b. Chicago, 1881–d. 1974
Born in Chicago to German parents and orphaned at age nine, Rudolph Weisenborn led a peripatetic life during his youth before settling in Colorado, where he worked as a cowboy and gold miner. In Denver, he enrolled in the Students’ School of Art and studied there for four years under Henry Reed and Jean Mannheim, a German-born, French-trained artist. Weisenborn followed a traditional academic curriculum, drawing from casts for two years before working with live models. Even as a young artist, he rebelled against the strictures of what he believed to be a stifling approach to art, stating, “It took me ten years to get it out of my system.”
After ten years in Colorado, a visit to an exhibition of impressionist paintings—described by Weisenborn as “big gusts of fresh air from the mountain tops”—catalyzed a shift in his art. He relocated to Chicago in 1913 to seek out the vitality and dynamism of urban life, and held his first solo show there at the Molten and Rickettes Gallery. Weisenborn quickly became a driving force for modernism in the city through both his art and his activism. He spearheaded several important anti-institutional exhibitions and progressive artist groups, organizing the Salon des Refusés in 1919 with fellow artists Ramon Shiva and Raymond Jonson, and co-founding the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists in 1922, where he served as president from 1922–27. In 1926 Weisenborn started the interdisciplinary group Neo-Arlimusc to promote interaction between artists, writers, musicians, and scientists, and in 1936 helped establish the New York-based American Abstract Artists Group.
Weisenborn thrived in the lively artistic environment in Chicago in the early decades of the twentieth century. Encounters with the proto-cubist work of French artist Paul Cézanne and other avant-garde artists spoke to Weisenborn’s “language of the modern world and its new vision.” His portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes from the 1920s and 1930s reflect a thoughtful synthesis of his “own experiments, visions, [and] feelings” with a modernist vocabulary drawn from Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and Expressionism. Weisenborn was deeply committed to moving beyond naturalistic representation, declaring that “the motivation is abstract, the result is abstract.” His large-scale canvas Chicago (1928, Illinois State Museum) manifests the artist’s intent to create “a vital organization instead of a static composition” in his abstractions. Credited as the first abstract painting to be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1928, Chicago generated ample press coverage and was a considerable sensation.
For more than thirty years Weisenborn’s paintings, drawings, and prints continued to generate a lively dialogue among artists, viewers, and critics about abstraction, modernism, and artistic experimentation. He participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, showing frequently at Chicago venues from 1914 to 1965 including the Art Institute of Chicago (from 1918 to 1949 and again in 1965), the Salon des Refusés, the Renaissance Society, and the No-Jury Society of Artists, as well as in New York, Albuquerque, and other cities. During the Depression, Weisenborn executed several murals for the Works Progress Administration, including a series at Crane Technical High School and a Cubist-inspired mural at Nettlehorst Elementary School in Chicago. In 1933 he contributed the only nonobjective painting shown at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition.
During World War II, Chicago businessman Herman Spertus commissioned Weisenborn to paint the large-scale mural The Fighting Navy (1945, Kellogg School of Management Art Collection, Chicago), which was shown at the Art Institute during summer 1945. The painting, which is based upon the artist’s experiences at the Great Lakes Navy Training Station and aboard a carrier ship, incorporates influences of Cubism and Futurism in its fractured planes and dynamic energy. In 1947 Weisenborn was commissioned along with fellow Chicago artists Ivan and Malvin Albright, Vincent D’Agostino, William S. Schwartz, and Aaron Bohrod to compose pictures on the theme of the Seven Lively Arts for Riccardo's restaurant on Rush Street, a lively Chicago meeting place for artists and writers. Weisenborn’s panel Literature (1947, Union League Club of Chicago) was one of seven that hung behind the bar. His reputation grew beyond Chicago as well, with two solo shows in New York in 1947 and 1948.
