Karl Wirsum, A True Legend of the Chicago Art World, Dies at the age of 81  

Margaret Lanterman

Karl Wirsum was a child of the south side of Chicago, familiar with all the variants and byways of a large and hectic city – one that he truly appreciated. This backdrop could not help but influence his empathetic, spontaneous and soulful art. 

After working to develop his own style, he joined five other artists of similar thought to develop a new art unique to Chicago. This group and their work, which Wirsum named the ‘Hairy Who’, came together in the 1960s and set the basis for a very strong aspect of Chicago art through the 1970s onward.

Screamin’ J Hawkins 1968 Acrylic on canvas. 121.9 × 91.4 cm (48 × 36 in.)

As an artist and member of the Hairy Who, Wirsum was interested in creating a counter-culture kind of art grounded in comic book, ethnic imagery, and tongue-in-cheek reflections of the everyday life around him.  He was fascinated by the visual expression of non-Western art, particularly Oceanic and Northwest Coast indigenous art, unintentional art, and the brashness of the advertising world. This latter was an engagement shared with the Pop Artists of the time, but there was a difference. Although not all of Wirsum’s images are sweet, they are representations of people as they are and as they believe they are. Wirsum marked the difference between his own ideas and those of the Pop artists with an occasion when he went birdwatching with Andy Warhol in Manhattan. He was struck by Warhol’s appropriations and his uninterest in the openness that he himself cherished. Wirsum did not have any interest in direct appropriation, but wanted to be honest about his influences and to create a new, personal and inventive artform. He decided he had no desire to live in the hard driving world of New York, and endeavored to raise awareness of his and other artists’ work here in Chicago. Using madcap humor and a quirky, iconic imagery, Wirsum produced art that reflected a sheer joy of the visual world expressed through his own sense of universe and the uniqueness of its people. 

In the catalogue for a 2015 exhibit of the Hairy Who, Dan Nadel had this to say about the work: “It is warm but not sentimental, immaculately crafted but not cold. It is art that embraces mundane realities…fantastic realities and a hard-edged spirituality. It asks for nothing from the viewer, makes no special cases and yet is not against or for anything.” In fact, Karl Wirsum was for everyone’s individual voice. He firmly believed in that power, and thought that no honest and respectful art expression should be denied. As he pursued his teaching career at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, his students were legion because of the support and respect which he provided for their efforts to find their own unique communication. 

Wirsum’s work consists of bright colors, frontal and surreal images, memorable characters and a sense of a strong inner, driving force of humanity and culture. Karl did not consider himself religious, but he was quoted in a Hyperallergic interview as saying “There’s some kind of strong magic that we can’t explain. I don’t have a belief in any divine being or anything of that nature, but there are mysterious things that happen and I feel that being a creator you link up in some way to another realm that is not part of the everyday. And I feel a commitment to these things that’s not based on fame or fortune. It goes beyond the material (and) into this other realm, which could be described as spiritual.” Karl Wirsum was always true to this belief.  

His original style and sense of humor was a deep part of who Wirsum was, and that extended to his personal life as well as his art. He chose clothing that presented the bright colors and untypical combinations of his art, and, undaunted by the stares of others, he actually seemed to appreciate making people think about their assumptions regarding taste and style.  

Wirsum has enjoyed a celebrated art career and has been featured in numerous major one- person exhibits both in the US and around the world. He is represented in New York City by dealer Derek Eller and in Chicago by the gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey.

Karl Wirsum, Great Skates III, 1976. Courtesy the artist and Derek Eller Gallery

According to Lorri Gunn, Wirsum’s wife of 53 years and staunch supporter, he hardly went a day without producing many drawings, right up to his final days. These drawings then became paintings, sculptural reliefs, and prints. During his life Karl never relinquished his quirky personal and resounding artistic style, through both rough and splendid times. He was a warm person, a generous teacher and always ready with a smile or robust laugh. He loved fun and observed life closely with the eye of a gentle humorist. 

Karl Wirsum was charismatic, cheerful and intense, and was loved by many. He is survived by his wife Lorri, his son Zack and daughter Ruby. He will be greatly missed, but his thoughtful, zany and unique art will live on

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Garry Noland
15/05/2021 5:18 am

A great, thoughtful article!

Margaret Lanterman
19/05/2021 10:13 pm
Reply to  Garry Noland

Thank you, Garry. It was a pleasure to write about Karl Wirsum, a great artist and long-time friend.

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