Elmhurst Art Museum takes a new look at work of Richard Koppe

Though his work is largely forgotten today except by mid-century-modern art enthusiasts, Chicago abstract painter Richard Koppe had a prominent national reputation in his time, highlighted by an exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Like to see why? Check out “Richard Koppe,” the first retrospective of the late artist’s work in more than 40 years, beginning Sept. 6 at the Elmhurst Art Museum.

“We’re thrilled to be able to share his work with a new generation,” said EAM Chief Curator Staci Boris. “He was a quintessential modernist, very influenced by all the early-20th-century modernists including Picasso, Braque, Matisse, Leger, Micro, Kandinsky, Paul Klee and all the Bauhaus artists.”

Boris first became familiar with Koppe’s work in the mid-’90s when she included him in a retrospective Art in Chicago show at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Koppe’s last major exhibition had been at the MCA in 1969, a period when he was teaching at the University of Illinois in Chicago and shifting from abstract expressionism to hard-edged graphic designs, influenced by ’60s pop art.

Most of the 70 pieces in the EAM show, however, are drawn from the earlier decades of his career, from the 1940s to the early ’60s, in keeping with the museum’s emphasis on mid-century art — inspired by its 1952 Mies van der Rohe-designed McCormick house. That means the show will feature some of Koppe’s popular (even today among collectors) abstract fish designs, originally created in 1948 for undersea-themed murals commissioned by Chicago’s long-gone Sherman House Hotel.

“His fish-pattern design items are still traded on ebay and other places,” Boris said. “They’re linear, elegant, skeletal designs of fish and birds that teeter on the border between representation and abstraction: very stylized, very abstract and very 1950s.”

“There’s a playful quality, a sense of humor in many of his works. He combines an aspect of fantasy, an aspect of surrealism and an aspect of cubism in a way that’s very engaging.”

‘Richard Koppe’

Elmhurst Art Museum, 150 Cottage Hill Ave., Elmhurst

10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and Saturday; 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 6 to Jan. 11

Opening reception 6:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 12

Admission is $5; $3 for students and seniors (630) 834-0202; http://elmhurstartmuseum.org/

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