“A friend recently confessed to me that he secretly ranks the participants in Chicago’s art world according to their importance,” wrote artist Molly Zuckerman-Hartung in this publication. Molly’s friend doesn’t work at Newcity; although we annually rank half-a-hundred scenesters of the stage and page, this is our first line-up of visual artists. But everyone intimately knows Molly’s secret friend—the shuffler of the big rolodex, the line cutter, who maybe crept through a Deb Sokolow conspiracy, who buys all your friends’ artworks but never yours. Guess who? It’s you. You made this list and you ranked it and you live in it. You’re either on this list or you’re a product of this list or you’re on this list’s parallel universe (maybe, the Top Fifty People Who Read Lists list). Congrats!
We agree that a linear fifty names is simplistic. Instead, picture this list as a family tree that’s been trimmed into an MC Escher hedge maze. Or see the names as intersecting circles, a cosmic Venn diagram, or raindrops hitting a lake. There could be a list of fifty (or 500) best painters, or a new list for every week we publish this newspaper. For now, here are fifty people who have made an impression on other peoples’ lives.
Who are these people? They are mentors, magnets, peers, alchemists, art mothers, Chicago-ish, artists’ artists, evangelicals, alive today, polarizing, underrated, retired, workhorses and teachers. Lots of teachers. If you’re an artist in Chicago it’s likely that a handful of these artists trained you, or showed you that art was even a possibility. The bonus of local legends is that we can learn from them, face to face. Many lead by example.
About the selection process: Artists only for this list. (Power curators and other hangers-on get their own list, next year). To rank these artists we surveyed hundreds of local living artists, racked our brains, had conversations, wrote emails, canvassed the streets with art critics, cast votes, then recalls, called important curators in London who promptly hung up on us, drank pumpkin latte, checked emails and then finally wrote it all down. And now, we present to you, the Art 50. (Jason Foumberg)
The Art 50 was written by AJ Aronstein, Janina Ciezadlo, Stephanie Cristello, Alicia Eler, Pat Elifritz, Jason Foumberg, Amelia Ishmael, Anastasia Karpova, Harrison Smith, Bert Stabler, Pedro Velez, Katie Waddell and Monica Westin.
1 Kerry James Marshall
The Walmart-funded museum of American art, in Bentonville, Arkansas, is fascinating for many reasons (such as its Thomas Kinkade-ish name: Crystal Bridges), but most especially for its collecting strategy: fill the walls with masterpieces of American art, and fast. In their collecting frenzy they snatched the most iconic portrait of George Washington and a painting by Kerry James Marshall. “Our Town,” from 1995, shows an idyllic American suburb with kids running free and bluebirds tying yellow ribbons on every tree. Marshall’s inclusion in this version of American art history is more telling than his inclusion in “30 Americans,” the nationally touring Rubell Family show. Why? Because Marshall’s painting is what George Washington now sees when he looks out from his own canvas, with so much confident idealism, into the future. Marshall is a storyteller of American life. That he lives and works in Chicago makes us feel lucky, but his stories are as applicable to Chicago as they are to Los Angeles and Arkansas.
2 Michelle Grabner
Michelle Grabner favors the role of “artist” above any other. It’s the one label, she realizes, that’s an all-access pass. In the art world, everyone wears many hats, some boastfully, but Grabner insists on an artist-first model. Even the tag “Chicago artist” is too rigid for her, despite the depth of her roots here. So artful is her self-confidence that even her rare bouts of bitterness seem intentional, even elegant. “I have no esteem” for Chicago’s “provincial disposition,” she confessed just months ago in the Brooklyn Rail. Was she forsaking the land that feeds her? Not really. She was merely stomping publicly on the old illusion that Chicago is a family values kind of town. The reality is that community begets clique begets incest begets mafia, a syndicate that blocks access to free trade and vital competition. So a dynamic artist like Grabner can be a diplomat, slip under gates, unlock them from the inside and keep them open for others to pass through. One might argue that she usurped the gatekeeper’s keys, and is now the gatekeeper herself. But go and sit with Grabner on her stoop—everyone is invited to her home on several Sunday afternoons throughout the year—and her generous intelligence and warmth will be quickly revealed; it’s no wonder that many young artists seek her mentorship. Even during the school year, when she is the mightily influential chair of the Painting and Drawing department at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and between the lines of her potent art criticism that she contributes to legendary and emerging publications alike, and especially on the grounds of her own suburban backyard, which she runs as a non-commercial outpost of the international contemporary art world with her husband Brad Killam (also an artist), Grabner maintains that her artwork, and the life of the artist, are fundamental to her success. So, what does she make? Her signature painting motifs are simple: one is an infinite field of orderly dots, another is the familiar picnic tablecloth or checkerboard grid. They are handmade to look mass-produced. Their persistence, of pattern and quantity, suggest insatiable sprawl. Likewise, Grabner’s protégés populate this city. A sideshow of nineteen former students augments her twenty-year art survey at Inova Gallery, in Milwaukee, complete with a life-size replica of The Suburban itself—it is the third time this white-painted cinderblock shed has colonized another museum. Further northwest, in rural Little Wolf, Wisconsin, Grabner and Killam purchased a 6,000-square-foot farm manse, christened it The Poor Farm, and launched an expanded curatorial program and artist residency; does this new settlement foreshadow a quiet country retirement, or will it fortify the muscle of Grabner’s dynasty?
