Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Specters of the Cass Corridor @ N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art

Davenport Apartments, built in 1905, in the Cass Corridor, stomping grounds of Detroit's first generation of expressionist artists. (Image: Andrew Jameson, Creative Commons CC BY-SA 3.0 license.)
The Cass Corridor art movement is Detroit's aesthetic undead. Like a zombie rising up from the earth, it keeps coming back no matter how many times you try to kill it. And not unlike a George Romero B-grade movie, in some respects it's understandable why it continues to hold our fascination. It reflects a place and time of creative foment -- the slum area just south of the Wayne State University campus in the mid-1960s to late 1970s -- when art in Detroit appeared to be serious business indeed.

The Detroit art world was in fact pretty robust then. Artists were in their studios hard at work (and in the off-hours even harder at play), a small but intrepid band of collectors were supporting the artists' production, and both of the daily newspapers' full-time art critics (imagine that!) were conceptually connecting the dots and documenting it all. (Side note: My first encounter with the Cass Corridor came as a teenager in the suburbs reading Joy Hakanson Colby's multipage full-color spread on the scene in the now-defunct Detroit News Sunday Magazine.) The whole thing was capped off with a blockbuster exhibition mounted by the Detroit Institute of Arts in 1980 titled: "Kick Out the Jams: Detroit's Cass Corridor, 1963-1977." Legends grew up around the major players that echo to this day.

One of the caretakers of the Cass Corridor legacy is Dennis Alan Nawrocki, an art historian and curator who was there for a good piece of the action and who from time to time has come forward to draw attention to Detroit's aesthetic heyday. The most recent iteration is currently on view at N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art in the area now known as the Sugar Hill Historic District in Midtown. The show raises some timely and important questions, and Nawrocki and gallery director George N’Namdi deserve credit for mounting it.

The show is titled "Menage a Detroit: Three Generations of Detroit Expressionistic Art, 1970-2012." As the title suggests, the curatorial strategy is to trace a lineage from the originators of what might be termed the Detroit School to key followers who have emerged over the last 40 years. The first generation consists of the acknowledged masters of the movement who were represented in "Kick Out the Jams." These include Gordon Newton, Michael Luchs, and Robert Sestok, as well as other central figures such as Ellen Phelan, Nancy Mitchnick, and Nancy Pletos. The so-called second generation emerged in the 1980s and includes Gilda Snowden, Paul Webster, Kurt Novak, and Cay Bahnmiller, some of whom were also surveyed in a traveling exhibition titled "Guts," which Nawrocki curated 1982. More recently, according to Nawrocki's curatorial scheme, a third generation can be discerned, represented in this exhibition by Scott Hocking, Thomas Pyrzewski, Stephanie Sturon, and Steven McShane.

What constitutes a "Detroit style" has never been entirely certain. There's the use of recycled and mundane materials, which didn't really apply to artists such as Mitchnick and late great Bradley Jones (sadly not represented), who were (and in the case of Mitchnick still are) straight-up painters. About the closest thing is this idea of the expressionistic, which doesn't really fit Phelan or Yale-educated Cass Corridor mentor John Egner, artists who were really more concerned about the formalistic properties of material processes and not so much about expression, understood art historically as an individualistic existential/aesthetic response to what philosopher Charles Taylor in his important book Sources of the Self: The Making of Modern Identity terms "radical Enlightenment," i.e., the scientific positivism whose brute instrumental rationality has wreaked havoc on the environment and society for some three centuries. In the work on view, the semiotics of expression appear to be a general character of formlessness, a Dionysian refusal to stay within the lines physically and metaphorically.

