The Time is Now!" is the title of both a big, beautiful exhibit on view at the University of Chicago's Smart Museum through December, and the equally big and beautiful book that functions as its catalog. It was taken from one of the artworks in the show, a 1968 photograph by Darryl Cowherd.
The photo captures graffiti on a boarded-up doorway in Woodlawn that pairs those urgent words with these: BE BLACK. Rebecca Zorach, who coedited the book with Marissa H. Baker, writes in an introduction that this "insistent imperative" to claim identity and space is a key focus of the exhibition.
But, she adds, "the title also speaks to a more generally held feeling of urgency in art of the time, to the concern that art be timely."
"The Time Is Now!"—subtitled "Art Worlds of Chicago's South Side, 1960-1980"—captures two fervent decades during which Chicago's black artists made their work the vehicle for and expression of the revolutionary civil and social change they sought.
There are white artists here—most notably the Hairy Who and other Chicago Imagists who showed their work at the Hyde Park Art Center when it was headed by Don Baum—but really, it's not about them. It's about a context of segregation, suppression, and lynching (the latter referenced in, among others, Nathan Wright's exquisite and surreal 1971 oil Bound). And it's about the response to that context—expressed, for example, in the raised fists of a black-power salute, commemorated in Murry DePillars's powerfully satirical 1969 lithograph Untitled (Aunt Jemima Pancake and Waffle Mix), and in the potent screen prints of Barbara Jones-Hogu.
While the book is a must-have, filled with illustrations that amplify the 100-plus-piece exhibit (although it could use an index), it shouldn't substitute for a visit to the Smart to see the real thing. Photos can't do justice to works like Sylvester Britton's mesmerizingly luminous 1962 abstract oil (Untitled) or the churning, explosive universe of color in another oil painting, Dale Normand's Superman (1980). These works, like Douglas Williams's abstract but unmistakably relatable 1970 three-part sculpture Sky Watchers and Eddie Harris's blood-drenched 1969 panel, salvaged from the Wall of Truth mural that faced and spoke to the storied Wall of Respect—demand, and reward, your presence.
The book includes essays, interviews, a time line, maps, and images of everything in the exhibit (and more). It documents south-side institutions and spaces from the Alley to the South Side Community Art Center and—across the street from it—Margaret Burroughs's home museum that became the DuSable. It chronicles artist collectives (OBAC, the Organization of Black African Culture; AfriCOBRA, the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), the origins of the mural movement, and the shift from the civil rights era to the era of black power. It's a valuable historical record.
And it's a cocktail of diverse voices, from Barry Plotkin's memory of his brief, clueless 1960s venture into the gallery business with a "below-pavement-level" Hyde Park space and Yaounde Olu's recollections of Osun, the multidisciplinary art center she operated in South Shore from 1968 to 1982 (though, she writes, "it was never, ever profitable financially") to Tempestt Hazel's very current argument that terms like Afrofuturism (which grew out of futurism) are too tied to Western and colonial traditions to be acceptable labels for the self-determined work of artists (like Olu). Labeling black artists in this way, Hazel writes, is "stripping them of the opportunity to exist within a community-grown context created by, for, about, and directly from the lineages of Black diasporic cultures."
The Time Is Now! is also about the displacement that was taking place on the south side. A forward by the Smart's director, Alison Gass, and deputy director, Michael Christiano, refers to the U. of C.'s mid-20th-century urban renewal campaign (called elsewhere in the book "Negro removal"), and says that the Smart is now endeavoring "to rewrite the vision of our institution as one that functions as a site of productive convergence of multiple publics on the South Side."
So many of the problems these south-side artists were grappling with between 1960 and 1980 are still with us. The title, unfortunately, remains apt. v