Unreal Realism: Chicago’s Avant-Garde Women

Chicago—for women artists of various backgrounds—demanded a new art to advance the struggle for freedom by imagining other possible worlds.

Chicago inspired women artists of various backgrounds to draw similar conclusions: a new art was called for to advance the struggle for freedom by imagining other worlds.

“Life in Chicago is very difficult, unbearably difficult,” mused curator, art historian, and gallerist Katharine Kuh in 1982. “The huge snowstorms, the terrible winds, the enormous distances—everything was difficult in Chicago … I have the feeling that because life is so difficult, in order to live in Chicago you turn to something that is unreal, like surrealism, which is, after all, unreal realism.”1 The harsh environment stood in for a pervasive atmosphere of hardship, which provokes the city’s inhabitants to imagine their circumstances otherwise. Chicago, for Kuh, was an unreal city, and that made it valuable for the making of art.

That same unreality was apparent to newcomers, too. In his 1945 memoir, Black Boy, Richard Wright recounts his own arrival: “Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of grey smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie.”2 The context for Wright was different: in the early to mid-twentieth century, millions of African Americans migrated on trains to Chicago to escape even more brutal environs: the sharecropping system and racial violence of the Jim Crow South.

Both Kuh and Wright speak to the city’s power to inspire art. Whereas Kuh explains how the city cultivates otherworldly artistic practices, Wright merges art and life to portray Chicago itself as a kind of surrealist topography. An artist’s encounter with that unreality seems to arouse an avant-garde disposition: an art of tactics that advances the struggle for freedom by imagining other possible worlds.

Yet few identify these shared tactics as part of a broader “Chicago style” of art. In fact, the uniqueness of the Chicago avant-garde seems to be that it did not coalesce into an identifiable style or a so-called Chicago School. The Chicago avant-garde was not propelled by a set of political commitments in the form of manifestoes like Wyndham Lewis’s Blast or F. T. Marinetti’s “Futurist Manifesto.” It flourished precisely because it was not beholden to the dogmatic and often masculinist modernisms of New York, Paris, and London. And, perhaps most overlooked of all, an essential feature of this Chicago-based, uniquely undefined avant-garde was artistic collaboration among women. These women artists were of different races, classes, and sexualities, and they spanned the divides of the city’s notoriously segregated and vast geography.

Viviano Exhibition Announcement, designed by Frank Barr. Courtesy of the Newberry Library.

Recently, corrective work by scholars and curators has been reorienting the coordinates by which we calibrate our definitions of avant-garde art so that it lives up to its diverse aspirations—reorienting us toward Chicago, and the ways artists there connected with one another.

This under-recognized story—about the women-led, racially diverse art world of Chicago in the mid-twentieth century—was told by the Newberry Library’s recent exhibition Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time, curated by Liesl Olson. Indeed, the exhibition demonstrated, as Jill Richards has recently argued, “how the gendering of the political has shaped the theorization of the avant-garde more widely.”3 Through the display of deeply researched archives, the two large rooms illuminated the transdisciplinary work of five intrepid women: visual artist Gertrude Abercrombie, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, dancers Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page, and Kuh.

Each of these women revived the radicality of the avant-garde by way of Midwestern grit and determination. Through visual artworks, photographs, video, costumes, and a plethora of archival material (letters, diaries, rare books, and other ephemera), the exhibition revealed the combustive energies of the Chicago avant-garde, showing how each woman transgressed the city’s social norms and conventions through artistic provocations.

The “City of the Big Shoulders,” as Carl Sandburg memorably portrayed Chicago in his 1914 poem, has been often overlooked as a hot spot of twentieth-century literary and artistic experimentation. Why?

In common usage, “avant-garde” designates a series of pioneering movements with the -ism suffix (i.e., realism, surrealism, Dada, cubism, futurism, modernism). Each overturned the forms by which the previous generation made art and the politics that motivated them. Avant-garde movements are, moreover, coded as international and cosmopolitan. When we think of avant-garde art, we might envision Parisian salons or Bloomsbury rooms: cozy, sophisticated domestic spaces in European capitals, where artists retreated to innovate alternative forms of making and living that rejected mainstream political positions. As a result, the Eurocentrism of the avant-garde—a word derived from French military strategy—has engendered blinkered views of twentieth-century art making.

