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“The art of the Hairy Who would scratch your eyes out”

Re-evaluating the 1960s’ work of this Chicago artists’ group 

Karl Wirsum, Youdue, (c. 1966) © Karl Wirsum. The Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. Samuel W. Koffler

BY Jonathan Griffin
writer and critic

In Must See

“Harry who?” asked Karl Wirsum in 1965 when, during a meeting of six artists at the Chicago home of married couple Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson, he was the only one never to have heard of Harry Bouras, a notorious local radio critic and artist. The others —Jim Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, as well as their hosts—found Wirsum’s obliviousness hilarious, and teasingly adopted the question as a running joke. When, later, they were searching for a title for a group exhibition someone proposed a joke on a joke: “Hairy Who?”

Half a century on, we are having a Hairy Who moment. The first major exhibition to focus solely on the work made during the four years and six exhibitions of the group’s active existence opened last month, on 27 September, at the Art Institute of Chicago (“Hairy Who? 1966–1969” until 6 January 2019).

Who are the Hairy Who?

Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum, The Portable Hairy Who!, (1966). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

The artists are more usually folded into the vaguer (and more contentious) term “Chicago Imagism”, an umbrella name for a movement that also seems to be experiencing an upsurge in popularity—especially amongst artists and curators. Current and recent exhibitions include “Famous Artists from Chicago, 1965-1975” at the Fondazione Prada, Milan; “The Figure and the Chicago Imagists: Selections From the Elmhurst College Art Collection” (until 13 January 2019) at Elmhurst Art Museum, Illinois; “3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980” (until 6 January 2019) at the Tang Museum at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs; and “Outliers and American Vanguard Art” at the National Gallery of Art, Washington DC, which prominently featured Nutt, Nilsson and fellow Chicago Imagist Roger Brown.

Nonetheless, there is an important distinction to be made between Imagism and Hairy Who, says Thea Liberty Nichols, the Researcher of Prints and Drawings at the AIC, who co-organized “Hairy Who? 1966-1969” with Mark Pascale, the Curator of Prints and Drawings and Ann Goldstein, the Deputy Director and Chair, and Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. “The Hairy Who was an artist-designed, artist-named exhibition group while Chicago Imagism was a label was applied to a whole gaggle of artists by an outside critic,” Nichols says.

Hairy Who member Nilsson agrees: “I don’t feel that any artist across the span of time has ever been happy with a moniker that another person has put on them,” she says. “But people always require a tag to hang something on. I don’t think I’ve ever really liked the term ‘Imagist’, but it does tell people what your work is like, if they’re not already familiar with it!”

The art itself

So, what is it like? “Come alive,” critic Max Kozloff wrote in the October 1972 edition of Artforum, “the art of the Hairy Who would scratch your eyes out.” Acidic color combinations, graphic black outlines, jazzy patterns and a caustic, adolescent sense of humor pervade the Hairy Who’s paintings, drawings and sculptures. Across the spectrum of the Imagist canon we see a prevalence of figuration, and a treatment of the human face and form that often verges on the grotesque or the cartoonish.

Chicago Imagist artists of the 1960s were influenced as much by advertising and product imagery as they were comic strips, Surrealism, German Expressionism, folk art and self-taught or visionary art. They generally referred not to photography, as did most 1960s Pop, but to drawings and graphic design.

Suellen Rocca, Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature, (1965) © Suellen Rocca. The Art Institute of Chicago, Frederick W. Renshaw Acquisition and Carol Rosenthal-Groeling Purchase funds

But this categorization also elides its variety, even within the Hairy Who; Nilsson’s subtle, lush watercolors, for instance, are a world away from Wirsum’s near-psychedelic, alien or robotic figures, as they are from Rocca’s all-over arrangements of contemporary hieroglyphs. “The only way our work looks related,” Nutt tells me, “is if you compare it to the standard of an all-black painting by Ad Reinhardt.”  

