Koehnline Museum show shines new light on sculpture of Egon Weiner

Melissa Wasserman
For Sun-Times Media
July 8 12:45 p.m.

‘Egon Weiner: Pillar of Human Emotions’

Where: Koehnline Museum of Art, Oakton Community College, 1600 E. Golf Road, Des Plaines

When: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Monday-Thursday, through Aug. 7. Then 10 a.m-6 p.m. Monday-Friday and 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, through Sept. 19. Opening reception 5-8 p.m. July 10.

Cost: Exhibit admission is free

For more info call (847) 635-2633, or visit www.oakton.edu/museum

A man of optimism and passion for his art, sculptor Egon Weiner was a Chicago artist whose life and important works are mostly unknown.

That will change with the exhibit, “Egon Weiner: Pillar of Human Emotions,” running through Sept.19 at the Koehnline Museum on the Oakton Community College Des Plaines campus.

Nathan Harpaz, Koehnline Museum manager and curator who created this exhibit, is excited about bringing Wiener’s to the public’s attention, and notes that this show was energized by the recent discovery of a trove of Weiner’s work in a factory warehouse.

Wiener’s best known work is the Chicago Landmark “Pillar of Fire,” a 33-foot-high, abstract bronze sculpture marking the origin of the 1871 Chicago Fire just west of the Loop.

Egon Weiner (1906-1987) was born and trained in Vienna, beginning his artistic career as a teenager. He came to the United States in 1938 to escape Nazi persecution. His parents and one brother later perished in World War II.

In the United States, Weiner continued to pursue his art, eventually serving as a professor of sculpture and life drawing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1945 to 1971. He was best known, Harpaz said, for encouraging young artists to take risks and reveal “the expression of that fire that burns in all of us.”

“I interviewed some of his [Weiner’s] students who became artists and they all were amazed about the incredible energy,” said Harpaz.

When two of Weiner’s sculptures, “The Reaper”(1933), from the family of Nancy Bild Wolf of Glencoe, and “Troll” a 1960s piece, were donated to the Koehnline Museum four years ago, Harpaz did not know much about Weiner. Impressed with the pieces and intrigued, he began researching the artist’s career.

“It’s the second time this has happened to me — the discovery of a major collection that nobody knew about,” said Harpaz. Previously he’d located Chicago artist Morris Topchevsky’s works in Skokie and developed an exhibit on that artist.

While researching Weiner, Harpaz met sculptor Joseph Burlini, who knew Weiner during his time at the SAIC in the late 1950s. Burlini told Harpaz of a large collection of Weiner’s sculptures at the Buchtel Metal Finishing Corporation factory in Elk Grove Village.

The sculptures, part of the artist’s estate, were temporarily in the factory owner’s possession at the request of the artist’s son, who lives in Palatine. The stored collection consists of more than 20 small sculptures of bronze, metal and wood, and Weiner’s last large piece titled, “Moon Flower.”

The Koehnline exhibit will include approximately 25 sculptures from the museum’s permanent collection and the recently discovered bonze, metal, and wooden pieces, along with about 30 large-scale photographs of Weiner’s large outdoor sculptures.

Harpaz said that rediscovering Weiner’s work, and creating this show has been a pleasure he’s delighted to share. “It’s like (finding) a treasure in your own neighborhood.”