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‘Monster Roster’ exhibit revisits long-forgotten Chicago movement

By Kyle MacMillan | For the Sun-Times

Prescribed by a group of influential critics, curators and museums beginning in the 1930s and ‘40s, a linear, New York-centric continuum long has dominated presentations of 20th-century American art history.

‘Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago’

When: Feb. 11-June 12; free public reception, 7-9 p.m. Feb. 10

Where:University of Chicago, Smart Museum of Art, 5550 S. Greenwood

Admission: Free

Info: smartmuseum.uchicago.edu

But in the last couple of decades, in part because of the increased democratization of information made possible by the Internet, a more layered and inclusive narrative is emerging that takes into greater account what was happening across the country, including Chicago.

As part of this transformation, the University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art is presenting “Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago,” the first comprehensive look at a nearly forgotten group of 16 artists at work here from 1948 through 1968.

Dominick Di Meo, Fallen Hero, c. 1956, Paint on plaster and Masonite on wood panel. |<br>Private Collection/ Smart Museum of Art “Monster Roster”
Dominick Di Meo, Fallen Hero, c. 1956, Paint on plaster and Masonite on wood panel. |
Private Collection/ Smart Museum of Art “Monster Roster”

The show, which runs Feb. 11 through June 12, comprises more than 60 paintings, sculptures and works on paper, many from the Smart Museum’s own strong holdings of this work, as well loans from artist estates and other primarily Chicago-area collections.

“We feel like we put, really, masterpieces of this movement into one place for the first time,” said John Corbett. He and Jim Dempsey, co-owners of the Chicago-based art gallery, Corbett vs. Dempsey, are among the exhibition’s four co-curators.

Although the Monster Roster is considered Chicago’s first distinctive art movement, it was not a self-identified association but more of a loose group of artists who were creating psychologically charged, inward-looking work inspired by such non-orthodox sources as Greco-Roman art.

Franz Schulze, a young art critic and artist who was a member of the group, coined the name “Monster Roster” in a 1959 ARTnews magazine review, an appellation he derived in part from the dark, brooding and, at times, even grotesque look and feel of its work.

Some of its members, such as Leon Golub, June Leaf, Nancy Spero and H.C. Westermann achieved considerable individual fame, but the group as whole gained little acclaim either in Chicago or beyond.

June Leaf | courtesy of Joel Press
June Leaf | courtesy of Joel Press

While Monster Roster artists were showcased in a few contemporaneous exhibitions, including “The Chicago School: 1948-1954” at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1964, this show is the first in-depth survey with an accompanying scholarly catalog.

Despite the movement’s relative obscurity, which Corbett and Dempsey attribute to its origins outside New York and its push against the prevailing practices of the time, they believe that that Monster Roster was an internationally important group that is due for a major reconsideration.

“This is very significant work,” Corbett said. “You go through it and it has power from both a formal sense and then in terms of what the content of the work is. It’s as powerful as anything you’re going to see anywhere else.”

George M. Cohen, Man with a Dog, c. 1950, Oil on board. |<br>Courtesy George Cohen Estate. Featured in “Monster Roster” at the Smart Museum of Art
George M. Cohen, Man with a Dog, c. 1950, Oil on board. |
Courtesy George Cohen Estate. Featured in “Monster Roster” at the Smart Museum of Art

The beginnings of the group date to 1948 when the Art Institute of Chicago announced that students would no longer be able to take part in its annual Chicago and Vicinity exhibitions. Angered by this exclusion, Golub, a junior at the SAIC at the time, established a juried counter-salon, Exhibition Momentum, which ran through 1957 and featured many Monster Roster artists.

These artists shared a number of ties, starting with their interest in figuration and content, which flew in the face of the dominance of abstract-expressionism at the time and the prevailing belief in “art for art’s sake.”

A kind of existentialist anxiety runs through this work, a mood fueled by some of the artists’ experiences in World War II as well as the rise of the Cold War and fears of possible nuclear annihilation. “I have a feeling that sometimes the last thing you want to face is your own demons, and that’s what this work did,” Dempsey said.

H. C. Westermann | H. C. Westermann Study Collection, Smart Museum of Art
H. C. Westermann | H. C. Westermann Study Collection, Smart Museum of Art

The show begins in 1950 and ends in 1968, when the group had lost steam and another group of artists known as the Chicago Imagists were emerging in the city. Though the Monster Roster is sometimes seen as an antecedent to them, Corbett and Dempsey downplay the links between these aesthetically contrasting movements.

That said, the Monster Roster showed the artists that followed that it was possible to stand up to the New York-driven trends and create art in Chicago that was original and significant in its own right. It’s just taken time for the rest of art world to catch on.

Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.