As curatorial trends power themselves into into the Janus stage of 2024 I remember how much new art was once about finding justifications for change and building a coherent narrative out of real life – if possible folding oneself into, or talking back to, a radical sustaining thread. Though culture is open-sourced today, we still tend to right the ship by narratizing events and enshrining dates. With that in mind, I think about the fall of 1983 when I co-organized a summer program at Oxbow. My partner was Ken Isaacs, an architect and professor at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Isaacs was an early proponent of DIY aesthetics, a critic of high modernism, and an antagonist of popular building regimes and methodologies. Issacs organized the architectural component of the summer and we met a few times to compare notes and see if there might be some contextual overlap. At our first corner diner meeting in Streeterville, I found him waiting at the counter. Though booths were available he preferred not to occupy more room than one needed. For Isaacs, all spaces were resources that ought not be exploited. A stool and countertop was all that was necessary to chat. For him it was just the civil way to behave in an urban environment. It was also commensurate with his history of attenuating the material excesses of the economy, rather than conforming to the privileged materialism of even the most progressive architecture.

“The Knowledge Box,” c. 1962/Image courtesy the University Archives and Special Collections, Paul V. Galvin Library, Illinois Institute of Technology.

Isaacs was the perfect romantic, an ideal populist, convinced that radical ideas could flourish if wider audiences just had access. He once appeared as a guest on the Johnny Carson Show. The 60’s and early 70’s were populated with writers, architects, conductors, scientists, poets, film directors, chess players, and politicians appearing alongside the glitterati, rather than deposited in niche venues. Popular culture in the 50’s and 60’s, even with severe cultural blind-spots, included a framework for reflecting the work of principled cultural specialists. It was a very brief heyday of the public intellectual.

Isaacs had a profound effect on people with his “Micro House” and “Knowledge Box”. He made so much sense aesthetically, functionally and ideologically. Although he was a disciplinarian his work had a deadpan down-to-earth sense of humor. He was lean and lanky just like his architecture and not the least bit interested in accommodating older and/or the less healthy of us, or those who may like to collect objects and decorate sheds. He despised waste and ornamentation so much that he designed collapsible interior apartment skeletons to be inserted in to preexisting ones where sleeping and eating spaces were just an arm’s length from a worker style chaise lounge and relaxation pod. The antiquated chamber of the host apartment was only a phantom glimpsed through the crib-form of his “living structure.”

If that wasn’t enough the plywood and 2X4 apparatus could be unbolted, folded and taken to anywhere an aging American buttoned-down, adult hippie would take it. Much of today’s principles about design have been influenced by this Central Illinois intellectual but few if any embody them. In 2019 Susan Snodgrass wrote a wonderful book on Issacs titled “Inside the Matrix,” and it’s a detailed, uplifting cultural narrative.

Isaacs’s egalitarian and utopian ideology and his life of cool blueprint formulae is a one-person cultural turn and a measuring stick for the past few years where a coastal and global consciousness has increasingly inserted itself, randomly, insistently, and seamlessly in inland culture, and I’m nonplussed.

Below are fragments of artwork and spaces visited in 2023. My commentary about art remains primarily observations of Midwestern visual culture which is luminous but becoming harder to think of as independent. Since I’m still learning about the resoundingly enjoyable city of Madison, my pics are mostly a regional cross section.

Images include artists Adam Pendleton at the Kemper Art Museum, St. Louis, Gary Simmons at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Yayoi Kusama at David Zwirner Gallery New York, Amanda MacCavour and Pablo Picasso at the Chasen Museum of Art, Madison, Christopher Sperandio on the streets of New York plus his New Year’s greeting sticker, Martin Puryear and Sam Gilliam as well as modern and contemporary artists and designers at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Also included are the environs of the Art & Lit Lab in Madison, The Suburban (twice it seems) in Milwaukee, the Frank Lloyd Wright Monona Terrace Center, and the Louis Sullivan Harold C. Bradley House in Madison. Lastly, the Jingdezhen University Art Gallery, and a precarious detail of the Bibliotheque nationale de France tie  ceremonial bookends.

Thanks to Carmon Colangelo, Christopher Sperandio, and Sergio Soave for supplementary photography.

Paul Krainak
Latest posts by Paul Krainak (see all)