Mod­ernist in Chicago

Af­ter the Great Fire, Chicago and Its Jewish Artists Learned How To Rein­vent Them­selves

Forward Magazine - - Front Page - By Laura Hodes

Be­ing Jewish in Illi­nois was a mod­ernist project, not least to artists.

In Chicago, The Sper­tus Mu­seum has just opened “Jewish Mod­ernists in Chicago,” the seventh chap­ter in its eight-part se­ries, “Un­cov­ered & Re­dis­cov­ered: Sto­ries of Jewish Chicago.” This new ex­hibit fo­cuses on the artis­tic influence of a group of Jewish artists ac­tive in Chicago in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s.

The en­tire se­ries is part of the rein­ven­tion of the Sper­tus In­sti­tute of Jewish Stud­ies that be­gan in 2009 when Hal Lewis took over as pres­i­dent. The sleek glim­mer­ing glass build­ing on South Michi­gan Av­enue, built by the Chicago fi rm

Jewish artists took in­spi­ra­tion from their city, try­ing out a va­ri­ety of new styles.

Krueck and Sex­ton in 2007, re­placed the older, dark yet haimish turn-of-the-cen­tury of­fice build­ing. Chicago Tri­bune ar­chi­tec­ture critic Blair Kamin wrote in 2008 in the Ar­chi­tec­tural Record that the “10-story build­ing re­sem­bles a shim­mer­ing piece of quartz exquisitely in­serted into a great stone wall, its faceted, folded fa­cade of glass glint­ing in the morn­ing sun.” And yet its tim­ing was bad. As the Tri­bune re­ported in Jan­uary, the crash meant Sper­tus’s en­dow­ment dropped 22% in 2012 from the pre­vi­ous two years. Sper­tus still owed $43.6 mil­lion of the $56.1 mil­lion it had bor­rowed to build the new build­ing. When the new build­ing opened, there was a kosher res­tau­rant open ev­ery day; now the din­ing area is only open for spe­cial events. Space is now be­ing rented out to the School of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago and the Meadville Lom­bard The­o­log­i­cal School.

The “Un­cov­ered” ex­hibit is in a small gallery on the ground floor, across from the front desk. The ex­hibit is free and on ground level to en­cour­age passersby to walk in. As I vis­ited, a stream of Art In­sti­tute students passed through the front door to at­tend class, with­out even glanc­ing at the ex­hibit. This is un­for­tu­nate be­cause this is a fas­ci­nat­ing, thought­ful ex­plo­ration of Jewish mod­ernist artists, and all of the art­work comes from Sper­tus’s own archives.

What is strik­ing about the ex­hi­bi­tion is the sense of rein­ven­tion that all these artists share, de­spite their diver­sity in style. All were first- or sec­ond-gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans. This was a unique time pe­riod when the great mass mi­gra­tion from Eastern Europe of Jewish im­mi­grants co­in­cided with the re­build­ing of Chicago af­ter the Great Fire of 1871. Chicago was the fastest grow­ing city in the world; Jewish im­mi­grant artists iden­ti­fied with its spirit of rapid re-cre­ation. These artists saw a par­al­lel be­tween Chicago’s re­birth and their own rein­vent­ing of iden­tity. Mod­ernism, just like em­i­gra­tion, gave them the op­por­tu­nity to trans­form them­selves: Artists tried on new styles, ex­per­i­ment­ing with Cu­bism, Sur­re­al­ism, sim­pli­fied Nat­u­ral­ism and with dif­fer­ent ma­te­ri­als — drop­ping and re­ject­ing styles and ma­te­ri­als as they saw fit. Re­act­ing to the con­ser­va­tive stan­dards of the Art In­sti­tute of Chicago, they learned to cre­ate from their own points of view.

This act of us­ing art as a means to­ward per­sonal rein­ven­tion and iden­tity trans­for­ma­tion is en­cap­su­lated in the small book­plate of Louis M. Stein on dis­play, which was drawn by To­dros Geller, the “Dean,” or fa­ther-fig­ure, of Chicago Jewish artists in this pe­riod. Stein was born Yitchak Leyb Frad­kin in Ukraine in 1883. But when he im­mi­grated to Chicago in 1907, he adopted a new name and es­tab­lished a print­ing house that pub­lished high-qual­ity art books, many of which were col­lab­o­ra­tions be­tween Yid­dish authors and Jewish artists. Among the more note­wothy ex­am­ples was “Land to Land,” a col­lec­tion of Geller’s wood­cuts. Geller’s fan­ci­ful book­plate de­picts Stein as a tur­baned man on a magic fly­ing car­pet, es­cap­ing to ex­otic worlds far away from the Ukraine shtetl or even the new shtetls of Chicago.

Geller also rein­vents him­self in his art­work in his adopted city. On the ti­tle page of “Land to Land,” a goat stands on the shore of Lake Michi­gan with Chicago’s sky­line in the back­ground. In Geller’s art, the goat is a mo­tif rep­re­sent­ing the artist him­self — the rugged Eastern Euro­pean fig­ure, here re­flect­ing his sta­tus as a suc­cess­ful transplant from Eastern Europe to Chicago, the New World, still hold­ing on to the old coun­try.

Many of the artists ex­hib­ited here clung strongly to their Jewish iden­tity and cre­ated art from within vi­brant Jewish art-

ist com­mu­ni­ties. Ac­cord­ing to cu­ra­tor Ilana Se­gal’s note, at this time Chicago had its own Yid­dish lit­er­ary group; one oil paint­ing by Geller shows a por­trait of the soul­ful-eyed Yid­dish poet Ben Shalom. Artists spoke Yid­dish at cafes, and Geller hosted Fri­day night get-to­geth­ers in his stu­dio. All of the artists were mem­bers of the Jewish arts club “Around the Pal­ette,” which was founded by Geller.

