“Don Baum: In Memoriam” is a shout-out to one of the greatest promoters of Chicago art. Ephemera from his curatorial career include documents from the 1969 exhibition “Don Baum says: Chicago Needs Famous Artists.” A press release describes the exhibition area, held at the MCA’s then-recently refinished basement, as “a homey Chicago basement atmosphere.” A newspaper clipping depicts a determined-looking Baum, wearing his familiar dark, round-framed glasses in the basement with a large, prominent furnace. Behind him stands an equally determined-looking group of artists.
As a curator and exhibition leader, Baum mounted shows that championed Chicago artists, both formally trained and “outsider” artists alike. Reading through the catalogue, familiar names pop out of that have since become immortalized in Chicago Art lore: Ed Paschke, Roger Brown, H.C. Westermann. Other artists feature members of Chicago “Imagists” groups, who were known for their surrealist pop art representations: the Non-plussed Some, False Image, and the Hairy Who. These were not intentional groups, but artists brought together in shows curated by Baum. Their rather grotesque pop art style can be seen in a few Hairy Who posters included in the exhibit.
Baum also contributed to the Chicago art scene in the roles of teacher and artist. He taught at the Art Institute and Roosevelt University, and served as former chairman for the latter’s art department. In addition, he continued to develop his own art. Baum originally studied art history at the University of Chicago in the 1940s, but found himself drawn to painting. He later turned his attention to assemblage art, often using found objects with reoccurring themes, including baby dolls and sculptures in the basic shape of Western-style houses. Many of these works incorporate “paint-by-numbers” kits that have been mutilated, rearranged and juxtaposed to create new images with social, sexual, and religious connotations.
Unfortunately, only two pieces by Baum are on display from the MCA’s permanent collection. Both are from Baum’s “Baby Doll” period: “LBJ” and “Babies of Della Robbia.” “LBJ” is particularly engaging—a chubby-cheeked baby head and upper torso, just fitting into a tight wooden box, is decorated with a cut-out of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s face, creating a grimacing visage. Decals of cobras, coiled and ready to strike, decorate his forehead. Similar decals of eagles in flight, talons outstretched, cover the box.
Baum died in October 2008 at the age of 86, believing to the very end that Chicago had a vibrant and passionate art culture, one which he helped cultivate. After stopping by the MCA, check out more of Baum’s work at the Carl Hammer Gallery. It may inspire you to make an impact of your own in the Chicago art community. (Patrice Connelly)
Through January 25 at the Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago Ave.