While I was in the American Midwest last month, I couldn’t resist making the journey out to the University of Chicago to see the latest exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art: Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago. The exhibition focuses on the work of a close-knit group of artists working in the Windy City between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s. The artists, who would be given the name Monster Roster only in 1959, pioneered a confrontational and deeply psychological form of art in response to the start of the Cold War. Characterised by a grotesque and surreal style, their figurative works were informed by ancient art and classical mythology, and appeared to be a world away from New York, where Abstraction Expressionism was at its peak and Pop Art was on the rise.
Regular ESPIONART readers will already be familiar with the leader of the Monster Roster, Leon Golub, who was previously introduced as one of our ‘Featured Artists’. Other members of the group included Golub’s wife Nancy Spero, alongside Cosmo Campoli, June Leaf, Dominick Di Meo, Fred Berger, and Seymour Rosofsky. Among some 60 paintings, sculptures, and works on paper, the exhibition features several works by Golub, including one of his most famous canvases, Reclining Youth. The design for this huge work was based on the ancient Greek sculpture of a dying soldier on the frieze of the Pergamon Altar, and at times Golub used a meat cleaver to scrape paint on and off the canvas. Yet despite the at times gruesome images created by the Monster Roster, Golub explained: “Other painters are tearing man apart, but not me. I’m giving him a monumental image. I want man to survive.” Meanwhile, Fred Berger wanted “to show man as a creature who is at once magnificent and terrifying” in paintings such as The Tribe.
Most of the male Monster Roster artists had served in World War II before studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and their visual language and themes suggest men profoundly affected by their experiences. As the introductory wall text describes, these were “dark, grotesque, searing images painted in somber earthen hues with flashes of violent color. Disembodied limbs, vacant eyes, distended figures, slashed and scraped surfaces, damaged torsos, birth pangs and death throes, icons of an existential drama.”
When the artists informally united in the late 1940s, their work stood in stark contrast to the optimistic post-war mood in the United States. Yet as the Cold War progressed, their ominous visions foreshadowed the anxiety and disorientation that was to come. Over half a decade after the end of the Monster Roster, this is the first major museum exhibition to examine their work, and to present it as the first unique Chicago style.
Monster Roster: Existentialist Art in Postwar Chicago has free admission, and continues at the Smart Museum of Art until 12 June 2016.
Image: Leon Golub, Reclining Youth, 1959. Lacquer on canvas, 200 x 415.3 cm. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; Fred Berger, The Tribe, 1959. Oil on canvas. Courtesy of Eva Field and James Conlon.