Carl Hammer: 37 Years an Outsider


Carl Hammer has been in the art business for nearly 40 years, but his journey to being one of the most well-respected dealers in Chicago started when he was an Evanston High School English teacher during a tumultous time in the nation’s history. 

Today, Hammer runs a gallery program from a historic building on North Wells Street in the heart of River North. Exhibitions feature work that alternates between that of noted Outsider artists like Lee Godie and Henry Darger, and contemporary art by Michael Hernandez de Luna, an artist who cleverly works with stamps, and graphic novelist Chris Ware. Hammer sees himself as a bit of an outsider, since he never had any formal art training, and it’s his inherent curiosity and self-awareness that continues to guide his explorations and discoveries. 


CGN: Tell us a little about how you got into the art business, and how did you come to focus on Outsider art? 

CH: As a high school English teacher in Evanston during the ‘60s and ‘70s, I, along with my wife, decided that we should begin collecting art. Due to the political and civil rights upheaval the country was experiencing, we decided to collect “grass roots” art, a term that one commonly used during that period, based on a concept of how one should live. Without fully understanding what grass roots art might be, I knew I wanted our collecting to fully integrate the ethnicity and politics of inclusiveness. Teaching at Evanston High School provided the incentive for me to do just that. During school vacations, we traveled around the country by car and looked for our interpretation of “grass roots” art and artists. As we did we began discovering the world of the self-taught artist. These were people who often lived in out of the way places, where they were compelled to invent and discover ways to express who they were and what they thought, without being trained nor realizing that they were creating art. The term “Outsider” hadn’t been invented yet. Vernacular art, folk art, art brut, self-taught art was used in its place. In 1972 Roger Cardinale, a professor at the University of Kent, coined the phrase Outsider Art as a synonym of art brut, or art created outside the established scene, much as Dubuffet did in finding work which helped to establish his well known art aesthetic. 

The Chicago Imagists were also major and instinctive collectors/foragers of this kind of art, and it figured greatly in the creation of their own style/genre of creating art.

The business of selling art followed suit with our interest in collecting it and doing something within the art world that was somewhat unique, yet kept within the parameters of our own idealism at that time.


CGN: You’re known for keeping up with emerging talent. What’s your approach to finding new artists? 

CH: I have let the same principles of discovering outsiders guide me in finding emerging talent. I travel a lot to see work by different up and coming artists. I visit all of the graduate thesis shows that I can. Not having been instructed in art making or criticism, I’ve been somewhat freer to look beyond the prescribed components one should be looking for in creating art or in becoming an artist.


CGN: What do you think about the ever-growing business of art fairs and its impact on galleries? 

CH: Carl Hammer Gallery became known early on because we were, in our second year, invited to participate in Chicago’s Art Expo. My first time at Expo I wall-papered my booth with work by the newly discovered Bill Traylor. We nearly sold everything. Traylor went on to become a super star with galleries and collectors throughout the world. It was a remarkable phenomenon back then. But the proliferation of art fairs today seems to have become competitive with the old notion that clients establish loyal relationships with galleries and purchase work because they identify with the aesthetic of a particular gallery. Now, collectors seem to align themselves with the art fairs as a way to build art collections.  


CGN: What are the most striking changes you have experienced in the local as well as national art scenes?

CH: My gallery’s 37 years of existence have been a tremendous experience, due to connections with people and, especially, in the discovery process of finding new ideas expressing the essential components of our being human. I don’t know what’s in store for us as collectors/gallerists here in Chicago, our nation and world-wide. Certainly, today’s average person is more engaged than ever in the pursuit of finding meaning in life through art, and our acquisition of it and appreciation for art in our daily lives.  

Regarding the future of the River North art district, I do not like to think of a time when it eventually meets with its demise. On the other hand, River North itself was the reincarnation of a decades old art district once thriving at North Michigan Ave. and Ohio St. Perhaps, like the proverbial Phoenix rising from the ashes, there will be a rebirth of a similar River North elsewhere.


Pictured at top of page: Carl Hammer in his gallery, in front of Mary Lou Zelazny’s The Eyed Tree #4, 2015 Acrylic, collage, oil on canvas, 48” x 60”