Hairy Who, from The Portable Hairy Who (1966)
Hairy Who, from The Portable Hairy Who (1966) Credit: Courtesy MCA

“You talk about the Chicago imagists,” notes Scottish painter Peter Doig. “I’m not sure that I see Chicago in their work, really. I think if you’re from Chicago you do. . . . The reason why their work is of interest to others is because it transcends that place. That place represents many places to other people.” Coming near the end of Leslie Buchbinder’s new documentary, Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists, a careful survey of our local art scene from the 50s through the 80s, Doig’s remarks startled me because I’d been watching the entire movie from my own narrow perspective as a longtime Chicagoan. For someone on the other side of the globe, the colorful, wildly surreal works showcased in the movie may not offer much of a picture postcard of “that place”—there are no lakefronts, no gangsters, no pizza. There are nothing but bizarre, uncomfortably personal visions cultivated by hard-working, small-living, plain-speaking, idol-smashing midwesterners. To me, home sweet home.

From the start Buchbinder and writer John Corbett (an occasional Reader contributor who also turns up in this week’s Culture column by Deanna Isaacs) acknowledge the challenge of getting one’s arms around the large, amorphous group of painters and sculptors that were tagged—largely for commercial purposes—the Chicago imagists. “History is messy, confusing,” goes the voice-over narration by Cheryl Lynn Bruce. “Often it’s depicted as a straight line placing one charismatic innovator after another. Isn’t it more like a web, a web of energies and artifacts, individuals and ensembles, a moment intricately connected to other such moments radiating outward?” To illustrate this Buchbinder uses an animated image of a spiderweb, arranging upon it the various influences that defined the so-called “Chicago school” and the freaky artistic collectives that took it worldwide in the 60s and 70s—not only the fabled Hairy Who, who mounted three head-turning shows at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966, ’67, and ’68, but such other ensembles as the Nonplussed Some, the False Image, and Marriage Chicago Style.

This portmanteau approach buys the documentary makers a lot of leeway to consider how the art was fed by popular culture—movies, comic books, rock ‘n’ roll, comedy improv at Second City—though the biggest influence may have been the relentless mercantilism that’s driven Chicago since its inception. Karl Wirsum of the Hairy Who remembers haunting the Maxwell Street Market, where he soaked up the live electric-blues performances; when Jim Nutt developed his signature style of painting on the reverse side of Plexiglas sheets, a technique that yielded a glassy finish and solid blocks of color, his inspirations were the come-on art of pinball machines and the window painting on commercial storefronts. By this time Andy Warhol had already begun turning Madison Avenue imagery into pop art, but the Chicagoans worked on the more individualistic scale of the flea market and the oddball treasure. Philip Hanson of the False Image recalls shopping on Maxwell Street and “sifting through . . . the debris of the city, in a way. I mean, everything came out onto the curb. And it was sort of a challenge to see what you could find.”

Naturally they began to incorporate their thrift-store gleanings into their art, and even their exhibitions; when the Hairy Who mounted their second show, they covered the walls with flowered linoleum they’d gotten for cheap and displayed all their weird knick-knacks in glass cases. This foraging approach eventually became integral to the philosophy of Chicago art: Ray Yoshida, an influential teacher at the School of the Art Institute, maintained a large collection of primitive art and sculpture and encouraged his students to amass collections that, as he explains in an archival interview, would provide “stimuli and source material.” Roger Brown of the False Image credits Yoshida with teaching him that “collecting is a thing that makes an environment for yourself, that’s a very personal kind of environment. And also just the process of collecting makes you aware visually.” That impulse may not be exclusive to Chicago, but I’ve seen a lot of home interiors around here that look like Hairy Who shows.

Of course, people compelled to buy stuff are usually compelled to earn money, and the Chicago school was also characterized by its Protestant work ethic. Despite the unhinged imagery of the Hairy Who, member Gladys Nilsson describes them as a pretty tame group, worlds removed from the pill-popping, dope-smoking New York art scene: “It’s like we all existed in a little bubble, and probably a few glasses of the Hyde Park Art Center punch was as bad as it got.” Filmmaker Tom Palazzolo remembers them as “a very conservative group as opposed to New York,” telling a funny, and probably characteristic, anecdote about being offered LSD by some medical students and talking it over with his priest (who told him he should wait for the hereafter to see God). Contemporary cartoonist Chris Ware, who confesses that he stole his distinctive tree-lined horizons from Roger Brown’s eerie, dehumanizing urban-landscape paintings, perfectly articulates this sense of the City That Works (its ass off): “When you live in Chicago, you look up and you think, ‘tree,’ and then you look down again and think, ‘What am I doing with my life?'”

Brown’s warped canvases of the Chicago skyline are the only images here that reference the physical city; in fact, most of the work featured in Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists focuses on the human form, from Wirsum’s savage, cartoonish facial studies to Ed Paschke’s monstrous Day-Glo portraits of strippers to Christina Ramberg’s sleek, faceless profiles of women in fetish gear. But like the group shows that got the whole thing started, the name “Chicago imagists” gave the work a commercial identity. Phyllis Kind, the local gallery owner who helped launch many of the artists nationally and internationally in the 70s (with shows in Europe and across North and South America), remembers the curator Walter Hopps telling her, “None of the pop artists—none of them—wanted to be called pop. It has to happen. You show the work in a context, a group context, and within ten years you’ll be able to take off one at a time.” Partly for that reason, the documentary begins to sink under its own weight after a while, pulling in so many disparate elements that it begins to feel like a merchandise bin. But if you root around in there, you may find something, and I’ll give you a deal on it.

Correction: This review has been amended to correctly reflect the name of the curator quoted in the final paragraph. It is Walter Hopps, not Walter Hopp.