Such a narrow understanding means that places like Chicago risk being forgotten for their role in the diverse, international production of truly radical art. The Newberry’s exhibition showed that, far from the perceived centers of culture, Chicago’s women were making world-significant art.

An essential feature of this Chicago-based avant-garde was artistic collaboration among women.

In Chicago, the spaces of collaboration teach us how, as Richards puts it, “the social intimacy of salon cultures … nourish[ed] conversations between artistic and political circles.”4 In developing “an intimate theory of the avant-garde” that pushes beyond the white Eurocentric and heteronormative perspective, she de-emphasizes political commitments and advocates instead for a deeper understanding of “a social tie without any determinate mood attached, geared less toward feeling for or with than the bare fact of working together.”5 As both Richards’s scholarship and the Newberry exhibition demonstrate, it is fruitful to examine how the intimate networks of collective and ordinary experiments in working together shaped gendered artistic expression in the early to mid-twentieth century.

Between 1935 and 1943, Katharine Kuh owned an influential art gallery on Michigan Avenue, in Chicago’s Loop, where she exhibited international avant-garde artists including Alexander Archipenko, László Moholy-Nagy, Isamu Noguchi, Paul Klee, and Joan Miró. Kuh later became the first curator of modern painting and sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, organizing exhibitions that shaped the field of modernism.

An artist who would connect back to Kuh was Gertrude Abercrombie. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Abercrombie hosted a weekly salon in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood of Hyde Park where both homegrown and touring bohemian artists of all racial, gender, and sexual identities could congregate. As Robert Cozzolino, curator at the Minneapolis Museum of Art, asserts, “Abercrombie was at the hub of several overlapping cultural circles and her Chicago was at the center of everything.”

Abercrombie was also a leader of Midwestern surrealism, an art movement that flourished across the region and was deeply influenced by Chicago-area institutions’ collecting of European surrealist painters. While the New York art world was infatuated with the huge, heroic canvases of male abstract expressionist painters like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, the women-led Chicago avant-garde embraced the unreal realisms identified by Kuh.

Abercrombie’s eccentric paintings are not abstract. Her work probes the dark recesses of the unconscious by estranging rural landscapes with not-quite-right-seeming objects and creatures, and even her own self-representation. Only recently has her work received long-overdue recognition. According to a 2018 review of Karma’s exhibition of Abercrombie by the New York Times art critic Roberta Smith, “this surrealist is having a moment.”

Gertrude Abercrombie, “Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting” (1946), Courtesy of the Ackland Art Museum.

French and Spanish surrealist paintings tend to look askance at social and political issues, but Abercrombie’s flattened pictures, usually painted on Masonite instead of canvas, are bold and almost aggressive in their mode of address. They hold the viewer’s attention within the wake of violence. Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting (1946), for example, depicts the terror of racial violence and lynching in the US. A bright yellow noose hangs from a gnarled tree at twilight. The painting presents absence to signal the countless African Americans who died at the hands of white lynch mobs.

Abercrombie again deploys absence in Doors (3 Demolition) (1957) by lining up three doors of various colors without the dwelling to which they would provide entry. Calling to mind the empty classical plazas of the Italian surrealist Giorgio de Chirico, Doors isolates the beautiful colors of the wooden doors that were used to cover up views into the many demolition sites throughout Chicago’s South Side. Abercrombie chooses not to show the violence and displacement of destroyed homes, a phenomenon that contributed to the redlining of African American neighborhoods; instead, she focuses the viewer’s gaze on the boundaries continuously erected in the material world. Abercrombie can be understood as putting a surrealist twist on an otherwise very stark instance of Chicago’s unreal realism.

The subject matter of Abercrombie’s surrealist paintings directly responds to the poetry of Gwendolyn Brooks, particularly her first collection, A Street in Bronzeville (1945). Brooks was the most well-known figure in the exhibition. Hanging from the ceiling of the largest room was a banner that reproduced Brooks’s poem “the vacant lot,” in which the repetitive use of “seeing” draws attention to the demolition of “Mrs. Coley’s three-flat brick.” The speaker of the poem laments, “All done with seeing her fat little form / Burst out of the basement door.”

