On Chicago Abstraction: Color & Judy Ledgerwood

Judy Ledgerwood, from Chromatic Patterns for Chicago & Blob Paintings. Courtesy Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago.

Yesterday, I overheard somebody saying that Chicago is one of the “greenest” cities in the United States. I’m not sure that’s true, although Lincoln Park in August is a pretty lush situation. Daley had tulips planted on State Street, too, but at this time of year they’re just bruised-looking stubs of bud trying to work through winter’s accumulated cigarette butts.

To my eye, Chicago isn’t green: it’s a dun beast brindled with black soot and neon. And historically, that’s the way the city’s painters have used color – sharp, sudden accents running through dim fields. Even Ed Paschke’s electric images of urban wildlife look (appropriately) dark, despite their high-keyed palette. In abstraction, the works of Frank Piatek, and the early paintings of Paschke’s former Northwestern University colleague William Conger, feel similar: harsh hues softened by veils of smoke.  —John Neff, Chicago contributor

Installation view, Judy Ledgerwood: Cold Days, 1999, Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago

Judy Ledgerwood’s earliest works share this chromatic grittiness: they look like Turners painted from inside the steam engine’s plume. But – with their heavy, waxy surfaces – the paintings are slow, somber, broken of a belief in progress. Ledgerwood’s early works came out of a weird strain of romantic late-80s Postmodernism that washed heroic abstractions in grimy baths of doubt, leaving them looking old and worn. Check out any art magazine dated between 1989 and 1992 – also, funnily, the period that witnessed the rise and fall of all things distressed, Joey Lawrence style, in fashion – and you’ll see what I mean.

Over the course of the Nineties, though, Ledgerwood began pulling her colors out of the dark. Her paintings remained atmospheric and a little sad, but their air cleared, a process that culminated in the chilly brightness of the Cold Days paintings, first exhibited as a group at Chicago’s Renaissance Society in 1999. The series’ name alludes to Brice Marden’s Cold Mountain works, and with these pieces Ledgerwood was clearly operating at an equivalent pitch of ambition. But the Cold Days paintings aren’t invocations of a mystic Eastern pastness, macho amalgams of Pollock and the Tao Te Ching; rather, they’re evocations of snowy, sunny Midwestern afternoons spent examining frosted windowpanes through beaded curtains.

Installation views, Chromatic Patterns for Chicago, Rhona Hoffman Gallery, Chicago

Chromatic Patterns for Chicago, part of Ledgerwood’s most recent exhibition in the city, exemplified the continuing efflorescence of the artist’s color – and flirtation with decorative devices – since Cold Days. A vast, but temporary, tempera wall painting circling the frontmost room of Rhona Hoffman’s West Loop gallery, Chromatic Patterns consisted of massed bands of eccentric, hyper-saturated color overlain with a running pattern of linear quatrefoils. These pale floral calligraphs pulsed and shifted against the work’s odd ground colors, colors simultaneously dissonant and near-complimentary. The optical depth created by this effect was amplified and contradicted by Ledgerwood’s sly suggestion of figuration: subtle dips in the tops of her rectangular color blocks, and abundant drips along their bottom edges, conjured walls draped in fringed fabric. Interior décor for a slightly psychedelic Midwestern Bedouin, or maybe luxe, calme et volupté off-balance on the lakeshore.

Grand but passing, abstract but allusive, harshly decorative; this strange mix of qualities made Chromatic Patterns for Chicago – despite its name – a tough to painting to locate. The work’s marriage of ambitious scale and ephemeral presence testified to Ledgerwood’s bumpy ongoing relationship with the male-dominated tradition of Modernist abstraction. Its mingling of formalism and figuration associated it with a local history typified by the work of Julia Fish and Michelle Grabner. And its use of high-keyed color, until recently quite foreign to Chicago abstraction, took it to another place altogether. Chromatic Patterns was just scrubbed from Hoffman’s walls (I know, I saw its stains on the boots of a preparator friend), but I hope – I trust – that Ledgerwood’s weird flowers will continue to bloom and grow throughout the city.

John Neff produces works of art, organizes exhibitions, practices critical writing, and teaches in the painting department of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC).

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