Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum's Hairy Who (1966) Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt.

Here are three things to know about Hairy Who, the subject of a major
exhibition opening this week at the Art Institute of Chicago:

It was a branding exercise, rude, cheeky, and astoundingly successful.

It catapulted the half-dozen young Chicago artists who created it in the
late 1960s to national and international art world attention.

And there’s been a lot of confusion about it ever since.

The AIC show, “Hairy Who? 1966-1969,” aims to clear up that confusion and, if
its impressive catalog is any indication, will give us an encyclopedic look
at the raucous, ribald, comic book-and-urban culture-inspired original
work.

Jim Nutt’s Wowidow (1968)Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago, The Lacy Armour and Samuel and Blanche Koffler Acquisition funds; the Estate of Walter Aitken. © Jim Nutt.

The Hairy Who was a group made up of six freshly hatched School of the Art
Institute graduates: Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt,
Karl Wirsum, and Suellen Rocca—but not Ed Paschke or Roger Brown, though
those two names sometimes come to mind. I was able to reach Rocca by phone
last week at her office at Elmhurst College, where she’s curator and
director of exhibitions.

“Five of us had recently graduated,” Rocca recalled. “And we had all
exhibited in the big group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center that Don Baum
[HPAC’s director] had put on. The two Jims [Nutt and Falconer] got the idea
that they would like to put a smaller group together to show at Hyde Park,
because in a smaller group, we could each exhibit more of our work. So Jim
and Jim approached Don Baum.”

Baum liked the idea, Rocca said, and suggested that Wirsum, who’d graduated
from SAIC a few years ahead of the others, be added to the group.

The artists met at the apartment of Nilsson and Nutt to plan the show. They
kicked ideas around for the name of the exhibit but didn’t want anything
traditional. As Rocca recalls, the discussion had digressed to commentary
on WFMT art critic Harry Bouras (“we weren’t great fans”), when Wirsum
walked into the room and asked, “Harry who?” In a stroke of marketing
genius, they changed the spelling, vowed not to explain the reference, and
created an irresistibly catchy name that remained a mystery for years.

Rocca said she now thinks of their exhibits as installations: “It wasn’t
just a matter of putting work up on the walls.” They collaborated on every
aspect of the shows: creating group artwork for posters and comic books
that served as catalogs, and participating in openings that were
not-to-be-missed parties. They had a total of six exhibitions: three at the
Hyde Park Art Center (in ’66, ’67, and ’68), and three out of town, at the
San Francisco Art Institute (’68), the School of Visual Art in New York
(’69), and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in DC (’69) before they disbanded,
with some of them scattering across the country. A few years later, critic
and author Franz Schulze would include the Hairy Who in a much larger
category of Chicago Imagists that also included Paschke and Brown.

“We each did our individual work,” Rocca says. “You wouldn’t mistake the
work of one of us for another, but we complemented each other. There was a
lot of laughter in the collaborating, and there’s a lot of humor in the
work.”

Like several other Hairy Who members, Rocca starting taking courses at the
Art Institute as a child, and she said being in the museum building every
day as an SAIC undergraduate was important: “We were constantly in the
galleries looking at works of art.” So were two special teachers, Ray
Yoshida, who took students to Maxwell Street for inspiration, and Whitney
Halstead, who emphasized non-Western art history.

Suellen Rocca’s Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature (1965)Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago, Frederick W. Renshaw Acquisition and Carol Rosenthal-Groeling Purchase funds. © Suellen Rocca.

But they were inspired by far more than what was on the walls at the Art
Institute. “We were all influenced by popular culture,” Rocca said. Among
her own influences were children’s picture books and games, and bra and
girdle ads in Sears catalogs. “I had a lot of little images in my work-kind
of suggestive of hieroglyphics, although the images were of contemporary
objects, like diamond rings and dancing figures inspired by Arthur Murray
ads.”

Despite the rings and a plethora of disembodied high-heeled legs that crop
up on her canvases, Rocca said she never thought of her work as feminist.
“I was looking at the world around me with irony, but I did not have a
political agenda.”

Elmhurst Art Museum currently has a show, curated by Rocca, of 30 works by
Chicago Imagists from the Elmhurst College Art Collection; titled “The
Figure and the Chicago Imagists,” it runs through January 13. The Art
Institute show, organized by Ann Goldstein, Mark Pascale, and Thea Liberty
Nichols, opens September 26 and runs through January 6.