In 1966, six students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago approached Don Baum, artistic director of the Hyde Park Art Center, with a proposal to present a group show. Adopting a name derived from an inside joke, the Hairy Who inspired other intrepid young Chicago artists to organize their own group exhibitions. A few year later, art historian Franz Schulze would dub these self-sufficient young creators “the Chicago Imagists.”
The artists who formed the Hairy Who—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum—shared “a penchant for technical finesse, brash color and imagery,” according to Mark Pascale, a curator at the Art Institute. Inspired by comic-book art, sign-painting techniques and vernacular culture, each artist embraced their distinctive talents and made personal works that impart a sense of humor, usually rendered with bright hues and bizarre detail. “They stuck with their more base source. They didn’t try to make it elegant,” Pascale says. “They liked the juicy, sexy, profane aspects.”
When Sun-Times art critic Harold Haydon reviewed the Hairy Who's first show, he called it “a barbaric yelp on canvas.” More than 50 years after the group’s debut exhibit in Hyde Park, the artists’ work is once again taking the spotlight in the Art Institute's latest exhibition, Hairy Who? 1966–1969. The exhibit gathers pieces from the Hairy Who's six original shows, with many of the artworks being placed on display for the first time since the ’60s. Viewers will once again be able to gaze at Nutt’s undulating, cartoon-ish figures, Nilsson’s surreal watercolor scenes and Wirsum’s vibrant acrylic canvases inspired by ’60s blues singers—all in the same room. A companion exhibit in the museum's Prints and Drawing Gallery will showcase ephemera from Hairy Who exhibitions, including exhibit catalogs printed in comic-book form.
While the Art Institute doesn’t attempt to exactly replicate the original Hairy Who shows, it does draw upon their “gonzo style of installation,” as Pascale terms it. When organizing their original shows, the artists that make up the Hairy Who would often cover the Hyde Park Art Center’s gallery walls with linoleum and mount their work on top of it. The Art Institute’s curators tracked down several pieces of vintage linoleum (rescued from basements in Chicago and Wisconsin) to re-create the effect.
The Hairy Who may not be a household name in the art world outside of Chicago, but Hairy Who? 1966–1969 demonstrates just how forward-looking the group's output was. “I anticipate viewers walking into the show and being gobsmacked by the fact that the work is 50 years old,” co-curator Thea Liberty Nichols says. “It still looks so fresh and so outrageous.”
– Zach Long