Introducing the MONSTER ROSTER

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Contemporary art in Chicago has a Date Of Birth, and it’s February 24, 1966-so this year it hits the big 5-0! 2/24/66: that’s the day the first of a several year sequence of exhibitions of young Chicago artists was held at the Hyde Park Art Center that would, in the aggregate, come to define Chicago Imagism. That first show-titled “The Hairy Who” (sounds like a groovy band, don’t you just love that 1960s upbeat insouciance? It’s all over their work too!)-was comprised of the work of Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum. The Hairy Who showed together a few more times over the next couple of years, and were joined at the HPAC by a series of other group shows of young Chicagoans who called themselves, in turn, “The Nonplussed Some,” “The False Image,”

“Marriage Chicago Style,” and “Chicago Antigua.” Artists such as Roger Brown, Sarah Canright, Ed Flood, Philip Hanson, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Barbara Rossi, and more, had significant local debuts in those latter exhibitions, and by the early1970s the roster that would dominate art from Chicago for the next several decades was off and running.

Angel
1953
Theodore Halkin
Oil over gouache on board
Collection of the Illinois State Museum
Photos: courtesy Smart Museum

But something never comes from nothing. There was art and there were artists in Chicago before the advent of the Imagist generation, and in several instances-Ivan Albright, for example-they achieved national recognition, and artists such as John Storrs, Archibald Motley, Richard Hunt, Gertrude Abercrombie and others enjoyed significant careers. And there was a generation of artists working in Chicago throughout the 1950s, just before the rise of the Imagists, that also included participants who would achieve local and/or national stature (Robert Barnes, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Irving Petlin, Seymour Rosofsky, Nancy Spero, Evelyn Statsinger, H. C. Westermann, etc.) This latter group, collectively known as the “Monster Roster,” is currently receiving its first large museum examination (through June 12) at the Smart Museum of Art, at the University of Chicago. Titled “Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago,” the show is curated by independent curators and gallery owners John Corbett and Jim Dempsey along with Smart Museum curators Richard A. Born and Jessica Moss.

It’s an intriguing exhibition, a bit unwieldy (it has four curators and six essayists), and to those fairly familiar with this material there was little that seemed a game-changer here. But seeing the work together, as it so rarely was during its creation or since, is a valuable experience. As the exhibition’s title indicates, the curators buy into-as I think they should-similar arguments made about Abstract Expressionism in New York during the same period: that this was a charged moment in art history when existence and art-making seemed a matter of life and death, when the question on many lips was, “Should I die or should I paint?” As Harold Rosenberg (who later taught at the University of Chicago) put it, “painting became the means of confronting in daily practice the problematic nature of modern individuality.” Note Rosenberg’s decisive word choice, not the “potentially problematic nature…” not the “sometimes problematic nature…” but straight out and blatant, modern individuality was problematic. Art-making was serious stuff, a sensibility that permeated and obsessed all these artists, formed in the dramatic crucible of the 1930s and 1940s.

The Ischian Sphinx
1956
Leon Golub
Oil and lacquer on canvas
Collection of Ulrich and Harriet Meyer Art © Estate of Leon Golub/Licensed by VAGA, New York

Imagine you are, for example, Leon Golub. You’re born in Chicago in 1922, so when you’re a small boy, the economic system of the planet comes crashing down in the worst Depression of the century, and the next decade seems an endless stream of unemployment lines morphing into soup lines, lean and mean. You’re so bright that you earn your BA in 1942 at the age of 20 at the University of Chicago and then enlist, spending most of the next four years in Europe with the US Army. Then the war ends, but instead of the giddy flush of victory, it all seems soiled, the horrors of the Holocaust are exposed all around you in Europe, and your government drops atomic bombs on Japanese cities. You return home to Chicago for study at the SAIC under the GI Bill to a hard and tough blue-collar city (read Nelson Algren’s 1951 essay “Chicago: City on the Make”) and begin a marriage in pretty dire poverty, just as the Cold War starts and nuclear annihilation becomes a realistic concept. So, if you’re Leon Golub, you’re probably not going to paint two pears and an apple. And Golub didn’t.

And it wasn’t just Golub. As curator John Corbett notes, that very real sense of existential dread casts a shadow over much of the Roster’s output from its early days. “The aspect of the Monster Roster that was somewhat unexpected to us was the force that WWII exerted on virtually all of the artists’ work,” he observes. “So the deep psychological element, which of course also relates to all sorts of other things like Freudian psychoanalysis, Greek and Roman mythology, and existential philosophy, is rooted in a palpable sense of anxiety and dread. That portentousness germinated in the direct experience of the war for many of the artists, and in the terrifying fear of nuclear annihilation that was a prevalent part of American daily life in the ’50s.”

