Five Chicago women—all artistic, ambitious pioneers—form a circle of 20th century innovation and boundary-pushing experimentation in Chicago during the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s. Their stories and their connections are curated in a Newberry Library exhibit titled Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time.
The exhibition and the work of these women—Artist Gertrude Abercrombie, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, dancers Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page, and curator Katharine Kuh—is curated by Liesl Olson, director of Chicago Studies at the Newberry. Chicago was not part of the rarified art world of New York and Paris at that time, so these artists had greater opportunity to take risks. In addition, women artists at that time were not yet recognized as an important part of the art, performance or literary scene, but these five women broke through those limitations.
“All five women challenged social constraints—based on their gender, their race, or both—to subvert convention and find beauty and freedom in their art,” Olson says. “The five women featured in Chicago Avant-Garde created original art and boundary-crossing spaces that were particular to Chicago and that may not have been possible someplace else.”
The exhibit features artifacts and archival materials, including paintings, sketches, photographs, posters, dance costumes and rare video footage; it fills two galleries at the Newberry Library. Free docent-led tours are available at 1pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Docent Sandy, who led my tour, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic and added many choice tidbits of information that would not have been available to one viewing the exhibit alone.
Creative and personal connections linked the five women in the Chicago arts world of the time.
Katherine Kuh (1904-94) was an ambitious art gallery owner and pioneer in the modern art world. In her Katherine Kuh Gallery on Michigan Avenue, opened mid-Depression in 1935, she acquired and showed the work of futuristic artists who were not recognized by establishment art venues of the time. (Her gallery was often the target of protesters for “Sanity in Art,” who preferred traditional work.) She was the first Chicago dealer to treat photography and typographical design as art forms, alongside work by the European avant-garde such as Picasso, Leger, Albers and Duchamp, as well as Chicago avant-garde artists. If you take a tour with docent Sandy, she’ll tell you the story of how Kuh was able to buy these avant-garde works at auction for shockingly low bids.
Kuh closed her gallery in 1943 and joined the staff of the Art Institute; she became the first curator of modern painting and sculpture in 1954. Her memoir, My Love Affair With Modern Art: Behind the Scenes with a Legendary Curator, was published after her death.
Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-77), was a Chicago painter and salonista, whose painting, “Self Portrait of My Sister,” hangs at the Art Institute. Her work was shown at the Katherine Kuh Gallery. She was self-taught and is known for her surrealist images, often with double meanings and macabre settings, of shells, pitchers, hats, cats, owls, doors and dark flatlands. She and poet Gwendolyn Brooks shared a concern about the horrors of lynching. Abercrombie’s 1946 painting, “Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting,” was originally titled “Strange Fruit” after the song Billie Holiday recorded in 1939; it shows an eerie scene where a lynching looms. (Brooks wrote a lament titled “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee” about a woman whose lover was lynched by “a hundred hooting men.”)
Abercrombie was called the “queen of the bohemian artists” and was friends with musicians like Parker, Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie. She found community through the Works Progress Administration’s Federal Art Project. Many of the friendships she made there carried over to the salons she hosted for artists, dancers, musicians, and writers at her home in Hyde Park.
Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000) was one of the 20th century’s most influential poets; she wrote with a strong political sensibility. Her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945), marked a key moment in American literary history, when a Black woman attracted a wide readership through her expansive vision of race and gender. Her next volume of poetry, Annie Allen (1949), made her the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Brooks became a community leader and activist in the 1960s through the Black Arts Movement; she was committed to publishing with Black-owned presses in Detroit and Chicago
Abercrombie and Brooks both denounced the destruction of Black neighborhoods as a result of redlining and urban renewal programs that cleared out communities like Bronzeville. Brooks wrote a poem titled “the vacant lot” that speculates about the lives of the dispossessed. Abercrombie painted a series of “Demolition Doors”—isolated, multicolored doors detached from their buildings.
Ruth Page (1899-1991) and Katherine Dunham (1909-2006) were both dancers and choreographers who paved the way for modernism as well as an inclusive approach to casting dancers.
Page turned dance into a modernist vision with her elegant choreography and geometric sets and costuming. She worked with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, who designed her triangular jersey knit costumes, nipped at the waist; they were part of her “sack, mask and stick period.” She was a classically trained ballerina who traveled widely as a dancer and brought global cultural trends home to Chicago. In 1971, she founded the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, a school and dance company that carries on her vision.
Page performed the lead role as the “she-devil” in the groundbreaking ballet by William Grant Still of an Afro-Caribbean folk tale, La Guiablesse, when it was first performed in Chicago in 1933. All the other dancers were Black, recruited by Page from Bronzeville. The ballet received positive, if somewhat vague, reviews—and none of the critics commented on the erotic physical contact between a white female dancer and a Black male dancer—at a time when interracial marriage was illegal.
Among the dancers in La Guiablesse was a young Katherine Dunham, who went on to study anthropology at the University of Chicago. Dunham became known as the “Matriarch of Black Dance,” and pioneer the field of dance anthropology. She formed the Ballet Nègre and later the Negro Dance Group. Her fusion vocabulary brought together modern, balletic and Afro-Caribbean elements. Dunham founded the Dunham Company and drew upon her research and experiences to create the “Dunham Technique,” a still widely taught method that fuses many dance styles.
And the connections continued. Kuh and Dunham were personal friends; Kuh traveled with Dunham and her husband. Page and her husband lived in the art deco Michigan Square building at 540 N. Michigan (designed by Holabird & Root in 1930 and demolished in 1973), where Kuh’s gallery was located. Like Abercrombie, who painted her sister self, Brooks found humor in imagining another self, a good girl who longs to be bad. “a song in the front yard,” from her first book, begins like this:
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
When you visit, be sure to check out the Avant-Garde Chicago exhibit’s large-format catalog, which is a work of art in itself and reasonably priced at $20. Liesl Olson has written a deeply researched essay in an engaging style. The book is designed by artists Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi of Sonnenzimmer and letterpress printer and printmaker Ben Blount. It’s printed by Lowitz & Sons, Chicago. The catalog includes an insert of five new poems dedicated to each of the five avant-gardists by Chicago poet and educator Eve L. Ewing.
Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time runs through December 30. The galleries at the Newberry Library, 60 W. Walton St., are open Tuesday-Saturday from 10am to 4pm. Admission is free and advance tickets are not required. Masks are required for all, regardless of vaccination status, and must be worn throughout your time in the building.
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