Arts & Minds: An innovative design firm, a scandalous play, and a pioneering immigrant artist

Hedy Weiss previews exhibits on Goldsholl Studios and Todros Geller as well as the Victory Gardens production of Sholem Asch's Indecent.

7up image
The “See the Light” campaign billboard for 7-Up (1975), created by Goldsholl Design Associates. Photo courtesy of Block Museum.

Up is Down: Mid-Century Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio --(Sept. 18 - Dec. 9 at the Block Museum of Art, Evanston)

Fans of the TV series  Mad Men  might be convinced that the advertising world of the 1950s and '60s was confined to New York. A new multimedia exhibition at Northwestern University's Block Museum -- "Up is Down: Mid-Century Experiments in Advertising and Film at the Goldsholl Studio"--should go a long way in correcting that perception. In fact, the Chicago area advertising firm that was led by the husband-and-wife team of Morton and Millie Goldsholl from the 1950s through the 1970s could easily hold its own against Don Draper and company. 

Billed as the first major exhibition to explore the trailblazing work of these mid-20th century artists, designers, and filmmakers and their advertising firm, Goldsholl Associates, "Up is Down" explores the many ways in which they applied experimental and avant-garde filmmaking techniques to advertising and brand development. Along the way they produced television spots, educational films, trademarks, corporate identities, and print ads for such formidable clients as Kimberley-Clark, the National Football League, Revlon, Motorola, and 7-Up. 

Morton (1911-1995) and Millie (1920-2012) met when they were both working at a box factory in Chicago. Both attended Chicago's School of Design (which became the Illinois Institute of Technology), where they were heavily influenced by its fabled Hungarian founder, artist László Maholy-Nagy, a major force in the Bauhaus movement that flourished in pre-World War II Germany. And like Maholy-Nagy, they emphasized the use of abstraction, experimentation, and the exploration of materials (especially light). 

"The Goldsholls arrived on the scene at a time of great change in corporate America," said Corinne Granof, co-curator (with Amy Beste) of the exhibit. "And Chicago not only had a robust corporate environment but was considered 'the Hollywood of educational filmmaking,' and was the headquarters of Encyclopedia Britannica."  

"Among the firm's many innovative designs was the futuristic insignia for Motorola which remains pretty much the same today. The Goldsholls also were the first to devise hugely successful paint chip card displays for a division of Sherwin-Williams." 

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Sholem Asch's  Indecent --(Sept. 21-Nov. 4 at Victory Gardens Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago)

The vibrant world of Yiddish theater thrived from the late 19th century until World War II in countries throughout Central and Eastern Europe, as well as in such cities as London and Berlin. And, during the decades of grand-scale immigration of Jews to the United States, it also enjoyed an illustrious history in New York, and, to a lesser extent, in Chicago as well.  

But then, with the emergence of fully assimilated post-war Jewish-American audiences, Yiddish theater faded, and such brilliant hybrids as  Fiddler on the Roof , the Harnick and Bock musical based on the stories of the immensely popular Yiddish writer, Sholem Aleichem, grabbed the heart. (The Yiddish classics have since only occasionally been revived for a rarefied Off-Broadway crowd.) 

Fast forward to 2016 and the arrival of  Indecent , Paula Vogel's Tony-nominated play-with-music which takes a grand detour backward in time to 1907 when Sholem Asch, then a 20-something Polish Jewish writer (who would go on to become a major and ever-controversial figure in Yiddish literature) wrote  God of Vengeance . Although the play was widely produced on European stages, it generated quite a scandal when it debuted on Broadway in 1923 and the production's entire cast was arrested on grounds of obscenity, with some influential Jews leading the protest. This was a time in the wake of a great wave of Jewish immigrants to the U.S, when anti-Semitism was on the rise, and many Jews felt the play portrayed them in a negative light. 

So, what was all the outrage about? That, and a great deal more will be revealed to Chicago audiences as  Indecent  is mounted by Victory Gardens Theatre in a production directed by Gary Griffin. 

Asch's play told the story of a Jewish brothel owner who attempts to gain respectability by commissioning a Torah scroll, thereby securing approval for his teenage daughter's marriage to a yeshiva student. But the man's world collapses in a rage when he discovers that his daughter has fallen in love with one of his prostitutes. 

Vogel's  Indecent , created in collaboration with Rebecca Taichman, features a small ensemble playing 40 roles and suggests the chaotic history of the play over several decades. The story unfolds as a group of actors (who had somehow managed to stage Asch's work in the Łódź ghetto of 1943 Nazi-occupied Poland) rise from the ashes of the Holocaust to perform. 

Note: To read the fascinating letter written by Asch in response to the Broadway scandal, go to For tickets to Indecent, visit  or call (773) 871-3000. 


Todros Geller: Strange Worlds --(Sept. 6, 2018-Feb. 17, 2019 at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, 610 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago): 

His name may not be as familiar as those of such other Jewish artists as Ben Shahn and Leon Golub, whose careers similarly spanned the years from World War I through the mid-20th century. But Todros Geller -- who grew up in Ukraine, immigrated to Canada in 1906, and arrived in Chicago in 1918, where he became a student at the School of the Art Institute -- was a force to be reckoned with. His work as a painter, master printmaker, book illustrator, and teacher made him a major figure in the Chicago art community. And now, a new exhibit at the Spertus Institute,  Todros Geller: Strange Worlds, promises to bring the artist's work to greater attention. 

The show, organized by Ionit Behar and Susan Weinberg, takes its name from one of Geller's most famous paintings -- a dramatic 1928 cityscape that depicts a severe, heavily bearded Jewish man peering out from beneath the Chicago El tracks, with a collage of newspapers in various languages hanging in the air. The intersection of an "Old World" immigrant and the bustling modernity of a big American city is classic Geller. 

Drawing primarily on Spertus' own extensive collection of the artist's work, the exhibition will feature more than 30 examples of the artist's paintings, woodcuts, prints, and other works on paper, much of it on view for the first time. 

Often referred to as the "Dean of Chicago Jewish Artists," Geller -- who was actively engaged in the social, political, and artistic issues of his time --- mentored many Chicago Jewish artists and also served as supervisor of art for the College of Jewish Studies, now known as Spertus Institute. 

Like the Goldsholl exhibit at the Block Museum,  Strange Worlds  is part of the ongoing Art Design Chicago project of the Terra Foundation for American Art in partnership with The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. 

Note: The original painting of  Strange Worlds  is in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago but could not be loaned to Spertus. A reproduction of the work will be shown instead.

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