With Friends: Six Magic Realists, 1940–1965

John Wilde, American, b. 1919, Karl Priebe, Getrude Abercrombie, Dudley Huppler, Marshall Glasier, Sylvia Fein, a Friend, Arnold Dadian, and Myself, 1966, Oil on panel, 8 x 12 in., Milwaukee Art Museum
The Chasen Museum of Art, formely the Elvehjem is currently showing the exhibition With Friends: Six Magic Realists, 1940–1965 which will be on display until September 18, 2005. The exhibition will focus on the art and friendships of the American artists Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977), Sylvia Fein (b. 1919; University of Wisconsin BS, 1942), Marshall Glasier (1902 –1988), Dudley Huppler (1917–1988; University of Wisconsin BS and MS, 1939), Karl Priebe (1914–1976), and John Wilde (b. 1919; University of Wisconsin BS, 1942, MS, 1948). The show will include 104 works of art (15-20 objects by each artist) dating between 1940 and 1965. A selection of archival material—sketchbooks, postcards with original drawings, letters, photographs, and scrapbooks—will also be included. The exhibition, which will be the first intensive study of this close-knit group, will explore the artistic and personal relationships they shared. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue will provide insight into a figurative branch of postwar American modernism that has been often neglected in favor of abstract expressionism. The exhibition is being organized for the Elvehjem Museum of Art by guest curator Robert Cozzolino.
This intellectual circle of six artists convened informally in Madison and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and Chicago, Illinois during the early 1940s to visit one another’s studios, area museums and galleries and participate in salons for drawing sessions, discussion, and music. Viewed separately, these artists seem rather disparate, but together there is an extraordinary, sometimes subtle, “ensemble” character. As a group, Abercrombie, Fein, Glasier, Huppler, Priebe, and Wilde concerned themselves with the body, issues of identity, psychology, and the wonder of nature in order to reflect on the state of the world and their own lives. They maintained an interest in craft, carefully studied traditional techniques, but tried to develop an iconography that expressed the complexity of modern life. Charismatic, intellectually curious, and with broad interests these artists formed the core of their cities’ cultural life. Musicians such as Harry Partch, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, or Max Roach sought them out and remained friends. In Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago their gatherings attracted young professors, musicians, activists, writers, and inspired novels. They exhibited throughout the United States and in New York gained friends and supporters that included George Grosz, Lincoln Kirstein, George Platt Lynes, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, Carl van Vechten, and Andy Warhol. 

  Although this group originated in the Midwest, they shared these concerns with other artists of their generation working throughout the country. They were inspired by fourteenth- and fifteenth-century northern European and Italian art, but drew on the visual language of surrealism in combination with other styles, an approach often called “magic realism.” This term did not relate to an actual movement and was rejected by many artists and became a term of convenience used by curators and critics in the 1940s to describe “individuals” not associated with modernist movements. This exhibition explores the modern aspects of the artists labeled “magic realists” by focusing on this close group of friends. While they shared a sense of craft and interest in reviving older painting formulas the subject matter and intellectual sources of this group is rooted in the twentieth-century. Many of this group exhibited with and associated with other so-called magic realists Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, Bernard Perlin, or George Tooker, artists who cited similar inspiration and whose work shares formal similarities. The artists included in With Friends influenced a generation of younger artists working with irreverent subject matter, personal iconography, and issues of the body and sexuality such as The Hairy Who or Chicago Imagists. Despite their Midwestern roots they had ties to New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and exhibited widely. Many were influential teachers, widely respected by peers and students.
Recent scholarship on twentieth-century American art has focused on thematic links between artists and “styles” that had previously been held apart. Several important new studies approach the modern period in terms of shared subject matter, rather than stylistic approach. For many decades, accounts of the period excluded artists who appear on stylistic margins or who did not associate with organized movements. An extraordinary plurality of approach marked American art at mid-century, and artists of diverse stylistic and political proclivities studied one another. In the past, “magic realists,” or American surrealists, were often left out of scholarly studies because they were considered to be marginal to a history of modernism according to style. A new generation of scholars interested in issues of sexuality, identity, psychology, and politics are looking back at the twentieth century not to replace one narrative with another, but to assert the coexistence of multiple reactions to similar formative experiences in our nation’s artists.

  This exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will explore one group of artists who were involved in their immediate communities but who also made an impact on the national scene that to date has been downplayed. It will argue that during the 1940s, a whole generation of artists came of age in the shadow of World War II, amidst great changes in the art world, mass media, and intellectual ideas. Rather than assert that one outcome was superior, such as the development of art-making practices espoused by Jackson Pollock, Adolph Gottlieb, or Mark Rothko, the exhibition calls for a closer examination of the various ways in which American artists reacted to similar experiences and ideas. In this case a tie that binds is the assertion of subjectivity and a search for meaning in the world through the individual, through the self.

The exhibition will be accompanied by catalogue written by curator Robert Cozzolino. The main essay will deal with Abercrombie, Fein, Glasier, Huppler, Priebe, and Wilde as a group during the 1940s and 1950s. He will discuss their interests and artwork in relation to simultaneous developments in American art. Part of the essay will expand on the situation in American art during the 1940s and in the postwar world suggesting ways to see shared content as a crucial context as opposed to privileging a style. He will also address the various ways surrealism was observed, learned, digested and embodied in the work of American artists during World War II and after. Much scholarship has concentrated on how artists such as Pollock, De Kooning, Gorky, or Rothko developed in relation to this movement and other intellectual ideas popular in the United States during the 1940s. This exhibition will show that there was a strain of representational art that persisted and dealt with similar content through a different form. Cozzolino will also write shorter biographical essays dealing with each of the six artists and their specific art practices and subject matter to illuminate specific works in the exhibition. A selected exhibition history, biographical chronologies, and bibliography will round-out the volume.