Man with a Dog
c. 1950
George M. Cohen
Oil on board
Courtesy George Cohen Estate
Photos: courtesy Smart Museum

In contrast to AbEx, the work was also differentiated and defined by its embrace of the human figure. The exhibition, more clearly in the catalogue than on the Smart’s walls, clearly indicates the figurative nature of the Monster Roster (the name wasn’t coined until late in its run, in 1959, by artist and critic Franz Schulze, who would also later coin the term ‘Imagism’). And the figure was part of its identity; it’s always been part of Chicago’s art identity, from Albright to Golub and onward, the human figure under stress (variously psychological, sexual, emotional, comedic, and yes, existential) is the touchstone of Chicago painting and sculpture. In a 1955 article for the College Art Journal (“A Critique of Abstract Expressionism”), Golub had what must have seemed the provincial audacity and disloyalty to throw a gauntlet at New York School abstraction, challenging New York’s abjuration of the human Golub-and his work dominates this exhibition in number and scale-brought his commitment to the figure to the studio every day, and in work after work here you see human existence as an unending struggle against long odds, the body as a battered instrument of victimization, with the urge to survive one of its few ongoing dignities. The canvas becomes something to scrape and scumble and attack, and as the 1950s proceeded, color becomes something dolloped out so parsimonio
usly as to be conspicuous by its near absence; early works such as The Courtesans (c. 1950), or the later, monumental Reclining Youth of 1959 exhibit his developing probing nature, the earlier work a search through the sensuous tactility of paint, the latter more a physical assault on canvas. Golub continues the several-thousand-year-old tradition of the centrality of the human form, even if now it often appears concussed and bereft. The show also offers several versions of the charnel house horrors of Cosmo Campoli’s still mesmerizing sculpture Birth of Death, (all c. 1950), and Nancy Spero’s paintings were great to see, and among the surprises of the exhibition was how good and terrifically creepy Fred Berger’s paintings are.

But was the Monster Roster an art movement? Or was it rather just a shared vocabulary, as so often happens in a particular place at a particular time: you know, ideas are floating around and different artists pick them up for a bit. The curators acknowledge that this is an open question. Unlike the Imagists, who did eventually regularly exhibit together, almost universally shared a dealer (Phyllis Kind) and had the support and attentions of a great critic and curator (Dennis Adrian locally, and on the national scene, Walter Hopps), the Monster Roster had none of that. Even the movement wasn’t named until it was practically over, and there are artists displayed here together who barely knew one another. But the curators convincingly draw these artists together visually and philosophically, so if it wasn’t a movement before, it now probably is.

One thing that did unite them perhaps, if only loosely, was a shared attitude of fearlessness. “Working on the exhibition, we were struck by how exploratory and even experimental the artists were,” says Corbett. “Sometimes experimentation is cast as something exclusive to abstraction, but in the context of a figurative practice, you only need to consider Golub’s scraped and gnawed surfaces, the unconventional plastic wood and pliable polymers used by Di Meo and Halkin, and the washy near-monochrome black paintings of Spero, to sense how fearless they were, from a formal, material, and technical perspective.”

Untitled
1958
Fred Berger
Oil on canvas
Smart Museum of Art, The University of Chicago Gift of Robert and Mary Donley
Photo: courtesy Smart Museum

The Monster Roster ended by the artists moving on, some of them physically-Golub and Spero moved to Paris in 1959, and then to New York in 1964; Westermann headed for Connecticut in 1961, Irving Petlin left before that, June Leaf too-and some of them stylistically, setting in motion what Franz Schulze once called “the sorriest time in Chicago Art that I can remember, the early and mid 1960s,” identifying the period just before the Imagists began to emerge. Schulze continues: “The energy of the 1950s had begun to wane… and things began to die a little in the early 1960s. People questioned whether there was such a thing as a ‘Chicago School’ at all.” Some of the artists in this exhibition too have passed away, Evelyn Statsinger as recently as February 13 this year (there are 16 artists on view, a few just by a single work; 7 are living).

But that would end with the events of 50 years ago. At the end of this Monster Roster exhibition, the Smart Museum installed a room of Chicago Imagism from its permanent collection, with works by Roger Brown, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg and Suellen Rocca. All these also exhibit the human figure under stress, but it’s a kind of Pop and electric stress, funny, upbeat, rich in vernacular culture references, with not a whiff of the charnel house or existential despair, tongue in cheek instead of knife in heart. Walking from the Monster Roster into the Imagists you get that brightening feeling you experience when you walk through an encyclopedic museum and transition from, say, the 1970s into the 1980s, that you’re moving from the modern to the contemporary. But before they dispersed for good, the figures of the Monster Roster had, in channeling an anxious zeitgeist, laid the seeds for what was to come. Looking back to see these diverse young artists grappling so urgently with the anxieties of the age, reminds us of how dark it was before that light appeared.

Lead Image:
Installation view of “Monster Roster” at Smart Museum, Chicago