The Chicago Imagists: A Bold and Distinctive Chapter in Art History

The Chicago Imagists represent a dynamic and influential group of representational artists associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Gaining prominence through exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in the late 1960s, this group is celebrated for its grotesque, surreal, and often whimsical art. Their work stood in stark contrast to the dominant trends of the New York art scene, embracing a vivid and imaginative approach that has left a lasting impact on American art. Critic Ken Johnson described Chicago Imagism as "the postwar tradition of fantasy-based art making," while Christine Newman of Chicago magazine highlighted the group's unique and unforgettable niche in art history, despite the cultural upheavals of the 1960s.

Leon Golub - Interrogation
Leon Golub - Interrogation

The Monster Roster, one of the three distinct groups within the Chicago Imagists, was named by critic Franz Schulze in 1959. Known for its existential, semi-mystical figurative work with a gruesome edge, the group included many World War II veterans who used the G.I. Bill to attend art school. Their mentor, Vera Berdich, was an influential surrealist printmaker at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Monster Roster's significant impact on American art was recognized in a major exhibition at the Smart Museum of Art at the University of Chicago.

The Hairy Who's quirky name is as memorable and distinctive as their art, originating from a humorous incident that perfectly encapsulates their irreverent and unconventional approach. The story begins with Karl Wirsum, one of the founding members, and a lighthearted miscommunication that occurred during a casual conversation about the Chicago art critic Harry Bouras.

During one of their many discussions about potential names for their group, Karl Wirsum made a remark about Harry Bouras. In the ensuing conversation, someone misheard "Harry" as "Hairy," leading to a round of laughter among the artists. This playful misunderstanding struck a chord with the group, who were known for their sense of humor and appreciation for wordplay. The phrase "Hairy Who?" emerged from this exchange, capturing their collective amusement and resonating with their artistic ethos.

The group quickly embraced "Hairy Who" as their official name, recognizing that it reflected their irreverent spirit and willingness to defy conventional norms. The name's whimsical and ambiguous nature was a perfect fit for their art, which often blended grotesque and surreal elements with a sense of humor and playfulness. It also underscored their desire to stand apart from the more serious and self-important art movements of the time.

The name "Hairy Who" did more than just serve as a memorable moniker; it encapsulated the group's broader artistic philosophy. Their work was characterized by a rejection of minimalist and conceptual trends, favoring instead vibrant colors, fantastical imagery, and a keen sense of the absurd. The playful, unconventional name signaled to audiences and critics alike that this group of artists was charting its own course, free from the constraints of mainstream art world expectations.

Choosing such an unusual name helped to cement the Hairy Who's identity within the Chicago Imagist movement and beyond. It became a talking point and a memorable aspect of their public persona, drawing attention to their exhibitions and helping to differentiate them from other art groups. The name's origins in a humorous incident also highlighted the collaborative and informal nature of the group, which valued spontaneity and creative freedom.

Major Members

George Cohen - Loggia
George Cohen - Loggia

- Leon Golub: Known for his large-scale, politically charged paintings, Golub often depicted scenes of conflict and violence, reflecting his anti-war stance and concern with human rights.
- Nancy Spero: Spero's work combined text and images to address themes of feminism, war, and oppression. Her unique collage-like style and dedication to social issues made her a significant figure in contemporary art.
- H. C. Westermann: A sculptor and printmaker, Westermann's work was characterized by its meticulous craftsmanship and dark humor. His pieces often reflected his experiences as a Marine in World War II and the Korean War.
- June Leaf: Leaf's work spanned drawing, painting, and sculpture, often exploring themes of movement and transformation. Her imaginative and narrative-driven art has been influential in both the Chicago and New York art scenes.
Cosmo Campoli: Campoli's sculptures, often depicting fantastical creatures, blended elements of surrealism and mythology. His work was deeply influenced by his interest in existentialism and the human condition.
- Dominick Di Meo: Di Meo's mixed-media works often featured grotesque and surreal imagery, reflecting his fascination with psychology and the subconscious.
- George Cohen: Cohen's paintings and assemblages incorporated found objects and reflected a deep interest in themes of decay and regeneration. His work often explored the tension between order and chaos.
- Robert Barnes: Barnes' intricate and symbolic paintings drew on mythology, history, and literature. His narrative approach and detailed style set him apart within the Monster Roster.

These artists explored dark, introspective themes, often drawing on their wartime experiences to create haunting and profound works.

The Hairy Who

The Hairy Who, another major group within the Chicago Imagists, consisted of six graduates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Mentored by Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, the group developed a vibrant and provocative approach to art, characterized by extreme colors, psychedelic patterns, and a playful sense of humor. The Hairy Who held six exhibitions between 1966 and 1969, three at the Hyde Park Art Center and three out of town.

