William Butler Yeats defined the first half of this century when he wrote, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” It was a time when “balkanize” became a word and even the atom was split apart. Yet in 1939, in the midst of the era of disintegration, the Hyde Park Art Center was founded by a group of community-oriented artists and educators. And the center has held for 55 years.

The 55th Anniversary Exhibition of 55 artists, curated by painter Don Baum and honorary chair Ruth Horwich, reviews the entire history of the HPAC, from 1939 star attraction Gertrude Abercrombie, whom Dizzy Gillespie once called “the bop artist,” to Stephen Reynolds, whose nature-based abstractions hung in the center’s Ruth Horwich gallery just last month. Baum and Horwich had a sizable pool of artists, 1,080 to be exact, from which to select the representatives of 55 years of exhibitions, most of which were group shows. The walls can barely accommodate the art.

The pioneer of what is now called the “alternative” scene, the HPAC has continued to hang a remarkable variety of art. “We don’t select artists based on their marketability,” says executive director Eileen Murray. Instead, she carries on the tradition of what she calls “intentional lack of focus.”

For all its diversity, it was the three legendary “Hairy Who” and the “Nonplussed Some” shows of the late 1960s that, deservedly or not, came to define the center. Baum, Karl Wirsum, Ed Paschke, and Jim Nutt, the honor roll of what became known as the Chicago Imagist school, first attracted attention during these shows.

Not all of that attention was positive. Writing in the Hyde Park Herald in 1967, one critic complained that “Hairy Who II” had “all the appeal of half-chewed food, combined with a wet sneeze, cold lumpy oatmeal, and the memorable feeling of resting your hand on somebody’s recently discarded chewing gum.” Obviously the criticism didn’t stick.

The 55th Anniversary Exhibition is open 11 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday through June 4 at the Hyde Park Art Center, 5307 S. Hyde Park Boulevard. Admission is free. Call 324-5520 for more information.