Chicago, Illinois, United States
|Education||School of the Art Institute of Chicago|
|Known for||Painting, Drawing, Installation art|
|Awards||National Endowment for the Arts, Illinois Arts Council|
Frank Piatek (born 1944) is an American artist, best known for his abstract, illusionistic paintings of tubular forms and wider-ranging three-dimensional works exploring spirituality, cultural memory and the creative process. Piatek emerged in the mid-1960s, among a group of Chicago artists exploring various types of organic abstraction that shared some qualities with the contemporaneous Chicago Imagists; his work, however relies more on suggestive ambiguity and sensuality than expressionistic representation. In the exhibition catalogue Art in Chicago 1945-1995, the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago (MCA) described Piatek as playing “a crucial role in the development and refinement of abstract painting in Chicago. His carefully rendered, biomorphic compositions illustrate the dialectical relationship that has continued to exist between abstraction and figuration—styles that have very distinct and idiosyncratic traditions in Chicago." Piatek's work has been exhibited at institutions including the Whitney Museum, Art Institute of Chicago, MCA Chicago, National Museum, Szczecin in Poland, and Terra Museum of American Art; it belongs to the public art collections of the Art Institute of Chicago and MCA Chicago, among others. Curator Lynne Warren describes Piatek as "the quintessential Chicago artist—a highly individualistic, introspective outsider who stands fast against the tribulations of fad and fashion and who has developed a unique and deeply felt world view from an artistically isolated vantage point." Piatek lives and works in Chicago with his wife, painter and SAIC professor Judith Geichman, and has taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago since 1974.
Life and career
Francis Piatek, Jr. was born in 1944 in Chicago into a Polish- and Swedish-American family. His late father, Frank, Sr., was a community activist and neighborhood association president and has honorific street signs in his name. Piatek was raised in the city's ethnic Irving Park neighborhood and began creating art when he attended nearby Lane Technical High School, which bordered the Riverview amusement park; in the 1970s, when he rented a studio across from the park after it closed, its ruins played a role in his work of the time. After a childhood in which he was stricken with polio, he studied at the School of the Art Institute (SAIC), earning BFA (1967) and MFA (1971) degrees. He attracted critical attention as an undergraduate, including a 1967 studio visit by Whitney Museum curator John Baur and Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) director Don Baum that led to his inclusion in the 1968 Whitney Biennial; that same year, he received a Ryerson Travel fellowship from SAIC.
Piatek used the grant to study and travel throughout Europe for a year, filling notebooks with seminal sketches, while developing an expanded sense of the continuity of history that would fuel ideas throughout his career. Over the next decade, after returning to Chicago, Piatek appeared in exhibitions at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC), MCA Chicago, National Gallery of Canada and Renaissance Society, and had solo shows at N.A.M.E. Gallery (1975), HPAC (1969) and Phyllis Kind Gallery (1972), which was strongly associated with the city's Imagist artists. In subsequent years, Piatek had solo exhibitions at the Roy Boyd and Richard Gray galleries, and was featured in major shows at the MCA Chicago, AIC, Chicago Cultural Center, HPAC, Terra Museum of American Art, and Smart Museum of Art.
Work and reception
Piatek has often worked outside (or between) dominant artistic orders, such as Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, or (in Chicago) Imagism, in order to sidestep limiting dictums within such movements against real-world reference to form and illusion, content, or abstraction. His art falls into two longstanding and related, but outwardly divergent bodies: his widely known signature images of intertwined, tubular forms; and germinal, often primal work comprising sculpture, collage and installation that reveal his inner thoughts, inspirations and creative process. Despite their abstraction, his tubular works draw on the history of figurative art—from Renaissance and Baroque artists such as Michelangelo, Caravaggio and Velasquez to more modern figures like Manet, Léger and Balthus—in addition to contemporary abstractionists, such as Frank Stella; both bodies draw upon symbolic forms from ancient sources, such as the Book of Kells, the caduceus form, and Aztec, Minoan and pharaonic Egyptian iconography. Critics Mary Mathews Gedo and James Yood have suggested that Piatek's work hovers between abstraction and figuration, providing a screen onto which he stages open-ended, "sensuous and seductive dramas" alluding to brute biology, ripe sexuality, and machine elements, as well as intense spirituality. Dennis Adrian has characterized Piatek as interested in the mythic, metaphysical and elemental, with a Romantic temperament and sense of visionary experience that ties him to currents of Chicago art.
