The Chicago Imagists

The Imagists were a group of figurative artists who emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s. They used vibrant color, bold lines, and depicted the human body grossly distorted and highly stylized. Their bizarre portrayals of the human form expanded on Chicago’s artistic tradition of the grotesque established by artists like Ivan Albright and Leon Golub. Although influenced by the encyclopedic collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Imagists were equally inspired by ethnographic collections at the Field Museum, self-taught artists, comic books, storefront window displays, and advertisements in magazines.

Learn More: The Chicago Imagists

History of the Term

Chicago art historian Franz Schulze originated the term “Imagists” in his classic book Fantastic Images (1972), in which he catalogued the history of twentieth-century art in Chicago. The term was used to describe artists who emerged in the years after World War II, primarily those associated with the Monster Roster—artists like Leon Golub, June Leaf, Nancy Spero, and H.C. Westermann. Schulze writes, “the image—the face, the figure, often regarded as icon—was considered more psychologically basic, more the source of expressive meaning, than any abstract configuration of paint strokes could possibly be.” However, over the years, the term was misconstrued and is now firmly associated with the small group of Chicago-based artists who emerged in the 1960s and exhibited together at the Hyde Park Art Center.

Read more—essay by Lynne Warren from Chicago Imagists (2011): Chicago Imagism: The Derivation of a Term

The Beginning

The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the Hyde Park Art Center were both central to the development of Chicago Imagism. Several of the Imagists’ instructors, in particular Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, were influential to the young artists. Halstead, who was an assistant in the Field Museum’s anthropology department in addition to teaching at SAIC, introduced the artists to African art, Native American pottery, and self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum. In addition to his own artistic endeavors, Yoshida was an avid collector of flea market objects that were often outside the boundaries of traditional “art.” The young Imagists also benefited from the encyclopedic collection housed next door at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Hyde Park Art Center, Don Baum was a driving force for innovation and an astute observer of young talent. He worked with Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson to organize the first “Hairy Who” show in 1966 with Karl Wirsum, James Falconer, Art Green, and Suellen Rocca.

Read more—essay by Stephen Fleischman from Chicago Imagists (2011): Fanning the Flames in the Windy City

Imagism in Context

As working artists in the 1960s, the Chicago Imagists took a world of inspiration from their very specific urban environment. Their highly fantastical art stood apart from the feel of L.A. and New York Pop. With none of the anonymous qualities that can describe familiar aspects of Pop art (as epitomized in a Warhol Campbell’s Soup can), Chicago Imagism takes pleasure in the autographic gesture of the artist’s hand and in private links between artist and subject. Graphic strength is a hallmark of the Imagists: their fluid drawing—free yet deliberate—animates images with an energy and motion that evaded Pop. At its core, Chicago Imagism is figurative, its male and female types presented in suggestive and enigmatic narratives.

Read more—essay by Richard H. Axsom from Chicago Imagists (2011): L.A. Snap/Chicago Crackle/New York Pop

MMoCA's Holdings

In 2010, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art received a stunning gift of Imagist works carefully amassed by collector, long-time friend, and former member of the Board of Trustees of the museum, Bill McClain. Combined with MMoCA’s existing holdings, the gift established a tremendous institutional collection of Chicago Imagism. In 2011, another generous gift from the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc., from the estate of the late Ray Yoshida, augmented the collection with additional works by the Imagists.

MMoCA is also deeply grateful for Mark and Judy Bednar, who, in addition to funding several Imagist acquisitions, have chosen to gift their esteemed collection of Chicago Imagism and related works to the museum’s permanent collection. This gift of nearly 100 works of art will be received by the museum over the next several years. To support continued research and the accessibility of these works, the Bednars have funded the museum’s collection database and website redesign. While strengthening the museum’s existing collection of Chicago Imagism, these transformative gifts also enhance the museum’s core mission of education and inspiration through the arts.

MMoCA's Exhibition History

Famous Artists from Chicago, August 30—October 11, 1970

Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some) and Hairy Who (and some others), October 14, 2007—January 8, 2008

Chicago School: Imagists in Context, September 11, 2011—January 8, 2012

Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, September 11, 2011—January 15, 2012

The Singing Bird Room of Robert Lostutter, October 5, 2012—January 6, 2013

Eye Deal: Abstract Bodies of the Chicago Imagists, August 11, 2018—June 9, 2019