THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Karl Wirsum Screamin’ J Hawkins, 1968. Images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
by Nathan Worcester
Two years before the 1968 Democratic National Convention—three years after a young Bernie Sanders was arrested in 1963 at a South Side protest—while Claire Zeisler was weaving and knotting fiber to minimal fanfare—just as Henry Darger affixed his 10,000th cut-out cherub to a watercolor backdrop in his darkened apartment to the distant accompaniment of Richard Nickel’s pickaxe—the Hairy Who sprouted up at Don Baum’s Hyde Park Art Center.
Educated at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and associated with a larger set known as the Chicago Imagists, the Hairy Who (not to be confused with The Who, the Guess Who, or New York pop art) were unmistakably a product of the aesthetic, psychological and political forces unleashed during the ‘60s.
And yet “Hairy Who? 1966-1969,” an ongoing survey exhibition currently at the Art Institute, feels remarkably timely. At a moment of radical conflict within our own culture, the works of Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Art Green, Karl Wirsum, and Jim Falconer demonstrate how artists can respond to strange times without losing themselves to convention, impersonal irony, or, worse yet, some sort of narrowly-defined ideology.
Nutt, Nilsson et al. all have their own things to say and their own ways of saying them. Still, there are commonalities within the group. Their pieces are usually funny, sometimes angry, and unabashedly sexual. In general, they do justice to the spirit of their age without sacrificing their individual points of view or down-to-earth Chicago-ness.
Though the Hairy Who’s output may superficially resemble pop art, their mode of engagement with popular culture distinguishes them from the likes of Warhol and Lichtenstein. Chicago doesn’t really do clinical detachment, and neither do its artists. Nutt’s cartoon-influenced “Officer Doodit” paintings, for example, reflect a playful give-and-take across the arts; better that than another humorless highbrow dissection of popular forms. Green’s Occupational Hazards seems like a close cousin of Bill Plympton’s efflorescent animations. Meanwhile, Nutt’s exuberant PFFFPHTT brings to mind the frenetic line work of cartoonist John “Derf” Backderf.
Speaking of PFFFPHTT, it is one of many pieces that are best understood within the context of the times. The “wet bombs” being launched from the face’s anus-like aperture register as a kind of Yippie-ish burlesque of the very real bombs being dropped on North Vietnam during Operation Rolling Thunder.
Along similar lines, Green’s Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic scores a direct hit on the hyper-analytical Establishment attitude epitomized by ColdWarrior Robert McNamara. Along with Green’s civil engineer father (insert leftist-with-Daddy-issues joke here), McNamara served as the model for the seated figure in the painting. In retrospect, the late ‘60s really were the twilight of the Organization Man. Appropriately enough, in Green’s painting, the underlying base on which McNamara rests is collapsing.
Green’s painting achieves an odd unity between the (visually) logical and illogical, reinforcing the piece’s underlying themes and recalling Cubist experimentation with perspective without being crudely imitative of it. McNamara/Green Sr. is a data-driven idealist attempting to impose order on a chaotic world; even his shadow is three-dimensional. Importantly, however, its three-dimensionality conflicts with that of the speech bubble overhead and of other objects in the painting. As with the Hairy Who themselves, perspective and logic give way to perspectives (refreshing) and logics (less refreshing than troubling).
Art Green, Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic (originally titled The Undeniable Logician), 1965.
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Viewed from 2018, certain other features of the Hairy Who’s drawings and paintings intentionally or unintentionally recall a bygone Zeitgeist. By 1966, psychoanalysis had reached a zenith of popularity and scientific credibility among the United States’ cultural elite. It is possible, if at times speculative, to observe imagery, forms, and processes influenced by psychoanalysis or psychology in the works on display.
The inky shadows in Wirsum’s Untitled (Study for Broken Balloon Series) resemble nothing so much as Rorschach blots. The hair of Nutt’s Wiggly Woman has a similar Rorschachian quality. Less speculatively, Nutt’s and Rocca’s pieces often amount to an externalized thought process, the thinker shuffling or sprinting through that well-trafficked intersection of urban anomie and ambient young person horniness. Pretty universal, pretty true, and, thus, pretty effective. Incidentally, Rocca’s later pieces such as Bare Shouldered Beauty are more effective in this respect than her sketchy early contributions.
Nilsson’s comes close to free association in Untitled (Reach), The Floating Audience, and other works, offering her own window onto the relation between psychological processes and artistic creation. A caption for Nilsson’s Two Ladies provides additional context: “Unlike her husband, Jim Nutt, who created preparatory drawings to guide his painting, Nilsson worked spontaneously directly on the painting, first delineating her figure’s outlines and then sealing them behind a monochromatic background.” Nilsson’s cartoony ink or acrylic figures flow into and out of each other, creating a weightless, densely human world all her own.
The literal marriage of Nutt and Nilsson points up another distinguishing feature of the Hairy Who and of Chicago more generally: namely, a willingness to enter into conversation or collaboration with each other or with others on the local scene. Green’s Questioning Tower echoes (or was echoed by) the famous towers painted by Roger Brown, another SAIC-er and Chicago Imagist operating at the same time. Interestingly, Brown and Green collaborated on the 1973 piece, Roger Brown and Art Green, which is also in the Art Institute’s collection, though not on display in this exhibition. In keeping with the Hairy Who’s penchant for visual humor and puns, the two artists appear to have “stitched together” their respective halves of the artwork.
In short, “The Hairy Who? 1966-1969” is a clear success, and not just because it gives critics a jumping-off point for talking about the ’60s. Its relatively simple chronological arrangement lets viewers trace the development of each artist and of the group as a whole. For example, in one of Falconer’s untitled pieces, a grotesque collectress exclaims, “We just love your paintings.” It therefore comes as no surprise that Falconer chose not to participate in all of the group’s exhibitions.
“Hairy Who? 1966–1969” is on exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago through January 6, 2019.
Nathan Worcester is a writer and assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. All comments welcome via firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Falconer, Untitled, 1968. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Suellen Rocca, Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature, 1965.
Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Gladys Nilsson, The Great War of the Wonder Women, no date. Image courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
Jim Nutt, Untitled, 1966. Images courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago.
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