Wells Street Gallery Revisited: Then And Now at Lesley Heller Workspace

lesleyheller-wellsstreetInstallation of Wells Street Gallery Revisited at Lesley Heller Workspace

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Any time history is broadened, or at least cracked open a bit, for the greater good of art, everyone benefits. In that regard, Jason Andrew, curator of the Jack Tworkov Estate and indefatigable booster of the Bushwick art scene, has done a mitzvah in organizing The Wells Street Gallery Revisited, a small but thoughtful exhibition at the Lesley Heller Workspace. It focuses on mid-20th-century Chicago and a cadre of (as a critic of the time described them) “young, fire-eating vanguard artists” who made a principled stand for abstraction in the face of an entrenched gallery scene.

Inspired by Willem de Kooning’s Excavation—the Ab Ex masterpiece won first prize at the Art Institute of Chicago’s 1951 annual—these Second City avant-gardists embraced abstraction with a fervor typical of the recently converted. They began mounting a yearly series of anti-establishment shows titled Exhibition Momentum, the Midwestern equivalent of the salon des refuses and a showplace for like-minds. In 1957, they opened a storefront gallery on, yes, Wells Street.

Spearheaded primarily by husband-and-wife painters Robert Natkin and Judith Dolnick—leftover cash from their nuptials was, in fact, used to fund the space—Wells Street Gallery quickly gained notoriety as the city’s hub for advanced art. The Heller exhibition includes old and new works by several of the Wells Street artists, and features a display of period announcements that still crackle with headlong excitement.

Not a few of the artists, including the sculptor John Chamberlain, the photographer Aaron Siskind, and Natkin and Dolnick, would gain renown upon leaving Chicago, but that doesn’t relegate the rest of the Wells Street crew to the dusty precincts of provincialism or obscurity. As seen at Heller, Richard Bogart, Ronald Slowinski and Naomi Tatum stand out for their quality, ambition and, in Tatum’s case especially, beguiling strangeness. Here, we think, are painters worth getting to know better. Maybe curator Andrew will take the hint.

© 2010 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 10, 2010 edition of City Arts.


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