Let me be the first to say, as someone who studied art their whole life and enjoys reading and learning about iconoclastic artists of the twentieth century to today, I feel a combination of shame and amazement that I had never known or heard of any of the Chicago imagists of the 1960s until I saw Leslie Buchbinder's documentary Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists, which screens tonight at the Newport Beach Film Festival. If you're like me and weren't aware of the Chicago imagists until you read this paragraph, you'll need to duck over to Fashion Island's cinema to earn back your art cred.
I kid (maybe), but the Chicago imagists deserve to be known by all enthusiasts of art; As the documentary tells it, Hairy Who is the name concocted by a young group of artists in the early 1960s associated with the School of the Arts Institute of Chicago who exhibited together at Hyde Park Art Gallery. These guys (and gals) made work influenced by lowbrow sources like comic books, pinball machine art, and cartoons, and dealt with mature themes like politics, race, or sexuality. Due to the fantastical (and as often considered, grotesque) nature of their work, it was often shunned and dismissed by the art world, thus limiting their exposure beyond the Second City. But good art never completely fades away, and as Buchbinder's film illustrates, the art of Hairy Who, and the subsequent groups that followed in the same vein, would find niche audiences within collectors circles and younger generations of artists.
I spoke with Hairy Who director Leslie Buchbinder about her film, about the Hairy Who artists and why the art world would reject such a vibrant, unconventional style of art.
OCW: What prompted your interest in the Chicago Imagists?
Buchbinder: I grew up with these artists all around me. My parents became friends with a number of them and I was a young teenager, and it was during that time I initially met them. It was quite an interesting time as a young pubescent to meet such a vibrant group of artists who dealt with very challenging subjects, and I ended up having several careers within the arts and was always informed by those early years in continuing to know the artists. Their intelligence, sense of humor, honesty, and bravery to follow their own path was inspirational to me. It finally came to a point in my life where I thought I had much more perspective and it was time to pay homage to these artists who had been so pivotal to my life and the lives of so many other people like artists, curators, and non- artists who have come to find their work provocative, inspirational and liberating.
Each individual artist within the Hairy Who worked in their own individual thought processes and with their own influences in mind, but their work together carries a sense of cohesion as though they planned their art to make sense together, how do you account for that synergy?
I think sometimes what happens in a given place and time, there are a lot of influences and energy that come together; an overall gestalt that you can't actually define. You can try to parse the components that go into it, which is part of what you view in the film, everything from source materials to the city itself to what was going on in the art world to the art institute. But all of these things they participated in together, like when they formulated their shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, brought on the concept of being alone together for the group and is, I think, what happened with the Hairy Who that made them look at each others' art, come up with the concepts for shows together, and form that unity.
So you look at the art they made in that period and you can see some common inspirations but at the same time you see how each artist used those source materials in very different ways to address different aspects of those subjects and form.
Another thing that was mentioned in the film was the difference between the New York artists and the Chicago artists, being the Chicago artists make work that is more personal and New York artists make work that seems more detached and non-personal. New York's art of the '60s and '70s has become accepted in the large art world and revered ever since and they gained wider distinction. Based on that example, what do you think it says about the art world and the guidelines for the art it accepts?
While you're bringing that up I want to bring up another difference between Chicago and New York and LA in terms of the role women had. Women artists in Chicago were completely treated as equals during that time to the point where (Hairy Who artists) Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson were in California and experienced the LA art scene and it was a different mode where the women were there to serve the men; in New York that was the case as well, and there were incredible women artists in these cities, but the Chicago women artists enjoyed an equality that was unusual, which is one of the great things that they were unaware of until they saw other worlds.
In terms of the revering, the art world is like any kind of organization. At a certain time and place, a certain art is 'cool' and 'in' and loved, and we all know that historically, artists are left out of the dialogue, because it's just human nature. There's going to be more of an art center in one place or another, and during the last century the art world became more New York-centric. Critics and curators pay more attention to what is already right there and part of the dialogue in a more present way. Group mentality works like that whether its art or the computer world or any world.
What we're trying to do with this film is address the problem with that kind of dialogue, the problem with that art historical perspective that leaves out many fantastic artists. In no way do we think New York or LA artists are lesser, but what we are putting forth is that these artists were also great.
It's interesting that as the '60s were moving to the '70s and the Imagists were enjoying their moments in the sun, their style of surrealism ultimately wasn't working for the public at the time, despite this being the era of political awakening and open social commentary and the rise of psychedelic drugs, so you think the surrealist nature of their art would be more accepted.
Sometimes art world dialogues are more about internal dialogue about what has come before and therefore what people think should come next as continuing the dialogue, so even if the social world seems to be embracing a surrealistic point of view, the art world thought it was so passé. If you think about style, its about what was in at one time that leads to something else that leads to a rebellion, and then a dialogue. But the center of the art world was saying we had that conversation, we want a new conversation. Doesn't mean that at any given time art that is being created that is not part of that central conversation in the moment isn't good, it just seems at odds at what the inner art world wants.
Wow, I was looking at it through the lens of the way things had progressed in that era for other art forms, like say film, in allowing for more depictions of sexual freedom and inclusion of critical social commentary, I thought there would be that parallel in the art world.
It was progressing, but certain types of art are privileged at every given time, whether its today or a year or ten years, even when there's an overall environment that seems to be nurturing multiplicity, its human nature again. During that time HW and CI did enjoy a lot of renown but, it couldn't be compared to what New York renown meant.
Eras that were and are progressive in certain ways always are filled with human beings, so there's a kind of progression and there are areas that are fostered in terms of greater freedom of expression, but not across all disciplines at the same time.
The resurgence of the art of the Chicago Imagists should definitely be underway, especially since the comics and the comics art world are embracing the same styles they employed in their work forty years ago.
The role of comics and high art is definitely converging. Its a matter of what's in the ether right now and the work of HW and CI are striking so many chords with people of all ages, certainly kids and younger generations.
How much is in the ether, how much is influence, whats in the culture right now that is informing lexicons, its all a bit of a mystery. And again we can parse the influences but it'll probably take a period of time to understand more what's going on. But their work is right at the heart of what is in dialogue now.
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Besides teaching me about a new group of artists I didn't know about earlier, I think I took away from it a great story about artists who followed their gut instincts and own ideas, damn the negative response...
The overall concept for this film was 'just go for it,' let your passion guide you, don't let the naysayers discourage you, just do it! I think we all need to be reminded of that. We'll all be doing things at some time that aren't considered great or cool and if we don't the art world won't thank us, because the art world, especially that very insider art world, will say, "We needed that! Why didn't you do it anyway?"
Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists >screens tonight weeks before it screens in theaters in Chicago. For information and tickets go to www.newportbeachfilmfest.com