Spiezer: The Biggest Collection of Modern Chicago Art

Published June 18, 2009

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by Robert Kameczura

Used with the kind permission of The H.F. Johnson Art Gallery at Carthage College in Kenosha, Wisconsin.  This feature was originally published in the exhibition catalog.

The June and Francis Spiezer Collection of Chicago Art is the largest existing collection of Chicago Art from the period of around 1960 to the present. In its way it is a monument of its kind, rich in quality and variety, showing a wide range of media and an even wider range of ideas. It is guaranteed, when viewed as a whole, to expand any person’s ideas of Chicago art. It is also a gateway to viewing the unique personality of Chicago art. Much of this work is gradually coming to be valued as equally significant by comparison with artwork coming from more well-known artists in New York, the West Coast and Europe.

Though many pieces from the collection have been lent out for various exhibits around the world, the current exhibition is the first showing of a large selection of the collection outside of The Rockford Art Museum or tours of the Spiezer residence. The show will run July 18 through September 27 at the Rockford Museum of Art in Rockford, 711 N. Main Street, Rockford, Illinois. For further information, click here to see the museum's announcement or call 815-968-2787.

Red Sweeny by Ed PaskeRed Sweeny by Ed Paschke, 1975

In 2006, the Pennsylvania Academy of Art presented a showing of Chicago Art from the 1920s through the 1980s. It included Ed Paschke’s “Red Sweeney” from the Spiezer collection and exhibited many of the same artists represented in the Spiezer collection. This exhibit, Art in Chicago: Resisting Regionalism, Transforming Modernism was curated by Robert Cossolino, who commented:

"There's a real need for rethinking 20th-century art to include the whole country. One of the unique characteristics of Chicago is there's always been a very pronounced effort to not be derivative, to not follow the status quo. They insisted on following their own vision."

Many critics and art writers found this show a revelation. Critic Mark Brandl of the online magazine “SharkForum” has commented:

"When it comes to aesthetic and creative movements, Chicago is often more closely connected with architecture and music than painting and sculpture. However, a new Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts exhibition – curated by a native of Chicago – aims to give a new look at the Second City as a place that inspired and produced trailblazing visual art."

Rockford Art Museum currator Patty Rhea and artist Diane Levesque review the Speizer Collection ExhibitRockford Art Museum currator Patty Rhea and artist Diane Levesque review the Speizer Collection ExhibitThe current showcase of a large portion of the Spiezer collection hopes to add weight to the case that Chicago Art is ripe for reevaluation. The question of what value Chicago art has is an important one. It affects the range of what art is seen on the world stage – a place where Chicago art has frequently been shortchanged. The reasons for the relative neglect of Chicago on the international art scene are complex. Major art magazines, major auction houses like Sothebys and Christies, and major art dealers and critics are located on the East and West Coast and in Europe. National art magazines have representatives here, but they don’t always give major space to Chicago art. For reasons known only to themselves, Chicago museums have not been advocates of showcasing Chicago artists in any great numbers. But with the Spiezer exhibit, the Rockford Museum of Art hopes to open more eyes to the distinct personalities and wonderful inventive powers of Chicago artists.

June Spiezer has commented:

“In New York City many artists seek to follow what is trendy, but Chicago artists choose to see the world their own way. They don’t give a damn about what other people consider 'new,' but make their own standards for what is 'new.' As a result, Chicago artists have a strong tendency to be fresher, more creative in their art. In a sense, the relative isolation of Chicago art means artists are free to do what they like and this makes them more interesting!”

How the Collection Came About 

The Entrance to the Spiezer Collection Exhibit at the Rockford Art MuseumThe entrance to the Spiezer Collection exhibit at The Rockford Art Museum

June and Francis Spiezer first started collecting art when they saw the work of artists at exhibits in Hyde Park. (Some of these artists went on to become members of the “Hairy Who” and “The Chicago Imagists.”) Their interest in the art led the Spiezers to take a class in “Art as Investment” which included an on-site visit to the gallery area in downtown Chicago. They met artists and were fascinated. An interesting new world seemed to open for them both through the artwork they saw and socializing with the artists.

Early on the Spiezers decided on their “method” of collecting: They would only purchase things if they both liked them, and they would concentrate on young and upcoming artists, finding them more “affordable.” They also thought that artists early in their career needed support from collectors. The Spiezers' choices have been proven by time to be very prescient. To give but one example, early on they collected the small sculpture “White Hand” by John Philip Myers, now a highly respected sculptor. They bought this work for a few hundred dollars, and it now carries a market value hundreds of times greater. Such was their passion for collecting that they often paid for art on consignment, and there were months when they were sending off payments on four recently collected paintings at once. Though June and Francis frequently agreed on the artists they liked, there were occasions when they disagreed completely. Rather interestingly, Francis liked the work of Leon Golub, and June did not. Instead, June liked the work of Robert Lostutter, but Francis said “No way!” Neither artist is represented in the collection.

