Gallery 400 Blog

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From the Archive: the Lasting Influence of Harry Callahan

Gallery 400, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall, has accumulated an impressively deep archive for its relatively young age. The seemingly endless trail of paper documents and ephemera detailing the Gallery’s entire history live in a cramped storage unit in the bowels of UIC’s Art and Design Hall, offering a fascinating glimpse into a pre-internet age time capsule. Not long ago, the Gallery’s paper archive became an expansive digital trove of information on its new and improved website, which continues to grow. In celebration of our big anniversary, Gallery 400 is excited to introduce a new blog series, From the Archive, which aims to uncover the dusty basement treasures that will illuminate the Gallery’s origins, growth, and hints of its future.

In August of 1983, the awkwardly named College of Architecture, Art and Urban Planning Gallery was christened Gallery 400 and started its first full season. After just a few hours spent sifting through the file for the Gallery’s inaugural show in its first academic year, one can hear complaints about the slowness of the postal system, witness the hurt feelings of an artist who felt slighted by an exhibition’s organizer, and read reminders that there is no smoking in the Gallery.

All of these tidbits and much more can be found in the archival folder for Harry Callahan and His Students: A Study in Influence, on view at Gallery 400 September 14 to October 15, 1983. The exhibition, organized by the Southern Arts Federation in Atlanta, brought together thirteen of Callahan’s most successful students who had studied with him at the Institute of Design in Chicago. Artist and educator László Moholy-Nagy founded the Institute, initially known as the New Bauhaus, in 1937, after the Nazis closed the original Bauhaus. Moholy-Nagy brought with him a curriculum based on photographic experimentation with media and processes—the European photographers of the New Vision approached subjects through distortions, close-ups, and unusual angles, resulting in an austere formalism. After being hired in 1946 by Moholy-Nagy himself, Callahan initiated a major shift in emphasis at the Institute of Design. Callahan and the American staff removed the objectivity sought in the New Vision and stressed a more personal and subjective view. The New Bauhaus may have imported a machine-age ideology of functional and rational aesthetics, but under the influence of Callahan and others, the Institute of Design ultimately became known as a place in which one could incorporate unabashed self-expression.

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Image: László Moholy-Nagy, Eton Pupils Watching Cricket from the Pavilion on Agar’s Plough, 1930.

The archival file for the Callahan show includes a yellowing copy of Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s article "The Armed Vision Disarmed: Radical Formalism from Weapon to Style," a contemporaneous piece first published in Afterimage in January 1983. It was Solomon-Godeau’s response to the Aperture publication in 1982 of The New Vision: Forty Years of Photography at the Institute of Design. In the article, she traces the “myth of continuity” from the radical formalism of the Russian avant-garde photographers to the personal and decidedly non-political images of what came to be known as the Chicago School. Solomon-Godeau argues that the photographers at the Institute of Design were more closely linked to the American art photography of artists like Ansel Adams, Frederick Sommer, and Minor White in the 1950s than to the founding ethos of Moholy-Nagy. This is evident in the work of Callahan students Murray Riss and Robert Simone, which was included in the exhibition. In 1951, Callahan hired Aaron Siskind and a hopped-up sense of design became even more pronounced in work produced at the Institute, especially by artists like Ray Metzker and Kenneth Josephson. For the next ten years, Siskind and Callahan were dominant photographic influences at the Institute of Design, teaching what Solomon-Godeau called a “subjectivization of vision.”

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Image: Ray Metzker, Chicago, 1958. 

On September 28, 1983, Gallery 400 hosted a dialogue related to the exhibition, featuring artists Joe Jachna and Kenneth Josephson, who had trained with Harry Callahan. Art Sinsabaugh and Charles Swedlund were invited to present slides of their work after the discussion. (Also in the archive is a note that slides cannot be viewed until after dark due to the lack of window shades.) Former UIC Department of Art History professor and historian Peter Hales moderated the discussion. An outline of the questions directed at the panel can be found in the archive and seems to have been partly inspired by Solomon-Godeau’s article. The first is still worth considering, even if an immediate answer is completely obvious. “How has photo education changed since Callahan taught at the Institute of Design?” For the current students in UIC’s photography department, the existence of digital imagery necessitates the use of the prefix “analog” in front of what Callahan’s students called just “photography.”

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Image: Kenneth Josephson, Bradley, Honolulu, 1968. 

In her article, Solomon-Godeau suggests that Callahan was a committed art photographer, oblivious to the marketplace or mass media and content to teach and serve his muse. The last question for the panel may produce some head scratching in an era of inter-disciplinary frenzy. “Are photographer-artists such as yourselves being eclipsed in the contemporary art world by artists who use photography without being committed to the medium?” One might wonder: who were the photographers believed to not be committed to the medium of photography? In a handwritten note on a copy of the outline in the archive, the suggestions include Sherrie Levine, Laurie Simmons, and Cindy Sherman.

After spending a little time in the archive, one gets a sense of the Gallery’s fledgling mission. Its initial emphasis, according to typewritten correspondence from Laurel Bradley, the Gallery’s first director, was on “what is particular to Chicago’s art history, as well as other types of exhibitions in the art, design, and architecture areas.” Since 1983, Gallery 400’s mission has reflected its original goals, and has evolved from a focus on the historical to include the leading edge of the contemporary, evident in its dynamic public programming today.

Coming next From the Archive: Designing a World's Fair.

by Jane Elizabeth Ross, a current graduate student in the Art History program at the University of Illinois at Chicago.