Tony Fitzpatrick: Journey of a Latter Day Flaneur

Essay by D. Eric Bookhardt

The Queen of Pink Acid - Click Images to Enlarge

As an artist whose work celebrates the life of city streets, especially but not exclusively those of his native Chicago, Tony Fitzpatrick defies categorization. In an age when American contemporary art can seem predictable, Fitzpatrick's prints, drawings and collages may appear paradoxical. While featuring familiar symbolic or iconic imagery derived from the urban or natural landscape, they often exude an exotic or archaic tone, as if products of a mindset only obliquely related to the preoccupations of the contemporary art world. And that may indeed be the case.

An autodidact who never went to college, Fitzpatrick began his career as a boxer, bouncer and bartender following a youth spent in and out of Catholic high schools as well as a stint in reform school for auto theft. A burly, gruffly affable bear of a man given to eloquent, profanity-laced pronouncements on a wide range of subjects, he has acted in motion pictures and on stage, most recently in Train Stories at Chicago's 16th Street Theater, which he wrote and performed as a tribute to the city's history as a railroad town, as well as to his late friend and mentor, the historian Studs Terkel. But it is his visual art, an oeuvre represented in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC, and the Art Institute of Chicago, that has supported him since he turned 27 in 1985.

Self-tutored but not naïf, Fitzpatrick approaches composition with the eye of the tattoo artist he once was. Forms, figures, signs and icons are arranged as carnivalesque constellations floating in space, constrained by a tension of centrifugal and centripetal forces orbiting the dark stars of cultural memory. And it is Fitzpatrick's handling of memory and place that provides much of the energy that propels his work, while also posing some of the challenges to its interpretation. As a consequence, he occupies a kind of critical terra incognita. Referring to his works in a 2005 exhibition, The Wonder: Portraits of a Remembered City, at Peirogi in Brooklyn, Roberta Smith wrote in the New York Times that his drawing-collages "win you over with their emotion and erudition," and then concluded, "they are best seen as highly disciplined exercises in nostalgia; their specificity reveals something new about the time and place they yearn for, as well as the medium they use." Fair enough, but while it may be easy to characterize Fitzpatrick is a kind of lowbrow Proust of the honky-tonks and back streets, that's not quite the whole story somehow. And while his ruminations on place, space and memory begin and end in Chicago, they also cover a wide range of other territories. An inveterate wanderer, he is drawn to locales that evince a profound sense of place including Tokyo, New Orleans and almost anywhere touched by the history of hobos or Native American Indians.

Inspired by Steinbeck, his Cannery Row Scarecrow collage, left, part of an Ammo Gallery show in New Orleans last October, is emblematic. Here star constellations, beads and fish bones appear punctuated by vintage matchbook illustrations and jazzy paper tidbits bearing hearts, flowers, skulls and fragments of street maps set against an inky black background. Stacked like tombstones off to the side are lines of blocky text: "He slept on Monterey Beach and dreamt of devilfish glowing in black-water schools of sardines. He dreamt of gin and pussy and water pouring from the stars." Scarecrows are actually a reference to hobo culture; they were often erected to ward off "bums" as well as birds. But his interest is as personal as it is sociological; his uncle Ray died tragically as a young man while attempting to hop a freight train.

Born to Chicago's hardscrabble South Side he has, in art as in life, cast his lot with the underdogs and those who live on the edge. In his work, the number 9 assumes a talismanic significance as evidenced in another small collage, The Devil's Music, below. Here a tawny 9 shines in a nocturnal sea of symbols, of floating music notes and metallic deco diamonds, of the lassos of cardboard cowboys and dice coming up snake eyes. Vintage high-rise towers and ads for flapper-era cafes vie with the visual cacophony of the city as an unsettling message appears on the margin: "She heard rolling piano jazz and the devil sat down at her table." His accompanying notes recall the "greasy laugh" of a friend who warned: "Tread lightly brother, you and me are already on our 9th life." But The Queen of Pink Acid, top, takes notions of chance and jazz to their ecstatic limit in a composition featuring an ebony elephant-woman sporting a golden crown and a party dress with crimson hearts over her breasts. A mauve number 9 shimmers as bouquets of daisies and the detached arms of antebellum damsels float in an ether of skulls and diamonds. A disembodied text implores: "Yes Baby, I been to the river. Now take me to the dance." Here we traverse a cryptic realm where Charles Baudelaire meets Marie Laveau, and where the siren song beckons, but only for those with lives to spare.

For his part, Fitzpatrick considers himself a "storyteller," and this too is a fair yet incomplete appraisal. It all goes back to his high school days and the nuns who sent him home for bad behavior, days when he would often find himself riding around with his father, a seller of burial plots and embalming fluid, as he meandered among funerary clients in his car, maintaining a steady banter about the places they passed and how they fit into the city's rambunctious history. He would later, after his father's death, revisit that fabled terrain of stockyards, factories, baseball and beer in a series of etchings and poems published in 2001 as a book titled Bum Town. His poems describe arteries like Western Avenue, with its "car lots lit up like the Carnival or St. Rocco's Day. Then like now, Western looks like the girl with too much eye-shadow." But his etchings such as Lost Harbor, above, and Sad Robot, above right, like his collages, allude to stories rather than telling them. They are not so much narrative as experiential--psychically seismic registrations of impressions, or visual schematics of memory reduced to signs aligned like the hieratic arcana of tarot cards or star charts.

In this he is not unlike another inveterate wanderer and self-taught artist, Joseph Cornell, who for years meandered about Manhattan, first as a purveyor of fabrics in the Garment District, later simply as a seeker of small wonders and symbolic objects to be reconstituted as visual epiphanies. Both can be aptly described as flaneurs in the classical sense delineated by Baudelaire, as boulevardiers for whom the journey is the destination.

For a Fitzpatrick or Cornell, the city is a crucible of conflicting cultures whose meaning must be divined, a task that involves transmuting the impersonal into the intimate by way of a kind of symbolic alchemy. This harks to Baudelaire's notion of the flaneur as one whose presence humanizes city streets by keenly observing and experiencing life directly, without preconceptions, a phenomenological approach that induces the epiphanous sense of intimacy that Fitzpatrick and Cornell share despite their disparate personalities. Their works reflect what the great phenomenologist, Gaston Bachelard, described as the power of places, spaces and things to inspire reverie. Or as he famously put it: "We cover the universe with drawings we have lived. These drawings need not be exact. They need only to be tonalized on the mode of our inner space."

Walter Benjamin put forth related ideas in his Passagen-Werk (translated as The Arcades Project) in which he rhetorically explores the arcades, the covered shopping streets of Paris, as the kaleidoscopic nexus of early 20th century capitalism's collision with formerly more intimate areas of life and work. Here he elaborated his notion of "critical pedestrianism," and concluded that "Surrealism was born in an arcade," which he meant literally--the early Surrealists often met at a café in the Passage de l'Opera--as well as metaphorically. The Surrealists were flaneurs by temperament and the streets often provided their raw materials as well as the basis for their transformation.

A distinct yet related sensibility lies at the heart of Fitzpatrick's etchings and collages, the contents of which are the talismanic residue of a modern flaneur's journey through streets where the past and the present, the prosaic and the cosmic, coexist in a perceptual time-space continuum. Streets inhabited by the ghosts of his father and his rail-riding uncle Ray, and rolling piano jazz as well as the friend with the "greasy laugh" who admonished him to "tread lightly" for "you and me are already in our 9th life."

An earlier version of this essay appeared in Art Papers.