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Northwestern University

The Balancing Act of William Conger

Chicago's Master of Abstraction

Art is a dazzling, death-defying, and impudent leap into the unknown, some say. If so, William Conger will surely go on record as one of its most agile acrobats.

In a career spanning more than fifty years, Conger has performed countless balancing acts as a painter, a prominent figure in the Chicago art world, and professor in Weinberg’s department of art theory and practice. That poise has served him well in bridging seemingly distant pursuits: he defied proponents of pure abstraction from the start and often included real-world imagery—limbs, leaves, water, the moon—and illusionistic space in his works. Though he mines his memories of Chicago’s gritty streets for inspiration, he defines himself as an artist committed above all to high art. At Northwestern he achieved success as an artist while excelling in the administrative role of department chair, positions requiring quite different skill sets.

In recognition of Conger’s ongoing high-wire act, the Chicago Cultural Center mounted the major retrospective exhibition “William Conger: Paintings 1958-2008” last winter. The exhibition filled the center’s enormous fourth-floor exhibit hall with more than 60 large-scale paintings rendered in a style that one critic called “Fantastic Abstraction” for their depictions of an evocative dream world.

For exhibition curator Lanny Silverman, the Conger exhibition has been a long time coming. Calling Conger “arguably Chicago’s preeminent master of abstraction,” Silverman adds that Conger made a name for himself in a city best known for figurative artists, most notably the Chicago Imagists, whose irreverent, pop culture-infused works defined Chicago art for decades. (Conger was a colleague and friend of former University professor Ed Paschke, who was one of the founding Imagists; Paschke died in 2004.)

Silverman finds Conger remarkable for his unique vision as well as his persistence. “He’s held his own voice. He’s kept his style among passing trends and evolved his own approach, yet he’s open to different things and he’s listened to other voices. He doesn’t work in a void or hermetically sealed chamber…. He’s earned respect as one of Chicago’s best painters and he’s managed to succeed in a tough area.”

While some abstract artists working in Chicago—especially in the late 1960s and ’70s—have despaired of ever receiving attention because of Imagism’s reign, Conger simply absorbed what was around him and went on with what he was doing.

In fact, he was studying for his MFA in the 1960s at the University of Chicago when the Hyde Park Art Center presented one of the Imagists’ breakthrough exhibitions a few blocks away. Conger was less than impressed.

“I thought, ‘What a bunch of junk,’” he recalls. “But even if you don’t like it, good art gets into your bloodstream. Later on I came to admire the Imagists. I had no attraction to pop culture as an art subject. I was always interested in serious art and literature.”

Years later, when Conger and Paschke worked together at Northwestern, they would revisit their early days and stylistic differences. “Ed and I would joke about ‘high’ and ‘low’ art. I would tell him, ‘One drop of low and the whole work is ruined,’ and Ed would laugh. But of course he had resolved that for himself a lot earlier.”

In those days, the other, decidedly “high art” movement attracting a lot of attention in New York and Europe was Minimalism, which emphasized extremely simple forms and a deliberate lack of expressive content. But Conger resisted the starkness of Minimalism and the idea that art should be devoid of any references to the world we see around us. He forged his own aesthetic path, incorporating his formalist training, childhood in Chicago, and use of allusions to nature, architecture, and the human figure in abstract compositions.

“Abstract art has all the same metaphorical content as figurative work,” Conger asserts. “The separation between abstract and figurative work is more superficial than most people think. In deeper analysis, when you look at Modernism and its various strands, it has a root in emotional experience. It’s still trying to figure out what it is to be human. The ultimate function of art is metaphorical.

“The blend of inner and outer reality for me is a very big thing, so much more than only the material world. That’s just the window,” he adds.

Silverman observes, “A lot of abstract art is tough to connect with. [Conger] brings in psychological content that makes it engaging. You start to get titles, references to history. There’s a lot to grab onto.”

Conger’s works are imbued with his lifelong attachment to Chicago, not only its skyline and lakeshore but also emotional states created by its particular landscape and artworks created here. The titles of such works as Broadway (1985), Ashland (1990), Lake Defense (1994), and Calvary Park (1986) were inspired by specific sites in Chicago and reflect the city’s many facets. Full of tension and movement, these works convey a sense of dynamism with crisply portrayed and vividly hued geometric and organic shapes; yet hovering on the canvases are also glimpses of horizon lines, ripples of water, and drifting clouds.

