If you put a gun to my head and demanded that I name three living Chicago artists I’d be a dead man. Oh, I’d reel off Tony Fitzpatrick and Hebru Brantley easily enough. Then “boom!” because I couldn’t think of a third to save my life.
Which I’d be too embarrassed to admit if I didn’t suspect that this is two contemporary artists more than most readers could manage.
Chicago is not really an art town. Yes, Expo Chicago, the International Exposition of Contemporary & Modern Art, kicks off Wednesday at Navy Pier. And yes, we have wonderful public art, highlighted last month with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the unveiling of the Picasso sculpture. A Miro and a Calder, that Oldenburg bat column and Dubuffet’s “Snoopy in a Blender,” which really isn’t its name, but neither is “The Bean” the real name of Anish Kapoor’s mirrored legume.
Except for the Bean, which I love, I used to think dimly of Chicago’s public art, particularly the Picasso. But I try to actually listen to the people I talk with, and Michael Darling, the curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, convinced me that this stuff is actually important.
But does that make Chicago an important art town? I asked Christo, who wrapped the MCA in 1968, his first building draped in the United States, and was coming to town to promote Expo Chicago. He offered an interesting twist.
“Chicago is important because we have collectors,” said Christo, mentioning specifically veteran lawyer Scott Hodes.
So Chicago has people who buy art, yes. But living, working artists who both make art and whom the average schleb like me knows? Not so much. For years we had Ed Paschke, famous for his devotion to the city, with his studio on Howard Street, his soft-spoken demeanor belying his colorful, unsettling paintings of wrestlers and blank blue-green faces, their rectangular eyes fizzing like the screens of busted TVs.
He passed on in 2004, but his benign influence remains. Through him, I knew that Chicago has claim on Jeff Koons — Google “the most famous living artist in the world” and his picture comes up first — whose “Balloon Dog (Orange)” sold for $58.4 million in 2014.
I knew that Koons studied in Chicago because Paschke spoke fondly of him. But I never had reason to talk to Koons until the anniversary of the Picasso sculpture. He spoke of how he got here.
“In 1974, I saw a Jim Nutt retrospective at the Whitney Museum. Jim’s retrospective was life changing,” said Koons. “I realized, for the type of work I was looking at, Dada and surrealism, this was showing me a possible direction for the future. At the same time, it was so pop, so now, it gave me the future art can go. Then I came across Ed’s work, Karl Wirsum’s work — I also studied with Karl Wirsum — Art Green, Suellen Rocca, H.C. Westermann’s work. It just opened up whole opportunities of how art could function with a sense of power.”
I told Koons how I had begged my way into Paschke’s drawing class at Northwestern, despite it being full.
“I had a similar situation the first night I arrived in Chicago,” Koons said. “I went to the Inkwell Bar, on Ontario, underneath the Phyllis Kind Gallery. I’m at the bar, and a tall lanky man came in. From everything I heard, I thought, ‘That’s gotta be Ed Paschke.’ His class at the Art Institute was full, but I asked him, ‘Please, can I be sure to be in your class?’ He said he would do everything he could.”
Paschke let him in — Ed was a soft touch that way — and more.
“Then Ed hired me as his weekend assistant,” said Koons. “I worked every Saturday and Sunday, stretching canvases. He talked to me the whole time. Talked to me aesthetically. How everything’s here. Chicago and the city, taught me everything is already here. You just have to open yourself up to it. He showed me how he’d get source material: clubs, tattoo parlors. The only thing you have to do is focus on your own interests. You’ll be aware; you’re surrounded by it everywhere.
“Ed really was my mentor, more than any individual. As far as being an artist, he influenced and shaped and gave me my perspective, a starting point as a young artist to go out into the world, to feel yes, you can carve a way of life through art.”
Is there a Chicago style of art?
“The Chicago viewpoint of art, an embrace of surrealism, art as personality, incongruity, personality, enjoyment of the internal art journey inward, coming to a resolution, then celebration of very externalized work,” Koons aid. “Art that is about art, a very rewarding experience. A journey of self-acceptance, being able to embrace that journey. A process of personal iconography, generating sensations and feelings within myself and also other people. That was a tremendous experience, studying with someone like Whitney Halstead, being able to go outside and embrace and be accepting of other people, their work, to share in their transcendence.”
That’s perhaps heavy lifting for a newspaper column, and I’m not sure what every syllable means. I interpret it as this: you come to Chicago, the city holds a mirror up to you, you discover who you are, then build your own mirror that the world, if you’re lucky, sees itself in.