That silly kid joke is the text on a cocktail napkin used at a Hyde Park Art Center exhibition in 1966-67. And it’s emblematic of the endearingly nutty, eye-popping and vulgar art by the Hairy Who, six artists featured in an exhibit on display at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Hairy Who? 1966-1969 features the work of Jim Falconer (b. 1943), Art Green (b. 1941), Gladys Nilsson (b. 1940), Jim Nutt (b. 1938), Suellen Rocca (b. 1943), and Karl Wirsum (b. 1939). The exhibit, displayed in two different gallery areas, celebrates the 50th anniversary of their final exhibit in Chicago. One of the iconic Hairy Who images is Karl Wirsum’s painting inspired by the shock rocker and blues singer, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
Cartoons. Comic books. Pinball machines. Carnivals. Lowlifes and losers. Geeks and freaks. Those were some of the influences on the Hairy Who artists. They were part of a larger group of Chicago artists, many of them School of the Art Institute alumni, known as the Chicago Imagists, who exhibited here during the 1960s and ‘70s. One of the best known of the other Imagist artists is Ed Paschke (1939-2004), who was part of the Nonplussed Some, along with Roger Brown, Ed Flood, Sarah Canright, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson and Ray Yoshida (an SAIC professor). A collection of Paschke’s work is on permanent display at the Ed Paschke Art Center in Jefferson Park. Other Imagist artists were known as the Monster Roster and False Image.
The current exhibit is the first comprehensive exhibition to focus exclusively on the Hairy Who and features large-scale paintings, sculptures, prints, watercolors and drawings. The major work is in galleries 268-273 in Regenstein Hall on the second level plus fascinating exhibits of works on paper, posters, comics, and archival materials in the museum’s prints and drawing galleries 124-127. These exhibits enhance the major artworks and put them into context. Many of these objects and works on paper are exhibited for the first time.
The Hairy Who first gained visibility when Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center, impressed by the artists’ vitality and creativity, presented the first exhibit of their work in 1966 and again in 1967 and 1969. The exhibits had a handmade feel, enhanced by the poster and comic-book look of the exhibit catalog (both on display in the first floor gallery). Tribune art critic Franz Schulze gave the exhibit a thumbs-up review, commenting that the artists were “embracing pop culture in its most vulgar form.” Other critics used words like pugnacious, puerile, scatological, comical and absurd.
Other Hairy Who exhibits were held at the San Francisco Institute of Art (1968), the School of Visual Arts in New York (1969), and at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC (1969).
The Hairy Who is sometimes compared with the pop art that was in vogue in New York at the time. But the work of pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein was intentionally commercial and ready to be co-opted, whereas the Chicago artists were intentionally insane, offensive, decidedly non-commercial and had no interest in being co-opted.
Karl Wirsum, perhaps the most prolific of the group, painted vivid portraits of musicians like Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Wells and Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. His work is characterized by visual and verbal puns, as in his paintings “Moon Dog First Quarter” (a blind busker in New York) and “Son of Sol Moscot” (in which the character wears a pair of Scotch tape dispensers as eyeglasses).
Jim Nutt often painted on Plexiglas. For 20 years, his work depicted a solitary bust, defined by an ever-changing set of exaggerated facial features, with deformities and prosthetic appendages.
Gladys Nilsson also used the human figure as her subject and often worked on paper and in watercolors. Her painting “The Trogens” is done on Plexiglas, inspired by the story of the Trojan horse in The Odyssey.
Suellen Rocca often used images inspired by domestic objects from advertising imagery. Her painting “Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature” is done in oil on two joined panels.Rocca is curator and director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College, which holds a substantial collection of Chicago Imagist work.
Art Green was drawn to the bold color and design of commercial signage, magazine ads and postcards and reinterpreted them in his work, such as in “Consider the Options….”
Jim Falconer’s prints often seemed camouflaged, as he used floral linoleum—gouged, dirty and paint-splattered squares of the kitchen flooring from his own rental apartment—as mounts for a suite of silkscreen prints. Some referenced Senufo masks from West Africa and Coast Salish carvings from the Pacific Northwest—work that Falconer had seen at the Art Institute and the Field Museum.
The exhibition is co-organized by Mark Pascale, Janet and Craig Duchossois Curator of Prints and Drawings, and Thea Liberty Nichols, researcher in prints and drawings, with Ann Goldstein, deputy director and chair and curator of modern and contemporary art. The 256-page catalog, fully illustrated, explores the history and significance of the Hairy Who.
IF you’re interested in the Hairy Who cohort, find a copy of the 2014 documentary, Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, produced by Chicago’s Pentimenti Productions. Rent it on Vimeo, Amazon or iTunes. See my review in the late great Gapers Block.
The Hairy Who exhibit continues at the Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., through January 6. The museum is open daily from 10:30am to 5pm and on Thursday until 8pm. For more information, call 312-443-3600 or visit their website.
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