Chicago Artist Boycott

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

In August of 1968, after seeing the brutal images and televised footage of the aggression perpetrated by the city’s government forces at and around the Democratic National Convention, two artists, Hedda Sterne and Jesse Reichek, organized a protest. The plan was to boycott Chicago’s art museums and galleries for two years, until 1970, when Richard J. Daley’s term as mayor ended. In a telegram to Daley, the artists explained their disgust and revulsion, and asserted the impossibility of art in an environment where brutality was not only tolerated but also enacted. The statement was signed by some 50 artists including Roy Lichtenstein, Barnett Newman, Robert Motherwell, and, Chicago-raised artist Claes Oldenburg.
Many of the artists took action immediately. Among these was Oldenburg, who promptly pulled his show, Proposals for Monuments, slated to open at the Richard Feigen Gallery in autumn of that year. Oldenburg told Time magazine that “a gentle one-man show about pleasure” seemed to him “a bit obscene” for the time.
But Richard Feigen had another idea. He persuaded Oldenburg to reconsider and others to join in, and on October 23, less than two months after the artists had sent the telegram to Mayor Daley, an exhibition featuring work by many of boycotters opened at the Feigen Gallery. The show was titled The Richard J. Daley Exhibition and the art was intended as a direct response to the August events. The New York Times called it a more activist approach than silence.
A total of 47 artists engaged in this artistic activism and 21 of them created new work specifically for the show. Among these were James Rosenquist’s Tattered Image, Barnett Newman’s symbolic sculpture, Lace Curtain for Mayor Daley (a distinct formal departure from his oeuvre of abstracted zips and broken obelisks), and Oldenburg’s 48 piece series of sculpted plaster fireplugs, the symbolic form of the city according to the artist. Along with these Oldenburg submitted two drawings showing Mayor Daley’s head on a platter. Time Magazine named them Daley on a platter and the artist adopted the title.
Both Oldenburg and Feigen had themselves been targets of brutality during the infamous police riots of the previous summer. In his letter requesting that the Proposals show be postponed, a letter that also served as the advertisement for the Daley exhibition, Oldenburg explained that he had been “tossed to the ground by six swearing troopers who kicked and clubbed [him] and called [him] a Communist.” In addition to their (and the other artists’) anger at Daley, the protest show revealed Oldenburg and Feigen’s ambivalence to the city they had previously so celebrated.
After closing in Chicago, the show traveled to the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati and then Feigen’s NYC gallery, where it was later reprised in 1988. But, despite the canonical artists involved, the Daley Exhibition was regarded more as a display of activism than of works of art. It was primarily as such that newspapers nationwide reported on the show. And that’s also how Daley received it. According to Feigen, some of the Mayor’s “goons” trashed the exhibition.
Nevertheless, it has proven but a blip in Chicago’s political history. Straddling the formulated line between art exhibition and political protest, the show fits neatly into neither category and so has been largely excluded from both. The Special Collections archivist at the Harold Washington Library well articulated this divide. “We don’t have anything about that,” she told me when I asked for materials on the Chicago Artist Boycott. “We’re primarily a history collection. We don’t have those sorts of arts related things.” ◊


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