The Essential New Art Examiner

A new book recalls the New Art Examiner, a Chicago art magazine with a national reach.

Photograph: Martha Williams

Once upon a time, there was an American art magazine that wasn’t located in New York. And it refused to portray that city as the only place in the U.S. where artists, galleries and museums do anything worthwhile.

That publication, The New Art Examiner, was based in Chicago. A nonprofit monthly, it survived from 1973, when it was founded by Derek Guthrie and the late Jane Addams Allen, to 2002, when the unlucky timing of a pricey redesign and a funding shortfall forced it to close.

The Essential New Art Examiner(Northern Illinois University Press, $22.50)—edited by Terri Griffith, Kathryn Born (a former TOC contributor) and Janet Koplos—portrays the NAE as a vital source of information about the Chicago art world. Few of the articles in this anthology culled from the NAE’s entire run seem “essential,” however.

In her introduction, Born explains that NAE editors including Guthrie and James Yood, director of SAIC’s New Art Journalism program, were asked to select these texts, “articles that tell the story of The New Art Examiner in relation to the history of the Chicago art scene.”

They chose some juicy essays, like Alice Thorson’s 1982 “Young Chicagoans Prefer Engagement to Avant-Gardism” and Jeff Huebner’s 1996 “Bigger, Better, Faster, More?—Chicago’s New and Improved MCA.” Both demonstrate that concerns about a brain drain to New York, collectors’ and institutions’ lack of support and a shortage of good criticism have existed for decades. They also recall chapters of local art history that are lost to those who didn’t live through them.

Unfortunately, such informative pieces are almost outnumbered by wastes of space. I’m thinking, with horror, of Peter Schjeldahl’s 1977 poem “Dear Profession of Art Writing,” in which the art critic for The New Yorker goes on for 8.5 pages of free verse. (The NAE’s ability to publish long-form writing was a double-edged sword.) Equally puzzling are the essays on filmmaking, structuralist criticism and heroin chic, which lack relevance and could have appeared anywhere.

The NAE editors, who also include Ann Lee Morgan, Ann Wiens and Jan Estep, introduce their sections of the book with lively reminiscences of the magazine. They emphasize the NAE’s distinguished contributors, expertise in neglected media such as glass and ceramics, and support for varied points of view.

But The Essential New Art Examiner succumbs to New York’s gravitational pull, cramming in bland writing by famous names at the expense of articles that could offer much-needed insight into Chicago. (It’s also marred by a distracting number of copy-editing mistakes.) Guthrie claims the magazine was persecuted for challenging the primacy of the Imagists and that he and Addams learned “by bitter experience that there is no freedom for criticism or criticality.” Yet the book provides no evidence that NAE writers felt reviled by the Chicago art world or that they were the only critics daring to question the status quo.

Still, it’s a shame we no longer have a national art magazine with a Midwestern focus, and that there’s no forum for so many experienced local artists and critics to share their views on a monthly basis. Koplos, a longtime Art in America editor who wrote for the NAE during the 1970s and 1980s, writes that she’s planning “a more detailed story” of the magazine. I hope she can convey the significance of its loss.

The Essential New Art Examiner is out now.