CHICAGO – The National Hellenic Museum has this month launched the first retrospective exhibit commemorating visual artist George Kokines (1930-2012). George Kokines: Layers Revealed showcasesover 60 paintings, tracing Kokines’ artistic development and accomplishments as an abstract expressionist, and his journey to embrace his Greek American identity.
Created with nontraditional materials including cement, plaster, cork, wax and metal,Kokines’ works are known for their bold color, textured surfaces, and sense of movement. His art employed free-form organic and geometrical forms, abstract figures and intense spaces of color. He inserted humor, references to Greek mythology, and his life experiences into his work.Kokines was also known to rework older pieces many times over, often carving through the layers he had built up on the surface – a technique known as palimpsest.
Born to immigrant parents in Chicago, he was a student of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned a BFA in 1960. According to a report by the Chicago Tribune, Kokinesworked for Playboy thereafter. In a turn of fate after losing his job in 1962, he received the Art Institute’s Frank G. Logan prize for emerging artists. This award helped paved the way for Kokines’ career as a professional artist.
“(George Kokines) worked with exuberance, and at times he told people that it felt like the paintings just poured out of him,” said Dr. Laura Calamos Nasir, president at the National Hellenic Museum.
Kokines left Chicago in 1966, taking a chance on New York where he spent the next 40 years painting. He was a witness of the September 11th attacks at the World Trade Center, an event that shook him, inspiring his collection “September 11,” which is comprised of three works – “Agios Nikolas,” “Ground Zero,” and “The Sky Above.”
The pieces,first exhibited together in 2011 prior to the artist’s death the following year, are now on display at the National Hellenic Museum.The exhibit also includes small accordion booklets that Kokines made by hand, sketchbooks, and his travel journals, including the journal he kept when he traveled to Greece to visit the villages of each of his parents in 1993.
On his trip to Greece, Kokines came to the realization that his roots directly influenced his work. “[Kokines] had been painting waves throughout his career, but when he arrived in Greece, he realized that he had been touched by his Greek heritage without ever having visited Greece before,” Calamos Nasir said.
“We visited the ruins of 16th century BC and found things that related to my work, work of mine that appeared as if I had used these ruins as a model. I was amazed. It took Lois to point out how much it related to me. I passed through the windows she opened and began to understand my own work. All the time I thought I was abstract to myself. There is nothing abstract about my work. I felt exhilarated. I felt full circle. I felt this was what I came from and it felt good, Kokines wrote in his Greek travel journal.
The exhibition’s final piece, “Koroni,” is the last piece Kokines ever completed. Painted in shades of blue, it was inspired by the view of the Aegean Sea from the village of Koroni, his mother’s hometown.
A critically acclaimed artist early on in his career, Kokines was a prominent figure in the Chicago art community. He was also a mentor in the arts, teaching through artist-in-residence positions at Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as well as teaching classes at NYU and RISD.His work has been featured in national and international museums and galleries, including, among others, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum, the Richard Gray Gallery, the Centro Cultural in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and the Palazzo Massari in Ferrara, Italy.
Throughout his career, Kokines created artwork inspired by his personal experiences, ancient history and Greek roots. “In today’s society, these observations are all still relevant to us all and we can explore how an artist considers history as an inspiration for personal reflection and expression through art,” Calamos Nasir said.
George Kokines: Layers Revealed is presented as part of Art Design Chicago, an initiative of the Terra Foundation for American Art exploring Chicago’s art and design legacy, with presenting partner The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.
Founded in Chicago as the Hellenic Museum and Cultural Center (HMCC) in 1983, the HMCC moved to the city’s Greektown neighborhood in 2004 and opened its current location on Halsted Street as the National Hellenic Museum in 2011.