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Ed Paschke: 1939 -- 2004
Visionary painter took art to new level
By Alan G. Artner
Tribune art critic
Ed Paschke, 65, one of the most celebrated Chicago-born painters for three decades and an artist known as much for his generosity as for his work, died in his sleep at his North Side home, apparently on the morning of Thursday, Nov. 25.
Paschke's body was discovered on Thanksgiving by his daughter, Sharon, with whom he had lived. She said heart problems ran in the family, and Paschke had "a slight heart murmur" under medical attention. The exact cause of death is unknown.
"Talk about losing the good guys," said Tony Jones, president of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Paschke's alma mater. "I can't think of anybody `gooder' than Ed. He was always the first person to ask about what he could do. He was famous but never wore a mantle. He was very gentle, quiet and articulate, a regular guy--the exact opposite of his sometimes lurid pictures."
Paschke came to attention in the late 1960s with a group of funky Chicago fantasts known as Imagists. Of all of them, he was the one most traditional insofar as his work was rooted in realism. Paschke's early vision was at once startling, threatening and freakish, but it remained, nonetheless, the work of an urban realist.
"Ed was at the center of the Imagist movement in Chicago but always pursued a somewhat separate course," said Neal Benezra, director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the former curator at the Art Institute of Chicago who in 1989 gave Paschke a full-scale retrospective that traveled to Paris. "One of the things I always loved about him was how comfortable he was in his own skin, in his work and in his place in the world."
Paschke's first solo exhibition in Chicago was in 1970; four years later he had his first show in Paris, at the Darthea Speyer Gallery, by whom he continued to be represented. He returned from the opening of a new exhibition there weeks ago. It was a relationship unusual among Chicago artists who matured in the 1960s. When his retrospective appeared at the Pompidou Center in 1990, he already had a broad following.
"He was an important image-maker internationally," said Lynne Warren, curator at Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art. "Many people perhaps don't realize how forward-looking he was. He took from many sources: the American vernacular, comic book imagery and so on. So many things that now are important to a younger generation he was doing all along, in fascinating canvases with powerful color."
Strong as Paschke's early canvases were, in the late 1970s he began to have doubts about them, feeling they made a sensational first impression, then diminished in impact. This led him to a radically different look, less photographic than electronic. It was as if the dramatic interactions took place on irregularly functioning video screens that flattened or dissolved parts of the images, adding various sorts of interference. This suggested that, unlike some acclaimed artists, Paschke always moved forward.
"My father was a very humble person," said Marc Paschke. "What he got from his father he gave to me. And that was the feeling that everything might at any time disappear. So he worked six days a week. And on Sunday he sat around the house making drawings with a bad ballpoint pen. It was the working-class ethic his father gave him. He constantly felt he needed to keep working."
Nevertheless, Paschke had time for others.
"For young artists coming up, he always held out a hand," said artist Tony Fitzpatrick. "He mentored us. I knew him for 20 years. He was an older-brother figure to me. I admired him since I was a kid. It was akin to watching Michael Jordan play, getting to meet him and then playing the same game."
Paschke's fame actually extended to appearing on a mural with Jordan for a menswear store and doing television commercials for an automobile. This he did in addition to teaching at Northwestern University and raising a family.
"A lot of people knew him because of his work as a creative person," Marc Paschke said. "What they don't know is how devoted he was to his wife. She has Parkinson's disease and has been in a nursing home for 12 years. Given his schedule, he still found the time to get over there almost every day to stimulate her, to help her to draw. And that was the same with us. I honestly don't recall even a single time in which he missed any event having to do with us kids."
Paschke once jokingly called his later paintings the "Most Famous Faces in the History of Civilization," as they included everyone from Abraham Lincoln to Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa and famous sculptures from antiquity. They were created with a technical command admired by even those who resisted his early subject matter. Their meanings were, however, elusive, none more so than the pieces on military power he showed at the Maya Polsky Gallery in Chicago earlier this year.
Explored new technology
"His every exhibition was a new frontier," Polsky said. "He never rested on his laurels. He always wanted to experiment with new technology, and we were privileged to be the first gallery to show his computer-generated images ... [and] his wall reliefs."
Paschke was also much in demand to curate exhibits and donate works to various charity events. He seldom refused. Even before he became famous, he was known for feeling that part of an artist's responsibility was to bring along others.
"I just did a large commission for Aon tower," said painter Wesley Kimler. "It came through Ed. He suggested me. I think all [artists] loved him. He was the finest, most generous guy in the Chicago art world, and it will never be the same without him."
Paschke's opinion of what he was about proved characteristically modest: "I wanted to be an interpreter of my time," he said in 1990. "One's work is always autobiographical, reflecting your life at the time you did it. I've always felt I was like a filtration system, processing materials floating around me, attempting to select, emphasize and editorialize. Life is the raw material. I try to make something out of it."