Making Modernism

Arts Club Guestbook, 1934

This page from the enormous guestbook of the Arts Club of Chicago shows the signatures of visitors who attended a 1934 exhibit of works by the American artist Alexander “Sandy” Calder.  Founded in 1916 in the wake of the Armory Show by a small group of cultural philanthropists, the Arts Club committed itself to support and exhibit international contemporary art.  Located for its first two years in the Fine Arts Building—and moving several times over the following decades—the Arts Club sponsored exhibitions of visual art as well as dance, theater, literature, and music. (Poetry magazine’s founder Harriet Monroe was chairman of the club’s literature committee, which also included Chicago Tribune literary editor Fanny Butcher.)  The Arts Club’s aim, according to exhibitions coordinator Alice Roullier, was to bring to Chicago “the Art of the 20th Century in the making” (MMS Arts Club, Series 1, Box 1, Folder 14).   

Rue Winterbotham Carpenter, a founder and president from 1918 to 1931, and Roullier, who worked at the club from 1918 to 1941, were responsible for the club’s early, groundbreaking shows of visual art. Many of the most important artists of the twentieth century received their first solo exhibitions in the United States at the Arts Club.  In the early years, these artists included Constantin Brancusi (his show was installed by Duchamp), Georges Braque, Marc Chagall, Salvador Dalí, Jean Dubuffet, Arshile Gorky, Marsden Hartley, Fernand Léger, Robert Motherwell, Isamu Noguchi, Pablo Picasso, Jackson Pollock, August Rodin, Georges Seurat, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.  Shows by these artists were complemented by exhibitions of non-Western art that bore some relationship to modernism, like Chinese porcelains, African masks, and Egyptian sculpture.

The vast Arts Club collection at the Newberry illuminates the critical role Chicago played in attracting and supporting the modernist avant-garde.  For instance, correspondence between Calder and the club’s third president Rue Shaw (Carpenter’s niece) illuminates Calder’s everyday working practices, particularly in building the large, metal mobile Red Petals (1942), which the Arts Club commissioned.  From the Arts Club guestbook, this page also suggests that the audience for modernist art was geographically diverse, both Midwestern and international.  Visitors for the Calder exhibit hailed from Chicago, and others came from Paris, Peoria, Toledo, and Cairo.  With such a context, one might wonder:  Cairo, Egypt, or Cairo, Illinois?   

Liesl Olson, Newberry Library

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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