Book Review: “Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time”

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By Lauren Beard, the south side weekly:

Set in the decades between 1930 and 1960, Liesl Olson’s Chicago Vanguard: Five Women Ahead of Their Time shows us how five women – painter Gertrude Abercrombie, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, choreographers Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page, and curator Katharine Kuh – championed “the radical and experimental culture that emerged in Chicago across a range of artistic disciplines in the first half of the 20th century.”

The book, a catalog accompanying the exhibition of the same name, which closed at the Newberry Library in December, shows how these women significantly influenced poetry, dance and the visual arts during the Great Depression, racial violence, World War II and the emergence of the Red Scare, all before the great social and political transformations of the 1960s. through five poems, one dedicated to each woman and pivotal moments in their lives.

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In the book, Olson walks through the interconnected life experiences of each of these women, beginning with surrealist artist Abercrombie (1909-1977). A mostly self-taught painter, Abercrombie was well known for her commitment to Chicago and a Midwestern specificity in her paintings, often in combination with a kind of fantastical weirdness. Living in Hyde Park from 1916 until her death, Abercrombie was known to many as the “Queen of Bohemian Artists” and regularly hosted an arts fair open to queer and interracial audiences at a time when segregation remained the norm.

Abercrombie also lived not far from Olson’s second key figure: Brooks (1917-2000). Perhaps the most famous woman in the collection, Brooks was one of the most influential poets of the 20th century and the first black person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. She was also deeply involved in her local community, largely writing her first collection of poetry, A street in Bronzeville, in workshops at the South Side Community Art Center. She went on to become a major figure in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s and also taught and mentored young people at Chicago State University, which eventually founded the Gwendolyn Brooks Center for Black Literature and Creative Writing, located at 95th and South King Drive. , in his honour. .

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While Abercrombie and Brooks focused primarily on painting and poetry, two Chicago Vanguard featured female-centered dance in their work. The first of the two, Dunham (1909-2006), called herself the “black dance matriarch” and started out as an anthropologist. With her academic background, she first studied the intersection of Caribbean-based African dance practices and the continuation of these creative forms in Chicago.

Moving on to a career in dance, Dunham eventually drew inspiration from her studies to create her own “Dunham Technique”, which continues to be taught to her students. Her counterpart, Page (1899-1991), also followed an international career, beginning as a ballerina who traveled widely for her job. In Chicago, she was known as one of the first dancers to perform in an integrated ballet and went on to found the Ruth Page Center for the Arts in 1971, located just behind the Newberry Library.

Olson finally introduces Kuh (1904-1994), a gallery owner, curator and critic who was the first curator of modern painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago. Prior to working at the Art Institute, she also opened and managed her own Chicago-based gallery, showcasing innovative and controversial works of art by local and foreign artists. Like the others, Kuh experienced much setback in her endeavors: One of Ewing’s poems recounts that her gallery windows were smashed, likely in protest at the non-traditional artistic work she supported in her gallery.

By acknowledging the accomplishments of these five women, Olson documents how racialized norms and policies have shaped their experiences in the city differently. For example, Olson shows how Kuh, Page, and Abercrombie, all white women, were able to maintain ties to elite cultural spaces across the city of Chicago, while Brooks and Dunham, both black women, faced discriminatory exclusion from various arts organizations. of Chicago, especially those on the north side.

In response, Olson also highlights how Brooks and Dunham have steered their careers toward building and supporting spaces for black artists, both in Chicago and beyond. Navigating the complexities of their lives, particularly during this historical time, Olson ultimately strives to show how “by choice and necessity, these women navigated outside of traditional forms of female heritage” and were able to “construct the things as much as they could”. tore things apart.” Olson lets us know how women, whose efforts often go unrecognized in canonical histories of arts and culture, brought “freedom and expansion in a time marked by discrimination and division social”.

Finally, focusing on Chicago, Olson dwelled on the uniqueness of the city to fuel the unforeseen social experimentation and change of these women. For Olson, unlike the “rarified art worlds of New York and Paris, the Chicago art world operated differently…independent, unfettered,” and these five women “crossed borders, built institutions, and supported each other in Chicago and far beyond.”

Their legacy continues to shape the contemporary cultural world of Chicago, with artists such as Vershawn Sanders-Ward, artistic director and CEO of 63 Street’s Red Clay Dance Company, continuing to teach the Dunham technique to their students. Finally, Olson added that many others are carrying on this legacy of radical social change, with artists like Ewing continuing to work at the intersections of art and activism in a way that recognizes the limits of the present and is also keen to imagine beyond.

For those who want to know more about Chicago Vanguard, Newberry Library also created this video tour of the book’s previous exhibit at the library.

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Lauren Beard is a doctoral student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago. This is his first story for the Weekly.


The South Side Weekly is a nonprofit newspaper dedicated to supporting South Side cultural and civic engagement and developing emerging journalists, writers, and artists. Learn more at southsideweekly.com.

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