Skip to Content
A drawing in blue ink on cream paper consists of abstract three-dimensional shapes suggestive of a city full of buildings, streets, elevated roads, sidewalk, and rivers. A drawing in blue ink on cream paper consists of abstract three-dimensional shapes suggestive of a city full of buildings, streets, elevated roads, sidewalk, and rivers.

Creative Chicago

Curatorial Conversation



Chicago plays a starring role in two exhibitions this summer.

In one, the city is featured during the 1930s and ’40s as a refuge for immigrants and a breeding ground for ideas around avant-garde photography. In another, it is seen during the 1950s through ’80s as a nurturer of homegrown talent and an accompanying artistic community of painters and printmakers that is distinct from other US cities. We talked to curators Yechen Zhao and Stephanie Strother, of the current exhibitions Foreign Exchange: Photography between Chicago, Japan, and Germany, 1920–1960 and Four Chicago Artists: Theodore Halkin, Evelyn Statsinger, Barbara Rossi, and Christina Ramberg, respectively, to understand what’s unique about Chicago as a creative space—in the decades of their exhibitions and beyond.

Lauren Schultz: In many ways, Yechen and Stephanie, your shows are very different—different time periods, different media, different themes—but Chicago plays a central role in both. To start, can you each share a little bit about your shows and how Chicago fits in?

A photograph of the curators, a light-skinned Asian man and a light-skinned blond woman. They sit at a white table turned toward each other in conversation. Behind them is a window through which Chicago's skyline can be seen.

Curators Yechen Zhao and Stephanie Strother

Yechen Zhao: Well, Foreign Exchange is a collection show; it draws on works from the Photography and Media department that we’ve brought in over the years, and that has been a lot of photography related to the Bauhaus, a German art and design school in the 1920s and ’30s, as well as works from Chicago art schools founded in the wake of the Bauhaus.

A landscape-oriented black-and-white photograph show a room with gridded walls and ceiling. Some black organic forms hang from the ceiling. The silhouette of two people, one sitting and one standing, are seen on the left.

Stage Set Design for “Madame Butterfly,” 1931

Lucia Moholy. Purchased with funds provided by Lucia Woods Lindley and Daniel A. Lindley, Jr.

My interest in this work lay in considering the city as a place where a lot of displaced people ended up: László Moholy-Nagy moved to Chicago to escape the Nazis; many Japanese Americans were resettled in Chicago after their internment during World War II. Knowing this, I thought I could tell a story about the city as a crossroads for artistic exchange between Europe, Japan, and the United States. So the show revisits something that we think we know very well, which is avant-garde photography, and looks at how it was shaped by the time that these artists spent in Chicago, as well as the connections that the city had to Western Europe and Japan.

Stephanie Strother: Four Chicago Artists is also a collection-based show and showcases many important recent gifts to the museum. Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator, Prints and Drawings, and the curator who conceived the show, has always been a champion of Chicago artists and the Chicago art scene, so this was the perfect opportunity, in conjunction with our Christina Ramberg retrospective, to tell the story of Chicago during the 1950s, ’60s, and ’70s, when most art historical narratives foreground places like New York City—even though Chicago was a vibrant and innovative artistic center.

Artists were working together in a very particular way here. Artist Barbara Rossi discussed this in a number of interviews, saying that it wasn’t a question of direct influence. It was more of a family feeling; they were always supporting one another’s work, paying attention to what everyone else was doing in a familial way. 

Lauren: So then one of the things that unites both of your shows is Chicago as this unique site of creativity, whether it’s through exchange or more of this communal family spirit. Can you elaborate on how that plays out in each of your shows? 

Yechen: I think there were a lot of opportunities to work as a photographer in Chicago. The city was accepting a lot of people who were escaping some kind of persecution, and it was a place where you could find your footing, survive, and find work for yourself.

A color photograph shows four light-skinned human arms emerging from what appears to be fake flowering trees. The arms hold perfume bottles, which they pour into the center of the composition, where more perfume bottles sit in front of a white pillow that says "Dana Tabu."

Untitled, 1940s–1960s

Yuichi “Eugene” Idaka and Riley O’Suga (Ryuichi Sugasawara). Gift of Bauhaus Chicago Foundation

One example is Japanese American artist Yuichi Idaka. He was born in the US and then moved to Japan as a kid. But he came back to attend Hyde Park Academy High School and then the University of Chicago, where he got a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. He used that to become a photographer and got a job teaching photography with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy at the New Bauhaus. He later worked with alumni to set up a commercial photography studio and spent the next 40 years of his career doing architectural and product photography. 

