Chicago imagism

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Term applied to Chicago's varied expressionist and/or surrealist figurative art of the 1950s to 1970s. Like California funk art, imagism represented an alternative to mainstream modernism, particularly New York abstraction. Many Chicago imagists shared pop artists' interest in comic books, advertising, and mass-market artifacts, but tribal, folk, and outsider sources exerted even more attraction. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago trained nearly all the imagists and introduced them to each other. The extensive ethnographic collections of the nearby Field Museum of Natural History inspired many. Several other factors also rooted imagism in Chicago. The city already boasted a strong tradition of figural art, including work by painters as varied as Ivan Albright, Archibald Motley, and the independent surrealist Gertrude Abercrombie (1908–77). The flourishing photography milieu, centered at László Moholy-Nagy's Institute of Design, emphasized the interaction of form and representation, as in the work of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind. Moreover, Chicago's brief exposure to two figures of international stature proved crucial to the aesthetic evolution of imagism's first generation. In 1951 French art brut advocate Jean Dubuffet showed his work and presented a landmark lecture, while in 1954 Roberto Matta appeared as a visiting professor at the Art Institute.

Although never a formal group, the imagists of the 1950s and early 1960s came to be known as the Monster Roster, thanks to Chicago's premier critic Franz Schulze (1927– ), who coined the name in 1959. Like the most prominent, Leon Golub, these artists generally reflected an existentialist outlook in various forms of expressionist representation. They included sculptor Cosmo Campoli (1922–96), painter and assemblage artist George M. Cohen (1919–99), and Nancy Spero, as well as Ellen Lanyon (1926– ), a temperamentally surrealistic painter and printmaker drawn to themes of indeterminacy and transformation, and Seymour Rosofsky (1924–81), whose brooding paintings and prints temper realistic imagery with varying degrees of fantasy. Known for painstakingly crafted wood objects, often conjoined with found materials, idiosyncratic sculptor, printmaker, and draftsman H. C. Westermann (1922–81) contributed to the Monster Roster spirit but at an early date also showed an interest in mixing high and low art. Equally indebted to surrealism and to vernacular woodworking, he specialized in obsessively finished, boxlike forms that emphasize enigmatic content over formal invention. His rougher drawings, lithographs, and woodcuts often picture themes of violence and destruction, frequently depicted in cartoonish forms. Born in Los Angeles, Horace Clifford Westermann served in the U.S. Marine Corps for three years during World War II and several years later, again fought in Korea. These formative experiences condition the sinister psychology of many works, particularly a series of Death Ships. In 1947 he began three years of study at the Art Institute. After the second military tour, he returned to Chicago. In 1959 he married painter and sculptor Joanna Beall (1935–97), daughter of graphic designer Lester Beall. In 1961 they settled in rural Brookfield Center, Connecticut. He died in a hospital in nearby Danbury.

A more clearly defined, younger set, which called itself the Hairy Who, showed together three times between 1966 and 1968 but never articulated an aesthetic platform. All alumni of the Art Institute, its six participants produced shamelessly raffish art emphasizing humor, sexuality, popular culture, and the fetishistic vision of the deranged. Their generally patterned compositions usually feature tight, detailed execution. The most widely known of the group, painter and draftsman James Nutt (1928– ), known as Jim, came from Pittsfield, Massachusetts. He worked on Plexiglas in the 1960s to achieve a slick surface for vulgar, agitated subjects. Later, in paintings on canvas, his delicate and subtle touch demonstrated a technical debt to old masters. However elegant, his stylized themes nevertheless remained tied to comic strip and movie-land absurdities. In recent years, he has emphasized a calm inner radiance in painstaking, small canvases of slightly zany imaginary women. His wife, Chicago-born Gladys Nilsson (1940– ), works primarily in watercolor, achieving a wistful and sensuous fluidity in peculiar figural fantasies, most often relating to women's lives. She also makes prints and collages. Painter and sculptor Karl Wirsum (1939– ) specializes in intricately elaborated, brightly colored, often robot-like, flattened figures. Variously ominous and humorous, they draw on multiple sources, including comic books, Japanese prints, Mexican popular art, and tribal sculpture. The Hairy Who also comprised Arthur Nelson (or Art) Green (1941– ), Suellen Rocca (1943– ), and James (or Jim) Falconer, who later decamped for New York.


Subjects: Art.

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