Cass Corridor, Connecting Times: Michael Luchs
April 21 – May 28, 2017
Image: Michael Luchs’ studio, Lewiston, Michigan, January 2017
Simone DeSousa Gallery is pleased to present Cass Corridor: Connecting Times, a series of exhibitions of past Cass Corridor artists curated by Nancy Mitchnick. The project opens on Friday, April 21, with a solo exhibition of works by Michael Luchs, including paintings, works on paper, and models, from 1990 to 2016.
From the mid sixties through the late seventies, Cass Corridor was the home of an art community that at the time was regarded as Detroit’s avant-garde, a counter-culture art movement shaped by the anxieties of the city—poverty, race, the Viet Nam war, industrial decline—and the optimism of new life styles, protests, music, and art. Often described as “Urban Expressionism,” the art was usually tough and gritty, process-oriented, and personal, but in contrast with its general reputation, it could also be lyrical and delicate, systematic and elegant. It was art of resistance and survival.
This intense scene of cultural production was centered on the stretch of Cass from Warren south, and the block formed by Canfield and Willis was at its heart, a neighborhood occupied by Willis Gallery, bars (Cobb’s, Traffic Jam), and the artists’ studios of Common Ground. For the past nine years, Simone DeSousa Gallery has occupied a piece of this same block. With the upcoming series of exhibitions, Cass Corridor: Connecting Times, the gallery seeks to stimulate a conversation about what happened then and where we are now. How does this art speak to us today, as we engage our own social/political upheavals and conflicts?
This series of exhibitions is curated by Nancy Mitchnick, an artist who was part of the Cass Corridor art community from its beginning. She gives us a very personal glimpse of that time, reminding us of some of its central figures, its diverse aesthetics, and its dynamic cultural engagement. Mitchnick left Detroit in 1973, at the height of its energy. Since her return, she is again a very active artist in the city. She brings us her knowledge of both the then and the now of Detroit art, giving us a perspective on how that earlier Cass Corridor speaks to us today.
Image: Michael Luchs, Untitled (Rabbit) 2016, mixed media on paper, 41 x 51 inches
When Simone DeSousa asked if I was interested in curating a show about the Cass Corridor from my perspective, I could not imagine it. I had left Detroit at the end of the summer in 1973.
Still the Cass Corridor was my painting heart’s birthplace. And I began to think of Greggi Murphy whom no one remembers, and Michael Luchs who has been a recluse for thirty years, and how important to me it all was, so I figured I would take it on.
My version of the Cass Corridor started before we invented the Willis Gallery, I was there in the beginning. I left when it was still hot. My perspective is very limited. I made paintings that were not abstract, and I was not wrestling down modernism. I don’t think the guys and Ellen Phelan knew they were wrestling down Modernism either, but they were on the cutting edge. I have always been an outsider, on the inside, sort of.
Detroit was alive. The neighborhoods were dangerous. We did not notice. Cobb’s Corner was a great bar. The art department at Wayne State had a cool painting teacher from Yale, John Egner. Michael Luchs was inventing a kind of matrix that influenced many of the wilder artists deeply. And Sam Wagstaff turned up at the DIA.
I remember sitting in the Kresge court, (it was austere and magical then.) We would turn up for lunch or coffee and hang out for hours. One afternoon Greggi shocked me to the marrow, “oooowwwweeee there is a new curator, we should meet him.” “Greggi, we can’t meet him, what are you talking about?” “Sure we can, his office is right down that hall. He would like us.”
Then he got up, scuffled down the hall, and introduced himself to Sam Wagstaff. He told Sam there were a lot of good artists around.”
Sam made a date to meet up at the Bar. And a different version of our scene began.
It never occurred to me that we would ever have an audience. And frankly before we did, it was less competitive and wilder. We were just a bunch of young, intense, talented, almost artists trying to figure it out.
They took risks. They drank and smoked a lot of pot. They played drums in the middle of the night and carried on with the kind of intensity that was real and rare. And they talked, and argued, and disagreed, and pissed each other off. It was great. The late sixties was a time of innocence really. We still believed the world was going to get better and more interesting. Detroit was producing steel and cars. And young people were inventing themselves. We were not imitating anyone. After all, Rock and Roll was new.