So I think there’s just a way that Chicago is very survivable; you can make your way without really having to stretch yourself so thin. There’s also a lot of pragmatic collaboration between people, people who have adopted the city as their home and want to contribute to it.

Stephanie: Exactly. You get a sense that Chicago is a place where everyone puts in the work—artists included. It was a city where, at least in the time period of Four Chicago Artists, people really supported their own. If you’re in Chicago working as an artist, you’re going to find a group of people who want to help you succeed. So there is a support network that is maybe unique to the city.

: I think so. And maybe it’s just easier to navigate. I think specifically of another artist, Harry K. Shigeta, a Japanese American who grew up in LA and moved to Chicago in the ’20s. He became the president of the Fort Dearborn Camera Club, an organization for artistic-minded photographers. There he met Idaka and later Yasuhiro Ishimoto, who came to Chicago from the Amache Internment Camp. But Shigeta encouraged both of them and steered them to continue with their photography. There were really good support networks. And maybe because it’s a more reasonably sized city, there is some collegiality and intimacy that is possible here.

A black-and-white photograph looking up into a very light sky against which electrical wires, a street lamp, and the platform of a fire escape create a pattern of black lines and shapes.

Untitled (Chicago), 1949–50, printed later

Yasuhiro Ishimoto. Gift of David C. and Sarajean Ruttenberg

Stephanie: Tight-knit, that’s how I would put it. I think that it has historically been and continues to be a very tight-knit artistic community.

Lauren: I think another commonality about your shows is that schools are hubs of these creative communities. And that doesn’t seem coincidental. What do you all think is unique about these schools’ environments?

Yechen: What I’m referring to is actually a series of schools. First it is the New Bauhaus by Moholy-Nagy, and then it becomes the School of Design, which then becomes the Institute of Design, which then joins IIT, Illinois Institute of Technology. But I think what is special about that school is that it adopted the mix of industry and fine art from the Bauhaus and created a multidisciplinary curriculum. Everyone learned photography, product design, sculpture—and they did it all in this very material-driven way. 

On a very practical level, IIT was also one of the first schools to offer a graduate degree in photography. That isn’t something that was really available more broadly until the ’60s and ’70s, but here you had a degree-granting institution in the ’50s, so you can follow a lot of the people who graduated from the school who went on to set up other photography programs across the country.

Stephanie: In my show, we’re talking primarily about SAIC, the School of Art Institute of Chicago. Each of the featured artists studied there and maintained close ties to the school. And like you say, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. At the time there was a strong core of faculty there, Ray Yoshida, Whitney Halstead, Vera Berdich, among others, who encouraged a highly personal type of creative exploration—by which I mean technical experimentation, as well as telling their students, “Don’t just absorb what you see from the outside; find your own voice, what interests you, what drives you.” And that was a really inspiring message for all the artists in this exhibition.

An ink drawing on light tan paper. In a grid of two across and three down are what appear to be six heads wrapped so that no features or hair show.

Untitled, 1971

Christina Ramberg. Edward and Eleanor DeWitt Design Award Endowment and purchased with funds provided by an anonymous donor

Three of them (Halkin, Rossi, and Ramberg) went on to teach at SAIC as well, and teaching became an important part of their lives and careers. Beyond being practicing artists, they wanted to pass on that idea of individual expression. That was something that they really cared about imparting to the next generation of students.

Yechen: I think that what you’re getting at is how art schools tend to have a wider network beyond the people who are in the classes. You graduate but remain in this wider orbit. And this is true of the Institute of Design as well. Ishimoto studied with Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind at the Institute of Design and then went back to Japan in the ’50s and shared a lot of what he learned. This had a huge impact on some artists, including this collective in Tokyo called Jikken Kōbō, also known as the Experimental Workshop. You can see very clearly ideas being transmitted through faculty and alumni networks.

A portrait-oriented black-and-white photograph show the palm of a light-skinned hand against a dark background. The lines on the palm are darkened and labeled in English by the name of the line. Several small moon-like shapes surround the hand, sitting atop the dark background.

Shinjuku at Night, 1952

Ōtsuji Kiyoji. Grant J. Pick Purchase Fund

Stephanie: It’s not even just a certain pedagogical approach that was informative and passed on, it’s also that the schools, or SAIC in this case, became the central node of an important creative network for these artists. Their professors were friends, collaborators, and sources of inspiration for their entire careers. And I do think that’s very unique and special, that it imparts this tight-knit sense of the city’s artistic community. Tight-knit—I keep coming back to that word.

Lauren: So you both have identified lots of similarities between the shows. What would you pull out as some key differences? 

