Born in Chicago to German parents and orphaned at age nine, Rudolph Weisenborn led a peripatetic life during his youth before settling in Colorado, where he worked as a cowboy and gold miner. In Denver, he enrolled in the Students’ School of Art and studied there for four years under Henry Reed and Jean Mannheim, a German-born, French-trained artist. Weisenborn followed a traditional academic curriculum, drawing from casts for two years before working with live models. Even as a young artist, he rebelled against the strictures of what he believed to be a stifling approach to art, stating, “It took me ten years to get it out of my system.”
After ten years in Colorado, a visit to an exhibition of Impressionist paintings – described by Weisenborn as “big gusts of fresh air from the mountain tops” – catalyzed a shift in his art. He relocated to Chicago in 1913 to seek out the vitality and dynamism of urban life, and held his first solo show there at the Molten and Rickettes Gallery. Weisenborn quickly became a driving force for Modernism in the city through both his art and his activism. He spearheaded several important anti-institutional exhibitions and progressive artist groups, organizing the Salon des Refusés in 1919 with fellow artists Ramon Shiva and Raymond Jonson, and co-founding the Chicago No-Jury Society of Artists in 1922, where he served as president from 1922–27. In 1926 Weisenborn started the interdisciplinary group Neo-Arlimusc to promote interaction between artists, writers, musicians, and scientists, and in 1936 helped establish the New York-based American Abstract Artists Group.
Weisenborn thrived in the lively artistic environment in Chicago in the early decades of the 20th century. Encounters with the proto-Cubist work of French artist Paul Cézanne and other avant-garde artists spoke to Weisenborn’s “language of the modern world and its new vision.” His portraits, landscapes, and cityscapes from the 1920s and 1930s reflect a thoughtful synthesis of his “own experiments, visions, [and] feelings” with a modernist vocabulary drawn from Cubism, Futurism, Vorticism, and Expressionism. Weisenborn was deeply committed to moving beyond naturalistic representation, declaring that “the motivation is abstract, the result is abstract.”
Weisenborn’s large-scale canvas Chicago (1928, Illinois State Museum) manifests the artist’s intent to create “a vital organization instead of a static composition” in his abstractions. Credited as the first abstract painting to be shown at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1928, Chicago generated an unusual amount of press coverage and was a considerable sensation.
For more than thirty years Weisenborn’s paintings, drawings, and prints continued to generate a lively dialogue among artists, viewers, and critics about Abstraction, Modernism, and artistic experimentation. He participated in numerous group and solo exhibitions, showing frequently at Chicago venues from 1914 to 1965 including the Art Institute of Chicago (from 1918 to 1949 and again in 1965), the Salon des Refusés, the Renaissance Society, and the No-Jury Society of Artists, as well as in New York, Albuquerque, and other cities. During the Depression, Weisenborn executed several murals for the Works Progress Administration. In 1933 he contributed the only non-objective painting shown at Chicago’s Century of Progress Exposition. His reputation grew beyond Chicago as well, with two solo shows in New York in 1947 and 1948.
During the 1950s and 1960s, the artist expanded his subject matter with travels outside of Chicago, spending several summers in Provincetown and later returning to the mountains and red terrain of New Mexico. His abstractions from these decades employ a hard-edged geometry and bright, vivid colors. Weisenborn continued to manifest a restless curiosity and energetic output well into his eighties, exhibiting his work at a massive critic’s choice exhibition at the Werner’s Bookstore Gallery in Chicago in 1951, and a large retrospective in 1965 at the Rosenstone Art Gallery, Bernard Horwich Center, also in Chicago. Writing in the Chicago Daily News about the 1951 exhibition, Chicago critic C. J. Bulliet declared, “Rudolph Weisenborn at 70 is still the strong and progressive painter he was in 1922.” Weisenborn’s oeuvre offers a rich visual history of the complex narrative of Modern art in the 20th century and affirms his legacy as one of the Chicago’s foremost abstract painters.