Besides being one of Chicago’s most noteworthy and prodigious painters, William Conger is a repository of the city’s history, and a probing aesthetician. His knowledge and implementation of the historic complexity of abstract painting, the particular twists and turns of Chicago’s execution of that language, and its contribution to postmodern theory, actually embraces a conflicted narrative launched in the late 1800’s, the Columbian Exposition to be precise. Conger is a producer of work directly associated with the city’s cultural identity as both radical outlier and critical insider. The interview below is about the connectivity of mostly 20th Century impulses, institutions, stylistic frameworks, and disciplines. He discusses, in conjunction with his current exhibition at Bruno David Gallery, the consideration of those early historical circumstances that emanated and continue to flow from Hyde Park and elsewhere on the south side.
PK: William, I can’t begin without recalling an exhibition reception at the Union League honoring you and Dawoud Bey in 2010 as the newest members of their Distinguished Artists Group. In an artist’s address you made a humorous aside about your age, stating that at 73 you were almost half as old as the city of Chicago. That got my attention for two reasons. The first was the improbability of being able to compare one’s age to that of one of the largest cities in the world, and second the fact that Chicago, for all of its national and global impact, is incredibly young. It underlined how the city’s history of modern and contemporary art is also extremely young, and that you’ve been deeply involved in much of it beginning with your MFA program at the University of Chicago.
WC: I’ve always been fascinated by Chicago’s history and rapid growth as a major city since its beginnings in the early 19th Century. Yes, I’m only seven years shy of being half as old as Chicago, which was incorporated in 1837. There are vast areas of Chicago where the first buildings ever built on the land are still standing. Chicago’s identity as an important art center needs to be understood in relation to its brief urban history.
When I began MFA study at The University of Chicago in 1964, the graduate art studios were in sculptor Lorado Taft’s (1860-1936) original Midway Studios — attached to his home — where he and his assistants created many of his major monumental sculptures. The sprawling building contained a number of separate small studios nestled among larger spaces and a communal hall where Taft encouraged an atelier collegiality. The MFA program was intended to embody Taft’s atelier spirit. Thus, students worked independently but in constant engagement with other students and faculty mentors. That was perfect for me because I had already maintained a storefront studio since 1961 and had developed good work habits and a fledging exhibition record. My formal coursework was in art history which was wonderful for its rigor, research methodology, and esteemed faculty. It was a total immersion in art practice and academic scholarship. The Midway studios faced what had been the ‘Midway’ of the 1893 Columbian Exposition, the World’s Fair which firmly established Chicago as the spectacular new industrial, economic, and cultural center, and fastest growing city in the world. If that 1893 World’s Fair celebrated Chicago’s world-class economic status it can also be said to have commemorated the city’s south side, in the midst of the new University of Chicago, as the origin of Chicago’s artworld.
PK: You make an important point. And a critical mass of Chicago’s cultural history continues to be initiated and sustained on the south side. Art, jazz, architecture and design histories, accompanied by stylistic trends, innovative exhibition design, and cultural theory stimulated by varied institutions and their constituencies. These include the Hyde Park Art Center, the Smart Gallery, the Dusable Museum of African American History, the Renaissance Society, the Illinois Institute of Technology, the Southside Community Art Center, as well as individuals in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, White Walls Magazine, and the AfriCOBRA collective. The University of Illinois, Chicago, Columbia College, and even the Art Institute are south of Adams. While your painting has been vigorously discussed, esteemed, and collected, I wonder how many are aware of your attention to early strategic elements of that history as well as your dissemination of it as an academic, or as a subject of your work?
