1960s Chicago Gave Birth to a Colorful, Frenetic Art Style That Is Still Gathering Steam
It can be complicated to discern who was, and who wasn’t, a Chicago Imagist, but in general, the term applies to a wide swath of artists who lived and made figurative work in the city from around the 1950s through the 1980s. They showed together at the Hyde Park Art Center beginning in 1964, giving each cluster of exhibiting artists its own quirky moniker. Instead of turning to advertising and consumer culture as their East Coast counterparts had, these artists infused a zany, psychic energy into their drawing-driven practices. Indeed, tracing the careers of the Chicago Imagists offers a narrative about American art that diverges from popular New York-centered conceptions—and presents issues that transcended locale.
The oldest group, the Monster Roster—a name given by critic Franz Schulze as a nod to the Chicago Bears’ nickname, the Monsters of Midway—responded to the horrors introduced by World War II and the state of post-war America. Some of the men had been soldiers themselves.
According to Tang Museum director Ian Berry and Chicago gallerists John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, the more light-hearted artist
Many Imagists, says Corbett, were impressed with Westermann’s level of craftsmanship, “the personal touch that he gave to all of the work,” and his “perverse streak.” Diverging from their predecessors, the Imagists who came after the Monster Roster employed an aesthetic more akin to comic books than horror films, though they retained an element of the grotesque (
“You just feel a sensibility start brewing,” Dempsey says about the particular era that the Tang show focuses on: 1964 to 1980. “We talk about an accent: a collective group of people have a similar accent. Doesn’t really mean they’re thinking about the same things, but there’s an energy that’s pervasive in the air and you can almost tangibly feel that in this date range.”
The Tang exhibition will include Westermann’s Memorial to the Idea of Man If He Was an Idea (1958). Comprised of pine, cast-tin toys, glass, and other various materials, the work appears to be a cabinet with an alien’s one-eyed head on top. Written in bottle caps, Westermann’s initials adorn the inside of the wooden door. The object becomes a kind of personalized fetish, combining kitsch and craft. Similar details distinguished the frames of work by
“I think all these details foreground the warmth and the intimacy of this work, which makes it stand apart from other work being made in these decades in other cities,” says Berry. Dempsey describes the effect as playfully adversarial. “It’s an interactive relationship, almost like engaging someone in a card game.” These elements also connect the group to the
This simultaneous coyness and amiability could coincide with darker, more disturbing, obliquely political material. wrote recently, “Until her final series of paintings, Ramberg always kept her distortions ‘clean’—no matter how disturbing the imagery, the surface and the final shape would be immaculately formed and delineated.”
Notably, Ramberg was part of an exhibition group called False Image, showing with her husband,
Brown enjoys perhaps the strongest legacy of the False Image artists: his former home, which is still filled with the myriad objects he collected throughout his life, and accessible to today’s public as the Roger Brown Study Collection. Masks, toy cars, figurines, crosses, road signs, baskets, and more relics of everyday life in America are on view throughout the rooms and along the staircase.
In fact, many of the Imagists were collectors. According to Corbett, the Maxwell Street Market (Chicago’s major flea) was a treasure trove for Ramberg, Hanson, Wirsum, and collages that resembled a scrapbook page filled with clippings.
Yoshida, born in Hawaii in 1930 to a Japanese immigrant father and a mother of Japanese lineage, was also the only artist of color associated with the Chicago Imagists. Though the group was far more equitable across gender lines than contemporaneous movements centered on the East Coast (
The Tang is just one of many institutions to celebrate the Imagists within the past few years. At Milan’s Fondazione Prada, curator Germano Celant closed a show this past January, “Famous Artists from Chicago. 1965–1975.” The project suggests the Imagists’ widespread appeal and an international interest in a movement that was thriving far from global art centers.
Matthew Marks Gallery exhibited work by the Hairy Who in a 2015 group show, placing the group members in dialogue with San Francisco
Installation view of “The Chicago Show” at 56 Downing St., Brooklyn, 2018. Photo by Johannes Berg. Courtesy of Alexandra Fanning Communications.
Placing the Imagists in a contemporary context, Chicago-born curator Madeleine Mermall has curated “The Chicago Show,” an exhibition in a Brooklyn townhouse, on view through May 20th, that pairs the work of Nutt, Yoshida, Westermann, and their ilk with that of emerging Chicago artists who similarly revel in cartoonish figuration. “There’s this strong, special community right now,” Mermall says. “They’re all working together and showing together and putting on DIY shows.”
One of the exhibited artists from the younger generation, Darius Airo, recalls a corner of the Art Institute of Chicago where he first noticed the work of
This renewed attention to the Midwestern group seems to only be getting started. Derek Eller, who has shown Wirsum since 2010, says that since then, he’s seen “a lot more interest here in New York, and probably internationally.” While Barbara Rossi recently enjoyed a small solo exhibition at the New Museum, many of the Imagists have yet to receive major museum retrospectives. This fall, however, the Art Institute of Chicago will mount a group show, as will Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art in London in spring 2019. Corbett thinks it’s time, and the recent wave of shows contributes to a certain momentum. “We’ve seen in the last five, six, seven years a whole bunch of small survey shows that have set things up for the opportunity for incredible, career-spanning exhibitions,” he says. Before long, Chicago’s distinct aesthetic accent should be more pervasive than ever.
Alina Cohen is a Staff Writer at Artsy.