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Chicago Imagists: Art History’s Overlooked Chapter, Now on Film

by Edward M. Gómez on May 17, 2014

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Artist and Hairy Who member Gladys Nilsson in 1966, holding one of the group’s exhibition catalogues in comic-book form (1966) (photo by Bill Arsenault, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

The Hairy Who is not the backing band of the Austrian pop singer Conchita Wurst. Still, it’s hard to believe the members of the Hairy Who, one of several coteries of artists who came together in the 1960s–1970s under the broader moniker of the Chicago Imagists, would not have celebrated this transgender performer, not so much because she won the Eurovision song contest last weekend or because she is biologically a he, but because, along with voluptuous hair, long lashes, and sequined robes, Conchita has a beard.

If New York’s Pop artists of that same era often assumed a cool, ironic stance toward such “low”-culture subjects as comic-strip panels, Hollywood stars and consumer goods, their Chicago counterparts offered big, wet kisses to such muses, animate and inanimate, as circus-midway performers and freaks (including bearded ladies); carnival banners; neon signs; blues musicians; antique toys; pinball machines; and just about every permutation of human body parts, from pendulous breasts to big noses and an endless array of pickle-shaped penises.

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Five of the Hairy Who artists in 1967; from left to right: Karl Wirsum, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Nutt (photo by Charles Krejcsi, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

The history and accomplishments of these various artists’ groups are the subjects of Leslie Buchbinder’s illuminating new documentary film, Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, the final cut of which will have its premiere at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago next Tuesday, May 20. Several years in the making (Buchbinder’s background research alone, including interviews with 65 sources, was exhaustive), this new film helps fill a yawning gap in the conventional telling of American modern art’s story, which more often than not centers on New York. Still, retracing the past can often become an exercise in connecting the dots; at different times, Chicago played notable roles in American modern art’s story, too, as did San Francisco, Los Angeles and other cities or regions. Their contributions to modern art’s canonical, historical tale are still being identified and reclaimed.

Buchbinder, a former dancer and arts-and-culture public-relations specialist, had this in mind as she and her producer, Brian Ashby, writer John Corbett, animator Lilli Carré, special effects designer Julius Dobiesz, and other collaborators assembled their wide-ranging chronicle of the Imagists. At any given time, Buchbinder says, “a certain kind of art is privileged by whatever critical dialog and market and other influential forces might prevail.” Accordingly, she sought to capture a sense of “the art world as organism” in which the Chicago Imagists emerged, citing many of the key “artists, artworks, curators, dealers, collectors, museums” and other factors that are vital to an understanding of their story.

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A page from “The Portable Hairy Who” (1966), a printed publication in comic-book form, 11 x 7 in (courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

Buchbinder employs the metaphor of a many-sided web to elucidate cultural history in general and that of the Imagists in particular. Within any such weave lie innumerable intersections of people, events, trends, institutions and moments in time — points at which ideas and aspirations meet, cross-pollinate and often take off in new directions. Carré’s graphics, rendered in a comics-influenced, Imagist style, visually chart the crisscrossing relationships the film examines.

Referring to the Imagists’ era, the film’s narrator, Cheryl Lynn Bruce, in an engaged and engaging reading, asks, “What becomes of such a moment?” She adds, “The story of 20th-century art is already written. It is not a story about Chicago.”

But it could and, in part, should be, Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists argues, with better-than-usual interview clips and judiciously chosen archival footage featuring a range of surviving artists, critics, collectors and others who were once part of a highly spirited scene. Buchbinder’s articulate interviewees nail the mood and character of the Imagists’ era and its artists’ unaffectedly subversive esprit de corps, not to mention their sassy, ribald-rebellious esprit de guerre in the face of aesthetic stuffiness, stiff social attitudes and other forms of creativity-discouraging, fun-stopping hooey.

As in much cultural history, the Imagists’ tale has a physical place that provides a significant starting point. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Hyde Park Art Center, located seven miles south of downtown Chicago, was, narrator Bruce notes, “a hotbed of cultural non-conformity.” The artists Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, who in 1964 were recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) as well as newlyweds, appear frequently in the film; they point out that, in the early Sixties, their city offered no real scene for younger artists and few commercial galleries.

