Looking back at the Hairy Who, the 1960s Chicago art world’s greatest branding exercise | On Culture | Chicago Reader

Looking back at the Hairy Who, the 1960s Chicago art world’s greatest branding exercise 

On the eve of the collective’s Art Institute retrospective, Suellen Rocca tells all. (Well, some.)

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click to enlarge Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum's Hairy Who (1966)

Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum's Hairy Who (1966)

The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt.

Here are three things to know about Hairy Who, the subject of a major exhibition opening this week at the Art Institute of Chicago:

It was a branding exercise, rude, cheeky, and astoundingly successful.

It catapulted the half-dozen young Chicago artists who created it in the late 1960s to national and international art world attention.

And there's been a lot of confusion about it ever since.

The AIC show, "Hairy Who? 1966-1969," aims to clear up that confusion and, if its impressive catalog is any indication, will give us an encyclopedic look at the raucous, ribald, comic book-and-urban culture-inspired original work.

click to enlarge Jim Nutt's Wowidow (1968) - THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, THE LACY ARMOUR AND SAMUEL AND BLANCHE KOFFLER ACQUISITION FUNDS; THE ESTATE OF WALTER AITKEN. © JIM NUTT.
  • Jim Nutt's Wowidow (1968)
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, The Lacy Armour and Samuel and Blanche Koffler Acquisition funds; the Estate of Walter Aitken. © Jim Nutt.

The Hairy Who was a group made up of six freshly hatched School of the Art Institute graduates: Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum, and Suellen Rocca—but not Ed Paschke or Roger Brown, though those two names sometimes come to mind. I was able to reach Rocca by phone last week at her office at Elmhurst College, where she's curator and director of exhibitions.

"Five of us had recently graduated," Rocca recalled. "And we had all exhibited in the big group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center that Don Baum [HPAC's director] had put on. The two Jims [Nutt and Falconer] got the idea that they would like to put a smaller group together to show at Hyde Park, because in a smaller group, we could each exhibit more of our work. So Jim and Jim approached Don Baum."

Baum liked the idea, Rocca said, and suggested that Wirsum, who'd graduated from SAIC a few years ahead of the others, be added to the group.

The artists met at the apartment of Nilsson and Nutt to plan the show. They kicked ideas around for the name of the exhibit but didn't want anything traditional. As Rocca recalls, the discussion had digressed to commentary on WFMT art critic Harry Bouras ("we weren't great fans"), when Wirsum walked into the room and asked, "Harry who?" In a stroke of marketing genius, they changed the spelling, vowed not to explain the reference, and created an irresistibly catchy name that remained a mystery for years.

Rocca said she now thinks of their exhibits as installations: "It wasn't just a matter of putting work up on the walls." They collaborated on every aspect of the shows: creating group artwork for posters and comic books that served as catalogs, and participating in openings that were not-to-be-missed parties. They had a total of six exhibitions: three at the Hyde Park Art Center (in '66, '67, and '68), and three out of town, at the San Francisco Art Institute ('68), the School of Visual Art in New York ('69), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC ('69) before they disbanded, with some of them scattering across the country. A few years later, critic and author Franz Schulze would include the Hairy Who in a much larger category of Chicago Imagists that also included Paschke and Brown.

"We each did our individual work," Rocca says. "You wouldn't mistake the work of one of us for another, but we complemented each other. There was a lot of laughter in the collaborating, and there's a lot of humor in the work."

Like several other Hairy Who members, Rocca starting taking courses at the Art Institute as a child, and she said being in the museum building every day as an SAIC undergraduate was important: "We were constantly in the galleries looking at works of art." So were two special teachers, Ray Yoshida, who took students to Maxwell Street for inspiration, and Whitney Halstead, who emphasized non-Western art history.

click to enlarge Suellen Rocca's Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature (1965) - THE ART INSTITUTE OF CHICAGO, FREDERICK W. RENSHAW ACQUISITION AND CAROL ROSENTHAL-GROELING PURCHASE FUNDS. © SUELLEN ROCCA.
  • Suellen Rocca's Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature (1965)
  • The Art Institute of Chicago, Frederick W. Renshaw Acquisition and Carol Rosenthal-Groeling Purchase funds. © Suellen Rocca.

But they were inspired by far more than what was on the walls at the Art Institute. "We were all influenced by popular culture," Rocca said. Among her own influences were children's picture books and games, and bra and girdle ads in Sears catalogs. "I had a lot of little images in my work-kind of suggestive of hieroglyphics, although the images were of contemporary objects, like diamond rings and dancing figures inspired by Arthur Murray ads."

Despite the rings and a plethora of disembodied high-heeled legs that crop up on her canvases, Rocca said she never thought of her work as feminist. "I was looking at the world around me with irony, but I did not have a political agenda."

Elmhurst Art Museum currently has a show, curated by Rocca, of 30 works by Chicago Imagists from the Elmhurst College Art Collection; titled "The Figure and the Chicago Imagists," it runs through January 13. The Art Institute show, organized by Ann Goldstein, Mark Pascale, and Thea Liberty Nichols, opens September 26 and runs through January 6.

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