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

" ...a stunning exhibition..."  
The Wall Street Journal  

The Madison Museum of Contemporary Art (MMoCA) presents a major exhibition of works by the Chicago Imagists beginning September 11, 2011, and continuing through January 15, 2012. On view in the museum’s main galleries, Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art includes more than 75 works in a variety of media: paintings; watercolors; collages; prints; sculptures; and artists’ ephemera, including comic books and decals. The exhibition will be accompanied by a series of talks and documentary films, a complementary exhibition of works by artists who influenced or were influenced by the Imagists, and a major publication.

A key component of Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art are consummate paintings, sculptures, and unique works on paper from the museum’s Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism. Many of the nearly 100 works made available to the museum by Bill McClain in 2010 will be presented to a public audience for the first time as part of the exhibition. William H. McClain, Halvorson Professor of Bacteriology, Emeritus, at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, built his exceptional holdings of Chicago Imagist works over thirty years of close contact with the artists. The exhibition also features a number of major gifts to MMoCA from the Raymond K. Yoshida Living Trust and Kohler Foundation, Inc.

Imagist History

In the late 1960s, art audiences were introduced to a vibrant new group of artists who would soon be identified collectively as the Chicago Imagists. The Imagists initially showed their work between 1966 and 1971 at the Hyde Park Art Center. Don Baum, artist and director of the center, facilitated several exhibitions that included the work of, most significantly, Roger Brown, Sarah Canright, James Falconer, Ed Flood, Art Green, Philip Hanson, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca, Barbara Rossi, and Karl Wirsum. These young artists banded together variously to present their art in a series of exhibitions with titles such as Hairy Who, Nonplussed Some, False Image, Marriage Chicago Style, and Chicago Antigua. Most of the artists were native to Chicago, in their later twenties, and current or former students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC). One-third of the artists group were women, an unusual percentage for the period, and a marked contrast to the male-dominant field of modern art in New York City and elsewhere.

Pivotal to the Imagists’ development were the SAIC instructors who urged their students to explore a great variety of traditions in art, both western and non-western. Most notable in this respect was the artist Ray Yoshida, who began teaching at the school in 1959. Yoshida encouraged his students to seek visual experiences outside of the fine arts—drawing especially from popular culture as exemplified by magazines, comics, and what Yoshida called “trash treasures” gathered from outdoor flea markets such as Chicago’s Maxwell Market.

Although the Pop artists in New York, Los Angeles, and London, who were a generation older, also drew inspiration from the everyday urban world and popular culture, the Imagists nevertheless crafted an original art. Their works were characterized by personal fantasy and executed with brilliant color, graphic strength, free line, and exceptional workmanship. With broader sources of inspiration than the Pop artists, and a brand of exuberant and irreverent satire all their own, the Imagists spoke to the political and social foibles—as well as the absurdities and whimsy—of the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s. Audiences quickly caught the unique character of their art.

Characteristics of Imagist Art

Comic-book style plays an important role in Roger Brown’s Sudden Avalanche (1972), where a cartoon town of brightly colored, toylike structures, is threatened with a natural disaster that does not seem to interfere with the self-absorbed dramas of the men and women silhouetted in the windows. Although amusing, the scene is disquieting, a frequent state of things in Imagist art that is also true for Philip Hanson’s Mezzanine (1969). In a mysterious and child-like setting reminiscent of Giorgio di Chirico’s empty, surrealist plazas, the four steps of a blue staircase may lead to a mezzanine. Beckoned to ascend, the viewer is unsure of what lies beyond: is it danger or pleasure?

Other important aspects of Chicago Imagism are seen in Jim Nutt’s freewheeling portrait Rosie Comon (1967–1968), which catches the spontaneous line, love of caricature, and high wit of Imagist art. Rosie Comon (the title a pun on County Roscommon in Ireland and a reference to the Chicago Irish) is a brawling kind of reddish-haired guy, bare-chested with tattoos on his back. Both human and slightly bestial in the face, he has a nose sprouting a grotesque appendage of unknown function. If “Rosie” is a perfectly acceptable Irish nickname for a boy, carrying it must nonetheless encourage a certain toughness to succeed.

