The Chicago art scene tends not to receive a great deal of notice in New York, and when Chicago’s artists do find acclaim there, it’s often decades after they began working. A case in point: the Hairy Who, the group of six Art Institute of Chicago–trained artists who, during the 1960s, became well-known in their city for making humorous cartoon– and comic–inflected art (along with actual comic books), while barely making a dent in New York.
Not that they cared too much back then. As five of the Hairy Who’s six members said last night at Matthew Marks Gallery in Chelsea, they were aware of what was going on in the art world, but they weren’t involved in it. Art Green spoke about looking through wrestling and bodybuilding magazines, which, he said, were not all that different from the art scene at that time. “It was kind of like looking at the art world from the outside,” Art Green said. “There were all these theories and terms and competing schools, and we found it hilarious.”
The five—Green, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer, Gladys Nilsson, and Karl Wirsum (only Jim Nutt was absent)—were all in New York last night to discuss The Collected Hairy Who Publications 1966–1969, a book that collects their comics in one volume for the first time ever. Their work is also included in Matthew Marks Gallery’s current show, “What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to Present,” and Dan Nadel, the show’s curator, moderated the panel. The book and show, which originated at RISD, are only the latest milestones in an impressive late-career rise for the group, with young artists championing, and museums across the United States showing, their work.
All five are well past the age of 60, but they seem to have lost none of the vivacious spirit they had when they were younger. The discussion began with how the group came together in the first place. Falconer explained the history of Hyde Park Art Center, where the group had its first show. The Don Baum–curated space captured “the countercultural energy of the time,” Falconer said. “It was not just a group show, and not just something that was somewhat arbitrarily related… We reflected one another.” Wirsum wasn’t included initially, but Baum made a connection between the other artists and his work, so Wirsum was added into the show.
The six artists would meet in Nilsson’s basement to make work. “There was a lot of raucous noise,” she said. “I seem to think that we spent most of the time laughing over this and that rather than being constructive.” A picture of them with donuts in their mouth was projected onto a wall above them. Nilsson turned around. “Oh, look at that!” she said.
“We didn’t spend much time talking about theories,” Green added. “It was wonderful.” He went on to tell an anecdote about instructing Wirsum to wear a hat during the winter because, if he didn’t, all the steam would come out of his head. It barely made any sense, though that may have been because everyone laughing so hard that it was difficult to hear what Green was saying.
Green went on to talk about how the group got its wacky name. Harry Bouras, an art critic for the Chicagoan radio station WFMT, was a hifalutin authority figure in the Chicago art world at the time. Naturally, the Hairy Who artists found him hilarious. One time he even cried over a painting he was talking about. When they were discussing that one day, Wirsum, not knowing who Bouras was, asked, “Harry who?” After changing “Harry” to “Hairy” (they didn’t want to make fun of Bouras publicly), they had their name. Though Nilsson made sure to note that they weren’t making fun of the art world: the name was a smart branding strategy.
When they talked about the group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, they all agreed that Baum was a good friend to them. Wirsum remembered the curator’s “terrific cackling laugh,” and Nilsson recalled that “If somebody had an idea, he’d say, ‘That sounds great.’” Green lovingly said that the shows “were not high-concept.” (The artists weren’t allowed to paint on the walls, so they covered them with linoleum and painted on that instead.) The artists couldn’t agree on the history of the gallery. What was there before it? A grocery store? A hotel lobby? Nobody was sure, but they didn’t seem to care either.
Nadel mentioned that Pop art was not one of the Hairy Who’s influences. Even though they used the visual language of comic books, with their frenzy of hot colors and busy compositions, the Hairy Who artists were not critical of their subject matter, at least not in the same way as some Pop figures, like Warhol and Lichtenstein. Instead, the five artists mentioned a range of influences that included ethnographic and vernacular art, Peter Saul, German Expressionism, Surrealism, and Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Mostly, the artists agreed that Chicago has “a quirkiness and a level of angst, an interest in the extremes of human expression, an intensity of psychological presence,” as Falconer put it. “It coalesces to create a personality that’s not of the norm. There’s an interest in extremes… Chicago [is] 1,000 miles from normal, 3,000 miles from normal, 6,000 miles from normal.”
As that conversation wrapped up, Nilsson said, “Comedy is a very high art form. It’s thought of as a very low art form, but it isn’t. What’s the point of making anything if it isn’t fun?” Rocca concurred, adding that, in today’s art scene, “[Humor] is recognized now as a much more legitimate expression.”
During a brief Q&A session, one person asked the artists how they felt about being included in museum shows—once a rare occurrence for them, but now a much more common event.
“It’s interesting to think of ourselves becoming intellectualized,” Green said. “It’s nice. I always think of life as a roller coaster. You get this thrill coming down. You could come straight down, right into the ground, but it’s nice having a little flip at the end.”
Correction, 7/10/15, 12:45 p.m.: A previous version of this article stated Art Green said that the artists didn’t keep track of what was going on in the art world. His quote been corrected to show that the artists were aware of what was happening in New York, but that they saw parallels between wrestling magazines and the art scene.