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Poster for the Hairy Who’s second exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center (1967) (courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

However, Hyde Park Art Center, under the leadership of artist-curator Don Baum (“a fireworks display [that was] going off all the time,” as local critic Dennis Adrian puts it), was one venue where the new was welcome and celebrated. Nutt, Nilsson and their fellow art-makers, Suellen Rocca, Art Green, Karl Wirsum and Jim Falconer, approached Baum and proposed mounting a group exhibition of their paintings, whose funky-explosive looks, subjects and vibes offered something quite different from the existential angst and emotional-psychological Sturm und Drang of paint-flinging abstract expressionism.

What to make of human figures that looked as if they had stopped by the executioner’s or the electric-shock chamber on the way to their portrait painters’ studios? The six artists dubbed their group “Hairy Who,” because one day some of them had been listening to a radio program, and when its host kept referring to a painter named Harry, one of them asked, “Harry who?” With their hallmark irreverence, “Harry” became “Hairy,” and a collective was born. The artists presented group shows at Hyde Park Art Center annually from 1966 through 1968, each time producing a catalog in comic-book form as an homage to one of their most treasured sources of inspiration. Sometimes they lined the gallery’s walls with pattern-printed sheets of linoleum or displayed their favorite flea-market finds in vitrines, offering viewers a clear sense of the source material that had moved them.

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Installation view of ‘Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good,’ the Hairy Who’s 1968 exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago (photo by Jim Nutt, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

The Hairy Who’s creations included such works as Nutt’s “Nose Jam” (acrylic on Plexiglas, 1968), which features a puffy-lipped woman’s bandaged schnoz; Wirsum’s “No Dogs Allowed (Howlin’ Wolf)” (acrylic on Plexiglas, 1964); and Suellen Rocca’s “Palm Finger” (oil on canvas, 1968), in which a multi-colored palm tree grows out of the tip of a large pink finger.

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Hairy Who artist Art Green with his painting “Disclosing Enclosure” (1969), oil on canvas, 93 x 62.5 in (photo by Chicago Daily News, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

Art Green, who, like his friends and peers was concerned about social change and the US military’s controversial involvement in Vietnam, tells the filmmakers that he was struck by a TIME magazine article about Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara, which summed up the oddly named official’s policy-making approach with this phrase: “Examine the facts, consider the options, apply the logic.”

“That’s how we got into this mess,” Green notes in the film, referring to the Vietnam War. He recalls a series of paintings he made in the 1960s inspired by TIME’s photo of McNamara in his office. In Green’s paintings, the seated defense chief is surrounded by a visual cacophony of jarring shapes and urban-industrial motifs. In one picture, a speech bubble next to his head says, “No!” (Lifted from comics, speech bubbles commenting on the images in which they appeared were Hairy Who trademarks.)

The Brooklyn-based painter Amy Sillman, who admires the Imagists’ art and appears in Buchbinder’s film, describes their early offerings. They were, she observes, marked by “artificial, sexual, bizarre situations, where sex organs everywhere, of all kinds, are being pointed at, outlined, sprouting out of places.” Their art, she notes, was “very promiscuous.”

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Artist and Hairy Who member Karl Wirsum in 1967 (photo by Bill Arsenault, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

As the young Chicago artists became more prominent, critics pounced. They decried the Hairy Who’s shows as representing the “crème de la phlegm” and for proposing “an art of degradation, banality, perversion and formless despair.” That grand curmudgeon, the late critic Hilton Kramer, writing in the New York Times, bemoaned “a woeful scarcity of serious aesthetic inquiry” in the Hairy Who’s productions, while critic John Canaday, in that same journal, seemed somewhat more receptive, noting that “one is divided between nausea and admiration.”

