Monster Roster Curators Interviewed
John Corbett & Jessica Moss in conversation with US Editor Tom Mullaney
The Monster Roster was the first original movement in Chicago art. The current exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art is also the first-of-its-kind retrospective devoted to a group of artists who, though they did not work together, exhibit together or call themselves by that name, shared affinities of influences and artistic outlook.
Most Americans, in the late 1940s, felt a sense of post-war optimism and new prosperity. Yet, in Chicago, a group of artists felt otherwise. As curator John Corbett wrote in an introductory catalog essay, “they created artworks fueled by the anxiety and undercurrents sweeping beneath the nation’s dominant sense of enthusiasm”.
Monster Roster artists (dubbed such by critic Franz Schulze in a 1959 Artnews article) instead were painting dark, grotesque images in earthen tones depicting disembodied limbs, distended figures, scraped surfaces, vacant eyes, searing icons of an existential drama.
To gain greater insight about these artists and their art, NAE’s US editor, Tom Mullaney, interviewed two of the show’s four curators, Jessica Moss(JM) of the Smart Museum and John Corbett (JC), an independent curator and co-owner of Corbett vs. Dempsey Gallery, which gallery represents the work of Robert Barnes, Dominic Di Meo and Seymour Rosofsky
NAE: What made Chicago the destined home for the Monster Roster?
JC: There are a lot of reasons for why this was an appropriate place. I mention in the essay things like the stockyards and the precursor that Chicago had been an Indian trading post. Just the idea of a very rough, frontier backdrop. On the other hand, there are much more art historical reasons that this was an appropriate place. Probably most evident is the fact that Ivan Albright developed the work that he did here. He was a loner, an eccentric, in the sense that he was not part of any school, at a time (1930s) when there was a lot of art with a collective vibe among WPA artists. The kind of gruesome imagery that was a mainstay of his work interested all of the Monster artists, more or less.
NAE: The exhibit title is “Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago”. What did you seek to convey with the use of the adjective “existentialist”?
JC: Existentialism was a philosophical and literary movement that came into prominence during that postwar period in the United States and dealt with the absurdity of life, the meaning of humanity and its future. You’re dealing with people like (Albert) Camus and (Jean Paul) Sartre and, on the literary side, (Samuel) Beckett and (Antonin) Artaud. People who were dealing with feelings of terror, anxiety, dread, questions of interior motive. That all made up a kind of milieu that all those artists were really interested in. They were reading these writers and looking at artwork that reflected back on that postwar European standpoint, people like (Jean) DuBuffet and (Alberto) Giacometti.
NAE: John, you cite a large number of influences on the Monster Roster in your catalog essay: World War II, psychoanalysis, Jean DuBuffet, the Field Museum and Oriental Institute, primitive cultures, existential writers. What shared influences mattered most or was it a matter of different influences on different artists?
JC: That’s a good question. It’s always a matter of different influences on different artists in the sense that these were really individuals. However, there was a lot of overlap in their interests. Some were interested in psychoanalysis, like Golub, who underwent psychoanalysis as a form of research for his paintings, and Cohen, who used rich symbolism with a Freudian orientation. Others were particularly interested in non-Western or ethnographic art; you can see this in the totemic sculptures of Ted Halkin and Dominick Di Meo.
Classical Greek and Roman art was a common influence for many of the artists, particularly the low relief works of Halkin and the late ’50s monumental Golub paintings. And many of the artists were interested in Surrealism – Evelyn Statsinger, for instance, and Robert Barnes – while others like Fred Berger, Seymour Rosofsky, and June Leaf were deeply impressed by German Expressionism. They each had their own particular take, but had a joint pool of resources. What interested us was to look at what things they had in common. What did that commonality mean for a group of artists who didn’t call themselves a group and who didn’t work collectively and who didn’t exhibit collectively but nevertheless had a shared set of interests.
NAE: Jessica, could you speak about the avowed leader of the group, Leon Golub, and his monumental works in the exhibit. What was about his art that attracted attention from the New York art world?
JM: Golub was a very charismatic figure. He was able to spearhead this group, starting with Exhibition Momentum. He started it as an alternative exhibition in 1948 after students at the School of the Art Institute were not allowed to enter the C & V (Chicago and Vicinity) show of 1947. Golub brought in a whole lot of big artists from New York- Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston- who juried that exhibition.
And then his work was so ambitious in scale. His works, at that time (late 1950s) were monumental. He was very adventurous in terms of his technique. He used his body a lot in his process. He would scrape his canvas with meat cleavers. A lot of destruction was involved in the creation of his work. He would take two wet boards together, wait till they dried and then tear them apart. That would create craggy, uneven surfaces and he would start his work at that point.
NAE: How important were the Momentum shows for these artists?
JC: The artists of the Monster Roster already knew one another for the most part. But the big thing that happened there was that the Momentum shows invited everyone, even people they might have had terrible esthetic differences with. From the Institute of Design, for instance, people on the verge of being crafts people. But that provided people with a much broader sense of what was going on in the city.
NAE: How did you choose the 16 artists as members of the group since you say they never identified themselves as such and some—Cohen, Spero, Leaf–disavowed such an association?
JC: It’s an interesting curatorial dilemma. How do you include those who had no roster, no sign-up sheet? We could have done one of two things– gone narrow or gone broad. Narrow in the sense that you absolutely, positively could not have had a show called Monster Roster that didn’t include them. Broad as to what did it mean to have this group of artists who didn’t define themselves against outsiders and instead had porous borders. We went broad.
NAE: A question of attitude?