It Keeps Her Going by Hollis SiglerIt Keeps Her Going by Hollis Sigler

The Spiezers felt a loyalty to Chicago artists. They ate, drank and discussed life and art with them and enjoyed their company. They had a unique feeling for the personalities of the artists and had what art dealers often refer to as “a magic eye.”

They also felt a loyalty to Chicago gallery owners, with whom they developed friendships. June Spiezer comments:

“Let other people from other cities support their galleries, we have to support ours. Francis and I both knew we would buy primarily from Chicago galleries and artists because they were available, we could talk to them. I see these artists around. They’re friendly, and I like this, rather than buying some artist from New York or California I don’t know and won’t see.”

Chicago's Various Artistic Styles

Chicago artists are strongly individualistic in their approach to aesthetics. Yet there are elements in Chicago Area art which establish some basic stylistic directions that reflect on Chicago’s unique personality. The following short survey represents only a start of a list of Chicago Art styles and categories.

The Earth from Outer Space by Roger BrownThe Earth from Outer Space by Roger Brown

In considering trends in Chicago art, by far the best known groups are often lumped together under the name “The Chicago Imagists.” This larger group includes “The Monster Roster” (post-war artists who started making a name in the 1950s), the "The Hairy Who” and “The Chicago Imagists,” who start to be active in the early and mid-1960s. These are fairly loose groups in that each artist has their own style, but they all manipulate imagery from the seamy underside of urban life: tattoos, comic books, advertising, old signs and labels, junk and trash. They share a sardonic viewpoint, mixed with a taste for the grotesque and fantastic, and utilize intense color, often in flat, decorative, playing card-like designs. Their work frequently blurs the line between what is funky what is philosophical, what is outrageous and what is poetic. Notable examples are Paschke’s “Red Sweeney,” Roger Brown’s “The Earth from Outer Space,” Karl Wursum’s “Inner E Stare Bonnet” (with a strong anticipation of the design of the Dalek creatures of “Dr. Who” fame), and Jim Nutt’s “Oh, My Goodness.”

Then there is a group of Chicago abstractionists, who, unlike the more formal and geometry-oriented abstractions of post-Mondrian Europe, or the painterly abstractions of the New York Abstract Expressionists, prefer something more machine-like and kinetic with an element of “futuristic” energy. Lines have a way of being spun out, like a fast-moving elevated train or traffic blurred in motion on an expressway. Their layouts often involves sequences of shapes spinning or interweaving. Such works as those by Josh Garber’s “Swim” or Jim Lute's “I Should Have Called” represent this aspect of Chicago art. Art Green’s “Good Intentions” has the dynamism of a layered overhead map of a shopping mall or modern multi-faceted building. Julia Fish’s “Great Divide” creates a different kind of dynamism by contrasting dark and light, geometric and soft, in a yin-yang tableaux that is part enigma, part aerial map.

Interior with Mirror by Susanne DoremusInterior with Mirror by Susanne Doremus

Then there is the art of the theatrical and quasi-surreal which often involve a fantastic landscapes with curious, slightly surreal scenarios being played out on them. Examples of this genre frequently involve images of Chicago’s streets, buildings, backyards, slums, trash heaps and parks. This can be seen in works like Hollis Sigler’s “It Keeps Her Going” or Steven Hudson’s “Apocalyptic Millennium 16, “The Launderer.” or Mark Summer Forth’s “Night Train” which reveals a distinctly Midwestern bedroom with golden neon light falling through a window onto the lone sleeper. Anne Farley Gaines’ “Pinions of Light” juxtaposes floral, animal and water imagery before a burning street for curious mixture of ecstasy and tragedy. There are works in this category that are surreal but narrative, suggesting elements of a story or myth. Some examples would be Jim Mesple’s “Jonah and the Whale?” or Susanne Doremus’ “Interior with Mirror.” All these works reflects Chicago’s visual urban environment pushed into the realms of high imagination and fantasy.