“In contrast to Pop Art,” Wirsum says, “what we were thinking about was this personalized, unique object.” Sometimes the “objects” that became the Imagists’ subjects were the fat women, hairy-faced men and tattooed or conjoined humans who caught Ed Paschke’s attention and made their way, in electric colors, into his finely crafted paintings. Jeff Koons, recalling his first encounter with Paschke’s pictures of the beautifully grotesque, says, “When I went into Ed’s studio […], it was, like, my gosh, this is what it must be like to mainline a drug.” (Currently, in Manhattan, Mary Boone Gallery’s Chelsea branch is showing a selection of Paschke’s throbbing, saturated-color paintings, whose subjects include Shakespeare, a peek-a-boo Osama bin Laden and a fellow with a glowing, sacred heart and white, empty eyes.)

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Artist Roger Brown at his home in Chicago with objects from his collection (date unknown) (photo by Sandra Jorgensen, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

Beyond Chicago, the Hairy Who artists and Paschke might be the best-known representatives of the Imagists’ aesthetic; so, too, is Roger Brown (like Paschke, he is now deceased). Like many of his Chicago confrères, Brown was interested in self-taught art-makers’ works — he often visited the older, black artist Joseph Yoakum — and had been deeply influenced at the SAIC by artist-teacher Ray Yoshida. Yoshida had amassed a vast, diverse collection of folk, outsider and tribal art, found objects and the Imagists’ works; after his death in 2009, it was divided up and donated to various institutions.

Brown, who grew up in the Bible-thumping South and, like Paschke, developed one of the most distinctive bodies of Imagist works, says in an archival clip, “I think childhood experiences are in an artist’s work forever.” His own images often feature glowing horizon lines — evocations of the fires-of-Hell and end-of-the-world sermons he had heard as a youngster. Brown’s skyscrapers sometimes shimmy or bend; often his urban scenes and landscapes feel eerily still or airless, bringing to mind the “metaphysical” painting of Giorgio de Chirico and the quirky, surrealist images that were major influences on some of the Imagists — and anathema to East Coast popsters. Brown, like Yoshida, was an avid collector. Today his art- and object-filled house functions as the SAIC-affiliated Roger Brown Study Collection.

Buchbinder’s film cites other essential aspects of the Imagists’ multifaceted history, including the key role played by the Chicago/New York dealer Phyllis Kind in promoting their work; the notable presence of women among their various groupings; and the importance of local collectors, sometimes early on, in supporting their efforts. Among them were Evelyn and Larry Aronson; the latter notes that some visitors to his home say, “You collect unusual art,” to which he retorts, “We do? What’s ‘usual art’?”

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Hairy Who artist Suellen Rocca with her painting “Curly Head” (1967), unidentified materials and unspecified dimensions (photo by Bob Kotalik, Chicago Sun-Times, courtesy Pentimenti Productions)

Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists also looks at other artists’ groups that came to share the Imagists label. Among them: The Nonplussed Some (Ed Paschke, Ed Flood, Sarah Canright, Richard Wetzel, Robert Guinan, Don Baum), False Image (Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, Eleanor Dube), and Marriage Chicago Style (Canright, Flood, Paschke, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, Barbara Rossi). Their creations were really so varied that, in retrospect, it’s almost inaccurate to slap a common label on them all. As Jim Nutt says about the Hairy Who’s productions, “It’s a surface or a feeling; you can’t mimic it.” But you can try to document it; in addition to her film, Buchbinder and her collaborators have set up the Chicago Imagists Archive, a website featuring full-interview video clips from the movie and other valuable research materials.

As vividly as Buchbinder captures a vibrant cultural moment in time, for art history’s canon-makers, was the Imagists’ era just too rambunctious or ungraspable? In this new film, the Brooklyn-based artist and cartoonist Gary Panter, who once served as the art director for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, notes, “Everything that was invented in the ’60s could be co-opted immediately.” He cites Op Art and hippie art, for example. But what the Hairy Who and the Imagists created, Panter adds appreciatively, “couldn’t be co-opted […]. It had embraced insanity and psychosis, and you don’t necessarily sell toothbrushes with that.”

Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists will be screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (220 E Chicago Avenue) on Tuesday, May 20, at 6pm.

Ed Paschke continues at Mary Boone Gallery (541 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 28.

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  • higgs merino

    No kosmic kisses to Cliff ? C’mon, bad science.

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