Between 1966 and 1969, Chicago artists Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum came together to stage six group exhibitions — three in Chicago at the Hyde Park Art Center, and one each in San Francisco, New York City, and Washington, D.C. Immersive, wild, and irreverent, these shows struck a chord with the changing society and art world of the late 1960s. Calling themselves the Hairy Who, the artists subverted the group exhibition format by drawing attention to their individual talent and skill through comic-like exhibition catalogs and promotional posters. (The tongue-in-cheek name originates from the group's discussion about WFMT art critic Harry Bouras. Wirsum, interrupting, asked: "Harry who? Who is this guy?") 

To coincide with the 50th anniversary of the collective’s last Chicago show, the Art Institute of Chicago is presenting Hairy Who? 1966-1969, the first major survey focused solely on this visionary group. Featuring more than 220 works, including a special companion exhibition of prints and drawings, it is a comprehensive examination of the group’s indelible impact on the local and national scene.

Chicago, isolated from the market-driven trends of New York City, offered emerging artists few opportunities for mainstream exposure; group shows representing these young talents were the norm. Don Baum, the Hyde Park Art Center curator at the time, generously offered the Hairy Who — then, a group of recent SAIC graduates — space to exhibit, experiment, and stand out from the crowd in 1966, 1967, and 1968.

The Art Institute’s survey is organized to capture the DIY spirit of these early shows, with artworks installed similarly to how they would have been organized at the Hyde Park Art Center. With free reign over the exhibition design, the Hairy Who used the art center’s space, which had architectural details like columns and groin vaulting, to their advantage and installed their paintings salon-style, which allowed them to show more artworks. The group also promoted its shows through innovative exhibition announcements and comic-style catalogs. These extra touches made each opening a special occasion where other artists, collectors, critics, and curators gathered to meet.

The Hairy Who’s paintings were highly experimental compared to other work produced in Chicago in the late ‘60s. Defying characterization by a specific movement or style, the Hairy Who stood apart from contemporaneous trends in the art world such as Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism. Although the six members drew on a range of source material including advertisements, shopping catalogs, comics, children’s readers, and coloring books, their resulting images were wholly original. Visual compositions feature bold, campy characters and are laden with puns, humor, and the grotesque. Rather than critiquing capitalism and consumer culture directly, the Hairy Who were much more interested in critiquing the established subject matter of fine art.

Jim Nutt’s precisely rendered figures challenge conventional notions of beauty, gender, sexuality, and social mores. Miss E. Knows (1967) features a character with purple-gray skin and an exaggerated, muppet-like nose. Shown from behind, the figure looks over her shoulder, posing like a pinup girl, although her skin is riddled with hairs, yellow lesions, and an opening on her back filled with floating pigs. Suellen Rocca’s work often features coveted commodities like handbags, jewelry, or wigs, which she made using the soft, rounded style common in children’s illustrations and books, turning these markers of power and prestige into benign objects akin to toys. Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature, an early painting from 1965, features what would become Rocca’s characteristic dense compositional style, with repeating images that resemble symbols in a codex.

The Hairy Who’s final Chicago show occurred in 1968 after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the ensuing protests that broke out across the nation. The opening of Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good was understandably more subdued than previous events. The group’s works always tackled politics, but this exhibition demonstrated that the Hairy Who had achieved a greater confidence in broaching controversial themes such as gender roles, stereotypes, and changing societal norms. A poster Nutt designed features a conventionally attractive women in a state of ecstasy, with her hands held up as she is seemingly assaulted with a magical concoction labeled “Hairy Who” that pours on her chest and torso.

After reading a positive Artforum review of the collective’s first show, the San Francisco Art Institute invited the Hairy Who to present an exhibition at its gallery. It was the group’s first show outside of Chicago. Unfortunately, the artists had little of the creative freedom they enjoyed in their home city; the space was a traditional white cube that did not lend itself to experimental exhibition design, and the show’s promotional materials — standard black-and-white announcements — were equally sterile. The collective was very concerned about how its members work was received and understood. Their inability to contribute to the exhibit design and opening reception influenced the cool reception from SFAI's conservative painting faculty, although SFAI students were enthusiastic about the work on view.

The artists faced similar challenges when they made their East Coast debut in 1969 at the School of Visual Arts Gallery. In the end, they were neither involved in the show’s promotion, nor present at the opening. The exhibition — a departure from previous shows in that it featured only drawings — also got off to a rocky start when a night janitor mistakenly threw out the first shipment of artwork. In the end, it received little press and was not documented by SVA, leaving little evidence of its occurrence. Through its research, the Art Institute managed to locate one surviving manifest of the works, allowing a reconstruction of the show for the first time in nearly 50 years.

What proved to be the Hairy Who’s most triumphant show was also its final one as a group. After New York City, it exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. The gallery’s curator, Walter Hopps, was open to the artists' hands-on participation in mounting the show, allowing them to expand on the style of their last immersive HPAC exhibition and design promotional and didactic materials as they pleased.

As the 1960s came to a close, so did the group shows of the Hairy Who, as each member began to receive national and international acclaim. Born from a desire to stand out from the scores of emerging artists in the city, the Hairy Who succeeded in creating spaces where its members' individual artistry could grow, thrive, and garner professional opportunities as artists and educators across the country. Ambiguous yet provocative, their artworks offered progressive visual alternatives for a society grappling with rapidly changing values.

No other place but Chicago could have provided that perfect cocktail of tradition, artisans, education, opportunity, and support that allowed these six young artists to grow without inhibition. Unburdened by the pressure to conform to the commercial art market, the Hairy Who had the freedom to experiment and put forward a bold artistic statement by simply making work each of its members wanted to see.

Hairy Who? 1966-1969 runs through January 6, 2019.