Waves of Transformation: Five Women of the Chicago Avant-Garde
By Liesl OlsonOctober 10, 2021
What is gained by staying in one place? By committing your life and art to a single city? In Chicago, by midcentury, the choice to stay put may have seemed at odds with the energy of the avant-garde. Mobility and cosmopolitanism were built into the city’s urban fabric and identity. A city of arrivers from all backgrounds, a crossroads and nexus, Chicago sat at the center of lines of railroad track: it was a place that anyone could get to or leave. Other cities sometimes seemed like more compelling sites of creative ferment. Europe held the special promise of freedom from North America’s insidious racism. But it was not always clear why artists left Chicago other than they could. Perhaps because of the city’s continual waves of transformation, its people coming-and-going, it seems especially important to consider the artists who made Chicago their home. Staying put marked them as unusual.
Painter Gertrude Abercrombie (1909–1977) and poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917–2000) lived just a few miles apart on Chicago’s South Side. Two of the city’s most important artists, they claimed Chicago; they clung to it; they could not have made their art anyplace else. As a painter, Abercrombie was largely self-taught. She attended grammar school and high school and spent her entire adult life in Hyde Park, the neighborhood associated with the University of Chicago, just southeast of Bronzeville, where Brooks lived for over eight decades. Like many of her fellow Chicagoans, Brooks moved with her family to Chicago as part of the Great Migration. She developed her art through relationships with several local institutions, including the Chicago Defender newspaper, the South Side Community Art Center, and Poetry magazine. The two women had friends in common — like dancer and painter Charles Sebree; arts patron Inez Stark; and Wisconsin-based artist Karl Priebe, who was Abercrombie’s closest friend. But there is little evidence that the two women knew each other very well. The more powerful connections came through what they painted and wrote.
Consider the remarkable interplay of work created by these two Chicago dwellers. During the 1940s and 1950s, when Abercrombie was at her most prolific, painting dark and comic alter egos, Brooks published her first two volumes of poetry, A Street in Bronzeville (1945) and Annie Allen (1949). The second volume is a bildungsroman in verse, the story of a young girl’s development into womanhood; a portrait of Brooks inside the cover suggests that she is the title character. Annie Allen made Brooks the first African American to receive the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. In 1953, Brooks published her only work of fiction, Maud Martha, a deeply autobiographical story told in revelatory vignettes. For two women who did not often leave the South Side, mobility was found by refashioning the self through the alchemic power of art.
Of course, one reason that Brooks stayed in her neighborhood is that the forces of racism kept her there. Inhabitants of Bronzeville were hemmed in by the city’s racist, restrictive housing covenants, which forced people to live in squalid kitchenettes with inflated rents. Brooks was not always welcome at North Side venues like the Arts Club of Chicago, one of the few places in the city that promoted avant-garde art. The poet Marianne Moore, who was scheduled to speak at the Arts Club in 1953, wrote to ask whether she could invite Brooks, among others, to attend the program, “omitting Brooks (alas), if not in the habit of welcoming Negroes. I am very pro Negro but don’t wish to take you by surprise.” No response is documented.
Like other Bronzeville residents, Brooks was nonetheless emboldened by her own community and its quest for economic and cultural self-determination. Black people in Bronzeville ran key institutions like the newspapers, a library, and a hospital. Black-owned businesses thrived alongside jazz venues, dance halls, and cinemas. Bronzeville gave birth to modern blues, soul, and gospel; it produced the nation’s largest race weekly, the Chicago Defender; it filled mega-churches with massive black Protestant congregations. And, of course, it produced some of the country’s most exciting artists and writers. A Street in Bronzeville creates a whole world, both real and imagined — a city within a city, as Bronzeville was often called.
Brooks’s virtuosic play with poetic convention reflects the experience of people who struggle with forms of constriction. Steeped in the language of literary tradition, A Street in Bronzeville transforms familiar lyric forms such as the sonnet and the ballad. In “kitchenette building,” the book’s second poem, the speaker wonders where to find space for a “dream” when trapped in the squalor of overcrowded living conditions. How can a work of art be made amid the stink of “onion fumes” and “yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall”? At 13 lines, a deliberately unfinished sonnet, the poem is an articulation of constraint. It is also a means of escaping a “stanza” — the Italian word for “room” — where there is no space to fit.
