About the Chicago Imagists

Meet the Hairy Who

The Chicago Imagists were a group of highly talented and irreverent artists who emerged in Chicago in the 1950s and ’60s.

The group got its start in 1966, when 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 artists 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 craftsmanship, the group’s exhibitions incorporated such features as comic book catalogues, discount-store price tags, linoleum-covered walls and displays of thrift-shop finds.

Expanding the Group

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, which had emerged in the late 1940s and early ’50s.

Monster Roster artists were heavily influenced by Surrealism, tribal art and “outsider” art. Leon Golub, Robert Barnes, Don Baum, Dominick Di Meo, Evelyn Statsinger, Theodore Halkin and others 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.

International Recognition

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.

—Suellen Rocca, former curator and director of exhibitions

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