The art world was watching

DePaul University Art Museum looks at artists' responses to 1968.

Barnett Newman, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley, 1968.

One week after the 1968 Democratic National Convention, The New York Times reported that 50 artists, including Roy Lichtenstein, Robert Motherwell and Barnett Newman, planned to boycott Chicago. The artists stated that until Mayor Richard J. Daley left office in 1970, they would not allow their work to be shown here. Their action, they explained, responded to police “brutality” toward convention protesters—and the city’s failure to condemn it.

But according to Patricia Kelly, the curator of DePaul University Art Museum’s new exhibition, “1968: Art and Politics in Chicago,” then-local gallerist Richard Feigen and artist Claes Oldenburg (whom Feigen represented) persuaded the boycotters to reverse their position. Before the November 1968 presidential election, 11 Chicago galleries, including Feigen’s and Richard Gray’s, hosted “response shows” criticizing the events of the DNC. Contributed by artists from across the nation, the work those galleries presented reappears in this exhibition—in some cases, for the first time in 40 years.

One highlight should be Newman’s Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley (1968), which inspired Kelly, an assistant professor of art history at DePaul, to organize this exhibition. The sculpture has been shown only a few times since it entered the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 1989. Kelly says Lace Curtain fascinates her because it’s “completely different” from Newman’s usual work: It’s abstract, but “the title, the use of barbed wire and bloodlike red paint on it…[are] really literal references,” she adds.

Newman wasn’t the only artist compelled by the incidents of 1968 to try a new direction. Before then, many visual artists agreed with influential critic Clement Greenberg, who contended in publications such as The Nation that art and politics shouldn’t mix. Yet Kelly considers the DNC “a point of eruption, where all of a sudden you as an artist have to take a stand.” Although the collectivist spirit that infused the response shows soon dissipated, Kelly sees a link between 1968’s political works; the earthworks and conceptual art that dominated the 1970s, which, she says, still engaged in “institutional critique”; and the more personal, identity-oriented pieces that continue to challenge the status quo.

The museum’s assistant curator, Chris Mack, helped Kelly find posters, photographs, pamphlets and other materials to give viewers a comprehensive understanding of the Chicago art world at the time; works from three seminal exhibitions held before and after the 11 response shows provide additional context. Ellen Lanyon’s wooden puppet of Lyndon Johnson was made for Richard Gray Gallery’s “Portraits of LBJ” (1967); other pieces were displayed in the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Violence in Recent American Art” (1968) and “Constructions, Models and Drawings” (1969), an Oldenburg show at Richard Feigen Gallery that featured drawings of Daley’s head on a platter. (Oldenburg, now best known for large-scale sculptures such as Chicago’s steel Batcolumn, completed in 1977 at 600 West Madison Street, was beaten by police during the DNC.)

Despite appearances, Kelly says “1968: Art and Politics in Chicago” is “not a show about the convention. It’s not a show about Mayor Daley.” Instead, it’s intended to make us think about how art and artists should respond to social and political crises, she says: “I think those kinds of questions are important to ask…particularly when we’re again a nation at war [and] again we’re in the midst of a highly contested political election.”

“1968: Art and Politics in Chicago” opens Thursday 18.

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