On Exhibit

Genealogy of oils

By Ruth E. Kott, AMí07

Image courtesy Roy Boyd Gallery, Chicago

In the months leading up to the opening of William Conger’s retrospective exhibition, one of his fears is that his oil paintings, which span a 50-year career, will not behave well together. “All in the same room,” Conger, MFA’66, imagines, “they fight with each other. ‘I did that first!’ ‘No, that’s my shape!’ ‘Give me that color back!’ Like a bunch of bratty kids.”

For the Chicago Cultural Center show (January 30–March 29), the 60 abstract works were borrowed from other collections—including the 1958 painting that marked Conger’s “first official recognition,” acquired by the University of New Mexico while Conger was a student there. Reflecting on his career, the Northwestern art-history professor emeritus says that he’s shifted between geometric shapes reminiscent of architecture and more “organic” compositions suggesting landscape. Each piece inherits something from the ones before: “The genealogy [is] passed on; there seems to be an inherited flavor that keeps developing.”

Growing up on Chicago’s North Side, Conger was influenced by the city. “Chicago has a peculiar kind of sensibility,” he says. It has “incredible architecture” that contrasts with the lake. In the 1980s and early ’90s Chicago’s influence was more predominant, he says, but whatever he creates is never “totally separate from my experience of growing up in the city.”

Conger also has a showing of new works (January 16–March 3) at Chicago’s Roy Boyd Gallery. The brightly colored, “swirly” paintings, like Kabuki (above, 2008, oil on canvas, 96 x 57 inches), are different from his previous work, he says, “even though the fundamental approach to the composition and to the form of the imagery has remained somewhat consistent over the years."

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