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A donation by one of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art’s most generous benefactors will give the museum one of the world’s largest collections of art from the Chicago Imagists, an influential group of figurative artists who practiced in the 1960s and ’70s.

Chicago financier and philanthropist Mark Bednar and wife Judy recently gifted the museum with 55 images produced by artists in the group. They were all initially affiliated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) before creating a major Midwestern art movement. The couple also pledged a substantial cash donation.

The artworks, deliverable in installments over the next several years, add to the 47 pieces the Bednars have already contributed for a total of 102 works. That will increase MMoCA’s total Chicago Imagist collection to 279 pieces. By comparison, the Art Institute itself has 325 pieces, making MMoCA’s collection significant, according to museum curator Mel Becker Solomon.

“We are incredibly grateful to the Bednars for these contributions and for their support,” Becker Solomon says.

The gift helped launch the museum’s upcoming exhibit, Uncommon Accumulation: The Mark and Judy Bednar Collection of Chicago Imagists, which runs March 14-July 19. The title for the 71-piece exhibit comes from a work by Imagist and collagist Ray Yoshida, whose concurrent MMoCA solo exhibit runs through April 12. Uncommon Accumulation’s opening reception on March 13 features a panel discussion with watercolorists Gladys Nilsson and Robert Lostutter, two Imagists who are still creating art.

The Imagists emerged in the mid-1960s while they were all still students at the Art Institute. East Coast artists were then producing abstract canvases, so the Chicago group returned to figure drawing, but with techniques and content that strayed far from formal portraiture. Comic books, advertising, department store window displays, and even tattoos became grist for the artistic mill, resulting in imagery bordering on both surrealism and sarcasm — and often laced with political and social commentary.

“It was a very exciting time to do art,” says Lostutter, a native of Emporia, Kansas, whose grandparents’ support enabled him to attend the Art Institute.  “A lot of attention was being paid to Chicago, and we had managed to rise above the rank of mere regional artists, which was not a complimentary description.”

Lostutter is best known for his human/bird hybrids, male and female figures sporting bird beaks and feathers. As a child he often traveled to Kansas’ Flint Hills to search for arrowheads and study native birds with his grandfather. His love of nature and fear for its survival still informs his work.

“I grew up loving and reading comic books, too, so a lot of the art is very irreverent,” says Lostutter. “I never left that artistic realm. I’m now 80 years old, and I don’t have any reason to try something new.”

Nilsson, who still enjoys monthly lunches with Lostutter, was part of the Hairy Who, a group of six early Imagists, including her husband Jim Nutt, who first attracted the art world’s attention through a series of exhibits around the country. The group eventually disbanded, but the artists continued practicing their craft, including Nilsson, who specializes in fantastical figure drawings.

“Any artist looks at things and they become source material,” says the 79-year-old Chicago native. “The instructors urged us to look at anything — high art, low art, street art — digest it and have it become part of our artistic soul.”

Nilsson carries this ethos to her current canvases, which she is now painting in a much larger format. Her work is the subject of two concurrent exhibitions at two New York City galleries from two periods of her career. Out of This World, a solo MMoCA exhibit of Nilsson’s work, opens May 2.

“I have always been interested in social discourse among subjects and their various postures, which I have on file in my mind,” Nilsson says. “My subjects always have low-key mundane exchanges rather than trying to solve the world’s problems.

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