Art Green (b. 1939)
Untitled, ca. early 1960s
Marker on paper
Gifts Fund Purchase
Brauer Museum of Art, 2012.15
Art Green’s untitled marker drawing on paper is a fine new addition to the Brauer Museum of Art’s permanent collection. A founding member of the Chicago artist group known as the Hairy Who, Green in this drawing demonstrates well some of the key stylistic traits that characterized the Hairy Who’s work when the public first became aware of the group in the mid to late 1960s.
The history of art in Chicago is fascinating, and the Brauer Museum of Art’s closeness to the city, about an hour’s drive to downtown, establishes it as a place well suited for exploring the developments of Chicago art and the particular circumstances that led to those developments. The city’s longstanding connection with and fondness for Surrealism could arise from, for example, the interest several major collectors had in the movement, who then donated their collections to the Art Institute of Chicago. In addition, the ethnographic collections in the Field Museum inspired many artists to experiment with imaginative styles of representation and narrative in their work. Finally, the juxtaposition of a vast lake with a bustling city, similar in effect to the juxtaposition in Northwest Indiana of the Dunes and steel mills, had an effect on artists interested in reconciling through creativity such dramatic opposites. As young students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), members of the Hairy Who sought to engage the world of popular culture in their work, in their limited sphere steering art away from the dominant Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s. The Hairy Who in a way were Pop artists, but as opposed to the cool products of 1960s New York Pop, the Chicago artists ran Pop concerns through a very personal filter, highlighting the grotesque, a theme or subject treated very effectively by those Chicago artists who were the Hairy Who’s instructors at SAIC and who blended gestural abstraction with figurative and narrative elements. Careful, even meticulous craft was key to their work, as were a playful sense of humor, a strong connection to Surrealism (both as a general style and a specific early twentieth-century movement), and a lively interest in comic books and cartoons. The Hairy Who’s work was very popular and influential, with several subsequent generations of Chicago artists continuing to treat their central themes until the overall style became more broadly and generally known as Imagism.
Art Green’s untitled drawing offers a fine summary statement of Hairy Who or Imagist ideas. Green uses the marker very carefully and skillfully; such a medium is by no means easy to control, and the fact that he makes art with such a drawing tool speaks to not only his talent but also his inventive spirit in drawing with something usually reserved for children’s projects. The subject of the drawing seems to be a shadow of a figure wearing a hat, dreaming or thinking of a slab that contains a cutout shape matching the contours of the shadow figure. The balloon rising from the shadow matches thought balloons frequently seen in comic strips and comic books, and the line quality throughout the drawing is stylized and exaggerated, also reminding the viewer of comic sources. The drawing suggests a narrative and occupies the realm of ideas, as opposed to being a transcription of observed details of an existing subject.
In addition to aforementioned interests in humor, popular culture, Surrealism, and advanced technique that served as a kind of foil for their frequently grotesque subjects, Imagists in their titles and combinations of pictorial elements reflected a delight in verbal and visual puns. Green’s drawing composed of the primary colors red, yellow, and blue could perhaps be seen as a light-hearted allegory, where the artist dreams of art which in turn both defines and stands in for the artist. The shadow, the absence of a figure but still representing the presence of a figure, dreams of a presence (the slab) that contains an absence which matches the absence that is actually a presence. This kind of intellectual game playing finds its precedent in Surrealist games that in their challenging of logic and meaning lead to more serious ponderings of the nature of art making and the relationship of art making to life. Green’s figure is the artist who, in creating works of art, establishes his presence through his physical absence in the work he creates.
In his later works, Green became ever more meticulous in his technique, and his mature works demonstrate his virtuoso ability to depict the illusion of layer upon layer of imaginative worlds. All of the Imagists reached astonishing skill levels with their materials and treatment of personal yet universal themes. What makes this early Green drawing so historically important and enjoyable to view is the relative directness of execution and presentation of central Hairy Who and Imagist artistic concerns, not to mention its sense of the surreal that recalls Magritte, with the hatted figure reminiscent of that artist’s bowler-wearing gentlemen. This drawing in the context of the many other Imagist works in the Brauer’s collection seems to urge viewers to prepare for a new point of view that makes the unfamiliar familiar, and that uses fun and accessible means to deliver viewers into the land of the imagination, where play reveals truth.
Gregg Hertzlieb is Curator and Director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University. Hertzlieb is the editor of the books The Calumet Region: An American Place (Photographs by Gary Cialdella), published in 2009, and Domestic Vision: Twenty-Five Years of the Art of Joel Sheesley (2008), as well as a contributor to The Indiana Dunes Revealed: The Art of Frank V. Dudley (2006). He has been awarded the Edward L. Ryerson Traveling Fellowship by the School of the Art Institute in Chicago and a Conant Writing Award for Poetry from Millikin University. His artwork has been exhibited widely, including at the Aron Packer Gallery, August House Studio, the Central School of Art and Design in London, Columbia College, Elgin Community College, the Goodman Theater, and Struve Gallery.