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Four Chicago Artists Walk into a Museum

Inside an Exhibition


When seeking artistic inspiration, Theodore Halkin, Evelyn Statsinger, Barbara Rossi, and Christina Ramberg didn’t have to look far.

As students and teachers at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), these artists—the subjects of the exhibition Four Chicago Artistsspent countless hours roaming the halls of the museum. The objects they encountered, many of which are still on view today, spanned centuries, cultures, and styles, from medieval biblical scenes to Navajo textiles to Cubist and Surrealist paintings. In their own work, these disparate visual inspirations mingled and mutated into four distinct, highly imaginative, and industrious styles.

Read on to learn about some of the iconic and lesser known objects that inspired the work in Four Chicago Artists.

You experience a series of material stuff in the world … and you feel that you turn it this way and that, that it becomes something you can transform into meaning that belongs to what you do, rather than its source.

—Ted Halkin (1924–2020)

Ted Halkin spent much of his life studying and teaching at SAIC. In the museum, he was drawn to modernist artists like Fernand Léger whose work destabilized traditional ideas of image-making. After serving in World War I, Léger shifted from pure abstraction to a more representational style inspired by the industry of war. Tubular shapes and machine-like forms—like those in the Art Institute’s Railroad Crossing—began to fill his work. Léger’s depictions of modern life resonated with Halkin, a fellow veteran, who had attended SAIC on the GI bill after serving in World War II.

Halkin’s drawings swap Léger’s primary colors for pastels and replace hard lines with curves, but there’s an unmistakable resemblance between the artists’ layered forms and spatial logic (or illogic). Where Léger signals a railway crossing through overlapping symbols and geometric structures, Halkin suggests a futuristic landscape by arranging squiggles and bulbous shapes into surreal geographies.

Halkin taught at SAIC for four decades, during which he witnessed the museum’s collection—and the tastes and styles of his students—evolve to reflect new aesthetics and philosophies. Meanwhile, his own work shifted through various styles, media, and content—evidence of his sensitivity to change. Between the 1940s and 1960s, he went from creating abstract sculptures inspired by cave paintings and mythology to sketchy, whimsical landscapes, such as the 1967 drawing Ruins.

Theodore Halkin

While the drawing’s title suggests a lingering fascination with ancient art and subjects, its formal qualities are indebted to Cubism. Fractured planes and semi-transparent shapes create a sense of movement similar to that of Pablo Picasso’s 1910 painting Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. Picasso represented the face and shoulders of his subject, his then-gallerist Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, with overlapping geometric forms that give the effect of a warped reflection on a lake’s quivering surface. Similarly, Halkin’s Ruins seems to flicker like a memory, or a glimpse of a building in the midst of collapse.

Pablo Picasso

On view in Gallery 391

No explanation can convey to the heart the full meaning and wonder of art. That meaning is a live thing and withers at the [word’s] touch!

—Evelyn Statsinger (1927–2016)

Evelyn Statsinger developed an interest in Japanese art while studying at SAIC in the late 1940s and eventually traveled to Japan, where she encountered Noh masks. Traditionally, such masks were worn by actors of Noh theater, one of the world’s oldest surviving performing arts. This one, called a Mikazuki mask, portrays a vengeful spirit.


On view in Gallery 103

Statsinger’s 1960s sketchbooks are full of mysterious characters whose abstracted features echo the ambiguous expressions of many Noh masks. In her sketchbooks, Statsinger also experimented with cutouts, creating miniature windows by cutting holes in one page that obscure and distort the imagery on the next, much like how a Noh mask conceals the face of its wearer.

Evelyn Statsinger

In 1948, while still a student at SAIC, Statsinger experimented with a new method of creating photograms—a type of photographic image made by placing objects onto light-sensitive paper and exposing it to light. She collaged string, newspaper, wire, and cut paper into whimsical compositions, such as this head in a pointy hat surrounded by abstract symbols.

Evelyn Statsinger

Statsinger’s playful imagery and novel use of materials recalls the Swiss-German artist Paul Klee. One of Statsinger’s major influences, Klee produced a remarkably diverse and innovative body of work. In Duke Leader (Ladder) Not Alone from 1938, Klee straddled figuration and abstraction by using thin lines and simple patterning to suggest two faces—a technique Statsinger adapted in her own photograms.