Un­til re­cently there has been near si­lence about Jewish iden­tity in art his­tory. Art critic Mar­garet Olin has at­trib­uted this re­luc­tance to men­tion the Jewish­ness of artists in art criticism as an as­sim­i­la­tion­ist tac­tic, a re­ac­tion to the anti-Semitism in­trin­sic to mod­ern art the­ory. As she writes, “as­sim­i­lated Jews ex­press them­selves in the visual arts as in­di­vid­u­als, not ‘as Jews.’” Part of what is so fas­ci­nat­ing about this ex­hibit is that it cap­tures a brief time when these Chicago artists were newly con­fronting their adopted home­land, still cling­ing to their Jewish iden­tity and not yet con­cerned with as­sim­i­lat­ing. Their poor im­mi­grant sta­tus meant they were still out­siders; they iden­ti­fied with the avant-garde, and with the worker and la­bor move­ments.

These artists were strad­dling two worlds, Jewish and as­sim­i­lated, yet in that strad­dling, they made an ef­fort to de­clare their Jewish­ness in their art­work. Geller en­cour­aged his younger col­leagues to in­cor­po­rate Jewish sub­ject mat­ter into their work. Geller’s “Had Gadya” print and a hand­made puz­zle of a He­brew aleph are pre­sented along­side his com­pletely sec­u­lar works, such as a gor­geously col­ored land­scape of a gritty steel Chicago.

One artist, A. Ray­mond Katz, suc­cess­fully bridged the non-Jewish and Jewish art worlds: As Sandor, the Euro­pean name for Alexan­der, he drew cov­ers of The Chicagoan, a New Yorker–style mag­a­zine. There was no os­ten­si­bly Jewish con­tent in these cov­ers, and the artist Sam Green­berg even car­i­ca­tur­ized Katz as a shaygetz, a non-Jew. Yet, af­ter a trip home to Hun­gary, Katz was in­spired to pro­mote the use of He­brew let­ters in mod­ern Jewish decoration, specif­i­cally in stained glass de­signs for syn­a­gogues; he ar­gued that the let­ters were more mean­ing­ful than stan­dard Jewish mo­tifs such as the Star of David. On dis­play is his ab­stract print, “Holy Holy Holy & Fi­nal Mem.”

De­spite or even be­cause of the en­ergy and rich­ness of this ex­hibit, while look­ing at these wood­cuts and prints pre­served be­hind glass I was filled with the sense of loss: What has hap­pened, I won­dered, to the bustling Yid­dish-speak­ing cafes, the Fri­day night gath­er­ings of Jewish artists? My yearn­ing to en­ter this van­ished world of Jewish Chicago was much like the de­sire felt by Owen Wil­son’s char­ac­ter in Woody Allen’s “Mid­night in Paris” to travel back to 1920s Paris to com­mune with F. Scott Fitzger­ald and Ernest Hem­ing­way.

This yearn­ing is not mine alone. As part of the ex­hibit, on the sec­ond floor one can ob­serve an in­trigu­ing se­lec­tion of videos. In one from 1986, a youngish Rabbi Michael Siegel of An­she Emet in­ter­views Dr. Irv­ing Cut­ler, au­thor of “The Jews of Chicago, From Shtetl to Sub­urb,” and asks him in a plain­tive voice to talk about the “good old days.” Cut­ler says, “You could feel the throb­bing of Yid­dishkeit.” As Cut­ler ex­plains, the story of Chicago’s Jews is a mi­gra­tion from city to the sub­urbs, from poverty and im­mi­grant sta­tus to rel­a­tive af­flu­ence and as­sim­i­la­tion. To re­an­i­mate mem­o­ries of Jewish Chicago, Se­gal has cre­ated a Chicago “Jewish Mem­ory Map” pro­jected onto a wall to in­vite peo­ple to tell their sto­ries; a vir­tual pin marks each story’s ori­gin.

Iron­i­cally, up­ward mo­bil­ity and com­fort mean that Jews to­day have many other mu­se­ums to visit and causes to do­nate to. In­ter­est­ingly, the cu­ra­tor’s text in­forms us that Louis M. Stein’s artists’ mono­graphs were of­ten made at a fi­nan­cial loss for Stein, but “that he expected noth­ing else and con­sid­ered them his an­nual con­tri­bu­tion to Jewish art and cul­ture.” Re­cently, it was an­nounced the Sam Zell fam­ily foun­da­tion gave $10 mil­lion to Chicago’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art. (The Zell fam­ily has given gen­er­ously to many syn­a­gogues as well.) The New York Times re­ported that the MCA would use half of these funds to pay debt in­curred dur­ing its con­struc­tion in the 1990s.

Just as these Jewish mod­ernist artists suc­ceeded in rein­vent­ing them­selves, so the re­build­ing of Sper­tus was a bold at­tempt to cre­ate a new iden­tity. One aches to see this gleam­ing struc­ture ful­fill its im­mense po­ten­tial and mis­sion: It should be a mu­seum for the 21st cen­tury not only in im­age but in func­tion, with bustling crowds within its gleam­ing glass walls.


In Sick­ness and in Health: Leon Gar­land’s 1932 paint­ing ‘Wed­ding in the Ceme­tery’ is based on an old leg­end that if or­phans marry in a ceme­tery dur­ing a cholera epi­demic, their dead par­ents will in­ter­cede to stop the scourge.


Maxwell Street Blues and Jews: To­dros Geller’s 1929 ‘Maxwell Street’ de­picts the famed open-air mar­ket on Chicago’s west side.

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