If you live in downtown Chicago you sometimes get the feeling that you inhabit a Barbara Crane photograph – that is how synonymous Crane’s vision has become over the past 60 years with the Midwestern urban experience of its grids and grit. Crane turned 90 years old this year, which was reason to celebrate her artwork at Catherine Edelman Gallery (through April 28) and Stephen Daiter Gallery (through May 5) with concurrent exhibitions of different bodies of work. These shows reveal Crane’s ability to capture the heart of the city without succumbing to the cliché of its architectural skyline. Crane frequently focuses on people and their communities, itself an architecture of social interaction.
She is a modernist to the core who embraced the changes in her medium as it evolved. First came image-making in series, a mechanical, pre-digital method learned from her teachers – Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind, and Arthur Siegel. She carried the banner of the New Bauhaus (which landed in Chicago when Moholy-Nagy migrated here) most explicitly, becoming a famed experimenter, producing multiple exposures and manipulated Polaroids, always with the knowledge and precedents of her medium’s history. She was not chasing chaos: even a short flirtation with abstraction churned out images of systematic nuance. These are the Polaroid Grids of 1980, where unique prints are placed side by side and scratched in various ways to find pattern and color. She challenged Polaroid’s proclivity for the unique print by attempting to homogenize them in a color grid. As the company’s artist in residence in the late 1970s, she was given unlimited supply to its film. She recalls the era as “Polaroid flowing like wine,” and it is one of her most successful series.
Although no work here is newer than 2012 – the latest is another Polaroid series called Little Darlings, which pictures public displays of intimacy – we are told that Crane is working on a new book project. While we wait, we can bask in her classic series, studies of humans, animals, and architecture that are at once iconic and yet never tired.