By Alina Cohen
The Chicago Imagists of the 1960s and ’70s created colorful, energetic paintings and sculptures that often riffed on vernacular sources (comic books, pinball machines) and the eccentricities of American culture. Barbara Rossi’s colorful, corporeal shapes piled atop each other like jumbles of internal organs. Jim Nutt drew and painted grotesque figures that evoked brightly lit freak shows. Gladys Nilsson rendered overlapping bodies, simultaneously in their own worlds and parts of a larger, chaotic mass. Suellen Rocca created busy, symbol-laden canvases. A flat aesthetic triumphed over any attempt at realism or depth. This work diverged from that of the Imagists’ East Coast contemporaries; as the New York Pop artists developed an impersonal, mass-produced aesthetic, their Midwestern counterparts were making artwork that was more carnival than Campbell’s soup.
It can be complicated to discern who was, and who wasn’t, a Chicago Imagist, but in general, the term applies to a wide swath of artists who lived and made figurative work in the city from around the 1950s through the 1980s. They showed together at the Hyde Park Art Center beginning in 1964, giving each cluster of exhibiting artists its own quirky moniker. Instead of turning to advertising and consumer culture as their East Coast counterparts had, these artists infused a zany, psychic energy into their drawing-driven practices. Indeed, tracing the careers of the Chicago Imagists offers a narrative about American art that diverges from popular New York-centered conceptions—and presents issues that transcended locale.
The oldest group, the Monster Roster—a name given by critic Franz Schulze as a nod to the Chicago Bears’ nickname, the Monsters of Midway—responded to the horrors introduced by World War II and the state of post-war America. Some of the men had been soldiers themselves. Leon Golub, who’d served as an army cartographer, infused his work with violence and suffering. Throughout his six-decade career (he died in 2004), Golub rendered beheadings, brawls, and torture scenes. His process itself was brutal—he used a meat cleaver to distress his paintings.
Nancy Spero, to whom Golub was married, similarly manifested an ardent political streak as she depicted mothers, children, and prostitutes through a feminist lens. Fellow artist June Leaf created fine-lined, often nightmarish scenes. In sum, the works were frequently dark, both in style and substance. Subsequent Chicago art diverged in cheerier and more frenetic directions, while still remaining deeply psychological.
According to Tang Museum director Ian Berry and Chicago gallerists John Corbett and Jim Dempsey, the more light-hearted artist H. C. Westermann (known, since around the late 1950s, for his quirky found-object sculptures and dystopian illustrations) provides a link to the younger Imagists. Don Baum, a member of the former group who helped curate the younger Imagists’ shows, offers another connection. This September, Corbett, Dempsey, and Berry will mount “3-D Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964–1980” at the Tang. For a group of artists traditionally associated with two-dimensional works, the curators offer a more complex, multimedia story………………
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