A whirlwind of a poem, still controversial, is one that Brooks was advised not to include in her very first collection. When she was finishing the manuscript, Richard Wright, author of the blockbuster novel Native Son (1940), urged her to omit “the mother,” a poem about abortion. (“I don’t think poems can be made about abortions,” Wright wrote.) It is 33 lines of pain, beginning with rhyming couplets:
Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with a little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
The speaker imagines a newborn’s tender body, almost as if she has already given birth to a child. Its “damp small pulps” are known to her, as is its future, as a “singer” or “worker.” But the words “not,” “no,” and “never” are reversals, negations. Brooks explained to her editor Elizabeth Lawrence at Harper & Brothers that “the stressed thing” in her poem was not the abortion, but the woman’s desire for children and her acknowledgment that “all she could guarantee them was poverty.” Brooks added, “Not that I’m trying to say every abortion has its origin in such altruism.” She took the risk: the radical poem remained in the volume.
Painted the same year, Abercrombie’s The Ivory Tower (1945) could be a counterpoint: an expression of female confinement but in a dark, fairytale world of her own making. A woman is visible through a window in a tall tower. She is not exactly trapped inside like a princess in a locked castle. Rather, she is an artist. A close look reveals that she is painting at an easel. This painting-within-a-painting may be a form of escape, like the chalky white road winding behind a tilted hill as if straight to the moon.
Being of the world, yet beyond it is a characteristic quality of Abercrombie’s work, a form of Midwestern Surrealism inspired by dreams and fantasy. Abercrombie developed a style and a visual vocabulary both regional and otherworldly. Her signature landscapes depict dark flatlands that evoke the setting of Aledo, Illinois, the small town in which she often spent summers as a child. Her paintings are instantly recognizable for their flattened surfaces; the peculiar airlessness of her domestic spaces; and her talismanic objects — hats, cats, owls, shells, doors, and solitary trees. She often set her paintings in striking secondhand frames, which add an ornament of folk, a connection to craft, a magical tension between the material and the strange.
In the 1940s, Abercrombie exhibited work in galleries in Chicago and Milwaukee, and she had at least two key shows in New York. But her art was not seen much beyond the Midwest — during her lifetime, it was never exhibited internationally — and her social and artistic circles remained local apart from those who came to visit. After her second marriage, in 1948, Abercrombie hosted Saturday night parties and regular Sunday jams at her Hyde Park home. Artists, writers, musicians, and dancers came to talk, drink, play music, dance, and perform. Abercrombie sang and improvised at the piano. She thought of herself as the “other Gertrude,” in reference to expatriate American writer Gertrude Stein, whom she had met in 1935. She counted as her closest confidants jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Sonny Rollins, all of whom frequently stayed with her while on tour. Jazz musician Roy Kral created a piece called “Afrocrombie.” Inspired by the way Abercrombie walked, Richie Powell composed “Gertrude’s Bounce” (1956). Her salon was a queer and interracial space — more ragged and homegrown than Stein’s salon in Paris — and distinctly outside of the mainstream.
“Surrealism is meant for me because I am a pretty realistic person but don’t like all I see,” Abercrombie explained. “So I dream that it is changed.” What she “changed” was often herself. In a tiny painting that was owned by Chicago curator and art-dealer Katharine Kuh, simply called Self-Portrait (1942), a feline-looking woman wears a small-brimmed hat and calmly looks away from the viewer.
This painting bears resemblance to a much grander work, Self-Portrait of My Sister (1941), in which a woman with vivid-blue eyes wears the same hat, here draped with grapes.
Her right hand clasps her left wrist; the black gloves she wears echo her elongated neck. The work wryly plays with female identity, with what it means to have a second “sister” self. (Abercrombie was an only child.) The tendril in the hat’s grapes — or is it a corkscrew? — suggests a drunken jest. The Queen (1954) is also a playful self-portrait, in which a crowned female figure stands in a red-floored room, draped in turquoise, holding a scepter.