WC: I’ve always had an avid interest in Chicago History. I’ve lived here so long, since the early 1940s, and I think my aesthetic sensibility has been shaped as much by Chicago’s urbanity and history as by my broader study of art and art history. My bookshelves contain a collection on Chicago history, including its literature, art and architecture. Many of my painting titles allude to Chicago places and events. Chicago’s remarkably fast and unruly development in the 19th Century was fueled by idiosyncratic and experimental innovators and workers. They created the modern city with its risky public struggle to symbolize beauty, growth, and social equality. In that sense I think Chicago, still a new city, mirrors the development of modernist art. But it’s ironic that Chicago, from its beginning as a paradigm of the modern city, did not embrace modernist art, despite exemplifying it. Early leaders and tastemakers relished the messy creativity of Chicago but wanted to mask it with the resolved, idealized Victorian and Beaux-Arts style. Thus the 1893 World’s Fair was a hallucinated “classical” replication sharply in contrast to the exciting and chaotic real Chicago. The later emergence of progressive cultural institutions on Chicago’s south side was stimulated by the desire to overcome the entrenched beaux-arts and “classical” aesthetic that began there.
Chicago resisted modernism, even the 1913 Armory Show was met with ridicule by art elites and artists. The resistance was evidence of a desire to show Chicago as world class with established conservative taste (Victorian, Beaux-Arts) despite the very modern urban and entrepreneurial outlook. That’s why I think Chicago was a modernist artwork itself and it took decades for any synthesis to occur between city as modernist artwork and artists making modernist art. Maybe that synthesis began to show itself with the 1932-3 World’s Fair where the lead was in design and not fine art.
The city developed first south of the Chicago River. The north side developed more slowly partly because the river hampered easy access. There were bridges across the river but they caused congestion. There was some commercial and industrial development on the north side of the rivers and east of the north branch, but until well after the 1871 fire the area was mostly residential. The established cultural Institutions were almost all on the south side.
Neil Harris’ Chapter One, in the “Old Guard and The Advant-Guard” is really good at describing the Chicago art scene in the early years, the later 19th Century and later to the 1930s. Harris says that even though early Chicago attracted very individualistic and enterprising business innovators, the art values were opposite, as if to enshrine idealist and romantic Beaux- Arts taste. The 1893 World’s Fair, of course, exemplified that aesthetic. Harris sets up the early art history of Chicago as a continuing battle between the conservative aesthetic and the slowly emerging modernist one. The modernist community was continually depleted because avant-garde artists left Chicago for New York, etc. (Still true).
Jumping ahead, I was not much associated with Chicago’s abstract artists. In fact, the 1970s-80s “war” between the abstract artists and Imagist artists excluded me from both sides. Derek Guthrie called me a “flip-flopper” because my abstract paintings shared features with both groups. I was fine with that, but maybe Guthrie was being sarcastic. In the early 80s I joined up with Frank Piatek, Richard Loving, Miyoko Ito to form the Allusive Abstraction Group. Through Charlotte Moser we organized an IAC travel show: Abstract/Symbol/Image that combined our abstract work with Imagist Work. Now it’s called “Abstract Imagism.” We also began a newsprint publication, Chicago/Art/Write, to stimulate art commentary among artists.
PK: Your discussion of Chicago’s 20th culture is prescient. You stress that the relation of industry to the city’s identity didn’t match its projected aesthetics. There was aggressive growth and innovation, but conservatives tamped that down in the art community by using Beaux-arts aesthetics to instrumentalize the city as “world class.” Might that be analogous to the present where we find Chicago’s complex of aesthetics, technology and theory aggressive, but local art institutions largely prefer a softer global, and more marketable culture, rather than a formidable local one?
