Discovering the Treasures of an Artist from the Cass Corridor Movement

Paul Schwarz, “Exchange #20” (1981), paint, cut paper, 47 x 35.5 inches (image courtesy Paul Kotula Projects)

FERNDALE, Mich. — Despite living and attending art school in the heart of Detroit’s Cass Corridor neighborhood, the painter and intermedia artist Paul Schwarz is not readily associated with the Cass Corridor movement, one of the only major 20th-century fine art trends to emerge from Detroit.

Paul Schwarz, “Sequence” (1997), alkyd and cut paper on wood, 28.75 x 22.25 inches (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

This year, the gallerist Paul Kotula has organized two posthumous exhibitions of Schwarz’s work, collectively titled A Shadow is Never Still. Presented in two parts — Chapter One: 4:55 and Chapter Two: 7:00 — and across two locations, A Shadow is Never Still references an undated mixed-media drawing in which the artist captures the transformation of a mountain through the movement of the sun. The record began at 4:55am and ended at 7:00pm.

Chapter One: 4:55 was on display from June 22 to July 22 at Paul Kotula Projects and presented a selection of the artist’s noted collage and painting hybrids, sculpture, and works on paper (including many sketches never exhibited before). Kotula worked closely with Schwarz’s longtime companion and widow, the artist and poet Christine Monhollen, to include a selection of the artist’s dairies, collected imagery, and writings — all of which offer a window into the psychological and philosophical underpinnings of Schwarz’s highly intellectual and emotive work.

Paul Schwarz, “Philippe Petit translated by Paul Auster” (1994), alkyd on paper mounted on painted wood, pencil, 8 x 9 inches (image courtesy Paul Kotula Projects)

Many of these works read as extremely formal compositions, populated by layers of intersecting geometric shapes. It is clear, from the assorted ephemera and Kotula’s deep understanding of Schwarz’s work, that the artist considered these shapes to be a visual language, communicating patterns of light, quotidian routines, and interpersonal encounters. Whether these points of inspiration are readable to the untutored viewer is debatable, but they are lovely compositions, in a patchy and improvisational visual language that calls to mind Gee’s Bend quilts or collage art redacted to fields of color.

In charming contrast, Kotula also presents a series of Schwarz’s figurative, nearly diagrammatic drawings on paper, many of which feature chairs or the angles created by the shadows cast through them. These may be diagrams or precursors for a set of freestanding diorama boxes on pedestals — on display in both iterations of the show, including the second installment, which opened early September in the modernist space of 700 Livernois, formerly the seminally important Susanne Hilberry Gallery. The boxes feature miniaturized interiors of an artist studio and a kind of esoteric classroom with a chalkboard and raised symbols on the floor. In both the works on paper and the dioramas, chairs seem to serve as proxy figures. The dioramas, rendered in time-faded primary colors and staged within triangular cases, are simultaneously the most mysterious and the most straightforward of Schwartz’s works on display, literalizing a deep sense of the artist’s search for that which might be considered the calculus of life’s meaning.

One of Schwarz’s untitled dioramas (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

It’s only apt that Schwartz’s show is on display at the former gallery of Susanne Hilberry, whose appreciation for contemporary Detroit art came under the mentorship of the short-lived but influential Detroit Institute of Arts Curator of Contemporary Art, Sam Wagstaff — the most passionate advocate for Cass Corridor artists, and directly responsible for much of their fame. The gallery’s closure in the wake of Hilberry’s recent passing represents the end of an era, but one which, as the life’s work of Paul Schwarz demonstrates, still contains treasures to be found and drawn out of the ever-shifting shadows of time and memory.  

A Shadow is Never Still Chapter Two: 7:00 continues at 700 Livernois (formerly Susanne Hilberry Gallery) through October 28. Paul Kotula Projects will resume exhibitions at its Woodward space later this fall.

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