August 5, 2022
By Maureen McMahon
In the biggest gift of art to the University of Chicago’s Physical Sciences Division and Harris School for Public Policy, the family of Julie Richman has donated twenty of her paintings for display in buildings representative of the modern architectural plan for campus
The gift was made in honor of Phil Richman, AB’47, Prof. Emeritus Bruce Winstein, and Francisco Fonta, SB’13
For several seasons when the weather is warm, Hyde Park artist Julie Richman, age 90, and her friend Sandy Schloen, a computer scientist, walk daily around the lakeshore’s Promontory Point and the campus of the University of Chicago.
Traversing “in the wild,” the pair marvels at nature, architecture, building interiors, and campus art installations—while capturing animated Pokémon creatures and overcoming challenges mapped to a semi-virtual world on their phones.
Overlooking an expanse of Lake Michigan from her home in Montgomery Place, surrounded by bright, playful, and inventive abstract paintings—Richman explained in her characteristically animated and easy way how this global gaming craze brought her into a new relationship to campus.
“Playing Pokémon GO, you learn all the names of the sculptures, the buildings, the places, and who did all the sculptures. Plus, you learn all the people who play it, which happens to be a lot of interesting people,” she said.
It’s how she met Schloen, a fellow longtime Hyde Park resident and technology director for UChicago Digital Studies, who manages an online environment where scholars can catalog and integrate cultural and historical finds.
It’s a worthwhile and sprightly pastime, though “it’s gone on too long”—and is at the intersection of what fascinates her as one of Hyde Park’s most established painters and printmakers, producing devotedly from her studios downtown from the early 1960’s until she retired.
With representation in galleries in Chicago and New York, she became a Chicago artist representative of the burgeoning Deconstructivism movement. Her artistry takes up themes like topologies and spatial relations, the value of iteration, following an instinct into a line, curve, or imagined frontier, and inventing and observing objects of surprise and beauty.
“I call them organic geometry, because that’s the way the city appears to me,” she said. “I was deconstructing it, and that was before deconstructed was an idea! I was trying to create a topographical map, in a way, of my environment that was abstract.”
In 1994, Marsha Barancik wrote in The Hyde Park Herald that, as an artist, “you’d think she was a mathematician” playing with shapes, planes, dots, and dashes guided by a slide rule, but she claims it was her imagination “stimulated by music and film animation” that has been her most useful tool. She has said the best art is a balance of freedom and control.
In the largest gift of art to the Physical Sciences Division, shared in part with the Harris School of Public Policy, the University of Chicago now has twenty of her paintings on permanent display and slated for installation in buildings representative of the modernist plan for the campus.
Curator of Public Art Laura Steward commented, “Julie Richman is a Hyde Park treasure. It’s an honor for UChicago to exhibit her paintings on campus where they can spark creativity in people who come across them.”
Richman believes that all art requires observers to be complete. She has said: “But until a work becomes a part of someone else’s life, it really isn’t finished in my opinion.”
To this end, before she relocated to Montgomery Place, she searched for university partners to display a career retrospective. She desired UChicago the most because of her family’s close ties and joyful engagement with its members across seventy years in Hyde Park.
Laura Steward and Chairman of the Department of Computer Science Michael Franklin selected the paintings from her home. They have been given in honor of Phil Richman, who died in 1998, and his dearest friend, the experimental physicist and cosmologist, Professor Emeritus Bruce Winstein, who died in 2011. It is also an extension of gratitude for the education of their children and grandson.
Not just a neighborhood
A native Chicagoan, Richman’s professional career began as a painter renting a studio in The Hyde Park Art Center in the early 1960’s. After taking classes at the Art Institute of Chicago and while raising her three small daughters, she enrolled full-time, in 1965, at University of Illinois Chicago, studying under Richard Koppe and earning a bachelor and master of fine arts in plastic and graphic arts. She was among the first class at Circle Campus to finish in 1967. The department was strongly influenced by Bauhaus, with an emphasis on design, which she says fit with her pragmatism.
Always an early adopter of tech, and delighted at how tech opens the world to art, she was naturally drawn to building websites at the dawn of Netscape Navigator, in 1995.
“Several artist friends asked me to put their art on the internet. It was easy for me to do and I was good at it because web design seemed to me to be a natural extension of printmaking,” she said. “The way you have to think in printmaking is kind of backwards in a way. You have to plan out images that are going to be the reverse of what you draw.” Now she designs from her iPad and originates products like textiles.
She and her husband, Phil Richman, AB’47, were early volunteers for the 57th Street Art Fair. He was the public relations director and she was on the Board of Trustees for many years. The fountain in Bixler Park, where the fair attracts crowds each summer, was Phil’s idea and bears his name.
The pair were proud of their affiliation with the University of Chicago—five of their family members are graduates—and cared deeply about convening locals and University people around the cause of art.
Phil came to the University after he served in World War II as a second lieutenant in the Army. A gifted pianist with a love for Mahler and Chopin, he majored in music composition, and even composed for a musical staged at Mandel Hall, in 1947, called “Noah’s Lark.” He wrote it with fellow returning veterans, Jerry Sandweiss and Maynard Wishner, to give voice to their experiences. (He can be seen sitting at the piano during a rehearsal in the image below.)
He later took a leave of absence in order to study with 12-tone composer Ernst Heinrich Krenek, then a visiting lecturer at Chicago Musical College. When Krenek left to score films in Los Angeles, he left Phil behind without a master’s degree.
