While the cultural histories of Chicago and Milan are world apart, from October 20 through January 15 the Italian super curator Germano Celant will devote every gallery of the Fondazione Prada to Chicago’s Post-war art scene. Broadly separated into three sections, Famous Artists from Chicago 1965–1975 will take place in the podium on the ground floor of the building, beyond which exhibitions focusing on the work of Leon Golub and H. C. Westermann will be presented in the North and South galleries, respectively.
The foundation’s aim is to explore the work of two generations of artists: the Monster Roster — a group that has been overlooked despite being a key Midwestern contributor to American art’s development, spearheaded by Golub alongside artists such as Cosmo Campoli, June Leaf, Dominick Di Meo, Seymour Rosofsky and Nancy Spero — and the Chicago Imagists, who are broadly associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
The exhibition is an in-depth focus on artists who were active in the city during the 1960s and 1970s, their works characterized by figurative narratives, political commitment and a graphic register. Examples include Roger Brown, whose surreal paintings often depict the city’s buildings amid ominous dark and swirling skies or being consumed by ferocious flames; Gladys Nilsson, who fuses the spaces of fantasy and domesticity in a style that recalls the early 20th-century German Expressionists; and Suellen Rocca, who mixes the human figure with wordplay and vernacular imagery.
Karl Wirsum originally wanted to be a comicbook artist, and his bold, sometimes cartoonish characters, which are rendered in the brightest of colors, are clearly influenced by Japanese and Indian precursors. Ed Paschke was also interested in animation and cartoons, as well as tattoo art, and his trippy works combine psychedelic hues and patterns.
Rejected by mainstream New York culture, these artists purposefully counteracted Minimal Art’s essentialism. The Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago was pivotal in terms of providing a platform for them to exhibit their work at the time, and the space’s curator, Don Baum, has described in an interview with Sue Ann Kendall in the exhibition catalog how: “My theme from the very beginning was that it was important to show Chicago artists. Because here were all these artists in town and none of them had exhibited. I mean, there were two or three people that had galleries. Nobody else did. And there were almost no opportunities.” His shows included Hairy Who (1966–67), FalseImage and Nonplussed Some (both 1968–69), which alongside the itinerant exhibition Made in Chicago, first presented at the São Paulo Biennial in 1973, put these artists on the map.
The earlier 20th-century movements of Surrealism and Art Brut strongly influenced the practices of many of the artists included at the Fondazione Prada show, where vivid colors and strange forms abound. Indeed, the influence that the Chicago figures subsequently had on new generations of artists in the 1980s and 1990s, right up to today, should not be overlooked: from Graffiti and urban murals, to emerging contemporary artists such as Torey Thornton, whose own choice of loud colors and flat style suggests that he cannot have escaped knowledge of their work. While much of the rest of the world has, thankfully this imbalance is now being redressed.