Untitled (Self-Portrait) most likely dates from the mid- to late 1940s since it is nearly identical to a signed, numbered self-portrait dated 1944 that Weisenborn reproduced in black and white on the cover of the flyer for his art school. In both, Weisenborn presents himself as a serious, self-assured artist: pausing from a work in progress, paintbrushes in hand, he contemplates the viewer intently. By exaggerating the size of his head, eyes, and hands, Weisenborn privileged his unique artistic vision and creative faculties. These distortions of scale, combined with the planar faceting of facial features and fingers, endow Weisenborn’s figure with a monumental, sculptural quality. While the flyer portrait references his role as teacher—a studio setting with an abstract painting on the wall, part of a storage cabinet to the right, and floorboards—the omission of these elements in favor of a pale blue gouache in the etching, emphasizes Weisenborn the artist. The self-portraits evince a conceptual and stylistic affinity to a 1919 charcoal portrait of Weisenborn by his friend and colleague Stanislaus Szukalski, as well as to other expressionist portraits by the artist from the 1920s, such as his 1923 charcoal drawing of attorney Clarence Darrow. Szukalski portrayed Weisenborn in the guise of a monk, a proselytizer of modernism. Weisenborn served this role well, promoting individuality in expression and innovative ideas in art through his teaching, first at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts (1922–34), and later at his School of Modern Art on Irving Park Road in Chicago (1934–64). In the Chicago Sun-Times in 1947, critic Frank Holland praised the artist’s instructional method, which encouraged each student “to make his own decisions and to develop an individual painting style and technique.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, the artist expanded his subject matter with travels outside of Chicago, spending several summers in Provincetown and later returning to the mountains and red terrain of New Mexico. His abstractions from these decades employ a hard-edged geometry and bright, vivid colors. Weisenborn continued to manifest a restless curiosity and energetic output well into his eighties, exhibiting his work at a massive critics choice exhibition at the Werner’s Bookstore Gallery in Chicago in 1951, and a large retrospective in 1965 at the Rosenstone Art Gallery, Bernard Horwich Center, also in Chicago. Writing in the Chicago Daily News about the 1951 exhibition, Chicago critic C. J. Bulliet declared that “Rudolph Weisenborn at 70 is still the strong and progressive painter he was in 1922.” Weisenborn’s oeuvre offers a rich visual history of the complex narrative of modern art in Chicago in the twentieth century and affirms his legacy as one of the city’s foremost abstract painters.
Patricia Smith Scanlan
Cozzolino, Robert. Art in Chicago: Resisting Regionalism, Transforming Modernism. Philadelphia: Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 2007.
Falk, Peter Hastings, ed. The Annual Exhibition Record of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1888–1950. Madison, CT: Soundview Press, 1990.
———, ed. Who Was Who in American Art 1564–1975: 400 Years of Artists in America. Vol. 3. Madison, CT: Soundview Press, 1999.
Greenhouse, Wendy, and Susan Weininger. Chicago Painting 1895 to 1945: The Bridges Collection. Urbana: University of Illinois Press with the Illinois State Museum, 2004.
Hey, Kenneth Robert. “Five Artists and the Chicago Modernist Movement, 1909–1928.” PhD diss., Emory University, 1973.
Jewell, Edward Alden. “Abstract Artists Open Show Today: They Arrange ‘Demonstration of Revolt Against Literary Subject-Paintings.’” The New York Times. April 6, 1937.
Rago, Henry. Rudolph Weisenborn: A Retrospective. Chicago: Rosenstone Art Gallery, 1965.
Weininger, Susan S. “Modernism and Chicago Art: 1910–1940.” In Sue Ann Prince, ed. The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde: Modernism in Chicago, 1910–1940, 59–75. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.
———. “Rudolph Weisenborn.” In Elizabeth Kennedy, ed. Chicago Modern, 1893–1945: Pursuit of the New, 160. Chicago: Terra Foundation for the Arts, 2004.
Weisenborn, Rudolph. Pamphlet File P-05500. Ryerson Library, Art Institute of Chicago. [30 items] Including untitled typescript by Fritzi Weisenborn; and “Abstract? Absolutely!” undated typescript by Rudolph Weisenborn.
Artist image: Rudolph Weisenborn at work with his wife Fritzi and his portrait of her in the background / photographer and date unknown. (Struve Fine Art)