In his gallery talk on April 7, Nawrocki rightly noted that what at the time was perceived as a regional style with hindsight reflects larger trends in the mainstream art world. Particularly coming out of the 1960s and into the 1970s, the general tendency known as post-Minimalism manifested itself in various locations around the US, in the form of New Image (AKA "Bad") Painting in New York City, the Imagists and Hairy Who in Chicago, the San Francisco Bay Area Funk, and Pattern and Decoration more broadly, not to mention the work of feminist artists in general. There was also the larger social context, which Nawrocki also rightly mentions and which all of these tendencies reflect. Again there's the influence of feminism (ironic given the testosterone-fueled mythology of the male Cass Corridor artists in particular), but also all of the liberatory social movements of the period -- civil rights, antiwar, the youth-quake, LGBT, etc. -- as well.

As it relates to Detroit, there are even broader world-historical trends that need to taken into account. To use the lexicon of postmodern political economists, these transformations generally go under the rubric of post-Fordism, the regime of capitalist production that arose in the late 1960s/early 1970s, coincident with the period of the Cass Corridor art scene, to supplant the system first dubbed in the 1930s by legendary jailbird Antonio Gramsci as "Fordism," by which he meant the high wage/high output policies of mass production and consumption pioneered and emphatically realized in the erstwhile Motor City. In contrast to Fordism's capital-intensive standardized, fixed modes of production (what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman terms "solid modernity"), post-Fordism embraces highly leveraged flexible, mobile operations (what Bauman calls "liquid modernity"). In the manufacturing sector it took root in such practices as lean production, outsourcing, and the disaggregation of the vertically integrated value chain. It's the logical evolution of capitalism as foretold by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in The Communist Manifesto, summarized in the famous line: "all that is solid melts into air."
Michael Luchs, Rabbit, 1977. Mixed media (Courtesy Wayne State University Art Collection. Photograph by Ruffy Lim.) 
And in Detroit, the dismantling of the Fordist system physically registered in the accelerated hollowing out  and collapse of the urban core, a transformation -- documented most notably by Thomas Sugrue in his 1996 book The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit -- that in fact began with the suburban expansion of the postwar period. In the wake of the 1967 civil unrest, the "urban expressionism" of the Cass Corridor took up the broken pieces, physical and emotional, of the increasingly abandoned environment and fashioned them into rambunctious works of art. In the N'Namdi show, this tendency is represented by a couple of later works by Newton (the large mixed-media assemblage Oliver Twist: The Old Curiosity Shop, 1992) and Sestok (the steel sculpture Spring, 2004) but most contemporaneously by the stunning 1977 untitled construction by Luchs that uses rusty twisted wire mesh and a stretched out piece of tatty car seat upholstery to conjure up an image of a rabbit at rest in a postindustrial brownfield (an effect somewhat spoiled by the sleek black plinth upon which the work is mounted).
Paul Webster, Odalisque, 1989, mixed mediums (Image: courtesy of Wayne State University Art Collection, photograph by Dirk Bakker).
In the same way that the second generation of Abstract Expressionists took their cue from and refined the stylistic innovations of the initial masters of the New York School, the second generation of Detroit expressionism arose hot on the heels of the DIA blockbuster and the intense attention surrounding it. With the city's increasing deliquescence, more and more younger artists began working with recycled materials, which were abundantly present at hand. One such artist, Paul Webster, fashioned suave wall-mounted and free-standing sculptures from such locally sourced materials as recycled sheet metal and automobile windshield safety glass. Nawrocki does local art history a service by retrieving Webster's work from virtual obscurity.

Arguably, the most poignant of the second generation was Matthew Blake, who died unexpectedly of a massive heart attack in 2008 at age 43. His mature work, represented in the N'Namdi exhibition by a six-foot wide untitled piece from 1998, collected all manner of cast-off junk and fashioned it into large bas-relief sculptures painted a single color, typically white, unifying the disparate elements of shattered existences into complicated friezes connecting the detritus of Detroit's crumbling modernity with the ruins of civilizations past.