As an undergraduate, Piatek created two groups of paintings that brought him early recognition. One employed shaped canvasses (e.g., in the forms of a wave, "X," or upside-down "U") featuring stripes or tubes, which often followed the contours of the canvas edge, such as Untitled (small X painting) (1967). They were direct responses to Frank Stella's minimalist stripe paintings, but pointedly broke with the era's dominant Greenbergian formalism by employing chiaroscuro modeling and illusionistic space rather than affirming the flatness of the picture plane (as Stella did). He also experimented with a motif of monumental organic, writhing tubular forms (e.g., Untitled, 1967); these works became his first awarded prizes (in the AIC 1967 and 1968 "Chicago and Vicinity" shows) and acquired by a museum (AIC, 1970).
The tubular paintings became a trademark body of work exploring a seemingly inexhaustible vocabulary over the next four decades. Their twisting, patterned and symmetrical forms emerged out of dark, packed, enigmatic space evoking close-up magnification of organic (bodies, limbs, phalluses, worms, intestines, trees), man-made (coils, ropes, chains, metal piping, knots, balloons), and symbolic forms. Critics characterized this work by its: forceful drawing and strong, rhythmical designs which suggesting coiled energy; sensual, wet-on-wet modeling, cross-hatched brushwork and energized surfaces; restrained but luminous color; and inexplicably glowing, ethereal light. In the 1970s, Jane Allen called them "portholes into a dimly lit fluorescent world of intertwining, undulating forms" that transformed what seemed like unpromising material into a "fascinating exercise in the primary sensations of form"; Franz Schulze described them as formally sober, seemingly abstract works that, nonetheless, urgently insist upon visceral figurative associations, eroticism, fantasy and magic.
In the early 1970s, during a time of personal turmoil and artistic crisis, Piatek developed his second body of more introverted, shamanistic work that delves into spiritual themes involving death and rebirth, macrocosm and microcosm, myth and the collective unconscious. He was initially inspired by a mural commission that sought a landscape or tree image, leading him to experiment with sinuous, archetypal forms and emblematic hieroglyphs. He initially pursued this direction privately with more directly referential, symbolic drawings of spiders and trees, artifact-like sculpture, and carvings of snakes, stars, podlike sarcophagi and dead men in boats, covered in mud, twine and fabric. The new direction ended his relationship with Phyllis Kind Gallery, but culminated in an experimental installation at the alternative N.A.M.E. Gallery (1975), which featured the work in a ritual-like arrangement alongside his established tube images. Critics noted the interplay between the primal imagery and contemporary paintings, as well as the insights into Piatek's heretofore hidden process and inspirations. Franz Schulze found the exhibition provocative, deeming the carvings persuasive, "fetishistic objects … sinister, private things, like effigies, full of atavistic implications;" Derek Guthrie, however, found the primitive approach less convincing and over-intellectualized. Piatek would continue to explore this more intimate work—as the "underground substratum" of his more refined paintings—in various media and formats throughout his career.
In the early 1980s, Piatek and three other Chicago painters—William Conger, Miyoko Ito and Richard Loving— began meeting to discuss their shared interest in abstraction that moved beyond the purified self-referentiality of minimalism and embraced real-world associations, illusionism, and form as metaphor. They coined the label "Allusive Abstraction" for their approach, eventually promoting their ideas through Chicago Art Write, an artist-written publication co-edited by Piatek, Conger and Loving. The group's collective effort attracted critical attention in national publications and generated traveling exhibitions of Chicago abstraction. Piatek also moved to Roy Boyd Gallery (six solo shows, 1984–2001)—well-known for its focus on abstractionists, including Conger and Loving—to further highlight their mutual concerns.