Their work was inspired by the commercial culture of Chicago's streets, including advertisements, comics, and sales catalogs, as well as the tumultuous social climate of the 1960s. The Hairy Who's art featured figuration and a treatment of the human form that often bordered on the grotesque or cartoonish.

Cultural Impact

Reacting against the minimalist and conceptual trends of New York, the Hairy Who drew inspiration from a wide array of sources, including cartoons, tattoos, outsider art, and traditional arts from various cultures. Their first exhibition included a collaborative comic, "The Portable Hairy Who!", and a poster depicting a heavily tattooed man's back, each tattoo designed by a different member. This collaborative spirit and distinctive visual style helped them gain a wider audience and critical acclaim.

Major Exhibitions

The Hairy Who's exhibitions were pivotal in defining their legacy, showcasing their distinctive style and establishing their place in the art world. Here is an expanded look at their key exhibitions and the impact these had on their career trajectory and on contemporary art.

First Exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center (1966)

The Hairy Who's debut exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in 1966 was a groundbreaking event. The show featured works by the six core members—Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Karl Wirsum, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Falconer—and was curated by Don Baum. The vibrant, unconventional artworks, characterized by their extreme colors, surreal imagery, and playful sense of humor, garnered enthusiastic reviews from critics and the public alike. This first show was instrumental in establishing the group's reputation and set the tone for their subsequent exhibitions.

Second and Third Exhibitions at Hyde Park Art Center (1967 and 1968)

Following the success of their first show, the Hairy Who held two more exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1967 and 1968. These exhibitions further solidified their place in the Chicago art scene and allowed them to refine and expand their distinctive aesthetic. Each show built upon the last, introducing new works that continued to push the boundaries of figuration and surrealism. The critical acclaim from these exhibitions helped propel the Hairy Who to national attention.

Exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute (1968)

The Hairy Who's reach extended beyond Chicago with their 1968 exhibition at the San Francisco Art Institute. This show marked their first major exhibition outside their home city and introduced their work to a West Coast audience. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with many attendees and critics praising the originality and boldness of their art. This exhibition was crucial in establishing the Hairy Who as a significant national art group and broadened their influence.

Exhibition at the School of Visual Arts in New York (1969)

In 1969, the Hairy Who took their work to New York, exhibiting at the School of Visual Arts. This show was a pivotal moment, as it placed them in direct contrast with the dominant New York art scene, which was then heavily influenced by minimalism and conceptual art. The Hairy Who's vivid, figurative works stood out dramatically, attracting significant attention and sparking discussions about the differences between Chicago and New York art movements. The exhibition was well-received and further established the Hairy Who's reputation on a national scale.

Exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC (1969)

Also in 1969, the Hairy Who exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. This prestigious venue provided a platform for the group to showcase their work to a broader audience, including influential critics, collectors, and art enthusiasts. The exhibition was a critical success, highlighting the Hairy Who's unique contributions to contemporary art and cementing their status as key figures in the American art landscape.

The Chicago Imagists: A Broader Collective

Beyond the Monster Roster and the Hairy Who, the term "Chicago Imagists" encompasses a broader collective of artists who were involved in exhibitions curated by Don Baum in the mid-1960s to early 1970s. These artists, while not part of a formal group, shared a common interest in figuration and a departure from mainstream art trends. This broader collective included a diverse range of talents, each contributing unique perspectives and techniques to the Imagist movement.

While the Monster Roster and the Hairy Who were distinct groups with their own identities and styles, the broader collective of Chicago Imagists was bound together by a shared vision. These artists rejected the minimalist and conceptual trends dominating the New York art scene, opting instead for a vivid, imaginative, and often surreal approach to art. They embraced figuration, bold colors, and fantastical imagery, creating works that were both visually striking and thought-provoking.

Don Baum, a pivotal figure in the Chicago art scene, played a significant role in bringing these artists together. As a curator at the Hyde Park Art Center, Baum organized several key exhibitions that showcased the work of the Chicago Imagists. His keen eye for talent and his understanding of the unique qualities of these artists helped to shape the movement and bring it to wider attention.

Baum's exhibitions, such as "False Image," "Non-Plussed Some," "Marriage Chicago Style," and "Chicago Antigua," were instrumental in defining the Imagist aesthetic. These shows provided a platform for artists to experiment and push the boundaries of traditional art forms, encouraging a spirit of innovation and collaboration.

Conclusion

The Chicago Imagists, through their distinct groups and individual contributions, carved out a significant place in art history. Their bold, imaginative works, marked by a rejection of mainstream trends and an embrace of the grotesque, surreal, and whimsical, continue to resonate in the art world today. By exploring themes of figuration, humor, and cultural critique, the Imagists created a legacy that transcends their time, inspiring artists to push the boundaries of creativity and expression. Their work serves as a testament to the power of art to reflect and challenge the world around us, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of American art.

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