Also like the second generation of Abstract Expressionists in New York, some of the more interesting artists are those who moved away from elaborating on received aesthetics to establish their own identity. Perhaps the most dramatic of these transformations is Lois Teicher, who strained her initial embrace of the Motown assemblage technique through the filter of second-wave feminism to come out the other end an unabashed formalist. Her austere welded metal sculptures of geometric forms from the last two decades are a far cry from the untidy productions one generally associates with expressionism. The 1981 sculpture, I Feel Like a Choreographer, which consists of five upright painted wooden containers mounted on struts and wheels, captures the artist at the beginning of the transformation.
Scott Hocking, The Egg and MCTS, 5932, 2011, archival pigment print/site specific installation. (Image courtesy of the artist and Susanne Hilberry Gallery.)
Ostensibly, a third generation is now at work, extending the Cass Corridor's legacy into the present. Scott Hocking is undoubtedly the best known of the group on view. His photograph The Egg and MCTS, 5932, 2011, documents an ongoing installation he has been working on in the Michigan Central Train Station, the hulking structure that is the first stop on any tour of the fabulous ruins of Detroit. The half-finished egg, visible in the center of the photograph, is shown situated in a hallway on one of the floors in the 18-story office tower that rises up behind the main station buiding, using shards from the broken marble walls that have been almost completely gutted by architectural scavengers over the years.

(It's interesting to compare Hocking's body of work with the recent paintings of his long-time collaborator Clinton Snider now on view at Susanne Hilberry Gallery. The gothic melancholy of Snider's paintings, evocative of Grant Wood, John Steuart Curry, and especially Charles Birchfield, foregrounds the Romantic aesthetic, and are thus seemingly more overtly expressionist, than Hocking's archeological investigations. The mediated nature of Hocking's digital images may also be seen to argue for a less expressionistic reading in relation to Snider's work, although the Romantic deep structure of photography as the ghost of the always already seen, the irretrievable past that continually haunts the present, is palpable in Hocking's work as it is in the new Patti Smith exhibition at the DIA. Click here to read my review.)
Dangerous Diane and the Dinettes, "Potentially Dangerous" b/w "It'soEasy (to make art)," 1978, 45 rpm single. (Pictured on sleeve: Diane Spodarek, center, Keith Aoki, above, Jim Hart and Tom Bloomer, right, and Randy Delbeke and Dwain Bacon, left, plus Dana Delbeke, age 3, on the steps of the DIA. Image courtesy of Diane Spodarek.)
Of course this isn't all there is to the story, as Nawrocki in his essay readily admits. Sandwiched in between the first and second generation of expressionists was a loose confederation of artists I have termed the "Lost Generation" of Detroit art. Working in the late 1970s and early 1980s, this group was aligned with another tendency of the period, specifically, the post-studio practices of performance, video, and installation. Inspired by Fluxus, Conceptualism, Happenings, and the like, the Lost Generation rejected what they perceived to be the provincialism of the expresssionist aesthetic. Among its notable figures were Diane Spoderak, who in addition to making art published The Detroit Artists Monthly, a grassroots journal of aesthetic commentary, and the late Keith Aoki, who later became one of America's leading scholars on intellectual property law. And throughout it all has been the Beaux Arts and Arts and Crafts traditions that have been mainstays of art practice in Detroit going back into the nineteenth century.

As I have written in previous posts (see here, here, here, and here), a new practice has emerged in the city in recent years that builds upon the tradition of Detroit-style expressionism. The most important of this work eschews what Robert Bellah, et. al., in their study of American culture Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life term "expressive individualism," the hyper-narcissistic subjectivity of late-modernity whose excesses have fostered alienation and mistrust and contributed to large-scale social disintegration, a deracination of the national socius in parallel with the atomizing effects of post-Fordist political economy. Instead, this new art  engages in social practice, relational aesthetics, and other forms of community engagement. It seeks to imagine community through aesthetic means, to fill the interstitial gaps of capitalist disintegration in order to put into practice ideas that may help to make real the world that the dreamers have us told is possible. I have termed this tendency the "art of the commons." And I hope that by celebrating this new direction we can finally let the Cass Corridor (of blessed memory) rest in peace.

