The Chicago Imagists A primer

The Chicago Imagists: A primer

Deborah Wilk takes a closer look at the irreverant practice of the Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, whose works from the Mary Cullen Collection feature in First Open | Online, running 25 February to 8 March

Much has been made in recent years of a group of Chicago artists who began to exhibit art in the mid 1960s and of whom many continue vibrant practices to this day. Best known as the work of the Chicago Imagists, the objects, upon their creation, were viewed as bold to the point of brazen, gutsy to the point of gritty, and shameless in the intent to capture viewer attention with their edgy expression of a changing culture.

But while some embraced the aesthetic, others were ruffled by its madcap nerve, relegating it to regional captivity. Underground status, however, is veritable catnip for many discerning viewers, and through the years, these artists have had far-flung champions from Norman Rosenthal to Jeff Koons.

Now, interest seems to have reached a fever pitch, from exhibitions at the New Museum and Matthew Marks Gallery in New York and films, such as Leslie Buchbinder’s Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, to more frequent appearances on the auction block, priming the pump for a market correction.

The Hairy Who? So, what’s in a name?

Quite a lot, actually. ‘Let’s point out that Imagist is a convenient catch-all term that gave historians and critics a way to categorize the work so that when you said the word, people would know what you were talking about,’ says Mark Pascale, the Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Art Institute of Chicago. ‘I don’t think any of the artists were ever too happy with it.’

Gladys Nilsson (B. 1940), Gray Apes, 1973. Oil on canvas in painted artist's frame. 26 x 24 in. (66 x 60.1 cm.) Estimate: $8,000-12,000. This work is offered in First Open | Post-War and Contemporary | Online, 25 February — 8 March

What the original group of artists, many of whom are in an ongoing dialogue with Pascale, will agree on is the genre was established when artist Don Baum curated three exhibitions for the Hyde Park Art Center, a community center and school on the city’s South Side, between 1966 and ’68. The six artists — Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum — collected under the banner ‘The Hairy Who?’.

Who and what were they influenced by?

The artists in the group were similarly educated, most at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and influenced by a series of professors who encouraged them to study work beyond the canon of Western art history, reaching out to the wider orbit of global practices as well as investigating folk and tribal arts.

Contextualizing their classroom instruction, the students were encouraged to visit the city’s exceptional anthropological collections at the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and the Field Museum. ‘All these things could be seen as potential influences, potential ways to think about the human body and the human condition outside of what was the norm,’ says Pascale.

Ed Paschke (1939-2004), 1, 2, 3, (Man from UNCLE), 1965. Oil on canvas. 46 x 41 in. (116.8 x 104.1 cm.) Estimate: $40,000-60,000. This work is offered in First Open | Post-War and Contemporary | Online, 25 February — 8 March

The students were also drilled in the studio: ‘Something that distinguishes all of these artists is they all drew and their graphic excellence moved them, aesthetically, into really strange areas,’ says the curator. After the original shows, Baum went on to curate shows of other artists, Ed Paschke among them, not considered members of the Hairy Who, per se, and giving rise to the Imagist label.

What can we read into their unusual techniques and use of materials?

Caroll Dunham conducted a great interview with Jim Nutt, who doesn’t really talk much about his work, and I asked Dunham what attracts him to Jim’s work,’ explains Pascale. ‘He told me it was a discernable point of view, which he found lacking in a lot of work he viewed.’ While Pascale characterizes the group’s congruent aesthetic as anti-formal, he associates the work’s point of view with the political anxieties and social change of the late 1960s and early ’70s.

The work was ‘often created using unusual techniques and materials, such as reverse painting on Plexiglas, but also excessively crafted. Unlike their peers working in New York under the critical banner of Pop art, the Hairy Who embraced the jarring nature of their sources and exhibited their personal collections of ephemera in the context of their work, mostly paintings.

Karl Wirsum (B. 1939), D-Flat (Diego Rivera), 1987. Coloured pencil on paper. 23 x 29 in. (58.4 x 73.7 cm.) Estimate: $3,000-4,000. This work is offered in First Open | Post-War and Contemporary | Online, 25 February — 8 March

‘At the root of their work was and is a powerful graphic vocabulary and their source material leaned toward the banal and profane, including comics, pin-up magazines, and other forms of popular culture,’ wrote Pascale in his essay, The Hairy Who and their Subsequent Careers

What about their gallery transformations? How did these help to create a buzz around the artists, and the Chicago art scene in general?

Although the work sought to part with conventions, the young practitioners craved the renown of successful artists. ‘The exhibition opportunities in 1966 in Chicago were very limited. There wasn’t a robust commercial gallery scene for them to enter,’ says Pascale.

Karl Wirsum (B. 1939) F-Sharp (Frida Kahlo), 1987.  Colored pencil on paper. 29 x 23 in. (73.7 x 58.4 cm.)  Estimate: $3,000-4,000. This work is offered in First Open | Post-War and Contemporary | Online, 25 February — 8 March

The nature of the group exhibitions, which, in addition to found objects and ephemera, featured walls decorated with floor tiles because the art center organisers wouldn’t allow the artists to paint the walls in colours other than white, were initially seen as an invasion.

‘It’s similar to the Dada artists’ staging of Dadamesse in Berlin, at which they showed posters, junk from the street, their collages, paintings, sculptures, all without a hierarchy of importance,’ explains Pascale, who considers the two groups to be of the same spirit. And certainly the artists of the Hairy Who were aware of the Dada collections in Chicago because they were invited to salons given by the city’s prominent collectors.

Eventually such gallery transformations would become a standard bearer — even for current exhibitions of non-Imagist artists, such as Jim Shaw: The End is Here, Shaw’s retrospective mounted at New York’s New Museum last year. ‘They brought immense attention to Chicago art practice,’ says Pascale. In 1970 Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson joined the stable of Phyllis Kind Gallery, who slowly built their markets. She was followed by Nancy Lurie and others, who handled ensuing generations of artists who carried on the genre’s principals. 

Who were the early collectors?

Low market value would lead many to believe much of the work never sold. But the work was supported almost immediately. The support came, however, primarily from private collectors, the estates of whom are only coming to market now. Lindy and Edwin Bergman, whose Modernist holdings establish the core of the Art Insitute of Chicago’s collection of that period, are understood to have been very supportive as was, of course, Ruth Horwich, whose collection was sold at Christie’s last year.

Is 50 years long enough to have earned these rebels some respect?

‘Obviously, these artists are very art historically established and well collected,’ says Amelia Manderscheid, a Post-war and Contemporary Art specialist at Christie’s New York. ‘Compared to artists of their generation, and in light of their art historical importance, they have been very undervalued, so there’s a real correction that’s necessary and ready to happen.’

Providing more confidence is Kavi Gupta, whose eponymous gallery now represents the estate of Roger Brown and John Corbett of Corbett vs. Dempsey, who has been promoting the work on the international art fair circuit for several years.

Main image at top: Pictured at the Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, the Chicago Daily News reports on the The Hairy Who, 11 March 1967. Photograph Chicago Daily News, courtesy Pentimenti Productions NFP.


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