Reflecting feminist concerns, the tightly corseted figure cut off at the neck and legs in Ramberg’s Untitled #15 (1982) is a recurring motif in the artist’s work that explores gender stereotypes. In brash comic-book simplifications, the figure’s iconic presentation speaks to the fetisizing of the female form that produces both allure and cruelty. 

Components of MMoCA’s Chicago Imagist Project

Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will be accompanied by a complementary exhibition in the museum’s State Street Gallery. Titled Chicago School: Imagists in Context, this concurrent exhibition features works by artists who were geographically, philosophically, and artistically associated with the Imagists, including Robert Barnes, Phyllis Bramson, Don Baum, Leon Golub, Miyoko Ito, Ellen Lanyon, June Leaf, Robert Lostutter, Peter Saul, Hollis Sigler,  and H.C. Westermann, among others. Both exhibitions were organized by the museum’s curator of collections, Richard H. Axsom; director, Stephen Fleischman; curatorial associate, Leah Kolb; and former curator of exhibitions, Jane Simon.

Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art will be accompanied by a major publication titled Chicago Imagists. This richly illustrated 168-page book is the most extensive reference available on the artists, their works, and the context within which the group emerged and flourished. The volume includes essays by Lynne Warren, curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Cécile Whiting, professor of art history at the University of California, Irvine; and the exhibition curators. Copies will be available at the Museum Store and in September.

In conjunction with the book and exhibition, the museum will present a series of lectures, gallery talks, and short documentaries. Encompassing in scope and scholarship, MMoCA’s Chicago Imagists project provides new insight and critical analysis of Chicago’s major artistic movement, while introducing new audiences to the significant visual pleasures of Imagist artworks.


September 11, 2011–January 15, 2012 ∙ Continuous
Imagist Documentaries
Artists in America: Roger Brown (1983) and Pigmentata (1990), a documentary about Ed Paschke, will screen continuously in the museum’s New Media Gallery during the course of the exhibition Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art. The New Media Gallery is on the second floor, adjacent to the main galleries.

Saturday, September 10 ∙ 7–8 pm 
A Conversation with Art Green and Gladys Nilsson
A Lussier Family Lecture
Imagist artists Art Green and Gladys Nilsson will discuss the history of the group with MMoCA director Stephen Fleischman in the museum’s lecture hall.

Friday, September 23 ∙ 6:30–7 pm
Bill McClain on Collecting the Imagists
The Bill McClain Collection of Chicago Imagism includes consummate works acquired over a period of 30 years. In this talk, Bill McClain will trace the steps involved in building a visual art collection using his extensive experience as a collector of works by the Chicago Imagists.

Saturday, October 8 ∙ 11-11:30 am
Drop-in Tour
Docent Teresa Getty will discuss ways in which counter-culture ideas shaped the visual vocabulary of the Chicago Imagists.

Thursday, October 13 ∙ 12:30–1 pm
Richard H. Axsom on the Chicago School 
Richard H. Axsom will discuss the advent and development of a Chicago School in the visual arts. Axsom is MMoCA’s curator of collections; professor emeritus of art history, University of Michigan; and author of a forthcoming two-volume catalogue raisonné of Ellsworth Kelly’s prints, among other books.

Thursday, October 27 ∙ 12:30–1 pm
Fred Stonehouse on the Chicago Imagists
Fred Stonehouse will discuss works on view in Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, focusing on the artists’ references to popular culture and their appreciation for surrealism and art outside of the mainstream. An assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison Art Department, Fred Stonehouse is nationally known for his distinctive, finely crafted, and highly symbolic paintings.

Saturday, November 12 · 11-11:30 am 
Drop-in Tour
Docent Marie Wunsch will discuss the Chicago School’s contributions to American culture.


Generous support for Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art has been provided by the National Endowment for the Arts; The DeAtley Family Foundation; Ellen Rosner and Paul Reckwerdt; Perkins Coie LLP; Daniel and Natalie Erdman; J.H. Findorff & Son Inc.; MillerCoors; Tim and Mary Erdman; McGladrey; Hooper Corp. / General Heating and Air Conditioning; The Terry Family Foundation; the Madison Arts Commission, with additional funds from the Wisconsin Arts Board; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission; a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin and the National Endowment for the Arts; and MMoCA Volunteers.