Yechen: For Foreign Exchange, Chicago is an important part but only one part, because I’m interested in triangulating a network of exchange. So the difference may be in the way that we’re treating the city. From what you’re saying, Stephanie, SAIC is a real incubator for these people and a lifeline. Whereas I’m thinking about Chicago’s place in the first half of the 20th century, when there’s so much migration.

Stephanie: Yes, our shows are pretty different in that respect. All of the artists featured in Four Chicago Artists had really strong connections to Chicago and spent the majority of their lives and careers here. They all traveled extensively, but Chicago remained the epicenter of their work.

An ink drawing on light tan paper. In the center two oval shapes are marked by striated lines. More striated shapes surround these orbs, following the contours around them and in rows above and below them.

Untitled Sketchbook (Ellis Ave.), 1956

Evelyn Statsinger. Bequest of Evelyn Statsinger Cohen

Yechen: My show considers how nationality is not really the best way to identify someone’s artistic style or their project. Because so many of these people are exiles or émigrés, they are joining a creative network in the city instead of saying, “Oh, I’m from Hungary.” Or, “Oh, I’m from Japan.” Everyone’s enjoying the fact that this visual language that they share—this avant-garde photography—is a stateless language. 

Stephanie: That’s another difference. Your show considers artists who were engaging in an international modernist idiom, while mine identifies a unique visual language that developed in Chicago that was actually quite different in certain respects from the prevailing international arts scene. 

It’s interesting because formally the artists in my exhibition were influenced by art from all over. They were looking at the works in the Art Institute’s collection, scouring Maxwell Street Market for intriguing knicknacks, traveling, taking in all these different sources and then doing their own thing with them. But I do think that a really important similarity between our two exhibitions is a mutual emphasis on Chicago as a place that could foster formal and technical innovation, even if the results ended up being quite different.

Lauren: Are either of you from Chicago originally?

Stephanie: No, but I’m from the Midwest.

A photograph of the curator, a light-skinned Asian man. He sits at a white table turned toward his left. Behind him is a window through which Chicago's skyline can be seen.

Yechen: I was born in China, but I moved to the US as a young kid, and O’Hare is where I arrived, because my dad was getting his PhD at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. We would come to Chicago to buy groceries in Chinatown. I later went to the University of Chicago for undergraduate, so I’ve spent a lot of time here. My expectations for an American city were largely shaped by Chicago. I’ve lived now in other cities, San Francisco and New York, and I remember when I moved to New York, I thought, “Actually, I don’t think I’m ready for this kind of city. I want to go back to Chicago.” So I have quite a strong connection and fondness for this city.

Lauren: Stephanie, what brought you here?

A photograph of the curator, a light-skinned woman with long blond hair. She sits at a white table facing her right. Behind her is a window through which Chicago's skyline can be seen.

Stephanie: I’m from Madison, Wisconsin, but my mom is from the Chicagoland area, so I grew up visiting my grandparents in the suburbs, and we’d always take day trips into the city. After college, I lived abroad for a while but then moved to Chicago, somewhat on a whim. This is really funny in retrospect, but when I first moved here, I thought that the entire city was basically just the Loop—because that was the only place I had been apart from the suburbs. But I quickly discovered, oh, actually there are all these neighborhoods, and there’s this whole other world of Chicago that I had never known anything about.

Chicago to me has always felt very homey, very easy to live in, very comfortable in a way that a lot of other cities don’t feel.

Lauren: You all touched on this a little bit, but do you feel like there are throughlines from your shows to the cultural atmosphere in the city now?

Stephanie: I would say absolutely. I think there is still a distinctness to Chicago’s art community and an interest in supporting one another that feels very particular but that runs alongside the city’s robust engagement with the international art scene.

Yechen: When you go to SAIC now, there are tons of international students—from around the world. Many of these students could go to New York or LA, but I think the horizon of possibility, what you can do as an artist, is a little clearer in Chicago, because the city is so supportive.

Stephanie: I like that as an idea, that Chicago is maybe a little less driven by competition than other places. I’m not a practicing artist, but I have felt that support even in the field of art history and museum work.

Yechen: There’s a lot of generosity here. People feel like they can share rather than withhold. And I think that that is the spirit that carried the city through the 20th century—and hopefully is carrying it through the 21st.

—Yechen Zhao, assistant curator, Photography and Media, and Stephanie Strother, research associate, Prints and Drawings, with Lauren Schultz, executive director of Communications


Major support for Four Chicago Artists is provided by

Statsingercohenfoundation Logoblack 2

Additional support is provided by David R. Selmer and Nancy R. Cass and an anonymous donor.



Further Reading

Sign up for our enewsletter to receive updates.

Learn more

Image actions