The trouble with so-called aesthetic movements is that the shorthand can obfuscate individual achievements. No one would confuse a Magritte painting with a Miró any more than they would a Fitzgerald sentence with one written by Hemingway, yet both pairs reside under the respective umbrellas of Surrealism and Modernism. Starting out as an avant-garde charge, these designations inevitably dwindle into mere notches on a timeline.

But suppose exhibiting together is the movement? Then a marketing ploy creating links between disparate artists would evolve into collective action. Instead of galleries promoting a nebulous style, artists would take responsibility for their own visibility within the gallery space. Pieces displayed would obviously draw attention to one another, but the result of a successful showing wouldn’t be the hardening of a genre. It would simply be another show.

So it is with the Hairy Who, a loose collective of School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) alumni whose current retrospective, “Hairy Who? 1966–1969” is the most comprehensive in recent memory.1 Other Chicago luminaries have gotten the red carpet treatment—László Moholy-Nagy, for example—but this exhibition feels even more expansive. Even Charles White, another alumnus of the school, didn’t receive two floors’ worth of gallery space. His retrospective was housed in a single gallery—and in the museum’s Modern Wing rather than the main collection.

This Hairy Who showing is a facsimile of four exhibitions that took place at the height of the 1960s counterculture.

On the first floor of this exhibition, in the paintings and drawings section, extensive wall tags with the biographies of each member-artist are displayed, along with examples of their work, in separate rooms. It functions essentially as a series of micro-exhibitions, encylopedic and sober. So viewers may be forgiven for the ensuing shock they encounter upon seeing the organized chaos upstairs in the Rice Building.

Karl Wirsum, Baseball Girl, 1964, Acrylic on canvas. Photo: Robert Boyd.

Displayed on top of heavily saturated primary colors, bizarre images hang together in neat rows. Some, such as Jim Nutt’s PFFFPHTT (1966), are riddled with bleeding pustules; others portray women like the one in Karl Wirsum’s Baseball Girl (1964),who is wearing only a jersey draped over her shoulders, possibly remembering the night before as she sensually licks an ice cream cone. Papier-mâché masks and ephemera such as toys, flea market finds, and printed pulp are displayed in sleek jeweler’s cases, while sculptures evoking knife blades and painted metal folding chairs are shown on unobtrusive platforms. When considered in conjunction with the exhibition’s ostentatious linoleum wallpaper, the cumulative effect is a sense of garishness leading to bewilderment.

This Hairy Who showing is a facsimile of four exhibitions that took place at the height of the 1960s counterculture. During this period, the precedent had already been set for an alternative showing in Chicago. (The exhibition’s comprehensive and well-organized catalogue does much to weave together a cohesive narrative for the uninitiated.) Originally a feeder for talented SAIC students, the “Chicago and Vicinity” exhibition became “limited to professional artists.” Leon Golub, a Chicago painter, launched “Exhibition Momentum” in response. After its success, several alternative exhibitions sprang up, primarily concentrating at the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC) and the Illinois Institute of Technology. Cumbersome and unjuried, the exhibitions would feature one or two pieces each from dozens of artists, making it easy to get drowned out by other participants.

Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum, The Portable Hairy Who!, 1966, The Art Institute of Chicago.

In order to harness the group showing for their own self-promotion, James Falconer and Jim Nutt pitched a smaller exhibition in 1965 to the artist and curator Don Baum that would feature only five artists: Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, Art Green, and themselves. Baum agreed, under the condition that Wirsum be added. As the legend goes, a discussion of the radio art critic Harry Bouras caused Wirsum to exclaim, “Harry who? Who is this guy?” The rest, as they say, is history.

As the legend goes, a discussion of the radio art critic Harry Bouras caused Karl Wirsum to exclaim, “Harry who? Who is this guy?”

Each chamber of the current exhibition recollects the pieces shown at HPAC in 1966 and 1967; the San Francisco Art Center in 1968; the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.; and New York’s School of Visual Arts in 1969. The meticulousness is admirable, but it presents a double-edged sword. While the showing does a good job recreating the feeling of stumbling across these combative and challenging works, one leaves the final stretch utterly exhausted. Thinking back to the biographical cove downstairs, one ponders the order imposed upon them, and then contemplates a wasted opportunity to break this section up into cleaner increments and give viewers a break. But if the point of the exhibition is to allow viewers to parse out artistic differences within the collective, one wonders why the downstairs section is necessary at all.

