Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some) and Hairy Who (and some others) explore the work of Wirsum and his contemporaries in the charged Chicago art scene that emerged in the 1960s. The exhibitions comprise an important retrospective of Karl Wirsum's paintings and sculptures, as well as an overview of Chicago Imagism drawn from MMoCA's permanent collection and an important private collection.
The rise to prominence of the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagism began in the late 1960s, when the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago organized a series of milestone exhibitions. These shows introduced audiences to a vibrant generation of young artists. The first exhibition, entitled Hairy Who, presented works by six artists, including Karl Wirsum, and set the tone for what was to come in subsequent presentations at the Center.
Although these exhibitions displayed a diversity of styles, a local critic discerned enough common ground to dub the artists the “Chicago Imagists.” Influenced by Pop art–already established earlier in the decade in New York and Los Angeles–Chicago Imagism was nonetheless highly original in expression. It was a fantasy art of brilliant color and underground cartoon-like satires that spoke to the political and social foibles, violence, and whimsy of contemporary life. With none of the deadpan irony and sophistication of New York Pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, the homegrown art of the Chicagoans was brash and irreverent–thoroughly Midwestern in its straightforwardness, offbeat congeniality, and goofy, punning titles. It was also emblematic of the decade’s youth movement and counterrevolution that championed flower power and a deep questioning of authority.
All of these Chicago artists were native to that city and all were students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where they were influenced by the institution’s superb collection of Surrealist art. Two hallmarks of Imagist style–a graphic linear strength and a complexity of composition–derive from the automatic line and layered imagery of the Surrealists.
KARL WIRSUM: WINSOME WORKS(SOME)
Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some), organized by the Chicago Cultural Center, includes approximately 85 works dating from the 1960s to the present. Wirsum’s paintings and sculptures are a skillful blend of polished technique and popular culture. Born in 1939, the artist has lived in Chicago almost his entire life and continues to teach at the School of the Art Institute.
In addition to being an original member of the Hairy Who, Wirsum was a major figure in Chicago Imagism. Throughout the years, he has shown in solo and group shows around the world, and his work is represented in the permanent collections of major museums. Lanny Silverman, organizing curator at the Chicago Cultural Center, observes that “Wirsum’s work is witty and engaging on many levels and blends abstraction and figuration through a wide array of cultural references, ranging from comic books and toys to ethnic art.”
HAIRY WHO (AND SOME OTHERS)
The second exhibition, Hairy Who (and some others), includes thirty paintings, prints, drawings, and collages from MMoCA’s permanent collection and an important private collection. Featured artists include Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt, all original members of the Hairy Who; Ed Paschke, who with four other artists showed at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968 under the banner of “Nonplussed Some”; and Roger Brown and Christina Ramberg, who exhibited with two other artists in a group calling themselves “False Image” in 1968 and 1969. The survey also includes works by the Chicago Imagists’ mentor, Ray Yoshida, and Robert Lostutter, a close friend of Paschke who did not show with the groups but is closely affiliated with the Imagists in his eccentric style and expression.
All of the original artists associated with Chicago Imagism eventually disbanded and went their own way, although leaving in their wake the considerable impact of the early group presentations at the Hyde Park Art Center. An exhibition in 1972 at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago Imagist Art, cemented the young artists’ reputations. By 1973, their standing was sufficiently established that the Smithsonian sent paintings by several of the Imagists to the XII São Paolo Art Biennial. In 1974, the Smithsonian organized the exhibition Made in Chicago, which enjoyed a national tour.
Rick Axsom, MMoCA curator of collections, organized the exhibition Hairy Who (and some others). Axsom says the influence of the Chicago Imagists was profound. “Their works showed that vital new art could be created in the American Midwest, outside of New York, and that it could compete on its own terms. This was an important precedent for the globalizing of contemporary art in the decades to come.”
Organized by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some)was curated by Lanny Silverman. It was made possible through generous gifts from Ruth P. Horwich, Phyllis Kind, Carol and Larry Levy, and Lindy Bergman.
The Wisconsin presentation of Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some) and the exhibition Hairy Who (and some others) have been made possible by generous funding from Whyte Hirschboeck Dudek, S.C.; Bruce Rosen and Diane Seder; the Dane County Cultural Affairs Commission with additional funds from the Endres Mfg. Company Foundation and the Overture Foundation; the Art League of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; and a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board with funds from the State of Wisconsin.
Saturday, October 13 • 7 pm
Art Talk with Karl Wirsum
As part of the opening reception for Karl Wirsum: Winsome Works(some), the artist will present an overview of his career, highlighting major themes and influences. Free to MMoCA members; $5 general public.
Sunday, October 14 • 1 pm
Kids’ Art Adventures
Children ages 6-10 will learn about Karl Wirsum’s imaginative paintings and sculptures and make movable rod puppets inspired by the artist’s imagery. The artist will participate in the workshop. Space is limited and available on a first-come, first-served basis. Free.
American Family Insurance provides generous support for Kids’ Art Adventures and other “second Sunday” family activities.
Friday, October 19 • 6:30 pm
Gallery Talk with Rick Axsom
MMoCA’s curator of collections will discuss the stylistic tendencies and conceptual underpinnings of the Chicago Imagists. Free.
Friday, December 7 • 6-8 pm
Express It! Workshops
Fanciful creatures and superheroes abound in this workshop, where participants make puppets and masks inspired by Karl Wirsum’s artwork. Adults and kids ages 8 and up may participate on a drop-in basis. Free.
WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING
“Art reviews: Painting a new picture of Wirsum ” by Scott Topper, November 11, 2007
The Wisconsin State Journal »