During that period, Piatek continued to explore similar formal concerns in his highly-valent, protean tube motif, but experimented widely with painting techniques and materials ranging from old-master glazing techniques to methods adapted from modernists like Willem de Kooning to acrylic paint. These new methods—inspired by research for an SAIC painting course he developed—subtly shifted his work toward a more layered, soft-edged, painterly approach with a loosening of form, more rhythmic surface activity, and what was described as "unprecedented coloristic brilliance and spatial depth" (e.g., Glowing Forms, 1984). Critics identified a greater sense of eroticism in the work, alternately recalling the fleshy ruddiness of Rubens, the odalisques of Ingres, and musculature of Michelangelo. Reviews across several exhibitions also noted that this period brought the strength of Piatek's drawing forward, both within his paintings and in delicate willow and vine charcoal works on paper.
Collages, assemblages and installations
Piatek introduced a new medium to his more intimate body of work in an "upstairs-downstairs" format exhibition (Roy Boyd Gallery, 1987) that reflected his studio set-up: a decade's worth of collage-assemblages on the theme of art-making, which he displayed in a lower gallery beneath his paintings on the main floor. His collage work breaks with linear time, joining photocopy-transferred, early notebook images (of Piatek, his studio and ceremonial objects), present work, text and mythic forms in an overlay of memory and archetype that serves as both a psychic archaeology and connection to a greater collectivity. Critics such as Alan Artner and Andy Argy described these combinations of mixed-media, layered marks, surfaces and processes as among his most elaborate works—dark, stream-of-conscious pictorial diaries engaging long genealogies of cultural history that reveal the sensibilities and interplay of abstraction and figuration underlying his paintings, which distill such ideas to their essence.
In several later installations, Piatek extended this exploration of the creative process. The double-installations he mounted with his wife, painter Judith Geichman—Studio Process Residue (1999) and Picturing the Studio (2009)—explored studio residue (raw materials, sketches, books, sources) as an intimate companion text illuminating the artist's work; in both shows, they each created representations of their studios, including finished work. Almost Voyage Time/Traveler’s Report (2008) was an altar-like installation of two boat/pod forms from which paper tags marked with drawing, symbols and text fragments hung, suggesting a gathering of material for transformation. The installations Kerux Aion (2007–8) and Theater of the Concealed Index (2014) continued Piatek's emphasis on text and the act of mark-making, combining drawings of words with myriad tags or pieces of cut paper that were marked and painted, often with iconic symbols or patterns, and hung in rows by twine.
Teaching and writing
Piatek has taught art for more than four decades, primarily at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). After a year at Washington University in St. Louis (1973–4), and several years teaching part-time at SAIC (1971–2, 1974–84), he accepted a full-time position at SAIC in 1984, which he continues to hold . From 1990–3, he served as Co-Chair of the Painting Program with Richard Loving. In 1976, Piatek researched and reconceived the school's discontinued "Materials and Techniques of Painting" course, introducing contemporary theoretical discourse, such as that era's so-called "Death [End] of Painting crisis,” as well as a wide range of historical painting processes; the course has remained popular for over four decades. He also conceived and developed a longstanding lecture/studio course, "The Spiritual in Art," in 1991. Piatek has written and lectured about drawing, abstraction, regionalism, and the spiritual in art in Whitewalls and Chicago/Art/Write and at the College Art Association.
Collections and recognition
Piatek's work belongs to several public art collections, including those of the Art Institute of Chicago, MCA Chicago, Arkansas Art Center, C.N. Gorman Museum at UC Davis, Elmhurst College, Illinois State Museum, Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Smart Museum of Art, University Club of Chicago, and Washington State University Museum of Art. He has been awarded National Endowment for the Arts (1985), Illinois Arts Council (1980), and Francis Ryerson Foreign Travel (1967) fellowships, as well as the Pauline Palmer Award and John G. Curtis Prize from the Art Institute of Chicago, among honors.
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