JC: I think the ultimate defining feature was a question of attitude. I think the reason that somebody like (Robert) Barnes is in the show is as a way of pointing at the transformation from the Monster Roster into the next group of artists that included Kerig Pope and Ellen Lanyon. So we wanted one painting at the end of the show that transformed into what Franz Schulze called “image-fantasy artists” out of the “image-expressionist” Roster artists.
NAE: Since there weren’t many galleries in Chicago at the time showing modern art, were they getting support from collectors? This must have been a hard time economically for these artists.
JC: It was a tough time for everyone, even people in New York. The art market that we think of now, that sustains and nourishes the work, really didn’t exist in the same way that it does now. It was a different world. If you go back and see what DeKooning was paid for the painting, “Excavation”, now at the Art Institute, you’d be shocked at how little he was paid for it. I think it was a thousand dollars.
NAE: So, Monster doesn’t fit the European/East Coast evolutionary model of Art History. Will they always be seen as outliers?
JM: That’s a hard question to answer. It’s something that we’re not trying to answer…
JC: Another way to look at it is to look at the stranglehold that New York has had for a long time on American Art History, let’s say from the 1950s forward and retroactively, that history has been written to make New York the center of the universe. But there have been significant incursions into that way of thinking.
If you look at what Los Angeles has done in taking a group of artists from the 1960s and putting them more significantly on the map, partially by having Artforum originate there. But go up that coast to San Francisco at the Bay Area Figurative Artists who make a very good model for rethinking the singular New York path of Art History. That is a group of artists who, if you are doing a really serious history of American Art, you can’t not include them. In a way, that’s how we have to approach the reassessment of these artists. Understand them as part of a much broader, more variegated history than the unitary, linear model that we’ve been fed for a long time.
NAE: Even in Chicago, Schulze, writing about the 1997 “Art in Chicago” show, claimed that MCA curator Lynn Warren valorized the Hairy Who movement over the first imagist movement. Shouldn’t we speak of one Imagist movement, spread over two generations, instead of two?
JC: I personally have spoken with Franz about this. I don’t think even Franz sticks to the idea now that these artists should be seen as one movement. It’s too broad a moniker to cast over all of those artists. The ‘60s have so many different things they are concerned with that don’t have anything to do with the concerns of these Monster artists. You can’t mistake the Monster Roster work. The esthetics are different. The assumptions about mass media, about viable resources, all of that stuff is so different. I don’t think they can be categorized under the same rubric.
NAE: But you could write about it as a 25-year period –from 1945 to 1970-in which Chicago occupied a central position with both movements. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.
JC: I think that’s a good point. People like Jim Yood have spent decades arguing exactly that. And that the figure under stress is a unifying feature that we can talk about all of these artists together. That’s a valid and reasonable position to take, if you want to back up that far. That’s not a position I would take.
NAE: Since there were so few galleries showing modern art in the early ‘50s didn’t these artists struggle economically? When did Chicago collectors begin supporting homegrown art?
JC: Well the Shapiros, the Horwiches, the Newmans were collecting in the Fifties. Into the Sixties there were the Manilows, the Meyers (Golub, Spero & DiMeo), the Bergmans (Cornell and Surrealists).
NAE: What was it about the Monster artists that appealed to those collectors?
JC: I think that Surrealism was the through-line. A lot of them were collecting DuBuffet, a lot were collecting Giacometti, the French and Italian scene of that period was very familiar to them and they were collecting then in a way they couldn’t do now. Matta, for instance, taught at the School of the Art Institute and Barnes painted backgrounds for Matta when he was here.
NAE: What accounts for so much of this art being in the Smart Museum’s permanent collection? Does it reflect institutional resistance at the Art Institute and MCA to this day?
JM: We actually have very significant loans from the Art Institute and the MCA for this project. One of the strengths and emphases of our collection is work of artists with connections to Chicago. There’s the H.C. Westermann Study Collection, a wonderful collection of Imagists. It makes a lot of sense for the Smart to be hosting the show.
JC: Probably the biggest connection is curator Richard Born. He had a very-longstanding and deep involvement in this work through Dennis Adrian and through whom some of the work in the show ended up at the Smart Museum.
JM: We also have a wonderful Roger Brown collection given by Brown’s partner, George Veronda.
NAE: I’d like each of you to pick a favorite work from the show and describe its allure and power for you.
JM: We have a piece by Cosmo Campoli, called “The Birth of Death”. It is a bronze sculpture with a horizontal orientation. We have three different iterations of the piece in the show. We have a plaster cast, a promised gift to the Smart, and two vertical orientations, one belonging to the MCA. Ours is more lying down, the female giving birth. The artist, we found in our research, wrote a handwritten letter in which he describes his process. He arrived at the idea of changing the sculpture from a casket-like shape to a more placenta-like shape pierced by the four legs of the stand. I think it’s such an interesting way to look at an artist’s process—his thinking and how that might change over time.
JC: I’m going to do Nancy Spero’s 1958 piece, “I Do Not Challenge”. From the time we set out to do the show, we wanted to include it and it took a lot of doing. But I think it’s a painting worth showing because it says something about her relationship of challenge with New York.
What you end up with is this tombstone which she described as a phallic tombstone in the middle of the painting inscribed with the initials of all the major New York School artists, men and women. And, on either side of it, you have a jester figure—her with a dunce cap on and little ears and sticking her tongue out at New York. She doesn’t give herself initials but her full name. When you go one step beyond that, it’s a beautifully painted work. It’s got this washy quality, this metallic paint, which is not a feature of a lot of painters at that point. You think of Pollock. So, you get this gesture as she is about to move to New York, a gesture of defiance coming out of Chicago.
NAE: Very ironically saying, “I Do Not Challenge” (laughter)
JC: Very ironic. The whole painting is a challenge.
Volume 30 number 4 March / April 2016 pp 21-24