3 Dan Peterman
Decades before Theaster Gates revitalized some homes on Chicago’s South Side, Dan Peterman invented the genre of creative reuse. What’s old is new. Still, he may be better known in Berlin than in his hometown, despite all he’s done for Chicago. In the 1980s he helped to found The Resource Center, a material-reclamation initiative on the South Side, and a cultural, educational and community project space at 6100 South Blackstone—reborn after a devastating fire as The Experimental Station. His “Universal Lab” project brought to light a cache of University of Chicago science junk for installations at the Smart Museum and the MCA, while helping to bring about the safe disposal of a huge quantity of hazardous materials. He frequently uses recycled plastic, as in the bricks he made in 1995 which are still being used for a public dance floor in Millennium Park, where one can also see the geo-minimalist plastic picnic tables that spent several summers in front of the MCA and provide communal seating for one-hundred. For years his repurposed scrap materials and decaying foodstuffs have represented modular stations for illustrating the enormous time scale of physical resources.
4 Jim Nutt
Jim Nutt is the grandfather of us all. His painted parade of weirdos is weirder than the weirdest Henry Darger drawing, and in Chicago that’s what we call style. His early Hairy Who? artworks showed us that we could actually mix playfulness with abjection. Now, as a mature artist, he’s refined his output to a tight focus on a woman’s serious and seriously abnormal face. Many have called her his wife—the watercolorist Gladys Nilsson—in which case it would be the most romantic artistic gesture ever, as he toils over her features and reinvents them each time, as Nilsson must have helped Nutt reinvent his own art over the years. While the other artists on this list may have more international influence than Nutt, you won’t meet a “Chicago artist” more revered than him.
5 Temporary Services
Since 1998, artist-collective Temporary Services has served as a model for alternative cultural projects in Chicago and abroad. Temporary Services arrived in Chicago as many longstanding alternative spaces in the city were falling victim to changes in national arts funding. Since then, Temporary Services has relied heavily on community, promoting forms of collaboration, intervention and ephemerality that are, at face value, in dissonance with traditional art markets. Temporary Services’ most significant contributions to the cultural landscape of Chicago have been in the construction and maintenance of community networks and egalitarian platforms for idea exchange. The collective of Brett Bloom, Salem Collo-Julin and Marc Fischer has established a lengthy oeuvre of interventions and projects, facilitated national conversations on arts labor and organizing, developed alternative interview formats with participants ranging from activists to prisoners, co-founded an alternative space, Mess Hall, with its own rich history and opened an imprint for alternative publications, Half Letter Press. Temporary Services is a force, though always occupied with maintaining their own health as a collective and investing in the requirements of group work that may not always align with the pace of the commercial art world. In this way, they have been one of the most honest and inspiring models for young arts initiatives.
6 Tony Fitzpatrick
Tony Fitzpatrick has four bird feeders in his backyard, which he fills every morning and watches in a way that, he says, is acutely connected to his own sanity. He is “actually deeply enough and nerdly enough into it” that he can name just about every variety of sparrow that comes to feed, which, given that sparrows are some of the lowliest and least sexy Aves out there, is quite fitting for Tony—like his late friend Studs Terkel, he has been drawn to the underappreciated and the underserved throughout his long career as an artist. His drawings and etchings are filled with detail and historical allusion, and his new series, “American Etchings,” pulls from sources as varied as the hobo alphabet and the ledger drawings of American Indians. Now, after having pieces acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the Art Institute of Chicago, Tony says he’s solely focused on “going back to pictures I want to make,” regardless of relevance or reception. The new prints are on display at the inaugural exhibition at his artist-run venue AdventureLand Gallery, in the same building as his Black Shamrock Press.