WC: I think of Chicago as the truly daemonic city. It began with furious opportunism, reckless, ruthless, vulgar exploitation, irrational creativity and a solipsistic devotion to individualism. But it quickly became the fastest growing city in the world and many expected it to become the world capital city. One might say that its reckless spirit caused it to burn itself down in 1871, giving itself the opportunity to rise up again, more civilized, subdued, a proper exemplar of American world class greatness. Thus, the new city would be gleaming white as promised by the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition; soon promised again in the 1909 Plan of Chicago and not doubted until the 1933 World’s Fair of 1933-34. The aim was to tame the daemon, to send it to school, to refine it. For me, that aim was best expressed in architecture. I know the other arts were similarly engaged, some writers and journalists who preferred to expose the city’s raw edges, as did some artists who had absorbed the modernist spirit after the Armory Show. Chicago’s ruling elites, however, remained panicked by the persistent daemonic personality of Chicago and its creative denizens. Even as late as 1937 (the year of my birth) society matron and generous patron of the Art Institute of Chicago, Josephine Hancock Logan published her “Sanity in Art”, a diatribe against modernist art. She had had enough of the “insane” art of modernist artists (perhaps unintentionally echoing Nazi propaganda) and called for a return to sensible late Victorian tastes. Her little book is filled with endorsements from leaders in the arts and industry (who lived in Beaux-Arts Gold Coast buildings ornamented top to bottom in gleaming white terra cotta). Yet, I think our innovative architects had already succeeded in synthesizing the daemonic essence of the Chicago spirit with a pragmatic rational order imbued with Vitruvian principles. Louis Sullivan was the best example. Josephine Logan was too late to the table but her screed did reveal the persistent deep conservatism among Chicago leaders whose fear of the daemonic – fear of Chicago’s essential, elemental and psychologically self-absorbed surreal creativity – remains. The Monster-Roster and Chicago Imagist era was the only time in Chicago arts history when that raw daemonic force was fully exposed, up front and scary, and yet transformed or sublimated by abstract elegance and order. If there’s a special truth in Chicago art, in Chicago History, it’s that daemonic spirit.
PK: Your current exhibition at Bruno David Gallery includes works that maintain the robust visual grammar of your classic abstraction. The combination of atmospheric and structural elements are as pronounced as always, yet remain innovative and unconventional. The color and compositions seem more vivid and precise, a bit flatter and formal than the past, but timely. I assume scale has played a significant part in this. Can you tell us anything about the conceptual growth of these new pieces?
WC: I’ve always worked on smaller works – oil paintings, collages, gouaches – the midst of making larger paintings, but in the past few years I’ve made many small paintings, often 12 inches square or under 40 inches on a side. The small paintings are improvisational, without preparatory sketches, and engage me in more experimental or demanding problems. Their small sizes enable me to make quick and radical changes. They lead me to new ways of inventing and arranging form and color. My impulse is always to focus on the purely formal aspects of composition; that is, to define and interweave shapes in a linear way and then to paint them with slightly textured color, toned to hint at illusionist space.
My notion is that pictorial space has a logic that contradicts real space. What is shown in pictorial space is impossible in real space. Although painterly illusionism would seem to imitate real space, I use it to suggest the paradoxical content of pictorial space and form. My earlier paintings often consisted of overlapping shapes in architectural-like alignments. They still violated the sense of real space – yet implied a vague visual depth that can only exist in the painting. They had clear positive and negative shapes (which in itself is a violation of modernist abstraction).
My newer paintings employ interchanging positive and negative spatial shapes, but I still place them in an irrational, suggestive illusionism. Some forms have clear edges, others are blurry as if being fogged by atmosphere. I’m suggesting that pictorial space can have an inherent non-representational “atmosphere.” Furthermore, many of my newer paintings show a whirling composition, suggesting a vortex that’s interrupted – or frozen – by intersecting lines and edges. Even the color is intended to contradict any gestalt by abruptly changing within a shape or around it. Their daemonic impulse is more evident now, even within the transformative order of formal abstraction.
In every respect my aim is to contradict interpretive habits, how we understand formal abstract painting, by suggesting a metaphorical illusive, ambiguous, fictive space within the flat domain of pictorial space. That is what evokes perceptual allusions to private and cultural experience, but those allusions are embedded in the painted compositions. They cannot become independent narratives. The paintings assume a figural identity of their own. To understand my paintings is to pretend to become them, to inhabit their figural allusion imaginatively. I’ve devoted my whole career to exploring a single idea: abstraction and its allusive essence. I use common shapes and simple methods in complex ways. I’m still excited and eager to discover how that idea may develop further. There’s little else I want to do.
William Conger’s “Allusive” exhibition of paintings runs through June 26 at Bruno David Gallery in St. Louis. https://www.brunodavidgallery.com