In the late ’60s, the Hairy Who, an irreverent band of SAIC graduates, made an indelible impression on Chicago’s art scene. Exhibiting together in a standout series of shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, artists Karl Wirsum, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt eschewed social niceties and the prevailing trends of the time: minimalism, conceptualism, and abstraction. There hasn’t been a group of artists since that have defined Chicago art in such a cohesive and groundbreaking way — or, at least, that’s what the story has been.
Artist Phyllis Bramson wants to change that story. Bramson has been a working artist in the city since the early ’70s, when she received her MFA from SAIC. Her work has sometimes been associated with the Chicago Imagists, a term applied broadly to local artists working with colorful, figurative, and often sarcastic imagery.
“There’s an original group that actually were the Imagists, and then that word just kind of traveled along to include anybody that works with the figure in Chicago,” Bramson says. “I actually feel very aligned to another group that nobody ever talks about. That’s why I decided to try to organize an exhibition.”
What Came After: Figurative Painting in Chicago 1978–1998, on view through January 12 at the Elmhurst Art Museum, aims to fill in these gaps in Chicago art history. A survey of 15 artists working in this period, What Came After makes clear the distinction between the group on display — which includes Susanne Doremus, Michiko Itatani, Jim Lutes, and Margaret Wharton — and the Hairy Who. It also differentiates them from the Imagists, which has come to describe not just the Hairy Who but also earlier artists, like Leon Golub, Ed Paschke, and Ray Yoshida.
In many ways, the exhibition serves as an exploration of what the late–20th century Chicago art scene might have been like if so many artists hadn’t been pigeonholed as Imagists. On display in the second room of the gallery is a list created by art critics James Yood and Alice Thorson in 1985 that delineates Imagism from “New Painting,” a term they used to describe artists that came up after the Hairy Who. The Imagists used detached humor to focus on social and contemporary urban themes, Yood and Thorson assert; the new group, meanwhile, was emotional and introspective, with an affinity for the mythic.
These differences are embodied in the work of the late Hollis Sigler, who painted surreal, dreamlike scenes where the figure was often absent. In It Keeps Her Going, a romantic dinner is set out in front of a flowing fountain. The setting sun casts pale yellow and pink tones; the scene is framed by a curtain, as if it’s a movie screening. Near the edges of the frame are broken household objects: a stove, an ironing board, a fan. Shards of glass lay in geometric pieces across the bottom.
Bramson credits Yood as helping to draw attention to this genre of work throughout his career. In his work as both a critic and an educator, Yood was a tireless advocate of Chicago artists, beginning his career as an art critic in the mid-1970s at the New Art Examiner and eventually contributing to outlets like Artforum and Aperture. A longtime professor at SAIC, Yood also directed the school’s New Arts Journalism program.
Yood was meant to co-curate the exhibition, but died unexpectedly in 2018, during the early planning stages.
“This is a period in time that he was intensely interested in, so he was really excited,” Bramson says. “I don’t know what it would have looked like if he had still been alive, if he [would have] said, ‘No, we have to have this person.’”
In addition to the 1985 list, the exhibition also displays a quote from Yood, which in part sums up the appeal of Chicago art:
These are the things that have always marked Chicago work for me in the broadest possible sense. And those moves again are often about this workmanlike ethic, a kind of sense of humor, as a subtext to the work, a figure, and a kind of irreverence, an iconic irreverence that I think is, has been truer here than other art community of which I was aware.
So why has this generation of artists been so misunderstood or underappreciated, especially when it had critics like Yood paying it so much attention? In part, it has to do with the city’s changing art scene. Some key galleries, such as Nancy Lurie Gallery and Dart Gallery, closed around this time, while others, such as Phyllis Kind, began to shift their focus to New York. Nor were these artists ever grouped in exhibitions together, a tactic that certainly helped market the Hairy Who.
Bramson agrees with Yood and Thorson’s assessment that the new crop of artists produced work with a more “painterly” quality — the paint is more textured, sometimes globbed onto the canvas so thick it creates a three-dimensional effect, as in the canvas works of Nicolas Africano. It was also decidedly more serious and introspective.
“It was more about quirkiness in terms of an interior intensity, and more of a personal introspection,” Bramson says.
Mary Lou Zelazny, whose vivid paintings use collage to complicate the human form, very much reflects the personal in her work.
“In each grouping of work, I like to change how I use the collage,” she says. “But also, as my life and my point of view changes, I want the work to reflect where I’m at.”
In The Slumber Party, four women occupy a bedroom littered with detritus from their night of fun: lipstick, books, cocktail glasses. One studies her reflection in a mirror, but her face has been replaced by a muted, rocky scene. Another woman leans towards her, as if to apply makeup; her body is made up of different flavors of cake. Zelazny wanted to portray a sleepover that adult women would have, not teenagers, and with it their accompanying concerns, such as aging.
For Zelazny, it was an honor that Bramson asked her to participate.
“She’s really just an extraordinary artist and role model for young artists coming up, and women especially,” Zelazny says.
The intimate exhibition makes a compelling case that post-Imagist artists were working cohesively, and that they ought to be situated in an art-historical context. But for Zelazny, the exhibition isn’t important so much for its correcting of history but for the way it adds context to a continuum of work. Today, New Painting’s colorful, textured technique can be seen in the work of artists like Jenn Smith, whose figurative work critiques Christianity in both playful and somber ways, or Jessica Campbell, whose tufted rug art often depicts tragicomic scenes.
“I see the show not necessarily as what came after, but [as] some kind of return,” Zelazny says. “Now you can visit different parts of the country and see this vein of work everywhere.”