In 1966, six recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago held a groundbreaking exhibit at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago’s South Side. Calling themselves the Hairy Who, the group thumbed their noses at the art establishment, producing works that were outrageous, aggressive, humorous, and scatological.
Hairy Who members—Art Green, Jim Falconer, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—shared an interest in the art of popular culture. Reﬂecting bright color, patterning, and precise crafts manship, the group’s exhibitions incorporated such features as comic book catalogues, discount-store price tags, linoleum-covered walls, and displays of thrift-shop ﬁnds.
Other groups soon joined the Hairy Who at the Hyde Park Art Center. The Nonplussed Some debuted in 1968, featuring the work of Ed Paschke and four other young artists. That same year saw the ﬁrst show by the False Image, a group that included Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, and Phil Hanson.
These young, irreverent artists shared an affinity with an earlier group of Chicago artists, dubbed the Monster Roster, that had emerged in the late 1940s and early ’50s.
Inspired in part by Jean Dubuffet’s famous 1951 lecture that pointed to the world of primal feeling as the origin of art, Monster Roster artists were heavily inﬂuenced by Sur realism, tribal art, and “outsider” art. Leon Golub, Robert Barnes, Don Baum, Dominick Di Meo, Evelyn Statsinger, Theodore Halkin, and the other members of the Monster Roster produced works that were psychologically charged, intensely felt, and very personal.
In 1972 the term Chicago Imagists was coined by art historian Franz Schulze to describe both the Monster Roster artists and the later generation of artists that emerged in the ’60s. The Imagists were connected by certain commonly held beliefs, rather than a single recognizable style; they rejected Abstract Expressionism, the popular idiom of the day, and produced works that featured imagery, primarily of the human ﬁgure. Again and again they returned to the human image, casting it in numerous roles, distorting it, and layering it with personal meaning.
The work of the Chicago Imagists has gained national and international recognition. In 1973, members of the later generation of Imagists represented the United States at the prestigious Sao Paulo Bienal exhibition in Brazil. In 1981, the “Who Chicago” exhibition brought Chicago Imagist work to England, Scotland, and Ireland. Today, Imagist work can be found in museums and important collections throughout the world.
It is no accident that these highly talented artists bursting with originality and creativity emerged in Chicago in the 1950s and 60s. Existing outside the artistic mainstream and in an atmosphere that fostered unique sensibilities, they were encouraged to develop and express their personal visions. The result is a highly original and authentic movement that marked an important moment in the development of the art of the 20th century.
Curator and Director of Exhibitions, Elmhurst College