Starting when she was 8 years old, Suellen Rocca took Saturday children’s art classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I would stand on the steps outside waiting for my mother to pick me up,” she said, “and I would dream that someday maybe I would have work of mine in the Art Institute.”
That dream will reach its full realization Sept. 26 when she and the other five members of Hairy Who will be featured in what the museum is billing as the “first-ever major survey exhibition” devoted to the short-lived but hugely influential Chicago group.
The show, titled Hairy Who? 1966-69, will contain about 225 paintings, sculptures and works on paper as well as related ephemera by Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Rocca and Karl Wirsum (all still active and still friends).
“When this is all over with and the [accompanying] book is out in the world, we hope that people can appreciate how significant what they did was and continues to be,” said Mark Pascale, the Art Institute’s curator of prints and drawings. He and Thea Liberty Nichols, a researcher in prints and drawings, co-organized the show with Ann Goldstein, the Art Institute’s deputy director and chair and curator of modern and contemporary art.
The show is part of Art Design Chicago, a yearlong series of exhibitions, publications and programs spearheaded by the Terra Foundation for American Art that spotlight the city’s rich art and design history.
Working between figuration and abstraction, the six Hairy Who artists bucked the dominant New York art trends and created their own off-kilter, Chicago-centric, sometimes erotically charged style that drew on down-to-earth sources like tattoos, games and comic strips.
A work that the museum is using as a kind of calling card for the show is Wirsum’s Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (1968), a 48-by-36-inch acrylic on canvas that pays homage to the rock ’n’ roll singer best known for “I Put a Spell on You.” His name dances across the top of this cartoonish, poster-like painting, which explodes with electric colors and throbbing patterns.
In the mid-1960s, a group of five largely unknown artists in their early and mid-20s approached Don Baum, exhibition chairman at the Hyde Park Art Center, about a possible exhibition. Tired of being overlooked in large group presentations, they thought that a show focused on a smaller number of artists would give them more visibility.
Baum agreed but suggested they add Wirsum, a sixth artist he thought would be complementary.
The new addition walked into the group’s first meeting as the five were talking about art critic Harry Bouros. Wirsum asked, “Harry who?” The group immediately seized upon the question as its name, mischievously changing the spelling to Hairy Who.
The first Hyde Park show opened Feb. 25, 1966, and the six Hairy Who artists became “local celebrities overnight,” according to Nichols’ essay in the retrospective’s accompanying catalog.
The group had two more shows at the Hyde Park Center (the Art Institute’s retrospective marks the 50th anniversary of the third and last one). The critical attention they generated led to other exhibitions in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., before the six disbanded in 1969.
The Hairy Who artists were later grouped with what became known as the Chicago Imagists, an amorphous classification that has since sowed confusion. One of the biggest misconceptions is exactly who was in Hairy Who.
“Even though you would think that people who are familiar with the art world would know who the six members of the Hairy Who are,” said Nilsson, “there is constant confusion: ‘Oh, yes, Ed Paschke was a Hairy Who. Oh, Roger Brown was a Hairy Who.’ No, no.”
Indeed, the point of this exhibition, Pascale said, is to shine the spotlight on this group of six artists for the first time in such a focused way and definitively answer the question posed by the show’s title: Hairy Who?
“Finally, attentions are being paid to the initial group that started it all,” Nilsson said. “The Hairy Who is very specific, and we were first, and it’s very nice to be recognized as such. It makes me very feel old, but there you have it.”
The show is divided into two sections. The largest in the Rice Building will partially re-create the Hairy Who’s six exhibitions, including a close facsimile of the linoleum that Hairy Who used as a wall-covering in at least one of the Hyde Park shows.
“We’re not trying to ape their exhibition plans,” Pascale said, “but we have a lot of great photographic sources, and we were able to find a lot of the works and, in some cases, we will hang them in a way that is similar to the way they hung them originally.”
The other section of the show will be on view in the prints and drawings galleries. It will feature a workroom-like space that will show how Hairy Who created the posters, comic books and other materials that promoted their shows. In addition, each artist will have a small alcove with works on paper, many created at the time but not displayed in the six 1960s exhibitions.
It helped in assembling this retrospective that the Hairy Who artists kept much of the ephemera surrounding their shows and were able to offer considerable guidance. But still, tracking down specific works was not always easy. Indeed, when asked how difficult the process was, Pascale and Nichols burst out laughing.
They had checklists for five of the six shows, and Nichols was able to reconstruct a checklist for the New York presentation based on a shipping manifest she discovered. “But, then, finding the actual work, that was a forensic exercise like none of us could ever have imagined,” Pascale said.
In the end, the selections were drawn from the holdings of the Art Institute and about 70 other public and private collections. More than 30 works have not been shown publicly since they were originally exhibited in the 1960s.
During a meeting in September 2017 with collectors, critics and other interested parties, the organizers were asked why certain well-known works have not been included. “We said, ‘Because they are known,’ ” Pascale said. “We want to show people what is unknown or what has been forgotten or only exists through reproductions.”
Nilsson recently got a sneak preview of part of “Harry Who?,” and she was delighted with what she saw. “It’s just beautiful,” she said, “and made me feel very proud and very happy and very elated that I was part of this group of six that forged ahead and did these shows. And, now 50 years later, suddenly, we’re back in the thick of an exhibition.”