James Falconer, 1975. Courtesy of Mary Baber.
The first Hairy Who exhibition (1966) came about when James Falconer and Jim Nutt suggested a series of small-group exhibitions to Don Baum, exhibitions coordinator at the Hyde Park Art Center. Falconer and Nutt’s initial exhibition group included Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Suellen Rocca. At Baum’s suggestion, they also welcomed Karl Wirsum into their circle. Like the exhibition title, the participating artists came to be known, collectively, as the Hairy Who.
The first Hairy Who exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966 was followed by subsequent exhibitions in 1967 and 1968, as well as installations at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1968 and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1969. Participation in these exhibitions fluctuated somewhat; in addition to the 1966 and 1968 Hairy Who exhibitions in Hyde Park, Falconer participated in the Corcoran Gallery exhibition.
Falconer has remarked that the imagery of the Hairy Who artists emerged from the tension and repression of the 1960s. Like other artists in the group, he also drew inspiration from the Monster Roster, a post-World War II group established by Leon Golub and other Chicago artists who, like the Imagists a generation later, focused on psychological expression through the human figure. Falconer saw in these works a personal and political angst similar to his own. Working with a range of mediums, Falconer explored juxtapositions between Western and non-Western sources and highlighted tensions between layers of patterning and abstract shapes.
In the late 1960s, Falconer became active in anti-war efforts, co-founding the Chicago branch of Artists Against the War in Vietnam with friends Dominick Di Meo, Robert Donley, and Donald Main. By 1970, Falconer had moved to New York City, where he explored artistic avenues in film and photography. He eventually pursued a career as an acoustical consultant, designing and building recording studios. Falconer resided in New York for 32 years; in the early 2000s, he returned to Chicago, where he lives today. Falconer identifies his recent abstract forms as gestures in figuration and an extension of his roots in Imagism.
Oil on canvas
James Falconer painted this self-portrait when he was a student enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He stands defenseless and still, and his arms are slack at his side. His body is awash in vibrant colors and outlined in bright red, yet his eyes are darkened by several quick brushstrokes of blue. He is aware of his surroundings, but uncertain. Behind him loom three tall men blanketed in shadow; the yellow highlights suggest backlit silhouettes which lend a sense of foreboding to the precarious setting.
This work was painted in Chicago in 1964—an unsettling time in the United States. The U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War escalated, and despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act that year, Chicago’s racial divide was witness to extreme police brutality and rioting. Though considered a member of the Chicago Imagists, Falconer deviated from the group’s practice of regarding their artwork as apolitical. Aware of the tension and anxiety within the city, Falconer was drawn to the raw emotion of German Expressionism and the political satire of Peter Saul’s early works. By 1969, he would go on to co-found the Chicago branch of Artists Against the War in Vietnam with Dominick DiMeo, Robert Donley, and Donald Main.