What drew these six artists together was pragmatism, and a sense that their individual styles looked good together on a gallery wall. The exhibition opportunities for young artists in Chicago in the 1960s were more or less limited to inclusion in sprawling group shows at one of the city’s independent art spaces, of which the Hyde Park Art Center, programmed by artist Don Baum, was considered the best.

Jim Nutt, Miss E. Knows, (1967) © Jim Nutt. The Art Institute of Chicago, Twentieth-Century Purchase Fund

The problem with these kinds of group exhibitions was that only the more senior artists were mentioned in reviews. So, in order for their work to get noticed, Nutt and Falconer proposed to Baum that he host a series of much smaller group shows, including one of their work together with Green, Rocca and Nilsson. Baum agreed to mount just one exhibition—adding Wirsum to their group.  

Instant recognition

On her way to the opening of the show, Nilsson remembers thinking, “My god, I hope there’s somebody there.” She needn’t have worried: the gallery was packed. She describes the 1966 exhibition as “mind-bogglingly successful”. Franz Schulze—the critic who coined the term “Chicago Imagist”—noted in his landmark 1972 Imagist survey, Fantastic Images: Chicago Art Since 1945, the Hairy Who’s “finely-honed, crazy-like-a-fox gift for attracting publicity to themselves”.

For the first exhibition they collaborated on an arresting poster depicting a man’s heavily tattooed back, each tattoo designed by a different member of the group. A collaborative comic, The Portable Hairy Who!, was made in place of a catalog and sold at the show for 50 cents a copy.

It immediately gave rise to a second show the following year, and another in 1968. The first show was excitedly reviewed (with illustrations!) in Artforum by Professor Whitney Halstead of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), thus fulfilling the artists’ ambition to get their work to a wider audience. As a result, in 1968 Philip Linhares, the San Francisco Art Institute curator, offered them their first show outside Chicago. The next year, Walter Hopps, who had founded the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles and was at the time the Curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC, invited them to stage an exhibition.

Art Green, Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic (originally titled The Undeniable Logician), (1965) © Art Green. Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, Anonymous Gift

This was their grandest presentation yet, a crowning achievement in the nation’s capital curated by the influential Hopps (who would later include Nutt in his selection of artists for the US pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale).

However, eager to develop their individual careers and reluctant to continue the Hairy Who “ad nauseum”, as Nilsson says, the group mutually agreed the Corcoran show would be their final hurrah—although not before the School of Visual Arts in New York hosted a two-part Hairy Who drawing show, earlier that same year.

Not really a group

To this day, almost 50 years since the group disbanded, these six artists—now in their 70s—are still habitually referred to as members of the Hairy Who. They do not seem to mind. Nutt says they have remained friendly and in sporadic contact, especially in preparation for the recent slew of exhibitions.

But he also is at pains to point out that it is a misconception to view them as a movement, still less an intellectual clique. When I ask if he benefitted from the shared discourse or intense debate about their work, he yelps with laughter: “We never had an intense debate about anything!” Nilsson agrees, saying she never visited other members’ studios, still less talked with them about their work. “The only other artist’s studio I remember ever being in—and only on a limited basis—was Jim’s!”

The central conundrum presented by the Hairy Who is that their work appears so fiercely assertive, so stridently original and different from everything that had come before it. But, as Nutt emphasizes, they were not consciously rejecting anything.

Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum, Hairy Who, (1966). The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt

Their education at the SAIC was not so much critical as broadly synthetic; students were influenced by the whole history of art via the museum’s collection which they saw every day on the way to class, but were also—if they were diligent enough—aware of the newest art from around the world, which came to them through the magazines in the SAIC library.

The Hairy Who were guided by their enthusiasms rather than an ethos of critical opposition. They were neither competitive amongst themselves nor particularly collaborative. Yes, they made posters and comic books together for the Hairy Who shows but, as Nichols observes, the group was paradoxically designed “for the express purpose of these six artists making names for themselves as individuals”.


