Nettelhorst School
Contemporary Chicago, 1939

Louis Nettelhorst School, main corridor, 3252 North Broadway
Oil on canvas, 7' x 23'
Artist: Rudolph Weisenborn (1881-1974)
Commissioned by: the Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project
Restored by: the Board of Education, 1996

Contemporary Chicago is unlike any other extant WPA mural in Chicago. Most were painted in a realistic manner, but the mural in the main corridor of the Nettelhorst School is abstract. Rudolph Weisenborn's work has been described "as a unique marriage of the modernist formal vocabulary with a contemporary Chicago subject" in Susan Weininger's essay on modernism in Chicago in The Old Guard and the Avant-Garde, edited by Sue Ann Prince. The artist, who spent most of his career in Chicago, was an activist in the flourishing art scene of the twenties and thirties and one of a group of Chicago artists who were considered rebels. Many had seen the radical Armory Show at the Art Institute in 1913 and were familiar with the European movements of cubism, expressionism, and fauvism. They promoted nonjuried art exhibitions and were concerned with freeing themselves from their academic training and its adherence to tradition. Still, Weisenborn's commitment to the abstract style was rare in the city. Recognizable in the mural, through close inspection, are symbols for night life, as a seated woman in high heels, cigarette in hand, and for commerce and trade, indicated by the suggestion of a city center with boats and planes. Also depicted in the modernist manner are Chicago's famous Union Stock Yards and the meatpacking business, shown by representations of a cow and a cowboy. Elements of steel mills and steelworkers speak of the machine age of the 1930s. The images are arranged along the length of the mural like irregularly shaped pieces of a vibrantly colored abstract puzzle. Weisenborn also created the only nonobjective painting shown at Chicago's 1933 Century of Progress Exposition.

Nettelhorst School, Rudolph Weisenborn, Contemporary Chicago, oil on canvas, 1939. Photograph by James Prinz Photography; © 1999, the Art Institute of Chicago, all rights reserved.

An image from A Guide to Chicago's Murals by Mary Lackritz Gray

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