Art Institute of Chicago
Hairy Who? 1966—1969
September 26, 2018—January 6, 2019
The question mark in the title of the exhibition, Hairy Who? 1966-1969, suggests that we remain at least relatively unfamiliar with the dynamic synergy of the six Chicago artists who exhibited together in the late 1960s under the quirky moniker, “Hairy Who.” We may be aware of individual players – Jim Nutt, perhaps, or now Suellen Rocca – but the group’s collective history has been less accounted for. There was no Hairy Who without the Hairy Who exhibitions: this is the conceit the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) took up in re-assembling work from each of the group’s six shows (The Hyde Park Art Center in 1966, 1967, and 1968; the San Francisco Art Institute in 1968, The School of Visual Arts, New York, in 1969, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1969). A second AIC gallery complemented the main show with collaboratively designed posters, announcements and comic-book-like catalogues, preparatory drawings, sketchbooks and some of the lowbrow source material that distinguished Hairy Who’s practice.
Organized sequentially, the shows unfolded with arrangements of work, in some cases not seen together since their original presentation. The opening punch was Art Green’s “Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic” (1965), an organization man (then-Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara) atop an architectonic scaffolding punctuated by yellow starbursts below a cartoon bubble declaring, “No!” Here is Hairy Who’s nemesis, the uptight corporate dude from the “military-industrial complex,” welcoming viewers to a show of artists who cheekily defied convention, dipping instead into the unedited flow of their subconscious, challenging normality with a deviant joie de vivre.
Left of the Green hung the first of the Jim Nutt grotesqueries that recurred throughout. “PFFFPHTT” (1966), one of Nutt’s characteristically deformed, tattooed, and masked figures, is rendered in acrylic behind Plexiglas – an unusual technique evidently inspired by the graphics of pinball machines. Knives pierce the figure’s eye sockets, wormy rivulets of blood spill out of wounds, and a distended green tongue with the words “wet bombs” at its tip drips red projectiles. It’s compellingly gross, a kind of mid-century American Neue Sachlichkeit.
Across from the Nutt were three dazzling Wirsums arranged together as they had been in 1966. “Son of Sol Moscot” (1965), with its “scotch tape” eyewear and guitar peg-head nostrils, makes for a super-groovy image drawn from an old eyewear manufacturer ad. “Spawning a Yawn with a Yellow Awning On” (1966) is a brilliant play of pattern against pattern, while the facial elements in “First Quarter of Moon Dog” (1966) coalesce as a secondary figure. Wirsum’s are wildly inventive shapes set within conventional portrait formats.
Right away, the Hairy Who’s proclivity for figuration, the lowbrow source material, and their engagement of humor, sexuality and general irreverence was all in evidence. This formidable beginning never really let up. The first two rooms recreating the 1966 and 1967 shows set the tone for the entire exhibition, as the style and content of the six artists changed only subtly in the short four years of exhibiting together. The six historic exhibitions comprised very different installations that necessarily responded to the changing venues, and the AIC did its best to capture the off-beat, funky spaces of the original galleries. False walls were used throughout, creating smaller galleries. Subtle pastel colors distinguished one show from the next. Cool walls served as a foil to hot paintings.
Suellen Roccas and Gladys Nilssons are in abundance, and their presence is significant, given the paucity of exposure otherwise given to women in the history of pre-1970s art. Almost every room featured Nilsson’s funny genre paintings crammed from top to bottom with fulsome figures strangely clad in kooky outfits, often goggled, and sometimes nude, and all engaged in an assortment of prosaic activities. Nilsson is known in particular for her gorgeous wet-on-wet watercolors, and there were some tasty ones in the show. Rocca’s characteristic melee of odd-ball hieroglyphs – pin-up girls, palm trees, engagement rings, hot dogs, pocketbooks, wigs and other wackadoodle motifs – stock her contributions in the show. Eroticism simmers just below the surface of these deftly rendered girlie visages.
The installation tactics got yet more interesting in the galleries documenting 1968, rooms that include some of the found bric-a-brac the artists originally exhibited with their paintings. Substituting for the use of linoleum wallpaper in a few of the original shows were two massive framed linoleum backdrops hosting the strange color silkscreens of James Falconer on one side and Nutt and Rocca opposite. The pictures looked fabulous against the patterned linoleum and exemplified the unorthodox display of the original exhibitions. Further on sat four painted lawn chairs from the Corcoran gallery exhibition, now arranged on a pedestal that knocked them up a few notches.
The real question here is whether the Hairy Who shows, and the group itself, could retain their radicality in the classically austere galleries of this major museum. What was lost was the unique verve of the original spaces, but what was gained was a deep dive into Chicago’s manifestation of a complex era. One came away with less a sense of the distinctiveness of individual shows (although the excellent catalogue proves an important resource here), but more an appreciation of the cumulative energy of a group of young artists saying something about human behavior in 1960s America. That initial question – what constitutes the Hairy Who? – was well answered.