Articles and Features

The Provocative and Psychedelic Art of The Hairy Who

the Hairy Who
The Portable Hairy Who comic, made instead of a catalog for the first Hairy Who exhibition in 1966.

By Shira Wolfe

“No, we didn’t want to overthrow anything, we weren’t mad at the museums particularly, we didn’t have a manifesto, we didn’t have a mission statement. But we made things we wanted to look at, you know?”

Art Green

What Was The Hairy Who?

The Hairy Who was neither an art movement nor a style. It was simply the name chosen by six Chicago artists when they came together to exhibit as a group in the mid-1960s. They are sometimes referred to in the same breath as the Chicago Imagists, who drew from a wide range of influences including advertising, product imagery, comic strips, Surrealism, German Expressionism, folk art and self-taught art. And though they share similar influences, there is an important distinction to be made. Thea Liberty Nichols, who co-organised the 2019 exhibition Hairy Who? 1966-1969 at the Art Institute of Chicago, explains: “The Hairy Who was an artist-designed, artist-named exhibition group while Chicago Imagism was a label was applied to a whole gaggle of artists by an outside critic.” 

The Hairy Who members, namely Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Jim Falconer, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum, were graduates from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson and Jim Falconer approached Don Baum, the director of exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center, in 1964, suggesting they organise a group show with the three of them, and Art Green and Suellen Rocca. The Hyde Park Art Center was one of the most important venues to show art in Chicago at the time, and Baum agreed, suggesting that they also include Karl Wirsum. This is how the six artists came together. They named the exhibitions that they organised between 1966 and 1969 “The Hairy Who?” after a running joke among the six artists: they were once talking about the notorious local radio critic and artist Harry Bouras, and Karl Wirsum, the only one who had never heard of him, asked: “Harry who?” – the others found this extremely funny and they ended up turning it into “Hairy Who?” for their exhibitions.
Though the artists shared a figurative, vibrant, provocative and oftentimes vulgar approach to art, they never intended to organise themselves as a formal, unified group. In fact, the group was created with the purpose of the six artists making names for themselves as individuals.

“The only way our work looks related is if you compare it to the standard of an all-black painting by Ad Reinhardt.”

Jim Nutt
Hairy Who
Karl Wirsum, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1968. © Karl Wirsum. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund

The Art of The Hairy Who

In the October 1972 edition of Artforum, art critic Max Kozloff wrote: “The art of the Hairy Who would scratch your eyes out.” The artists used bold colour combinations, graphic black outlines, jazzy patterns, cartoonish figures and lots of humour, puns and wordplay. Although the Hairy Who artists chose to exhibit together and shared certain influences and approaches to art, they each had a distinctive personal vocabulary. Gladys Nilsson created lush, crowded watercolours, Karl Wirsum was into psychedelic figures that seem to draw from folk art, Suellen Rocca’s works look like contemporary hieroglyphs, Jim Nutt had an in-your-face vulgar comic style, Art Green presented a more clean, streamlined comic style, and Jim Falconer was perhaps the one most leaning to abstraction, with his German Expressionism and folk art inspired works. As Jim Nutt explained: “The only way our work looks related is if you compare it to the standard of an all-black painting by Ad Reinhardt.”

The Hairy Who
Gladys Nilsson, The Great War of the Wonder Woman, n.d. © Gladys Nilsson. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Yet despite the fact that these six artists may have seemed to be reacting directly against the prevailing art tendencies in the United States at the time such as Minimalism, Conceptualism and Pop Art, the Hairy Who artists were more guided by their own enthusiasm than by any particular critical opposition. “Our work may have been an alternative to what was going on in New York, but it wasn’t done with the intention of being an alternative,” explains Jim Nutt in the 2014 documentary Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists.

The artists were looking towards all kinds of narrative and vernacular forms such as cartoons, tattoos, Outsider art, northern Renaissance painting, and traditional art from Africa, Oceania and the Pre-Colombian Americas. In doing so, they distanced themselves from the prevailing fixation on the contemporary social and artistic moment. They collected material from everyday life, like advertisements, comics, posters and sales catalogues. In their works, they humorously embraced spontaneity and idiosyncrasy, using wordplay, puns and inside jokes. But beneath all the humour and fun, the pieces were also provocative and political, challenging notions of gender and sexuality, as well as social mores and standards of beauty.

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

The Hairy Who Exhibitions

The Hairy Who artists were neither competitive towards each other, nor did they really collaborate much. However, they did collaborate on exhibition posters and a comic (The Portable Hairy Who!) that was made instead of a catalogue and sold at the exhibition for 50 cents a copy. For their first exhibition at Hyde Park Art Center in 1966, they made a poster depicting a man tattooed, and each tattoo was designed by a different artist. The show was a success; the gallery was packed. It was followed by another show at Hyde Park Art Center the following year, and then again in 1968. The artists were then offered their first show out of Chicago at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1968, and in 1969, a show at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC followed. This was an important exhibition, which would later lead to Nutt being included in the US pavilion at the 1972 Venice Biennale. However, the artists agreed that they were all eager to pursue their individual careers and that they did not want to keep pushing the same Hairy Who routine. They decided the Corcoran show would be their last show. In the end, the School of Visual Arts in New York wanted to organise a two-part exhibition of Hairy Who drawings in 1969, so this became the final exhibition before the artists parted ways.

Hairy Who? 1966–1969
The Art Institute of Chicago promotional video for the exhibition Hairy Who? 1966-1969

The Hairy Who Today

In recent years, the Hairy Who has been experiencing another moment. They received well-deserved attention in the 2014 documentary about the Hairy Who and Chicago Imagists. Then, between 2018-2019, the Art Institute of Chicago organised the first major exhibition to focus solely on the artworks made during the four years and six exhibitions of the Hairy Who. Several other exhibitions followed and the artists, who had all gone their individual ways back in 1969, were reunited again. In keeping with their non-movement, it was only for these exhibition moments that they came together again. 

Jim Nutt, Wowidow, 1968
Jim Nutt, Wowidow, 1968. © Jim Nutt. Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

Relevant sources to learn more

2014 documentary Hairy Who and The Chicago Imagists
The Art Institute of Chicago