That gambit seems to have largely paid off, although the Chicago Imagists in general have always thrived on the outer margins of good taste and mainstream discourse – a marginality that is geographical as well as aesthetic and philosophical. Historically, as Allan Schwartzman says, “While there was always a place for American Regionalism in many critics’ and curators’ minds, it was always referred to as ‘outside of the mainstream’.” Regionalism, he says, though a “badge of pride” for many artists and a contributing factor for the Hairy Who’s early successes, can also imply a kind of provincialism.

Ted Turner, Associate Director of Matthew Marks Gallery, which has represented Suellen Rocca since her first show at the gallery in 2016, says that it is easy to understand why she had never before had a solo show in New York. “Rocca is a woman artist from Chicago,” he says. “The New York art world has an enormous prejudice against artists living outside New York or LA.”

Gladys Nilsson, Untitled (Big Man) (1969). Courtesy the artist and Garth Greenan Gallery, New York

New York gallerist Derek Eller, who has represented Wirsum since 2010, says that Wirsum had next to no presence in the city before that time: his sense is that “the Imagists were always out of sync with New York taste and style”. In the 1960s and 1970s this meant the sternly reductivist forms of Minimalism or Conceptualism; when figuration entered the New York mainstream, through Pop, it was via the mediating filter of contemporary mass media.

The Hairy Who, by contrast, were looking at an array of narrative and vernacular forms such as cartoons, tattoos, Outsider art (including the drawings of the self-taught Joseph Yoakum, who worked in Chicago) as well as the paintings and manuscripts of the Quattrocento, northern Renaissance painting, and traditional arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Pre-Columbian Americas. In their wide geographical and historical purview, they distanced themselves from the artistic vanguard (and its supporters) which tended to be fixated on its contemporary social and artistic moment.

Overdue market correction

Since the 1960s, museums and art historians have similarly expanded their horizons, and today the Hairy Who seem in this respect to be ahead of their time. The market, traditionally, has lagged somewhat behind though may finally be catching up; over the past eight years, prices for Wirsum’s prices work have increased significantly, says Eller, and his secondary and auction markets have grown commensurably. His Standing Figure (circa 1967-1971) a painted wooden figure with googly eyes, patterned knickerbockers and dangling penis from the Hairy Who era, sold at Christie’s, New York, in 2015 for $112,500, way over its $8,000 to $12,000 estimate.

Karl Wirsum, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, (1968) © Karl Wirsum. The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund

Rocca too, whose second show with Matthew Marks opened September 14 (“Suellen Rocca: Drawings“, until 27 October) has also seen her prices rise, although Turner says “they are still very reasonable considering how high the quality of her work is, how influential it is, and how little of it there is to go around”.

To this last point, Schwartzman adds that the lack of saleable Hairy Who material is an impediment for dealers wanting to “pervade the wider consciousness of the marketplace”. Nutt, the most in demand of the Hairy Who artists (partly, perhaps, because of his fastidiously slow rate of production) was honored with the first show at the new location of Cabinet Gallery, London, in 2016, but says he’s unaware of any significant change in the kind of market for his work.

Despite the recent prevalence of Hairy Who and Chicago Imagist exhibitions, Eller regretfully denies that—in the market at least—there is a “Hairy Who frenzy going on”. Despite an upsurge in interest from contemporary painters dealing with eclectic appropriated and mediated imagery, such as Laura Owens, who wrote an essay for the AIC show catalog, the work is not to everyone’s taste.

Those who support the artists tend, however, to be devotees; people who recognize in the remarkable art of the Hairy Who and their ilk something that has not been found elsewhere in art, before or since. The outsider qualities that have made them unpalatable for the commercial mainstream are the same values that attract them to others. Owens says: “The Hairy Who celebrated and revered cultural objects and persons not yet celebrated, provocatively reframing the notion of quality.”

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