With his humanistic training, Phil turned his talents to public relations, landing his first job as a copyeditor for Advertising Age. A successful 45-year career in public relations followed. He was remembered by The Chicago Tribune as “a shy, quiet man…an anomaly in the public relations field where by definition, he was expected to be outgoing and talkative.”
Recalling his talents, Julie said, “He was a terrific editor. And it was very touching—Bruce introduced Phil to Kip Thorne and they got along.” Thorne, a theoretical physicist, had Phil place comments in a popular science manuscript he was writing to make it more understandable to the public. Phil is in the dedication to Black Holes and Time Warps: Einstein's Outrageous Legacy. “When Kip Thorne got the Nobel Prize, I was very proud of him!”
The Richmans met at a performance of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and settled in an I.M. Pei townhouse in Hyde Park. They chose The Laboratory Schools to educate their children, Pamela Richman, Lab’72, Gail Richman, Lab’74, and Celia Richman Fonta, Lab’77.
Celia’s son, Francisco “Tito” Fonta, SB’13 Physics, Mathematics, went on to complete a doctorate in atomic and molecular physics at Penn State and is now a scientist with the Space Dynamics Laboratory. He came to The College from Miami, having been awarded a scholarship, and lived with his grandmother on Park Place, where he would enthusiastically share with her what he was learning in his physics classes.
He stood out in the lab of Prof. Cheng Chin, where as an undergrad he used a technique called optical tweezers to levitate individual drops of water with a laser beam. Counterintuitively, the light from the laser did not heat the water but rather trapped it and even held it up against gravity. “It was the perfect undergrad project,” recalled Fonta.
Prof. Chin remembers Fonta and these projects vividly. “Yes, Francisco worked in our lab from 2011 to 2013. A highlight of his projects was the realization of levitation of water drops with a laser beam. It is one of the spectacular experiments in our research by undergraduate research assistants."
Where art and science meet
Richman has asked that the paintings they donated find a home in the Departments of Computer Science and Physics. “I wanted to honor my husband and Bruce because they spent a lot of time together since they were both high fidelity enthusiasts!” she said. Winstein was famously obsessed with hi-fi and many colleagues and friends accompanied him to Oak Park to listen to his collection of records.
“Bruce and Phil were mutually enthusiastic about the sound of high fidelity classical recordings played on very special equipment. They experimented by bringing their different hi-fi components to each other’s homes to hear the differences in sound in each other’s listening environments. Bruce’s wife, Joan, and I thought it was a lot of work and neither of us could tell the difference, but they really enjoyed doing that stuff,” she said.
Prof. Mike Franklin, the Liew Family Chair of Computer Science, Faculty Co-Director of the Data Science Institute, and Senior Advisor to the Provost for Computation and Data Science, worked with Richman to select several large works of pure abstract expressionism and topologies rendered from quill drawn ink and acrylic to be permanently displayed in the John Crerar Library Building, home to the Department of Computer Science, PSD Graphic Arts, the Weston Game Lab, and more. They brilliantly complement the University’s vision for “a state-of-the-art research and teaching space that supports our mission of collaborative and innovative computer science.”
"When we designed the new computer science space in the renovated John Crerar Library, we wanted to create a modern, lively space for people to gather and collaborate," said Prof. Franklin. "Julie's art absolutely suits that vision, with its bright colors and juxtapositions of artistic styles in her Organic Geometry series symbolizing the interaction of rigid technology with the chaotic world around it. I hope it inspires our students and faculty to think creatively about their research and studies."
The topologies were created in Richman’s first studio space at Halsted and 18th, a very industrial area in 1967. They stand out beautifully next to glass walls, vast blue and gray interiors, and open conversation nooks that invite collaboration.
Viewing them on a tour through Crerar, Richman recalled how her studio with its neighboring grid of buildings and trucks going by brought her “into the very active energy of the city.” Bold and calculating, her downtown bird’s eye view resembles futuristic data maps—though she conjured them well before the tech revolution.
Her series “Spaceprobe” is now a highlight of the The Keller Center at the Harris School of Public Policy, a similar modern masterpiece of the architectural plan for the University. “Tilting Forces” and “The Future Remembers Its Past” are acrylic renderings of fields and unfolding astronomical objects. Their placement bookends a sweeping aerial view of “the ship lattices” surrounding the lobby designed by Prof. Theaster Gates.
The Michelson Center for Physics, overhauled in 2018 to join the modernist plan, was where Winstein conducted prize-winning research and will host the remainder of the collection. Earlier in his career, Winstein led the KTeV experiment at Fermilab, which in 1999 provided the first evidence of direct CP violation, proving a long running hypothesis held in particle physics. Its results implied that the direction of time is an innate property of the universe.
After KTeV, Winstein followed his interests to study the polarization of the cosmic background radiation at Princeton. He returned to help found the Kavli Institute for Cosmological Physics and the QUIET collaboration.
“We are honored that Bruce’s friendship with the artist and her husband is commemorated with this gift,” said Joan Winstein. “Phil Richman was a proud UChicago alumnus, and he and Julie were always interested in Bruce’s work so there are many threads which tie this all together.”
“My grandma is absolutely amazing,” said Fonta. “She always said physics and art are really very similar as they both require a lot of creativity and abstract thinking. She is constantly learning and a great storyteller, and I think that comes through in her art.”