Theaster Gates salutes the spaces where Ebony and Jet happened
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“A Johnson Publishing Story,” an exhibition that opened in Chicago last week, memorializes the iconic tastes of the late John and Eunice Johnson, pioneers in African-American publishing, fashion and cosmetics. Chicago artist/developer Theaster Gates has installed select furnishings from the Johnson Publishing Co. offices in the Ebony/Jet building that opened in 1972.
Besides a stylish desk, credenza and sofa, there’s an IBM Selectric typewriter custom-clad in red alligator leather. Autographed copies of books by Richard Wright and Langston Hughes are on view too. Cards inform visitors: “These objects are sacred, please be respectful.”
‘A Johnson Publishing Story’
When: Through Sept. 30
Where: Rebuild Foundation, Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 South Stony Island Ave.
It’s all at the Stony Island Arts Bank, 6760 S. Stony Island Ave., site of the former Stony Island Trust and Savings Bank Building built in 1923.
The three-story neo-classical structure was repurposed in 2015 by the Rebuild Foundation as “a hybrid gallery, media archive, library and community center.” At the exhibition’s opening last Thursday, Rebuild founder and executive director Gates welcomed visitors: “We’re on Stony Island between 67th and Blackness” in a “space to explore black spatial imagination.”
“A Johnson Publishing Story” salutes “the role of the JPC [Johnson Publishing Co.] in defining and disseminating a black aesthetic and culture to national and international audiences in the mid-20th century.” The exhibition is aligned with Art Design Chicago, a Terra Foundation for American Art project to showcase Chicago “as a catalyst and incubator for innovations in art and design.”
The now vacant 11-story Ebony/Jet Building at 820 S. Michigan was designed by John W. Moutoussamy, a black Chicago architect. Gates claims: “That building is black modernism.” The offices within, suggests WBEZ architecture blogger Lee Bey, “embodied an afrocentric modernism that was well-turned, avant-garde and quite hip.” Arthur Elrod and William Raiser designed that interior with input from the Johnsons.
Three photographs by David Hartt in the exhibit document the historic workplace. In a 2011 talk at the Art Institute, Hartt offered: “This is a factory for taste.” The Johnsons had “a very clear aesthetic vision of the world that is materialized in every single square inch of the building,” he observed.
In dialogue at the opening of “A Johnson Publishing Story,” Gates introduced Linda Johnson Rice — chair of Johnson Publishing Company — as “the black heiress of the most important image-manufacturing company in the world.” Rice shared memories of her youth working with her parents and seeing Muhammad Ali, Diana Ross and The Jackson 5 in the offices. And the employee cafeteria served steaks: “You could eat for a $1 a day.”
“Every floor was different, every floor was decorated,” Rice recalled. “Each had a personality.” Jet Magazine was “racy, fun, so that floor was all leopard. It was a hot sexy floor. And then the Ebony floor was very serene and very calm.”
Rice’s father related his tenure as a life trustee of the Art Institute: “ ‘I go to their meetings and I’m surrounded by all these paintings by masters,’ and he said, ‘when I build an office building, I want to be surrounded by black masters.’ ” Gates, who received an honorary doctorate from the School of the Art Institute in 2014, displays 18 art works from the Johnson collection. He also created two neon wall pieces for the show.
“In a world of negative black images, we wanted to provide positive Black images,” wrote Johnson in 1985 in a Publisher’s Statement. “In a world that said Blacks could do few things, we wanted to say they could do everything.”
Bill Stamets is a Chicago freelance writer.