Playful Private Pricking by Ray YoshidaPlayful Private Pricking by Ray Yoshida

Another strong element in Chicago Art is wild humor, though the wit and fun in the art are often intended to conceal deeper meanings. Such a work as Gladys Nilsson’s “Hall of Mirrors” is one example. In it, a mischievous strip show, or lingerie fashion show, seems to be taking place. It is performed by creatures, which are half children’s illustration and half cartoon, and lays out a tableau that is vaguely reminiscent of a “roaring twenties” “speak easy” saloon floor show. Shang-ah Choi’s “Eyes” inhabits something of the same humorous, fantastic world, with doll-like blond Venus’s transfiguring into ancient Greek statues and back again in a misty, antediluvian landscape. Ray Yoshida’s “Playful Private Pricking” is a painting of witty visual double entendres but still manages to create a luminous, beautiful atmosphere. Rather surprisingly many of the glass pieces in Chicago Art are humorous, like Richard Marquis’ “Crazy Quilt Teapot” or John Phillip Myers, “White Hand,” portraying a hand , which seems to be transforming into something like sliced bread. It is a sculpture funny and nightmarish at the same time. Another strange hand, this one in a puppet glove, very different in effect, appears in Spencer Dornitzer’s “I Have Quiet Demons” but it is also part fun and part bad dream.

Untitled by Tom CzarnopysUntitled by Tom CzarnopysThen there is a genre of painting that might be considered “grotesque.” Works which look at ugliness as a high form of character, suggesting suffering and pain as lessons that can be learned from. Such works as Joe Siegenmeister’s “Sheldon” unlock disturbing levels of pain and dementia, 

but also invites a degree of compassion. Tom Czarnopys, “Untitled” bronze sculpture of a cringing baby in a chrysalis, is similar in feeling and hints at the forces of creation having a dark, nightmarish side.

Chicago Artists also often seem fascinated by everyday objects, and some of their works might fall into the category of a kind of “Magic Realism.” These are sharply observed and tightly painted pieces of small chunks of reality, often with a slightly surreal tweaking. Frank Trankina’s “Red Shoes” is one example, where a pair of red shoes has a curious resonance, reminiscent perhaps of an important memory that is only hinted at, never stated. Very different but still object based, is Jo Hormuth’s hilarious “Frozen Turkey Dinners” which manages to evoke twisted balloons, pet dachshunds, hot dogs, and erect phalluses at one and the same time. John Littleton and Katherine Vogel’s glass sculpture “Bag Explosion” turns images of paper bags into jewel like objects that seem to dance to some unheard music.

The Collection: Past, Present and Future

Rite by Maria TomasulaRite by Maria Tomasula

The Spiezer collection is notable as the only collection of Chicago Art of the period that is partially housed in, and the majority of the collection is ceded perpetually to, a major museum, the Rockford Art Museum. The Spiezer’s observed that too much donated work was consigned to the basement of the Chicago Art Institute so they began to look around for institutions that would show their collection, not just store it. They wanted the art they owned to be enjoyed by people. Francis Spiezer was in the service in Rockford during World War II. While there, he found that the people of Rockford were immensely friendly; they would never let him pay for a meal when he sat down in a restaurant. As he had such good memories of the city, the Spiezers worked out an arrangement with the Rockford Art Museum where the entire collection as of 1994 (later acquisitions at the discretion of the Spiezers) would be willed to the museum, with a certain portion turned over to the museum on a yearly basis. Other stipulations were that the collection could never be broken up or sold and that every ten years, forever, the collection would have to be exhibited at the museum in it’s entirety. At this writing about two thirds of the collection is housed in the Rockford Art Museum and one third resides in the Spiezer residence. As Mrs. Spiezer adds a new work she usually cedes a work to Rockford to make room for the new one to hang in her home. The Rockford Art Museum also has the advantage of the possessing the largest art museum exhibition space in Illinois outside of Chicago

The Spiezer Collection includes paintings, prints, drawings, assemblages, ceramics, sculptures, mixed media, a few objects without classification and a very considerable collection of fine art glass. This largesse of vision is possible because, with a few notable exceptions, the Spiezers have chosen only one work per artist, concentrating on choosing a key work by most of the artists in their collection. But what glorious choices they have made! June Spiezer is still collecting and the collection is growing. Every ten years the Rockford Art Museum shows the entire collection and the next such show is slated to open July 17th, 2009.

I Should Have Called by Jim LutesI Should Have Called by Jim Lutes

Note: Big Shoulders Art Critic Robert Kameczura will be giving a talk on the collection at the Rockford Art Museum on July 18th, 2009. Call the Rockford Art Museum for details.

“Francis and June were two wonderful characters; well June still is. In the 30 years I had an art gallery they were the best collectors I ever encountered – with the purest excitement and most sincere passion about art and artists. Different personalities. Francis always let June shine and shine she did; with her irreverent jokes and mismatched, yet thematic, earrings. Francis on the other hand was comparatively taciturn yet ribald at all the right times. June is passionate, Francis pragmatic. These were ‘real’ people. Older in body but younger in spirit than their peers – or even those decades younger than them. Art keep them young and engaged. Not only would they identify with a work of art, but they’d want to know the artist and have a relationship with him or her.”

PAUL KLEIN, Art Curator, Writer, and Art Dealer