For an artist who eschewed the New York art scene with subversive art, Karl Wirsum has been getting a lot of love from the Big Apple these days. Chicago based Wirsum, along with James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, and Suellen Rocca became known as the Hairy Who, after a show in 1966 by the same name was co-curated by Don Baum at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. The Hairy Who as well as their precursors, the Monster Roster (which included Robert Barnes, Don Baum, Fred Berger, Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Theodore Halkin, June Leaf, Arthur Lerner, Irving Petlin, Seymour Rosofsky, Franz Schulze, Nancy Spero, Evelyn Statsinger, and H. C. Westermann), paved a new path for an aesthetic vocabulary that was unique to Chicago. During the 1970s these artists began being categorized more broadly as the Chicago Imagists.
Post-WWII Chicago artists had very little desire to participate in the New York Scene, which with its strict adherence to formalism may have seemed like the art salons of old Paris. The work of the Imagists illustrated a maverick mindset devoid of formalist ideology and focused on a unique conflation of surrealism, art brut, and comic book art. While pop-art was emerging on the West and East Coast, the Midwest was largely unmoved . Indeed there was a rebellious spirit in New York in the late 60s and 70s, through the organization of the No! Art Movement and the Rhino Horn Group among others. However, Chicago did have a large role in the development of Rhino Horn artists Peter Passuntino, Jay Milder, Benny Andrews, and Ken Bowman attended the School of the Art Institute in Chicago while the Imagists were also emerging. Because of these artists’ commitment outside mainstream art circles, previously placing them in the “canon” has proved difficult. A large scale survey featuring the many alternative artist groups from the late 60s onward is ripe for consideration across the country.
Recently, The Hairy Who have raised the eyebrows of many art historians and critics. They are the subject of a feature length documentary film, and there are numerous retrospective exhibitions being planned throughout the country. Additionally, their work is currently featured (alongside many renowned 70s pop-artists) in the Whitney’s inaugural downtown exhibition America is Hard to See. This has been beneficial for a lot of the individual artists especially Karl Wirsum, who is represented in New York City by the Derek Eller Gallery where selected work from the 1970s is currently on view.
The work in the show is eclectic since Wirsum is well versed in a variety of media and mediums including installation, sculpture, assemblage, printmaking, painting, and drawing. Wirsum’s fascination with comic book characters is a major inspiration for these objects which, combined with both an anxious and humorous energy, result in a personal style that is unmistakably his own. There is a feeling of restlessness, which makes sense considering that during this period Wirsum and his family briefly relocated to Sacramento, California. In Sacramento, Wirsum began to create marionettes, which personified American nuclear families, acrobats, and musicians. His paintings and drawings epitomize Wirsum’s signature rendering of the human figure into geometric and distorted forms. These humanoids depict contorted bodily movements, often focused on the lower body (as in the two ice skater paintings) and the face (seen in a series of Styrofoam busts).