The architecture of the exhibition space encouraged visitors to connect the aesthetic aims of Abercrombie and Brooks, setting up a fascinating relay between visual and textual experimentations with form. Just as Abercrombie reconfigured the dreamy landscapes of Salvador Dalí to fit the local contexts of Chicago’s South Side, Brooks dismantled the poetic conventions of the sonnet and ballad to express the lived realities of Black Chicagoans. In the conversational lines of her verse, we can again detect that unreal realism of the Chicago avant-garde, whereby the struggles of poor Black people are made at once palpable and surreal.

Gwendolyn Brooks, 1945. Courtesy of Brooks Permissions.

In “kitchenette building,” for example, the speaker inhabits the form of the collective “we” to ponder the creative possibilities of imagination when restricted by the harsh realities of the one-bedroom dwellings: “But could a dream send up through onion fumes / Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes / And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall, / Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms.” The poem asks us to imagine how an aria could be expressed amid the gendered and racialized labor of the kitchenettes. And then, the speaker asks, how would we “keep it very clean”? The surreal thought of a dirty aria is quickly supplanted by the hope that there might be warm water with which to bathe.

Within this vibrant circle of artistic exchange about the material conditions of living amid difficulty in Chicago, Katherine Dunham and Ruth Page nurtured their own collaborations through performance and dance. In 1933, Page employed a racially integrated dance company, including Dunham and 30 other Black dancers, for her ballet about Caribbean folklore, La Guiablesse. The setting is the island of Martinique, where a she-devil upsets a love affair by luring an entranced man into her spell.

Even though no photographic evidence of the ballet survives, the exhibition included a program from 1933 alongside descriptions of the staging in Page’s notebooks. Dunham reprised her role in 1934, thus motivating her fieldwork in Haiti, Jamaica, Martinique, and Trinidad as part of her studies in anthropology at the University of Chicago.

Drawing inspiration from the sounds and movements of the African diaspora in the Caribbean, Dunham’s and Page’s embodied performances imbued the Chicago avant-garde with an international character that daringly crossed boundaries. In 1950, Dunham sparked outrage by producing and performing an antilynching ballet in Santiago, Chile. Like Abercrombie’s painting and Brooks’s poetry, Dunham’s performances were protests against racial violence delivered through avant-garde tactics of embodiment.

Katherine Dunham in L’Agya. Photograph, n.d. Missouri Historical Society Photographs and Prints Collections. NS 24341. Scan © 2006, Missouri Historical Society.

Much like the salon cultures of five women who spanned the north/south divide of the city, the Chicago Avant-Garde exhibition extended beyond the Newberry’s physical galleries. The exhibition catalogue, designed by printmakers Ben Blount and the collective Sonnenzimmer, is an avant-garde object in its own right, enlivening the artistic legacies of the five women through screen-printed abstract designs that dismantle the barrier between word and image.

The catalogue, moreover, testifies to the linkages between the contemporary and historical avant-gardes. Folded within the center as a yellow booklet are five original poems by the Chicago-based poet and University of Chicago professor Eve L. Ewing, each of which responds to the work of one woman.

The poems crystallize moments of, to use Ewing’s word, epiphany in their art and lives—moments that galvanize artists to wield the materials of art to cope with the antagonisms of life. For example, in “that morning,” which imagines the moment when Kuh discovered that the windows of her gallery had been destroyed by detractors of modern art, Ewing writes, “when weeks had passed did you cut yourself, forgetting / that this violence lingers and lingers / did you wonder even once / whether it was all worth saving.” The combined effect of short staccato lines and repeated typographical slashes not only indexes the shards of glass on the floor of Kuh’s gallery but also resonates with the conversational tone of Brooks’s poetry.

In this way, Ewing’s bespoke poetry works to reanimate the collaborative spirit of these five Chicago women. In so doing, it reminds us of the difficulties they faced to forge other possible worlds through their revolutionary art.


This article was commissioned by Geraldo Cadavaicon

  1. Quoted in Liesl Olson, Chicago Avant-Garde: Five Women Ahead of Their Time (The Newberry Library, 2021), pp. 63-66.
  2. Quoted in Liesl Olson, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press, 2017), pp. 1-2. Emphasis added.
  3. Jill Richards, The Fury Archives: Female Citizenship, Human Rights, and the International Avant-Gardes (Columbia University Press, 2020), p. 16.
  4. Richards, The Fury Archives, p. 19.
  5. Richards, The Fury Archives, p. 20.
Featured Image: Ruth Page in Expanding Universe Costume / Courtesy of the Noguchi Museum. All images provided by The Newberry.