Art made in Chicago does not look like that produced in Washington or Boston, Houston or L.A. It is funkier and funnier, and often slightly creepy. Samuel Koffler loves it.
Chicago's Koffler, 73, is a proselytizing patron. Since 1971, the foundation he founded has been promoting the artists of his city by purchasing their work for display out of town.
"Art From Chicago: The Koffler Foundation Collection" has been given to the Smithsonian Institution's National Collection of Fine Arts. It went on view there yesterday.
The exhibit does not pretend to be definitive, nor is it complete, but it brings to the museum an admirably representative survey of Chicago's post-war art.
The paintings of Chicago, though often made with delicacy, are very rarely staid. Instead, they have about them a whackly, often startling kind of pre-punk wit. This show is full of painted wrinkles, tendrils, tentacles and hairs. If the painters of Manhattan like spontaneous gestures, if those of this city prefer the primness of straight lines the artists of Chicago have declared a comparable loyalty to odd organic blobs.
Among the painters represented are Karl Wirsum, Gladys Nilsson, and James Nutt, who worked together in the '60s in a group they called the "Hairy Who." The face in Wirsum's "Lip Balm" of 1966 has, despite its shattered neck and hair, its bilious pinks and yellows and it monstrous earring, something almost lovely. Nutt, too, somehow blends the graceful and the gross. The little polka-dotted body in the lower left corner of his "It's a Long Way Down" (1971) is painted with such delicacy that viewers will not squirm at the sight of its headless neck.
Many of these paintings are full puns and pranks and unexpected contrasts. There is a canvas by Art Green here that - though it appears littered with chain-link fencing, broken glass, and little strips of masking tape - still manages to be a romantic mountain landscape. The exquisite and the monstrous frequently are blended in Chicago's art.
Even abstract paintings often seem inhabited by things that creep and crawl. Roy Yoshida's picture here looks like a convention on tongues, odd vegetavles and innards. "Panama," by Ed Flood, a box construction made with sheets of painted plastic, seems at first to echo the elegant unfurled paintings of Washington's Morris Louis. But while the colors Louis poured look like flowing rivulets, those that Flood employs instead bring to mind blobs and boneless fingers.
There are many witty objects in the show, though Leon Golub's "Napalm Head" and Fred Berger's "A Judge" have about them nothing funny.
Ed Paschke (who shows us one grotesque green shoe), Roger Brown, Kerig Pope, Barbara Rossi, June Leaf and Ellen Lanyon are among the other well-known Chicago artists represented in this 34-item show.
No works by Richard Hunt, H.C. Westerman or Ivan Albright are included in the Koffler gift, but his foundation is still buying and he intends to keep on giving. Neither Koffler nor his wife, Blanche, selects the works of art the foundation buys. Those decisions are made by artists, critics, and scholars who work for the foundation.
"Art From Chicago: The Koffler Foundation Collection" will set out on an 18-month tour under the auspices of the Western Association of Art Museums after closing here Aug. 12. CAPTION: Illustration, "Natural Bridge," by Roger Brown