"Menage a Detroit: Three Generations of Detroit Expressionistic Art, 1970-2012" is on view until June 16 at N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art, 52 East Forest, between Woodward Avenue and John R. in Detroit. Call 313-831-7800 for information.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Detroit Artists Market: The First 80 Years

Artists Matthew Lasinski, Hughie Lee-Smith, and Fred Papsdorf (left to right) helping move the Detroit Artists Market to its 110 Madison Street location in 1956. (Credit: Detroit Times, January 31, 1956. Image courtesy of Detroit Artists Market.)
Since 1932, the Detroit Artists Market has provided a venue for local artists to present their work. Indeed, just about every artist of note to come out of the city since then has shown at DAM at one time or another, many having been introduced to the public under its auspices. In fact, according to a tally being compiled by Board Member Vice-Chair and longtime Detroit artist Gary Eleinko, more than 3,200 artists have shown there over the years, including Hughie Lee-Smith, who got his start at DAM, Harry Bertoia, and Richard DeVore. To help celebrate its 80th anniversary, the Detroit Artists Market is the subject of an exhibition at the Detroit Historical Museum titled "Detroit Artists Market: the First 80 Years." Installed in the museum's Community Gallery, it's an exhibition that's well worth seeing.
Mrs. H. Lee (Mildred) Simpson,
"Woman of the Week,"
Detroit Free Press
December 20, 1942.
(Courtesy Detroit Artists Market.)

As the story goes, DAM was founded in a garden in Grosse Pointe during the Great Depression as a venue for artists to exhibit and sell their work. The founders, led by socialite Mildred (or as she preferred to be known, Mrs. H. Lee) Simpson, included several of the city's cultural elite who were also patrons of the Detroit Institute of Arts and the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts, the support organization behind what is now College for Creative Studies. At first restricted to exhibiting artists under age 30, DAM soon became a space for showcasing those who were both emerging and established.

DAM's first location was 1432 Farmer Street near Grand Circus Park, a site now occupied by the downtown Detroit YMCA. The next year, it moved two blocks over to Witherell Street on the park's southeast circular edge, where it remained for more than two decades. When I first showed there in the 1980s, DAM was at 1452 Randolph, overlooking Harmonie Park, a space it occupied for just over three decades beginning in 1961. After a few years at Stroh River Place in the '90s, it ended up at the corner of Woodward and Forest in the Cultural Center where it remains today.

The exhibition at the Historical Museum is installed salon style and features more than 130 works created over DAM's history. It's organized chronologically with groupings that represent the artists being shown at each of the six locations it occupied over the years. Things are literally brought full circle by two paintings installed next to one another in a corner, the one a view of Washington Boulevard by Amy Lorimer painted in 1934 and the other, Detroit Night by Darcel Deneau, hot off the easel having been completed just this year. It's all a bit cluttered but fitting given DAM's traditional egalitarian stance in presenting work. An unfortunate but necessary concession to the room is the installation of a large number of works, generally it seems those considered the most valuable, in a floor-to-ceiling glassed-in display case that takes up more than half of one of the gallery's cramped walls. As a whole, though, the exhibition provides an interesting snapshot of the art created, shown, and collected in Detroit for a good part of the 20th century.