According to Conger, “I’ve always been aware of the contrast between the city and the lake. [In the paintings] there are allusions to architecture and society with all its noise and striving. The lake is represented by serenity and indifference. The lake doesn’t give a damn. The city is posturing itself against the sky, but the lake looks the same way now as it did when Marquette was floating by in a canoe.”

To the East Were Moving Waters (2001), which was commissioned by a patron living in a large Mies van der Rohe building on Lake Shore Drive, presents a dreamy view overlaid by a bold, off-kilter grid. The blue-toned work shows both Conger’s deep study of Lake Michigan, and his admiration of Chicago writer Nelson Algren—the title is taken from the first sentence of Algren’s novel City on the Make, which was published the same year the building was completed.

Conger grew up in Evanston and Chicago in the 1940s and today lives close to his old Lakeview neighborhood. He remembers in particular the Broadway Avenue of his childhood, a young boy’s raucous, gritty wonderland with its streetcars, burlesque bar, restaurants, and shops selling myriad goods.

“It was a zoo, the best entertainment you could have. That has always been true, even in the 1940s,” he says.

He showed artistic promise from a very young age, honing his drawing skills by copying cartoons, illustrations, and art reproductions. School held less appeal for him, especially a short stint at the Chicago Loyola Academy prep school, where he went head to head with teachers for drawing cars instead of studying Latin and algebra (he was asked to leave). After a couple of rocky years he graduated from a private high school in Chicago, where his talent was recognized and encouraged. Though he was admitted to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, after one year he transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque to study with Raymond Jonson, one of the founders of the Transcendental Painting Group, which was known for an abstract style influenced by Vasily Kandinksy. He also studied with Elaine de Kooning, who came to the university as a visiting artist. It was de Kooning, in fact, who gave Conger his first break by including him in a gallery exhibition in New York in 1960.

She encouraged Conger to move to New York after he graduated. But he was short of funds and decided instead to return to Chicago, where he worked as a copywriter and marketing manager before attending the University of Chicago. He went on to teaching jobs in Rockford, Illinois, and at DePaul University, where he became department chair.

Conger joined Weinberg in 1984, taking over as department chair from Paschke. Professor James Valerio also joined the faculty that year and the three of them went to work strengthening the department with an emphasis on drawing and painting.

“I loved it,” Conger says of his years at Northwestern. “I taught both undergrad and grad students. I’m a big believer in that, and I believe it was also the mission of the University that a lot of students should have the experience of working with established, recognized artists .... I’m very proud of our grad students who are working in the art world and who have attained high positions in academia. I’m also a very big fan of undergrads taking classes from professionals working in the field. They get insight into questions like, ‘What do artists do? What does it take to be an artist? What is the role of artists in society?’”

For Conger, being an artist has meant striving to portray a rich inner life and imagination on canvas.The exhibition traced how this quest evolved over decades, changing from bright, expressionistic paintings early on to a darker period in the late 1980s and ’90s.

As he emerged from that darkness in the late 1990s, his wife, Kathy, bought him some expensive, vivid paints that he had never used before. He used them straight from the tube and began a series of brighter paintings inspired by the circus, including Lion Act (1998) and Ringmaster (1998).

“Whatever we can say about the circus we can say about art,” Conger insists. “I remember as a kid there was a sense of danger. The high-wire guy shows a lot of training but also foolishness and the audience is going through it with him. Like the circus, art is like a highly-structured ritual with which we test the limits of our capacity to deal with mortality. It’s a way of mocking it. After all, every day is a high-wire act. We mock death by living another day.”

Conger retired in 2006, but still maintains a strict working schedule in his studio. He estimates he makes between 20 or 30 small sketches for paintings each day, and ends up using none of them. He says each time he starts a new painting he must work for “the crucial moment when the surface seems to melt away into an imaginative, deep space that exists between the real word and the imaginary world.”

Even if, as he says, a painting fights him right up to the end, he struggles on. “I just keep plowing ahead with it. I feel extremely fortunate that I’ve been able to devote my life to painting. It’s been an enormous privilege to work with Northwestern faculty and students. I say I’ve been fortunate because I don’t think I had a plan, other than to do it. I had to do it from scratch.”

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