In 2014 Art Review named Hans Ulrich Obrist the most powerful figure in the field, but Obrist, a forty-six-year-old Swiss, seems less to stand atop the art world than to race around, up, over, and through it.”
During EXPO Chicago, Obrist was “in conversation with the Hairy Who” who were anticipating the fifty-year anniversary of their first exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966. Obrist engaged in examining the group’s importance to art history in Chicago and beyond.
The standing-room-only space at Navy Pier was packed with eager young artists who sat on the floor in their effort to catch every word of the conversation. Obrist began by reflecting on Studs Terkel, Chicago’s most eminent writer and mentor in oral history, asking if the participants would join in making a portrait of the movement, emphasizing the importance of memory.
Obrist asked Gladys Nilsson, a leading member of the Hairy Who, “How did art come to you?” She began by relating childhood memories of always drawing on a card table. Nilsson studied engineering in college. Without a penchant for math, she pursued graphic design, an important aspect of her watercolor paintings. Chicago was the base for Nilsson’s painterly career, in particular the School of the Art Institute, where she encountered Whitney Halstead, artist, critic, educator, art historian and author.
Karl Wirsum spoke about his experience at the Field Museum of Chicago, the role of comic strips, mezzo-American and Japanese prints effecting his graphic style. Obrist asked who were the Hair Who and what was the movement about?
The story of how they got their name goes something like this. While talking about Harry Bouras, host of a weekly radio show on WFMT on art criticism, one of the artists joked, “Harry Who?”
The Hairy Who artists’, Karl Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, Jim Falconer, work is characterized by riffs on muscle-building magazines, raw, aggressive, brutish caricatures of humans and surrealism. Chicago collectors embraced the Hairy Who, hook, line and sinker. They had already amassed significant collections of Surrealism.
While the Hairy Who artists were describing their experiences, Hans Ulrich jotted notes and intermittently fired away questions at the panelists. The last question Ulbrich asked was how digital communication has affected their work.
Nilsson said her work can now grow in size as enlargement is possible as well, as she works on paper. Green referred to the Surrealists and how we accept things that are not what they seem. Wirsum said digital is Art to the nth degree.
Ulrich ended the conversation with a few words from Rainer Maria Rilke’s, “Advice to a Young Poet” on the importance of ascertaining the depth of one’s commitment: “Withdraw into yourself. Explore the reason that bids you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die, if writing should be denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, “Must I write?” Dig deep into yourself for an answer.”
Following Ulrich, Nilsson suggested artists should really listen to their inner core and just work. Green offered these words, “Have the courage to follow one’s own inner self.” Echoing the same sentiment, Wirsum said to go with your enthusiasm and follow no tempting formulas.
Annie Markovich, Chicago Editor
Volume 30 number 2, November / December 2015 p6