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Abstract Angel

When no one else would have them, Jan Cicero made a place for Chicago's abstract artists.

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Jan Cicero fell under the spell of abstract art as a teenager in La Grange in the 1950s, when she was introduced to the work of trailblazers like Jackson Pollock by an enthusiastic high school art teacher. This kind of painting--work that grabbed the viewer on a level deeper than the surface image and revealed itself at its own slow pace--was more mysterious and powerful than any other art she knew. She began to think of herself privately as an artist, but there weren't any female role models, she says. "My mother's activities were sewing circles; my father wondered whether I'd be a teacher, nurse, or secretary." At Wheaton College, she found that while the music department was strong and music was respected, the art department and art were not. She majored in education and became a phys ed and dance teacher. At 21 she married her high school sweetheart, Frank Cicero, who was headed for the ministry.

But Frank had a change of heart about his career. While he worked on a master's at Princeton, Cicero taught at a private school for girls, Miss Fine's, where she found the all-female environment enlightening. She read Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique and hung out with "women my mother's age with PhDs." Back in Chicago, she continued to teach while Frank attended University of Chicago Law School, then took a hiatus when her daughter (the first of two) was born. By the late 60s she was at Northwestern University, ostensibly for a master's in education. She signed up for an elective--a studio class in advanced oil painting with George Cohen--and had her own change of heart. Despite some personal doubts about her talent and drive and the isolation of working in a studio, she'd be an artist after all--this was her world. A couple of years later, when she took a Chicago art survey class with Corey Postiglione (now of Columbia College) at the Evanston Art Center, she found her real place in it. "He took us around to the galleries showing local contemporary work, and there weren't very many of them--almost nothing for abstract art. I thought, this is interesting--maybe I could do this."

The couple had just bought a big old house on Lake Street in Evanston that they couldn't afford to furnish. Cicero hung her empty walls with the abstract work of Postiglione, Carol Diehl, Mary Jo Marks, Tony Giliberto, and Frank Pannier and sent out a card inviting potential buyers over for wine, cheese, and art. She was in business: for the next two years she ran a gallery in her home. In 1976 she rented a space at 437 N. Clark, in an area being pioneered by restaurateur Gordon Sinclair and a few galleries priced out of the Michigan Avenue/Ontario Street district. The critics and museums couldn't have been less interested in local abstract artists. "Chicago art meant Imagists. Phyllis Kind [gallery] was it. Every other artist in Chicago was left out and frustrated." Intent on getting her stable of abstractionists noticed, Cicero screwed up her courage and ambushed critic Franz Schulze after a lecture at the Fortnightly Club. "I went up to him, introduced myself, and said, 'There are interesting Chicago abstract artists, and you should get to know them.'" He did.

By 1983 she was moving to larger quarters in a building she purchased at 221 W. Erie and opening a second gallery in Telluride that would have an eight-year run. When River North began to change--Richard Himmel's antique shop became Walter Payton's American Bar, Hooters moved in--she sold her building on Erie and fled to temporary quarters on Carpenter Street, moving in 1999 to her current space at 835 W. Washington. Although she eventually began to show a few representational painters (to the horror of the staunch abstractionists in her stable), she's never wavered from her commitment to abstract work, especially that of young or unknown artists. "I can't claim credit for any great careers," she says, "but some of them have gone on to do well." They've shown at or sold to institutions including the Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian, the MCA, and the Art Institute; won fellowships like the Guggenheim and the Fulbright; and been covered by the New York Times and major art journals. (Three of her current artists are included in the "Here and Now" show currently running at the Chicago Cultural Center.) Others--and here, she says, is where the risk and disappointment come in--have just let it go. "That's the reason so many galleries show only established artists. You spend a lot of time and energy promoting an artist, and five years later they're not making art anymore." For Cicero, the worst time is that moment when a collector comes through the door to ask about the progress of a now-MIA artist whose work she sold them a couple of years before.

Cicero will close her gallery at the end of next month. She'll pull back to the Evanston house where she started, doing a little curating and private dealing. In the 29 years she's been in business, she's hung only what she loved--whether she thought it would sell or not, and regardless of the fact that both painting and abstraction have been out of favor for big chunks of that time. "I wasn't interested in conceptual art, photography, or video," she says. "I wasn't trying to have the next big thing. I was showing art that might not have been seen anywhere else." She says she has no idea how much money she's sunk into the business; it never supported her, and seldom sustained itself, but that was never an issue. Frank Cicero's law career at Kirkland & Ellis has subsidized what she thinks of as a cultural contribution to the city. "I didn't have to make a living at it, and that was a great luxury." There's nothing very dramatic about her life, she says: "This is the story of a woman of a certain age following her heart and having the good fortune to be able to do it."

The Jan Cicero Gallery will close January 31 (Highland Park's KL Fine Arts will move into the space in February). A closing party is scheduled for January 11, from 2 to 6 PM.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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