7 Theaster Gates
It’s difficult to describe Theaster Gates as an “artist,” which, though a complex word in itself, still doesn’t capture what he truly does—as a self-taught architect and social worker who forms connections among art and people and, more importantly, between people and people. A trained sculptor and urban planner, Gates has converted abandoned houses on the South Side block of Dorchester and 69th into community spaces that are themselves works of and repositories for art, places where concerts and gatherings can be held and archival books and slides can be found. He recently presented “12 Ballads for Huguenot House” at the documenta festival in Kassel, Germany, a work of revitalization that used scrapped wood from his “Dorchester Project” in Chicago to renovate a historic building in Kassel. At the University of Chicago, where Gates was named director of the Arts and Public Life Initiative last fall, he is spearheading the creation of the Washington Park Arts Incubator, a mixed-use art center that aims to mirror the success of his Dorchester Project in Grand Crossing by creating a similar artistic and cultural space in Washington Park.
8 Dawoud Bey
One of Dawoud Bey’s earliest photographic memories is a book called “The Movement,” which his family brought home after a James Baldwin speech. “There were photographs of black people being lynched and burned while families crowded around, looking at the camera, smiling and enjoying themselves as if they were at a picnic,” says Bey. “The sheer horror of those pictures—and the way they implicated the photographer—was something I never forgot.” Since working as a photographer, first in Harlem in the 1970s and then in Chicago in 1998, Bey has succeeded in creating a new realism that includes positive images of black people. Bey is not a social documentarian but a humanist. This practice has lent itself to community involvement and supporting young emerging Chicago artists with exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center. Although his interests take him all over the world, such as his recent project in Birmingham, Alabama, on the fiftieth anniversary of the church bombings there, we cannot imagine a Chicago without the warmth of Dawoud Bey’s presence.
9 Carlos ‘Dzine’ Rolon
There’s often a heap of rhyme but little reason to Dzine’s artwork. He’ll jam a disco ball up into a chandelier, dangle gold necklaces off anything, and disable a hand beneath its own weighty jewelry. Somewhere between a princess party on meth and hip-hop Ice Capades sits a Dzine piece. He doesn’t seem to give a fancy fuck about what separates decoration from irony. But for all the overfed rainbows and drunken glitz, sometimes Dzine enters a dark period, and that’s when he really shines. Like a mass grave, a tangled pile of all-white ‘ghost bikes’ will soon rise thirty-five feet in Times Square (produced by Art Production Fund). The monument, ringed by flowerbeds, is inspired by Blanca Alicia Ocasio, a nineteen-year-old cyclist run down by a garbage truck. Her makeshift memorial is the white ghost bike permanently chained at Kedzie and Armitage, which Dzine passes daily. Customizing bikes beyond the point of usability is a Dzine sculpture trademark. Ghost bikes, also customized and not for riding, perfectly embody Dzine’s strategy of art making: to create accessible symbols for real people. Dzine wants everyone to have a seat on his ride. Success has rewarded his positive attitude toward social-class crossover. He’s creating a show palace, dressed up in super-sized golden trophies (for Dallas Contemporary next year) in triumphal mania, but the victory hall will not lead to a Dzine shrine. Instead, he’s planning to plop a replica of a bodega, straight from Pilsen, where visitors can commission personalized trophies. An empire like Dzine’s is paved with good intentions and even better tchotchkes.
10 Julia Fish and Richard Rezac
Julia Fish and Richard Rezac embody the important role of mentors in this art-school saturated city. They are each able to untangle their own artistic tastes and attune themselves, quite sensitively, to the inner workings of any artwork. Slow is their approach, intense is their focus, and the reward is a multi-dimensional perspective of an object or concept. It is tempting to think of the married couple as collaborators, she a steady presence at UIC and he at SAIC, but their work is more like interlocking pieces of a minimalist puzzle. In their studio practices, each is invested with taking the measure of their shared domestic space, and by extension the place where their private lives unfold, rendered as drawings, abstracted into sculpture, for public view.