Given its founding date, it's not surprising that the early period reflects the aesthetics of the American Scene, which had a strong influence in the Midwest and in Detroit in the time between the two World Wars. The earliest painting in the show, a view of an Indian pueblo in Santa Clara, was done by Zoltan Sepeshy in 1926, five years before he became a painting instructor at Cranbrook Academy of Art, a post from which he propagated the aesthetics of the American Scene to young artists first as an artist-in-residence and then as Director, replacing Eliel Saarinen after the architect's death in 1950. Also represented is Edgar Louis Yaeger, who in 1935 joined the Works Progress Administration/Federal Artists Project, completing murals for the Public Lighting Commission in Detroit, Grosse Pointe City Hall, Children's Hospital (since destroyed), and the Ford School in Highland Park among other public commissions.
Magnolias, 1947, by self-taught artist Fred Papsdorf sets the style for the artist's later work and features the artist's original-made frame.  His first solo show took place at DAM in 1938; in the 1940s and 1950s he showed nationally and was featured in Art Digest, Art News, and other publications. (Image courtesy of Pat Glascock and Michael Hall.)
DAM has also supported more avant-garde pursuits, having mounted the exhibition "Abstract Art is Reality" in 1952 organized by legendary Futurist collector Lydia Winston Malbin, daughter of Albert Kahn, who along with Hilla Rebay, the Alsacean baroness and artist who helped found the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (originally the Museum of Non-Objective Art) in New York City, had pioneered the exhibition of abstract art in Detroit a decade earlier. And in the aftermath of the 1967 civil unrest, DAM presented the exhibition "Seven Black Artists" curated by Kresge Arts in Detroit Eminent Artist Charles McGee. In later years, DAM showcased performance art, installation, and intermedia. There is also a bit of the more peripheral elements of the local scene. In particular, there is a really nice painting titled Magnolias from 1947 by Fred Papsdorf, known as "The Milkman Painter of Detroit" and "The American Rousseau," a self-taught artist who was discovered at age 49 in the late 1930s at a Saturday drawing class by School of the Arts and Crafts professor Sarkis Sarkisian (also represented in the show) and who went on to show at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Carnegie Institute, as well as with the Perls Gallery in New York.

Many exhibitions also featured catalogs documenting the work and other ephemera, examples of which are presented in a vitrine in the center of the gallery space. (It's too bad, a travesty really, that there isn't a catalog for this show, though a video presentation of photos and newspaper articles provides some context.) There are also some fine samples of the work of Ed Fella, made while he was still in the process of transitioning from Detroit advertising hack (known back in the day as "The King of Zing") to internationally recognized typographical deconstructionist and postmodern graphic design guru.

For those of us of a certain vintage, DAM is noteworthy for its early support of the Motor City's very own first avant-garde, the Cass Corridor movement of the late 1960s/early 1970s. There's a nice if modest example of the style by Bradley Jones and another by the group's mentor John Egner, plus the reverberations of its influence on artists, such as Gilda Snowden, who came later on. One of the vexing aspects of the exhibition is that even though one appreciates and values the intent of the broad survey, too many of the artists are represented by relatively minor work due to restrictions of space and, one presumes, budget. Fortunately, in the case of the Cass Corridor there is an opportunity to see some more ambitious examples of the style at the N'Namdi Center for Contemporary Art as part of the exhibition "Menage a Detroit: Three Generations of Expressionist Art in Detroit, 1970-2012" curated by Dennis Alan Nawrocki (more on that to come).

While you're checking out the Historical Museum show, make sure to take in the current offering at DAM, the "Biannual All Media Exhibition 2012" juried by Leon Johnson. It's a good glimpse of some of the more cutting-edge work now being done in Detroit and a fitting way to bring the view of DAM up to the present moment. You likely won't recognize that many of the 26 names whose work is represented. But that's exactly as it should be as DAM carries on.
Save the Poets, 2012, (painted found Shakespeare books, wood, spackle, charcoal) by Barbara Dorchen is one of the works by 26 emerging and established artists featured in the Detroit Artists Market "Biannual All Media Exhibition 2012." (Image courtesy of the artist.)
"Detroit Artists Market: The First 80 Years" is on view at the Detroit Historical Museum, 5401 Woodward Ave. at Kirby in Detroit until May 24. For more information, call (313) 833-1805 or visit The Biannual All Media Exhibition runs at Detroit Artists Market, 4719 Woodward at Forest, also until May 24. Call (313) 832-8540 or visit for details.

Correction: This post reflects a correction on the date of the "Abstract Art is Reality" exhibition. The exhibition of abstract art co-curated by Lydia Winston Malbin and Hilla Rebay that took place in 1942 was mounted at the Women's City Club. The DAM show took place in 1952 as reported by Michael Hodges in his Detroit News article on the show at the Detroit Historical Museum.