Archive for the ‘Art – Artists’ Category

PostHeaderIcon Robert Frank’s Photo Revolution

Robert Frank in 1958

Robert Frank in 1958

Renowned photographer, Robert Frank, and his photo revolution is now sixty years old. When he set out from New York City on a 2,000-mile cross-country trip in 1955, his aim was to capture on film nothing less than American society at the height of the Cold War. The result was “The Americans”, his troubling portrait of a country that he saw as segregated, anxious, isolated and lonely.

Aided by famed photographer, Walker Evans, he was able to obtain a Guggenheim fellowship. He set out in 1955 and visited cities in the East, South, West and Midwest, including Detroit and Chicago. He shot roughly 28,000 photos documenting all strata of society from which he chose 83 images (a ratio of 1:350+ snaps) to print for the book which appeared in 1958.

"Charleston, South Carolina" (1955)

“Charleston, South Carolina” (1955)

The book did not sell well initially but the introduction by writer and fan, Jack Kerouac, kept it in print. Frank’s dark artistic vision was partly the result of being an outsider (born in Switzerland) who rebelled against America’s happy-go-lucky demeanor and its love affair with consumer capitalism. It was the heyday of Madison Avenue and television sitcoms like “Ozzie and Harriet” and “Leave it to Beaver.”

Initial reaction to the book was harshly critical. Popular Photography dismissed his “warped images of hate” as well as his blurred images, muddy exposures and “general sloppiness,” all cardinal taboos of that time. However, within a decade, his work gained approval and the book became a classic. It was also panned by The New York Times.

Movie Premier Hollywood (1955)

Movie Premiere, Hollywood, 1955-56.

Frank is considered the inventor of street photography. His images broke with that period’s rules: he shot from a moving car, sitting in a bar, hiding out of sight as well as on the fly. “The Americans” has since traveled the world to great acclaim but it was Hugh Edwards, curator of photography at the Art Institute of Chicago, who gave Frank his first museum show in 1961 (a year before the Museum of Modern Art did) and bought 30 photos from the series for its permanent collection.

It seems fitting that the museum’s current exhibition of Frank’s classic and more recent work should return to its first home more than a half-century later.  Now that his “American” images enjoy iconic status, it is impossible to look at

 Political Rally-Chicago 1956

Political Rally-Chicago (1956)

them fresh or gauge the impact they had when they first appeared. They convey a not too pretty picture of mid-century America that we prefer not confront. The pictures may seem totally in the past but they still have power to startle and the themes they capture are still with us.

Visitors should check out the show’s catalogue which is printed in an old medium: newsprint. Steidl, Frank’s German publisher has produced a newspaper, lavishly illustrated, covering all aspects of Frank’s career–photos, film, books. It is for sale in the museum gift shop for a bargain $5. I hope there are still copies available.

“Robert Frank: Photos” is on view at the Art Institute through August 20. For information about it and other exhibits, go to

PostHeaderIcon Two Unlikely Art Soulmates

PostHeaderIcon Is it Self-Taught, Outsider or Art Brut? Why Not Just Plain Art?

Editor’s Note: The postings this week and next focus on two magnificent art exhibits currently up.  One is 750 miles away at the Metropolitan Museum in New York while the other is only 90 miles from Chicago at the Milwaukee Art Museum. If hopping a plane is out of the question, I’d strongly recommend the journey north before the show closes on May 6th. I’m sure you will be moved  by the arresting and highly-accomplished works.

Anthony Petullo

Anthony Petullo

At the moment, while the Art Institute treads water, preparing for its upcoming Roy Lichtenstein show, genuine art excitement can be found just up the road at the Milwaukee Art Museum where a stunning collection of 200 paintings, sculpture and objects, part of the Anthony Petullo Collection, is on view. Mere words alone cannot do justice to the show’s visceral power. I only know that, soon after entering the exhibit, I was in the grip of the virtuosity on display in a way I seldom experience at an exhibition, where keeping a critical distance is the norm.

David Lloyd, Artist

Susanna York by David Lloyd

At the entry to the “Accidental Genius” exhibition is artist David Lloyd’s wall-size, blown-up portrait of English actress, Susanna York. Her gaze is captivating but one senses something askew about the likeness. That “off” quality serves as a metaphor for this bold assortment of works and styles by “self-taught” and “outsider” artists, no-name figures lacking academic training or existing outside mainstream culture due to psychological illness or some developmental disability.

The show highlights the artists’ mesmerizing talents as well as Petullo’s loving obsession for these works. Such previously-maligned and marginalized creations are now avidly pursued by collectors and museums. Go and treat yourself to a visual feast. After viewing the artists’ intuitive handling of color, composition, draftsmanship and detail, you may agree with me in finding current art babble surrounding these works too parochial. The current art canon should embrace such creations and label them Art–plain and simple, free of limiting modifiers. After all, many of the artists we now revere, names such as Cezanne, Rousseau, Van Gogh and Gauguin, didn’t go to art school either.

Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974)

Carlo Zinelli (1916-1974)

I found myself particularly transfixed by the work of Eddie Arning, David Lloyd, Henry Darger, James Dixon, Madge Gill, Carlo Zinelli along with the artists of Art Haus, a mental health facility outside Vienna. The six named artists have wildly contrasting styles that paid no mind to the art world, yet produced creations of stunning originality. When I passed a good number of the works, I instinctively moved within inches of the paper or canvas, drawn by the force of their images, color, hyper-precise line drawing or written text. Margaret Andera, the curator of “Accidental Genius”, deserves praise for her long-standing commitment to the collection that informs her intelligent selection and organization of the exhibition.

Every great collection reflects the eye and personality of its collector. While Petullo assembled his collection over three decades, he noted, in a telephone conversation, that half of the 320 donated works were acquired during an intense three year period, from 1990-93. While the collection contains work by several American masters like Darger and Bill Traylor, its strength lies in the quality and range of European self-taught artists represented, many of whom Petullo collected in depth. His donation to the Milwaukee Art Museum, according to director, Dan Keegan, “is the most extensive grouping of its kind in any American museum or in private hands.”

Mimmie Evans (1892–1987)

Minnie Evans (1892–1987)

Petullo’s first collecting foray came in 1974 when he bought a work that caught his eye at the city’s Lakefront Festival of Arts. Over the next decade, he collected what he liked with no plan. He dubs those first purchases “early Dad art”. They now reside with his children and grandchildren. Gradually, this local businessman moved away from folk/naive art and gravitated toward self-taught and outsider art.

Petullo doesn’t like the artificial distinctions placed on this work. What attracts him so much to these artists? “They share an independent spirit, unrestrained by the rules of art training. Also they are inventive, having a free flow of creativity. Essentially, they create for their own enjoyment and fulfillment, with little or no regard for the rest of the art world.”

As Petullo’s eye developed and grew more discriminating, he concentrated on figurative, colorful, uplifting and optimistic work. Abstract or highly polished art didn’t move him. “I’m an imagist,”, he says. The art of Edward Hopper, Egon Schiele, The School of The Eight, and artists of  the Fauve movement holds special appeal.

Madge Gill (English, 1882–1961)

Madge Gill (English, 1882–1961)

“I never bought art as an investment”, Petullo told me, advice he gives to every aspiring collector. “You have to realize that 98% of art never appreciates. And, as soon as the work leaves the dealer’s shop, it’s immediately worth 50% less than what you paid for it.” I asked if he had gotten some bargains when he began collecting outsider art in the early 1980s. “Well, maybe if you consider $20,000 or 30,000 a low price.”

Though he initially relied on one or two dealers to steer him toward outstanding work, Petullo soon developed firm confidence in his own taste. “You have to believe in yourself to build a great collection. You have to say “No” to them (dealers) if it’s not for you.” He laughingly recalled that Russell Bowman, a former director of the museum (now an art dealer in Chicago) once brought him a list of suggested artists to add to the collection. Petullo says he crossed off all but one or two names. He’d do it his way, thank you.

Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern (1892–1982)

Friedrich Schröder Sonnenstern (1892–1982)

He made it clear years ago that his museum-quality collection was destined for Milwaukee. What criteria, I asked, did he use in deciding where it should go and had he considered a New York museum or The Art Institute (Petullo was born and grew up in Chicago and graduated from the University of Illinois, where he has endowed two named professorships).  He named four factors that governed the winning choice: “They needed to have strong interest in the collection, top curatorial talent, enough wall space and, very important, enough storage space.” He didn’t want the art to languish in an off-site warehouse.

Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973)

Henry Darger (American, 1892–1973)

New York’s Museum of American Folk Art didn’t have enough wall space and recently shuttered its doors. And the Art Institute was “too damn big”. The collection would be lost there and he thought the museum “not ready”, possibly meaning such art was deemed not yet worthy of admission. At Milwaukee, the Petullo Collection will join the Richard and Erna Flagg Collection of Haitian Art and the Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art. Those three collections, notes gallerist Jane Kallir in the lavish “Accidental Genius” catalog, “make Milwaukee one of America’s preeminent centers for the study of work by untrained creators.”

At a time when auction houses and one’s checkbook rule as the new arbiters of artistic value and social celebrity, it is heartening to see an older model of a generous collector motivated purely by his passion for art and his community. For more information on the artists and exhibition visit the Milwaukee Art Museum.

