An exhibition that begs the question ‘Is Pinball a Legitimate Art Form?’
In recent years, there have been several art exhibitions in the greater Chicago area that have attempted to tell the story of how pinball, art and Chicago are interwoven. I feel none have done as complete and easily-absorbed presentation as the current showing of Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago at the Elmhurst Art Museum.
The exhibit’s Curator, New York’s Dan Nadel, has studied and written books and articles on the Hairy Who Chicago Imagist artist’s collective which have many works displayed in this exhibition.
Dan is also the co-editor of The Comics Journal and has published essays and critiques in such publications as The Washington Post, Frieze and Bookforum. Dan has curated past exhibitions presenting psychedelic and alternative art collections for museums in New York, Los Angeles and Lucerne, Switzerland.
Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago has three elements of interest for the Pinball News reader.
The exhibition has sixteen classic games loaned to the museum by Jim Schelberg, Logan Arcade, Scott Sheridan, Mark Weyna, Sharon Paschke, Vince Giovannone and Steven Malach. These games are intended to not only be viewed as works of ‘visual’ art, but also played as ‘interactive’ art that ﬂashes, makes sounds and captures the visitor’s imagination.
Games from the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s are represented;
- Gottlieb’s Kings and Queens, Atlantis, Sheriff, Duotron and Expressway
- Bally’s Fireball, Old Chicago and Nip-It
- Williams’ Apollo, Black Knight, Black Knight 2000, Blackout, Time Warp, Firepower, Gorgar and Spanish Eyes
It is worth noting that Elmhurst was the spiritual ‘home’ of D. Gottlieb and Co. who in the 1960s-1970s produced pinball machines considered to be the ‘Cadillac’ of pinball games.
In the main exhibition gallery alongside the Williams Blackout game is the original oil on canvas Blackout (1980) proposal for the game’s backglass, designed and painted by Ed Paschke who, of course, was well-known in the Chicago Imagist art scene and had his works featured in Playboy magazine and, for a number of years, in the ﬁrst ﬂoor windows of the Carson, Pirie, Scott and Company department store.
Ed’s proposal for Blackout was deemed to be too ‘far out’ by Williams executives and it was adjusted in collaboration with frequent collaborator Constantino Mitchell to bring it a little closer to a normal pinball style of artwork.
The exhibition shows a number of Paschke’s works such as Cobmaster, Chicaucus, Hairy Shoes, and Green Ava. Mitchell is also represented in the exhibition with his acrylics Deadly Weapon, Female Thunderball, Robo-War backglass and Thunderball backglass.
The last pinball collaboration by Paschke and Mitchell would be the backglass for Gottlieb’s Bad Girls (1988).
Any exhibition of Chicago Imagist art would be incomplete without at least some of the works of Barbara Rossi, Christina Ramberg, Ed Flood, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, Roger Brown, Ray Yoshida and Suellen Rocca.
Elmhurst Art Museum comes through with high marks by showing some of the most iconic works from these artists including Wirsum’s Click (1971) and Nutt’s Ofﬁcer Doodit (1968) which have become larger than life examples of the Chicago Imagist style.
If pinball wasn’t invented in Chicago, the so called ‘second city’ has become pinball’s center of gravity and where it has achieved its pop culture status.
An impressive number of pinball’s classic manufacturers such as Bally, Williams, Gottlieb, Data East, and Chicago Coin as well as many of pinball’s best recognized personalities such as engineer Jim Shird, author-historian Roger C. Sharpe and artist Greg Freres have at one time called Chicago their home city. Stern Pinball, probably the largest pinball company in the world, designs and produces new games in Chicago to this day.
Many reasons exist for this, such as the large graphic arts community found in Chicago’s advertising agencies and the Chicago art collectives such as the Hairy Who and and other self-described artistic outsiders drawing (no pun intended!) inspiration from comic books, carnivals and arcades.
The presence of such incubators as the School of the Chicago Art Institute, Northwestern University, The Chicago Cultural Center, and the Whitney Museum of American Art (to name but a few) each made signiﬁcant contributions to the pinball-friendly climate in Chicago.
During the early 1930s when pinball was beginning to become popular in America, Chicago was becoming known as a capitol of ‘adult’ entertainment. This rubbed off on pinball possibly in error and possibly not. Many pinball games in Chicago were in fact owned and operated by ‘gangsters’; as many cash-based businesses were in those days.
Likely because of pinball’s ties to the mob, mayors of cities such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles came to the conclusion that pinball was a form of gambling rather than an entertaining game of skill. Former New York mayor LaGuardia even went so far as to label pinball as a ‘tool from the devil’.
Elmhurst Art Museum’s Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago blends and ferments these three elements into a brew worthy of the latest frothy yellow refreshment from Two Brothers Brewing in Warrenville, IL.
By coincidence or design, Two Brothers Brewing supplied samples of their new craft brewed American Pale Ale Pinball for the opening night of Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago on February 24th. I’m sure that you are thinking that Martin sent me to cover the exhibition because there was beer, and you’d be half right.
In addition to the exhibition itself, Elmhurst Art Museum has planned these events as an enhancement and extension of it:
18th March at 1:30pm – Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago and Elmhurst College collection highlights tour with Suellen Rocca.
31st March at 6pm – Documentary ﬁlm screening of Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists at Elmhurst College
21st April at 6pm – Talk with Suellen Rocca, Curator and Director of Exhibitions at Elmhurst College
29th April at 12pm – Tilt Roger Brown eyeballs popular culture. Works from 1970-1997 presented and discussed
29th April at 1:30pm – Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago and Elmhurst College collection highlights tour with Suellen Rocca
Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago runs until 7th May, 2017 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, after which a modified version will run from 19th May to 21st August, 2017 at the Illinois State Museum.