– Nancy Mitchnick
Michael Luchs (b. Portsmouth, Ohio 1938)Michael Luchs was among the celebrated Detroit Cass Corridor painters and sculptors in the 1960s and 1970s. Luchs graduated from Olivet College (Olivet, Michigan) in 1961, and attended the University of Michigan in 1964 before moving to Detroit, where he studied at Wayne State University (1966-68).Luchs’ work was featured in the Detroit Institute of Arts exhibition, Kick Out the Jams: Detroit’s Cass Corridor, 1963-1977, which took place in 1980 (and also traveled to Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art), and written up in Art in America as part of a major spread on the Detroit’s art scene.Luchs’ work has become closely identified with a single image, that of a rabbit, which first appeared in a series of paintings on paper done between 1966 and 1968, which included other images as well—frogs, moths, a snake in a jar, an Indian, flowers in a vase. In the inaugural exhibition of the Willis Gallery (of which Luchs was a founding member) in 1971 he showed a series of spray paintings on paper or board in which an ovoid shape was the dominant image. In 1972, for the exhibition “12 Statements: Beyond the 60’s” at the Detroit Art Institute, Luchs installed a large (24 feet by 20 feet) abstract floor piece, White Papers, made out of paper, tape, and graphite. Luchs next series, wall pieces fabricated out of scrap metal, wire rolled paper, and other salvaged objects arranged in long, narrow, horizontal configurations, was featured in a one-person exhibition at the Willis in 1974. As a commission for collector James Duffy’s warehouse (1975), he constructed a mixed-media relief in a vertical format, its disintegrating appearance emphasized by the fact that many of its elements had been partially burned (Luchs achieved a similar effect by occasionally shooting at his pieces with a gun).Vince Carducci, in “Revolutionary rabbits” (MetroTimes, December 8, 2004) wrote about Michael Luchs’ work:
“While they all share the same iconic image, each individual work is unique in terms of the techniques used to create it. In some pieces, the rabbit is buried under skeins of sprayed or smeared enamel paint; in others, it emerges from the negative space of heavily worked areas defining the contours around its shape. In the more visceral works, the rabbit outline is forcefully scratched into the surface of the paper, which is barely held together by layers of duct tape applied to the back. The metallic sheen of gold, silver and copper in some pieces has a primordial presence, while the frailty of the collaged elements in others seems to threaten disintegration at any moment.
This dichotomy of the timeless and the ephemeral is part of what makes Luchs’ work from 20 years ago still significant. On one level, it’s the ars longa, vita brevis (“art is long, life is short”) philosophy. Luchs’ art is an existential protest of a way of life slipping away; the response of an artist to a city, once the dynamo of the modern age, in the process of falling into ruin. Looking at Luchs’ work today is a reminder of just how much things have indeed changed. The art endures, however, still resonating with the creative spirit that brought these material objects into being. There’s also something about the specific conditions under which the work was made that links the Detroit art scene of the time to broader currents.
In promoting the Cass Corridor movement (an outgrowth of the legendary Detroit Artists’ Workshop), art world gatekeepers like then DIA curator Jay Belloli came up with the term “urban expressionism” to distinguish it from the cool objectivity of minimalism and the dry immateriality of conceptual art that, at the time, ruled aesthetic theory. As the argument went, the deeply committed and physical Cass Corridor work was noteworthy as a regional countercurrent to the so-called mainstream emanating from New York. But instead of being reactionary, the Cass Corridor was right on trend.
The Whitney Museum of American Art declared the birth of “New Image Painting” in 1978, and neo-expressionism was in full swing by the time of Luchs’ 1981 Feigenson Gallery show. Luchs can be considered a pioneer of what we now call postmodernist art, alongside Julian Schnabel, Susan Rothenberg and especially Anselm Keifer, whose forest mythology pieces are artistic cousins of Luchs’ rabbits.
Romantic self-determination permeates the best Cass Corridor art, and the bootstrapping aesthetic of Luchs’ rabbits exemplifies it.”
Michael Luchs has worked in rural settings for the last several years, and currently lives in Lewiston, Michigan, with his wife artist Kathryn Brackett Luchs.
His work is part of several collections including the Detroit Institute of Arts, Wayne State University James Duffy Collection, University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA), and the Cranbrook Academy of Art Museum, as well as several private collections throughout the United States.
He was recently part of the 2017 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, in New York, where he was the recipient of the Academy’s 2017 Art and Purchase Award.