PostHeaderIcon Independent Art Voice Revived

Derek Guthrie

Derek Guthrie

It has been 10 years since The New Art Examiner published its final issue. The monthly magazine, which called itself “Chicago’s Independent Voice of the Visual Arts,” enjoyed a rough but highly-respected run from 1973 to 2002. It was born in controversy by founding editors, Jane Addams Allen and Derek Guthrie. Besides coverage of local and regional exhibits, the publication adopted a reportorial, contrarian stance toward the value systems and practices of the art world that raised a lot of critical dust.

Under the helm of successive editors, it gained a large following among artists, a national readership and critical influence beyond the Midwest. It was disheartening to hear at a panel discussion last November that the history and contribution of Chicago’s only successful art magazine was virtually unknown among younger critics and art students.

Authors Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born and Janet Koplos have now stepped into the breach and assembled an enlightening anthology of articles in “The Essential New Art Examiner,” newly-published by Northern Illinois University Press. In so doing, they have resurrected this ever-lively publication and shown what was lost with its passing.

Griffith, at an all-day symposium (“Re-Examining the New Art Examiner”) last Saturday at Northern Illinois’ campus, called the Examiner “a newspaper for artists” to which each editor, over its 30-year run, brought their own views and interests. These new voices, who shared the founding editors’ commitment to an independent local outlet, not only kept the Examiner alive once Allen and Guthrie relocated to Washington, D. C. but also helped establish Chicago’s growing national recognition as a true art center.

The New Art Examiner published my first forays in art reportage. A cover story on an infamous trial of the 1980s involving the George F. Harding Museum earned me my first Examiner byline. Following that scandal, I next investigated the nationwide lack of defined ethical guidelines at major art museums.

While most institutions now have written guidelines governing staff, trustee and curatorial conduct, ethical issues around collection management still arouse controversy 30 years later.

While I hung around the Examiner’s office mainly from 1980-82, Guthrie’s introduction to the book, along with his and Jane Allen’s opening essay and Frank Pannier passionate rant opened my eyes to Chicago’s art world circa 1973.

Essential New Art Examiner

Essential New Art Examiner

Besides giving young art writers their first exposure in print, the book contains many thoughtful essays that still resonate by prominent critics and curators: Peter Schjeldahl (now at The New Yorker), Hilton Kramer (The New Criterion), Janet Koplos (Art in America), Alice Thorsen (now at Kansas City Star), Lynne Warren (MCA) and Hamza Walker (Renaissance Society). Schjeldahl’s 1985 “Chicagoization” article is a classic. The historical recaps by five former editors are a nice personal touch. Only a handful of the 27 selections were duds.

While the book does not pretend to be a complete history, which remains to be written, it is an essential primer to a colorful and contentious period in Chicago art lost to generations who came after. (NIU art historian, Barbara Jaffee, has written a highly perceptive analysis of the Examiner’s origins and history. For a copy of her catalog essay that accompanied NIU Museum’s exhibition on the New Art Examiner, write

Unfortunately, the New Art Examiner was never supported with advertising by most dealers or, especially, the city’s two major museums. Book artist, Buzz Spector, called the New Art Examiner “the chronic outsider of the art world.” An early director at the Museum of Contemporary Art banned the magazine from the museum’s gift shop.

Guthrie writes that he and Jane Allen “learned by bitter experience that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality.” Dealers at the time failed to see any reason to support a publication with an independent voice that could not be controlled.

Former NY Times reporter, Judith Dobrzynski, in her recent blog on ArtsJournal confirms that Guthrie’s complaint lives on today. She asked, “Does the visual arts world need sharper criticism? Yes….When was the last time you read a learned, thoughtful, well-argued critique of a museum or gallery exhibition that was negative?”

One would like to think that Chicago’s frosty reception toward the Examiner is a thing of the past. However, the more recent demise of Chicago Artist News in 2010 is a fresh reminder bespeaking a pattern of poor institutional support.

While blogs proliferate online, none carry the critical authority and agenda-setting power of a print publication like ArtNews or Artforum. So long as Chicago’s art community fails to support its own artists with its own editorial outlet, New York will monopolize the national art dialogue. Chicago will continue to make do with periodic scraps and its art community will remain a provincial center.

The Essential New Art Examiner is now in bookstores or from the publisher at

PostHeaderIcon Museums in the Artists’ Backyard

Ceazzanes Studio

Cezanne's Studio

It’s been almost 50 years since I took an Art History 101 course at Fordham University. I didn’t know it at the time but that experience would shape my lifelong interest in Art ever since.

I still remember the charismatic teacher for that course, Sabine Gova, who would keep me enthralled for nearly 3 hours each Tuesday afternoon while she projected countless slides of art and architectural masterworks and brought them to life. In addition to her knowledge of the paintings and artists that she shared, she also imparted another gift. She taught me how to look.

