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A Thirty-Year-Old Exhibition from Gallery 400’s Archive: Tragic and Timeless

While sifting through Gallery 400's archives during a Summer 2018 Internship, Yidan Pang discovered intriguing documentation of a 1987 exhibition, Tragic and Timeless Today: Contemporary History Painting. Pang outlines her archival findings to discuss the exhibition, its history, and curatorial practice at large.

I am Yidan Pang, the current Archive Intern at Gallery 400 and a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) with an M.A. in Arts Administration and Policy. My interest in archival work was inspired by my experience in the Roger Brown Study Collection, one of SAIC’s special collections, where I had a chance to work closely with the archive of influential Chicago artist Roger Brown. This summer, while helping organize the exhibition archives at Gallery 400, I discovered materials from Tragic and Timeless Today: Contemporary History Painting, a group exhibition from the winter of 1987, featuring Roger Brown.

Tragic and Timeless Today was curated by Laurel Bradley, the Director of Gallery 400 at the time, and presented works by Milet Andrejevic, Roger Brown, Leon Golub, Komar and Melamid, James McGarrell, Nancy Spero, and Mark Tansey. The exhibition aimed to extend and revise the definition of history painting, a genre of European art characterized by figuration, grand scale, and didactic stories that typically feature a glimpse into a larger narrative.

What intrigued me is why such a redefinition of history painting became necessary at this specific time. I found my answer in the curatorial statement preserved within Gallery 400’s archive: by the late 1980s, the reigning formalist trend had become an end in itself. It overemphasized subjective content while celebrating only individual aesthetic pleasure and artists’ self-expression. Instead, the reimagined history painting could be regarded as a kind of public art through which one could seek more profound forms of expression for human meaning and enduring truth. Figuration and narrative would no longer be taboo; substance would take precedence over form.

According to my previous experiences and research, and combined with newly discovered exhibition archival materials, I will use Roger Brown to briefly explain Bradley's criteria in selecting these specific artists as well as the exhibition's overall innovations and influence.

Alabama-born Roger Brown (1941-1997) was an innovator of the Chicago Imagist movement and an internationally celebrated artist whose bold style remained timely for its visual rhetoric of location, politics, the art world, and popular culture. The theme of Tragic and Timeless Today must have seemed perfect for Brown's work, which usually features small, silhouetted figures in urban and rural landscapes. Like traditional history painting, his work tells stories and incorporates multiple narratives.

According to the archive materials, Laura Bradly considered Brown “among the few contemporary artists to tackle current events and newsmakers." This quality manifests frequently in his work as the ironic and historic reinterpretation of current issues and can be best exemplified by one of Brown's paintings from the exhibition, Beware of Artists Bearing Myths. This piece features a charming recapitulation of the Trojan Horse tale in order to warn against the 1980s “post-modern” tendency to utilize classical stylization and mythic subjects. A cartoon-like aesthetic undermines what Brown sees as the false high seriousness of modern myth-makers who rely on outmoded styles. Brown deviated from his usual didactic narratives, leaving meaning open-ended and subject to viewer interpretation. Warning audiences with a cautionary tale, this artwork questioned the notion of "artist-as-prophet" in 20th-century modern art, assuming that, instead, they could again be “keepers of the social-cultural flame.'

Brown Work
Roger Brown, Beware of Artists Bearing Myths, 1986, oil on canvas, 48 x 72 in. 

The archive materials preserved by Gallery 400 meticulously illustrate not only the historical context but also a few key aspects of the curatorial practice employed in the making of Tragic and Timeless Today.

1. The original intention of the exhibition

The first file that I came across contains the original project proposal from 1986. It demonstrates that this show aimed to reinvigorate history painting and present artists who represented both diversity and common concerns.

File outlining the original exhibition proposal, Gallery 400 archives.

2. Partnerships with major galleries, art galleries, and collectors

This second file contains all the contracts and correspondence of this show, which includes evidence that other major galleries, museums, and well known collectors collaborated with Gallery 400 on this project. Potential lenders included the Whitney Museum of American Art and Larry Gagosian Gallery in New York.

File listing involved institutions, titled "New York City and Vicinity Pickups for Gallery 400," Gallery 400 archives.

3. Difficulties in preparation

Due to conflicts with other exhibition schedules or limited conditions of the venue, a few lending agreements could not be confirmed. Some artworks proposed at the beginning of the project ultimately failed to be included. To my surprise, I discovered a copy of a notice regarding Bradley’s Ph.D. defense among the correspondence, showing just how multi-tasking a gallery director can be. 

Archive3 Archive4
File containing loan correspondence (left) and Bradley's Ph.D. defense notification (right), Gallery 400 archives.

4. Media Coverage

The press release for Tragic and Timeless Today was sent out to local media and the national art press. This last file includes several catalogues, posters, postcards and documentation of media coverage, including a clipping of a review in New Art Examiner.

Archive5  Archive6 
File containing the exhibition catalogue, press mail, and clippings of media coverage, Gallery 400 archives.

I discovered that this exhibition was an illustrative example of contemporary curatorial practice, both in terms of concept and preparation. I'm thankful that Gallery 400 has such a well-preserved archive to learn about these important exhibitions.