The train of her dress is held aloft by an owl. Both she and the owl, whose tail is like her train, peer at the viewer as if bound in secret knowledge. The owl may be the queen’s keeper, tethering her inside. Or she is like the figure in The Ivory Tower, contented in her captivity.
An impulse to imagine other worlds and other selves, to make places in art that were different, playful, and strange, drove Abercrombie’s art and life. Abercrombie’s distinct mode of imagining may have been borne out of the daily hardships of staying put in Chicago, of being tethered to one place. Kuh expressed this idea, noting that Chicago had a special relationship to Surrealism, which was a kind of “escape valve.” “Life in Chicago is very difficult, unbearably difficult. The huge snowstorms, the terrible winds, the enormous distances — everything was difficult in Chicago,” Kuh said. “I have the feeling that because life is so difficult, in order to live in Chicago you turn to something that is unreal, like surrealism, which is, after all, unreal realism.” Key collections of Surrealist art developed in the city, and it produced a number of homegrown Surrealists. It was as if Chicagoans wanted to imagine something else than what lay beyond their rooms and through their windows.
As for Brooks, perhaps she saw “actualities rather than fantasy,” as Studs Terkel said to her in a 1961 interview. To some extent, she agreed. There were unquestionably more “actualities” pressing upon Brooks’s life. Soon after A Street in Bronzeville was accepted for publication, she was asked by her editor Elizabeth Lawrence to tell her about her “circumstances as they affect your writing.” Brooks made clear her aims:
I’m twenty-seven years old, have been married five years to Henry Blakely, have a little boy who will be four in two weeks, write while scrubbing, sweeping, washing, ironing, cooking: dropping the mop, broom, soap, iron, or carrot grater to write down a line, or word. Writing is the only work in which I’m interested. I want to continue, whether in prose or verse, the presentations of Negroes as people. I want to prove to others (by implication, not by shouting) and to such among themselves as have yet to discover it, that they are merely human beings, not exotics.
Brooks had no ivory tower: her art came out of a kitchenette. That she felt a responsibility to prove “Negroes as people” was a sign of the times. In proving her humanity, she was also challenging the very “circumstances,” legislated by white people, that hemmed her in.
But Brooks’s art is not simply sociological. She did something more — or something different — than represent “actualities.” If she expressed the stories of people in her neighborhood, then this was also a means of fantasizing wildly about what it might feel like to be somebody else. Her poems sometimes seem to be voices dressed in drag. A Street in Bronzeville contains a central, long poem from the point of view of a zoot-suiter named “Satin-Legs Smith.” The title of the volume’s sonnet sequence, “Gay Chaps at the Bar,” alludes to the experience of Black American soldiers abroad. And in one of her most well-known poems, “a song in the front yard” (1945), the speaker is an obedient girl who longs to be “bad.” It is a work not unlike Abercrombie’s humorous imagining of a “sister” self. The poem opens with these two stanzas:
I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.
I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play,
I want a good time today.
This girl knows the meaning of a “good time.” In the first stanza, she wants to “peek,” but by the second she wants to “go.” Her boredom with romantic convention — “A girl gets sick of a rose” — is also a boredom with poetic language. Lurking here quite probably is Stein’s quip on revitalizing literary style: “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose.”
Brooks and Abercrombie took humor and wordplay and laced it with darkness. They did not shy away from difficult subject matter, from the things that needed to be said, or represented, or resisted. They expressed the ambivalences of being a mother; the entrapments of domestic labor; the entanglements of oppression and desire. They created powerful and disturbing work about racial violence. A Street in Bronzeville includes an intoxicating lament titled “The Ballad of Pearl May Lee.” The ballad is voiced by a Black woman, Pearl, whose grief is riddled with the anger of being betrayed. Pearl’s lover was lynched by a “hundred hooting men” after sleeping with a white woman, a “taste of pink and white honey.” Pearl imagines the night:
I fancy you out on the fringe of town,
The moon an owl’s eye minding;
The sweet and thick of the cricket-belled dark,
The fire within you winding …
The fire within you winding.