Every week, with countless images, she would challenge us with a variety of questions: “What do you see?, What is happening in this scene?, “Are the figures properly proportioned?”, “What makes this work a masterpiece?”. Precisely the type of questions I ask myself when I tour museum exhibits today.

Madame Gova, who was French, exposed me to artists such as Giotto,  Leonardo, Albert Durer, Van Gogh, Vermeer, Cezanne, Renoir, Picasso, Monet and Matisse to cite only ten who remain personal favorites.

Cote D'Azur

Cote D'Azur

I have traveled to museums at home and in Europe and admired the works of those ten and many more. However, this summer I am exploring the very region–Provence and the Cote d’Azur in southern France–where many late 19th and 20th Century artists lived and captured the special quality of light and landscape one finds there.

And many of the towns—Aix-en-Provence, Antibes, Biot, Cagnes-sur-Mer, Le Cannet, Nice, Vence–house museums dedicated solely to the work of the artist who lived and painted there. The museum in Aix features Cezanne’s studio, Antibes honors Picasso (who has museums in Villauris and Paris as well), Biot features Fernand Leger, Cagnes has the home where Renoir spent the final twelve years of his life, Le Cannet was home to Bonnard (an attractive museum housed in a former villa just opened in June), Nice has Matisse and Chagall museums.

It was a special treat to step into the very place—and the upstairs studio—that Renoir called home! Or to roam—and sometimes recognize—the same everyday places that Picasso, Miro, Matisse, Cezanne and Bonnard immortalized in paint. Compared to this living experience, a museum seems a much more sterile, impersonal storehouse.

Matise chapel 2

Matisse Chapel

Two artists—Matisse and Jean-Michel Folon—even created two great works  of architecture. Each has designed beautiful chapels brightly illuminated by stain glass (Matisse) or glowing mosaic tiles (Folon). Matisse’s chapel is in Vence and was done to thank the order of nuns who cared for him during his last years. Folon, following Matisse’s example—designed La Chapelle des Penitents Blancs (White Penitent’s Chapel)—in St. Paul de Vence. He died in 2005 but his friends completed his vision. I had the pleasure of participating in Sunday Mass at the Matisse chapel and am told that Folon’s chapel is used for mass and marriage ceremonies.

Most of the museums are modest in scale except for the Leger and Matisse museums which are large structures. The museums’ holdings vary in quality.  Each has around 50-100 works on display, ranging from paintings to drawings, photographs and archival material. However, nearly all the real treasures produced by these artists are now housed in American and European collections like MoMA, the Art Institute, and the Musee d’Orsay.

Bonnare Museum

Bonnard Museum

The inaugural exhibit at the new Bonnard Museum was drawn from international collections. The American collector who first collected Bonnard, an artist whose ranking has climbed steadily in the past 25 years, was Duncan Phillips (a gem of a house museum in Washington, D.C.). His acquisition is on display as is a beauty from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art which mounted a stunning Bonnard exhibition a few years ago.

An absolute must-see on a journey to this region is France’s only privately-run museum, the Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence. It could qualify as an artist museum since its founder, Aime Maeght, was originally a lithographer in Cannes who befriended many of the artists in that region beginning in the 1940s. Maeght went on to become a highly successful art dealer and publisher of art books in Paris.

When one of his sons, Bernard, died at an early age, a grieving Maeght was encouraged by George Braque to build a chapel in his honor on the St. Paul site and to share his personal collection as an artist foundation, an unknown concept in France at that time. Maeght hired noted Spanish architect, Jose-Luis Sert, to design the structure and many of his artist friends contributed works. The Fondation opened in 1964.

fondation-maeght-outsideThe Fondation’s collection consists of Aime and Marguerite original works, donations by their artist friends, many of whom are now internationally-known, ranks as the fifth-largest museum in France, though it receives no state funds and operates as a private foundation.

The building’s main exhibit hall is a knockout. It contains eight significant paintings and sculptures by a 20th Century artistic Who’s Who of Fernand Leger, Pierre Bonnard, Georges Braque, Sam Francis, Alberto Giacometti and Wassily Kandinsky.

Miro Labrynthe Garden

Miro Labyrnth Garden

Joan Miro’s mysterious, captivating giant sculptures and playful fountains in his Labyrinth Garden, combined with the lush outdoor setting, is a sight that will remain with me forever. Miro’s genius has never been better displayed.

Many vacationers visit the Cote d’Azur for its endless summer weather, to catch a glimpse of the celebrities and millionaires who live there or to gawk at the rich and famous’ conspicuous trinkets, such as Steven Spielberg’s giant yacht (available for rent at a mere $375,000 a week). For me, the richer payoff is basking in the everyday life of the artistic “backyard” that, a century later, still impacts our world’s cultural legacy.