series presented here, titled Self-Portraits, are twenty iconic images created at the end his career using a variety of drawing and painting media. They are a beautiful depiction of his own progression through life; a yearbook masterfully rendering the physical changes of his face as he grew older. At times, the works are heartbreaking, the quality of the lines blur and the crispness of the face all but disappear – the inevitable deterioration of the body paralleling what I can only imagine are the inevitable psychological and emotional impacts on the self as one climbs in age. What is also interesting about this series is that Albright had a twin brother named Marvin; and I can’t help but wonder, what the impact of these images might be when they become a mirror for the other rather than just a portrait of the self.
Once described as “one of the few real maverick artists in the city” by former Chicago Tribune art critic Alan Artner, Dennis Kowalski is considered a central figure in the history of contemporary art in Chicago and is well known, and well-regarded, for his particular approach to conceptual art. Whether it is photography, sculpture, or in this case drawing, Kowalski represents his own audacious attitude in his work most of all; and I must admit I like it. Black Septagon, a seven-sided drawing, alludes to floor pieces composed of eccentric geometric shapes that he made in the late 1970s using aluminum and cement. Serious in its application and fabrication, this Septagon is a two-dimensional, matte, segmentation that is boldly confident in, if nothing else, its unconditional existence. Fluctuating back and forth from a viewpoint of the interior to the exterior back to the interior of the shape, I find the dense illusion quite captivating; pacing side to side in front of it as if I could peek behind its edges and waiting for it to protrude from its flat surface. I am lost in the abyss of Kowalski’s black surface, both individually and in the whole – just as I would imagine he wants it.
Murder Mystery is a quintessential example of artist Margo Hoff’s signature approach to clean, linear abstraction and her prominent style as a figurative painter. Rich in color and texture, this a portrait study of her husband (and also an artist) George Buehr perfectly balances the use of defined lines, complex patterns, and geometric shapes. The bold red tapestry so effortlessly draped across her husband’s very exaggerated knees is the star of the show. It is a trademark of sorts of Hoff’s work, her ability to revel in the interaction of color, value and tone; this electric almost hyperactive hue literally vibrates and then erupts from the center of the painting. But I am always drawn back to the figure, to the top of his head to his navy long-sleeved shirt as he reads in his flesh-toned bed. The cyclical motion of my eyes is echoed in the unexplained wanting Hoff creates, a wanting of her husband to look-up, perhaps acknowledge her presence or something more I’m unsure. In the end, the painting feels like an ache to just be seen, from both sides of the gaze.
Images (from top to bottom): Richard Hunt, Untitled, 1959, brush and black ink, brown wash, and white casein, with rubbing and erasing, over graphite on cream woven paper, prepared with a white wash; Ivan Albright, Self-Portraits, Collection: Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Mrs. Ivan Albright; Dennis Kowalski, Black Septagon, 1978, black paint sticks over traces of graphite on white woven paper, Collection: Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Marianne Deson; Margo Hoff, Murder Mystery, 1945, oil and casein on canvas board, 30 x 20 inches, Collection: Art Institute of Chicago, Walter M. Campana Memorial Prize Fund