Pearl’s lover is “winding” with desire, but it is not for her, and it will kill him. The witness is the moon, “an owl’s eye,” which bears an uncanny resemblance to one of Abercrombie’s darkest paintings. Originally called Strange Fruit (1946), Abercrombie retitled the work Charlie Parker’s Favorite Painting in response to her friend the jazz musician’s admiration for it.
Here, a leafless tree with four pointed limbs tilts with a noose tied to a branch. A ladder is propped against the tree, a square yellow platform underneath. The painting stages the work of a lynch mob, though the nightscape is absent of blood or body.
By the late 1940s and early 1950s, racial segregation in Chicago was particularly widespread and intense, fortified by redlining and the urban renewal and housing programs that began a massive clearance of Bronzeville. “Progress” seemed to many Chicagoans an empty ideal. Abercrombie and Brooks both witnessed the displacement of many Black residents on the South Side and the reconfiguring of their neighborhoods. Brooks created a language out of the lives of the dispossessed that constituted her resistance to the idea of “blight.” In the poem “the vacant lot” (1945), she restores the people who once lived in a house since demolished:
Mrs. Coley’s three-flat brick
Isn’t here any more.
All done with seeing her fat little form
Burst out of the basement door;
And with seeing her African son-in-law
(Rightful heir to the throne)
With his great white strong cold squares of teeth
And his little eyes of stone;
And with seeing the squat fat daughter
Letting in the men
When majesty has gone for the day —
And letting them out again.
Was Mrs. Coley running a brothel? Or were these women finding some freedom in the rooms of their home? Their three-flat has become a parcel of land, not unlike the son-in-law’s “great white strong cold squares of teeth.” In the hard stresses upon these single-syllabled words, there is no rest, no softness. In fact, something about him is “white.” But the women can play their joke once the man of the house is out, creating their own “majesty” when he has gone.
Abercrombie also saw those empty lots. In a series of works called Demolition Doors — her only urban landscapes — she presented isolated, multicolored doors detached from their buildings, which is how old doors were used in Chicago to circumscribe demolition sites. In one version, a cement viaduct is visible behind bright doors that block the light.
They are obstacles rather than ports of entry. In a 1957 letter to her friends Marion Neville and John Drury — Chicago writers who had moved “back to the land” in Chesterton, Indiana — Abercrombie described how she was “working on Pictures of Doors that they put up all around the demolition. […] I can’t even look. But the doors are gorgeous.” In another letter to Neville and Drury in the same year, she wrote, “I’ve been painting like crazy lately. About 8 door pictures. […] Hyde Park sure looks like the bomb hit. Awful. But the doors are beautiful.” The “bomb” of urban renewal strengthened barriers, making them more visible than ever, in colors just slightly different from those on the American flag.
Neither Abercrombie nor Brooks ever wished to abandon their neighborhoods, escape to a different city, or find solace in nature as did some of their friends. Abercrombie invented the life she wanted: she lived in a world of “flatted fifths,” as she put it, the off-beat sound that musician Gillespie claimed made her the “first bop artist.” “Bop in the sense that she has taken the essence of our music and transported it to another form,” Gillespie explained. For Brooks the stories of people — not those of landscapes or buildings — kept her writing about social realities in the US through the lens of her ever-changing city. She did not need to go anywhere to experience dramatic change. In the late 1960s, Brooks would join forces with younger writers of the Black Arts Movement. She broke ties with her publishing house in New York and began working with Black-owned presses in Detroit and Chicago. She freed herself from the need to explain her “circumstances” and “humanity” to white people. The poet was often asked about her relationship to Chicago. “It does not impede you as a writer in any way?” asked an Illinois historian in a 1967 interview. “It nourishes,” Brooks responded. “I intend to live in Chicago for my forever.”
Liesl Olson is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the literary history of Chicago, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (Yale University Press, 2017).
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