Paul Klee

Currently off view

I also think of [composition] as a form of meditation in which there are no stray thoughts, or better, the stray thoughts are gathered up before they become too stray and are thus beautifully bound back into the whole.

—Barbara Rossi (1940–2023)

Barbara Rossi, a former Catholic nun, was often drawn to devotional imagery like that in Giovanni di Paolo’s Saint John the Baptist Entering the Wilderness. However, what she extracted from the 15th-century painting was not its content but rather its formal qualities. In Rossi’s 1978 painting Flower Returning to the H2O, an abstracted flower falls off a green motorboat into the water and then emerges from the water onto a nearby pier—a representation of movement modeled after the doubling of John the Baptist in Di Paolo’s painting.

Rossi cited George Seurat’s A Sunday on La Grande Jatte—1884 as one of her favorite paintings. From afar, the idyllic park scene appears to have a smooth, almost airbrushed surface, but zoom in and you’ll see how the image dissolves into tiny, individual strokes of color. Seurat called this technique pointillism.

Georges Seurat

On view in Gallery 240

Rossi was likely captivated by the scrupulous demands of Seurat’s process. Her own method of filling sheets and canvases with tiny, repetitive patterns was equally as laborious, as was her resolve to begin and finish one section of a composition before moving on to the next. This extreme patience and precision is perhaps most evident in her paintings on Plexiglas: the material’s transparent surface not only prevented revision but also necessitated that she paint her composition in reverse.

Barbara Rossi

In Sky Dive, a Plexiglas painting from 1973, Rossi further channeled Seurat by adding small dots to the front of the support, creating a subtly textured surface that invites close inspection.

Was thinking yesterday how much of my time is spent thinking about style, fashion, clothing, decorating, fabrics, pattern, quilting.

—Christina Ramberg (1946–1995)

In 1974, Christina Ramberg attended Navajo Blankets and Contemporary Navajo Rugs, an Art Institute exhibition of weavings by Navajo makers. A lifelong quilter and fashion lover, Ramberg was drawn to the blankets’ colorful patterns and geometric forms, which she emulated in her own textiles and paintings.

Ramberg might have also been interested in the blankets’ wearability. Navajo wearing blankets are intended to be wrapped around the shoulders for warmth, though their two-dimensional display would have required her to imagine how they might have moved and molded to a body. Ramberg’s sketches from around this time show her folding, rotating, and even transfiguring items of clothing into new objects.

Ramberg was also struck by the surrealist paintings of domestic interiors by the Chicago artist Gertrude Abercrombie. Ramberg’s diary entries often indulged a profound fascination in cataloging—and fantasizing about—the visual details of her own modest Chicago apartment. A 1972 entry lists an idiosyncratic array of items from her home studio, including: “2 lingerie holders made like lace corsets … a vinyl packet of medical illustrations … a photo of a [painting] by Gertrude Abercrombie.”

Abercrombie’s 1945 painting The Past and the Present was one Ramberg might have encountered during her forays across the museum’s collection. It depicts a rather mundane bedroom scene rendered uncanny by its sparse décor and muted colors.

Gertrude Abercrombie

On view in Galley 262

The room’s few objects—a vase, a lamp, a painting—are elevated by their scarcity and beg to be read as symbols. Ramberg, too, both created and obscured meaning through her obsessive collecting, recording, and visual transformation of everyday objects and ephemera.

With the bonafide candor and passion of Chicagoans, Halkin, Statsinger, Rossi, and Ramberg demystified the museum’s collection, using artwork of the past as fodder for their unique personal visions. To see more of their original work, be sure to check out Four Chicago Artistson view through August 26. Then pop on over to the permanent collection galleries—you never know where inspiration might strike.

—Molly Bryson, exhibition interpretation specialist, Interpretation

For a more comprehensive look at the work of Christina Ramberg, check out Christina Ramberg: A Retrospective, on view through August 11. To learn more about Navajo Blankets and Contemporary Navajo Rugs, the 1974 exhibition that inspired her, there is a pdf of the catalogue available on the exhibition page.



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