Elmhurst College In Depth

Picture This

Our library is the home of a collection of works by a remarkable cohort of Chicago artists.

You must forgive students who come to the A.C. Buehler Library and fail to study. The problem is not in their books or on their screens; it is on the walls. Just about everywhere they look they can see notable works of art. The library is home to a treasure of an art collection, a gathering of Chicago Imagist and Abstractionist work dating from about 1950 to the present. Not all the artists’ names are familiar. But even casual art enthusiasts will recognize the psychedelic patchwork colors of an Ed Paschke or the crisp cityscapes of Roger Brown. Patrol the periphery of the library and you will encounter dozens of others. Altogether these paintings, drawings, and occasional sculpture—more than 90 pieces—comprise one of the most extraordinary yet under-appreciated collections in Illinois.

“It’s the best single overview of art from 1966 to 1985 in any public institution,” says the art critic Jim Yood. “There’s rarely a retrospective of the so-called Imagist artists that doesn’t include Elmhurst.”

“It’s kind of a strange tradition to house this type of collection in a library,” concedes the collection’s former curator, Associate Professor Richard Paulsen, as he guides a visitor on a tour of the library’s art offerings. The visual delights begin almost as soon as you enter the building. Several stellar works, all circa the early seventies, are just inside the door: Paschke’s Cobmaster, a depiction of a menacing woman with a skeletal grin; Brown’s marvelous green, yellow and gray See Seven Cities; and Jim Nutt’s extraordinary, if disturbing, Toot Toot Woo Woo.

Deeper into the library’s interior, the walls remain crowded with rare and important art. Here’s the work of Joseph Yoakum, one of the so-called “naïve” artists, who worked on a railroad his entire life and only started painting once he retired. Most of his paintings, including one found at the library, Monmouth Ridge of Ozark Mountains, reflect his years on the railroad. Here’s Chinoiserie by Miyoko Ito, an older grande dame of the Chicago set “adopted by the younger whippersnappers,” explains Paulsen, who himself painted the delightful fantasy Still Life with Balloons. His Elmhurst colleague, Professor John Pitman Weber, also has work here, as does Suellen Rocca, an original Imagist and an art department faculty member who recently succeeded Paulsen as the collection’s curator.

“I’ve brought many artists here,” says Rocca, who is both curator and director of exhibitions at the College, “and they’re completely bowled over. It’s a wonderful collection.”

The collection owes a major debt to the Hyde Part Art Center, where in the late 1960s director Don Baum first exhibited groups of exciting young artists out of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The circles of artists emerging from Chicago came with memorable names like the “Nonplussed Some,” “False Image,” and “The Hairy Who.”

What united them was an irreverent approach to artmaking. They thumbed their noses at the art establishment and produced work that could be outrageous, aggressive, humorous, and sometimes scatological. Chicago art was funky and irreverent. It took its themes and material from the vernacular, from the sidewalk and storefronts, from life’s everyday clutter. It rejected East Coast acknowledgement and pedigree.

Art historian Franz Schulze coined the label Chicago Imagists in his book Fantastic Images, linking the ’60s groups with the so-called “Monster Roster” artists that emerged in the late 1940s. (Their work is well represented in Elmhurst’s collection, too.)

The College launched the collection in 1971 with federal funding to support art for the then-new A.C. Buehler Library. The first ten pieces were selected by Ted Halkin, then professor of art at Elmhurst, and purchased from the Phyllis Kind Gallery. They included such crucial works as Nutt’s Toot Toot Woo Woo, which was picked to represent the United States in the 1972 Venice Biennale and has since proved a pivotal piece in many exhibitions.

Between 1975 and 1991, thirty-three more pieces were added through the Illinois Arts Council Partners in Purchase program. The longtime chair of the art department and curator of the collection, the late Sandra Jorgensen, played a pivotal role in gathering the works. “The collection is to a great extent an expression of her connoisseurship and vision,” says Rocca.

As the collection gained notoriety, several artists bequeathed additional important works. Over the years talk of a gallery surfaced, but nothing definite came of it. When the library was renovated in 2002, Rocca happily re-hung the collection, grouping artists of certain periods and styles. A gallery might offer better protection, Rocca concedes, but she likes the library “because the students are surrounded by the art.” Library users apparently notice her effort. One man viewing an early Beatles performance via streaming video on a Web site from the Netherlands kept glancing up to stare at the twin works by Yoshida nearby. A few tables away, an Elmhurst student named Michael Kuhn had stationed himself beneath Franz Schultz’s gripping Pieta. Kuhn’s wife is completing her master’s degree in library science, and he is a connoisseur of libraries. “DePaul and Columbia have a couple of dedicated rooms for art—but it’s nothing like this,” he says. “The art here makes the library inviting; you feel like you’re welcome. You see parents on tours just stop and stare.”

Other curators are just as impressed. “It’s one of the few places, if not the only place, you can see work by this group of artists,” says Lisa Stone, who curates the Roger Brown Collection, the preserved home and studio of the artist on Halsted Street in Chicago.

“The Elmhurst collection is a gem,” says Stone. “People come to the Art Institute all the time. They know of the Chicago Imagists. But they don’t know where to find them.”

Stone herself admits to being “incredibly remiss” for never having seen the library. She asks if it’s possible to get to Elmhurst College on public transportation; she’s wanted to send out visitors but doesn’t know how to direct them. (For the unknowing, the College is just a short Metra train ride from Chicago’s Ogilvie Transportation Center. The Elmhurst Metra station is two blocks from campus, and 79 trains stop there every day.)

“My one reservation,” says Yood, “is that Elmhurst is not doing all it can to alert the Chicago community. This is a historical treasure and we ought to know more about it.”

Perhaps no one is more determined to spread the word about the collection than Suellen Rocca. “It’s my goal to make this collection known in Chicago, the Midwest and nationally,” she says. Among the plans she would like to bring to fruition: an online gallery offering images and information, new catalogs for visitors to campus, and public events to attract Chicago’s art community.

The library, of course, is not the College’s only venue for art. The Barbara A. Kieft Accelerator ArtSpace, located alongside the school’s 1950’s particle accelerator, is one of the most distinctive exhibition spaces anywhere; and shows in the Frick Center’s Founders Lounge bring outstanding work to the heart of the campus community. The College supports a vibrant exhibition schedule that includes about a half-dozen shows each year by professional artists, and still more exhibitions featuring Elmhurst students, local high-schoolers and Elmhurst alumni.

But for remarkable art in an accessible—if somewhat unlikely—setting, it’s hard to beat the College’s collection of Imagist and Abstractionist work. To see for themselves, visitors need only step through the front door of the A.C. Buehler Library.

By Jonathan Black
Photography by Mark Segal

Photo of Chicago artist Karl Wirsum taken by Sandra Jorgensen

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