Suellen Rocca, Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature, 1965, The Art Institute of Chicago.

The most logical reason may have been that the curators are separating adults-only work from that which is more family friendly. If viewers saw a “respectable” display downstairs, perhaps they would assume there was a Part Two waiting. Or perhaps one would take in what in any other circumstance would be a full-length exhibition and move on. There is a precedent for this. In 2015, the Whitney Museum of American Art turned down Charles Ray’s Huck and Jim (2014), a sculpture featuring the two nude figures painted white, on the grounds that it would “offend non-museumgoing visitors.” The Art Institute leapt at the opportunity, but then shoved it in a nook tucked away from the rest of Ray’s 2015 exhibition. A casual museumgoer could have run across the sculpture while taking in the rest of the space, but it was off the flow chart for patrons taking in the marquee. In order to see it, viewers had to look.

Regardless, one benefit of seeing this plethora of artworks jammed into the same space is a fuller opportunity to assess artists’ individual achievements. Despite their differences, the quintet did study under the same professors: Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead. Yoshida taught painting and drawing, and Halstead taught art history. Both instructors encouraged a decentralized approach to aesthetics, one that prioritized subjective affinities over the Western-canonical hierarchies, one that looked beyond Europe and North America for its influences.

Art Green, Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic, 1965, Oil on canvas, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago.

This decentralization is most evident in the comic-book logic of many of the Hairy Who’s compositions. They didn’t draw in frames, per se, but virtually all of the works on display contain a collage-like sense of confluence, and contain several micro-narratives informing or complicating their visual language. Some oeuvres offer a thrilling sense of stimuli—best evinced in Rocca’s Bare Shouldered Beauty and the Pink Creature (1965)and Falconer’s Morbid Sunshine by a Miner Artist (1966). Others, such as Nutt’s, appear disgusting, but resourceful—a dumpster dive rendered through clean illustration. Wirsum’s jagged and squiggly lines compile into beautiful, puzzle-like images, but in aggregate leave one woozy, like looking too long at a Magic Eye poster. Meandering through the space, one’s pulse rises in alternating states of elation or panic, so the calm rendered by Nilsson’s gorgeous and muscular watercolors and Green’s irreverent combinations of thickly outlined images wash over the viewer like an oasis. Nilsson’s The Scolding (1966) and Somewhat Congested (1968) come to mind, as do Green’s Consider the Options, Examine the Facts, Apply the Logic (1965) and his Double Exposure (1969).

Gladys Nilsson, The Great War of the Wonder Women, N.d., Watercolor over graphite on white wove paper, The Art Institute of Chicago.

It’s also prudent to assess their progeny. Laura Owens is the contemporary artist who syncs up the most with the Hairy Who—if not in style then in sensibility. Her catalogue essay does much to contextualize their aesthetic and influence. Yet their most prominent acolyte isn’t Owens but Jeff Koons, an artist who takes up the Hairy Who’s thread of “vulgarity-as-richness,” but whose consumer-driven malleability looks an awful lot like the funhouse mirror version of the Hairy Who’s aspirations for notoriety. If fecundity is a harbinger of quality, perhaps we should be cautious in our praise.

But to stand athwart history yelling “Stop!” in this context is like screaming at the top of one’s lungs in a soundproof room. The reason why such quibbles come off as strident to the modern ear is that the aesthetic relativity practiced by the Hairy Who has won out. Thus, the triumphalism on display at the Art Institute is no aberration. Instead, it is an acknowledgement of where the hands have fallen on the clock. Contemporary artists with an eye toward success should by all means do what the Hairy Who says. Some discernment is necessary, however, when learning from what its members have actually done.

  1.  “Hairy Who? 1966–1969” opened at the Art Institute of Chicago on September 26, 2018, and remains on view through January 6, 2019.

A Message from the Editors

As a reader of our efforts, you have stood with us on the front lines in the battle for culture. Learn how your support contributes to our continued defense of truth.