Art history is often presented as a tidy continuum — one movement flowing neatly into the next. But the reality is often much more knotty, as artists switch locales, follow teachers and chase whims.
“West By Midwest,” running this weekend through Jan. 27 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, offers a case study in this “complex, even messier alternative,” according to co-organizer Charlotte Ickes.
The exhibition examines overlapping and intersecting relationships and influences of artists who left Illinois and other Midwestern states to live, study and work on the West Coast, primarily in California. It’s a story that remains understudied and underappreciated.
This largely chronological exhibition follows the western migration of more than 60 artists from the mid-1940s to the early 21st century. It features about 100 works. About half are from the MCA’s holdings, the rest from public and private collections in Chicago and California and from the artists themselves.
Included are paintings, sculptures, ephemera, artists’ books, original prints, even a room-size installation — “Craft Morphology Flow Chart” (1991) — by Mike Kelley, who left his native Michigan in 1976 to pursue a master’s degree in the Los Angeles area.
‘West By Midwest’ When: Nov. 17-Jan. 27, 2019 Where: Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Tickets: Regular suggested admission $15 Info: mcachicago.org
“I would say it’s a research-based show, for sure,” says Ickes, an MCA curatorial fellow who started work on the project in August 2017. “It’s very a deep dive into our collection but also these histories swirling around the collection as well.”
The exhibition was conceived and co-organized by chief curator Michael Darling, who knows the West Coast well, having been curator of modern and contemporary art at the Seattle Art Museum and associate curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles.
“The idea for ‘West By Midwest’ started off simply,” Darling says, “with the hope of making a group show from the works by L.A. artists that the MCA has in depth in our collection, looking first at people like Ed Ruscha, Mike Kelley and Sterling Ruby.”
Darling and Ickes realized that the three all had Midwestern beginnings, and the two curators decided to look for other artists with similar ties.
Ickes did the bulk of the research. He began by studying the backgrounds of all the artists in the MCA collection to see who had connections to the Midwest and West. “And then I reverse-engineered it and said, ‘Who are some of the artists who are not represented in the collection who would make sense in the show?’ ” she says.
One of the most famous Los Angeles artists with Midwestern roots is Ruscha, an Omaha native who grew up in Oklahoma City and moved to Los Angeles in 1956 to study at what is now known as the California Institute of the Arts.
Ruscha documented a return trip home in “Twentysix Gasoline Stations,” his first artist’s book (and one of the first such works ever in this now-pervasive form). Originally published in 1963 in a numbered edition of 400, it features 26 photos of the then-ordinary, now-iconic gasoline filling stations he encountered along Route 66. (On view is an example from a second reprinting of the book in 1969.)
Other notable artists in the show include Judy Chicago, David Hammons, Bruce Nauman, Senga Nengudi, Catherine Opie and Miriam Schapiro. Many others are less well known. “It was important to me to tell a capacious story to the extent that we could,” Ickes says.
Though not meant to be Chicago-centric, the show includes a significant number of artists with links to the city, like Charles White, who taught at the Otis Institute of Art in Los Angeles from 1965 to his death in 1979. His students included Hammons, Judithe Hernández (a Los Angeles native who lived in Chicago for 25 years) and Suzanne Jackson, all represented in the new exhibition.
Along with teachers and students, there is a focus on artist cooperatives and intergenerational connections like the one embodied in “The Meaning of Plus and Minus” — a sculpture of an oversized binder with changing images projected onto it. It was created by Chicago native Amanda Ross-Ho and Allen Ruppersberg, who was born more than 30 years earlier in Cleveland, as part of a 2011 exhibition at the Orange County Museum of Art.
The chronicle of American art history has long been dominated, even monopolized, by New York City. But that has begun to change. In 2011-12, for instance, cultural institutions across Southern California came together to assert that region’s undervalued role with a group of interrelated exhibitions titled “Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945-1980.” “Art by Midwest” continues that scholarly reevaluation.
“I think this show is some attempt to think through these different regions and locations apart from New York,” Ickes says. “Many of these artists made a specific choice not to go East. And, particularly in the postwar moment when New York replaced Paris as the capital of art world, some of these of artists said, ‘No, thank you.’ ”
Kyle MacMillan is a freelance writer.