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Karl Wirsum is still the mayor of Hairy Whoville

The seminal Chicago Imagist artist talks about his encounters with Howlin' Wolf, Maxwell Street memories, and what inspires him to keep drawing and painting.

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Karl Wirsum is an art star. The low-key member of the Hairy Who—the 1960s art group nestled inside the Chicago Imagists movement—would probably balk at this characterization, and the art market may not have rewarded him as such, but he is one of our homegrown treasures.

Born in Chicago in 1939, Wirsum attended the School of the Art Institute, where he got his BFA in 1961. He was invited to participate in three seminal exhibitions that took place at the Hyde Park Art Center beginning in 1966. Curated by artist Don Baum, the shows also included work by Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Falconer. It was Wirsum who inadvertently gave the exhibits their name—and by extension the informal group of artists. During one planning meeting, the topic of what to call the first show was on the table; the artists began talking about a pompous local art critic named Harry Bouras, and Wirsum fortuitously asked, "Harry who?"

In the early 70s, Wirsum took a teaching job in California, but after a few years he returned home to stay and was, until recently, on the faculty of his alma mater. The humanoid figures that dominate his creations, whether paintings or objects, are an energetic and electrifying balance of organic and geometric forms in saturated hues that seem animated even when confined to a surface. They're cheerfully grotesque.

The centerpiece of Wirsum's current exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey is an acrylic painting on Plexiglas, a 1965 portrait of blues singer Howlin' Wolf titled No Dogs Aloud (wordplay is another feature in Wirsum's creative universe), presented along with eight preparatory drawings. Wirsum made more than 50 sketches for this particular work, a process that was necessary because of the unforgiving nature of the materials, but mostly because by drawing repeatedly, the artist was able to refine his ideas about the subject. For instance, by choosing to include a kitchen strainer in place of a microphone in the portrait, he wasn't just playing with shape but also thinking about how a mike also acts as a filter for the voice.

Wirsum spoke over the phone recently about his encounters with Howlin' Wolf in Chicago, Maxwell Street memories, and what inspires his art today.


With regard to No Dogs Aloud, what about Plexiglas as a canvas appealed to you? Were you influenced by the folk art of reverse paintings on glass?

It originally started with the paintings on glass in the city, like at a hot dog place. [Commercial paintings on windows] also appeared in Mexico when I was down there in the early 1960s. I did a number of drawings of the person, Howlin' Wolf, some done in more graphic style but related to a photograph. I originally was going to do Wolf himself, but I wanted to transform him so it wasn't a direct relationship to the person. That generated a lot of activity. I kind of had an idea of me connecting to him. I am not a singer at all and I have no musical abilities, but I just had a connection with him from various encounters. I met him at a show at a nightclub on Roosevelt Road and talked to him there, and he mistook my idea of painting and thought that I was an indoor painter and that I would be up for hire to paint his place.

Did he see the final result?

He never did see it, but he saw the Screamin' Jay Hawkins. [Wirsum's 1968 portrait of Hawkins appears on the cover of the singer's 1970 LP Because Is in Your Mind.]

Karl Wirsum (far left) in 1967 with fellow artists Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Nutt - CHARLES KREJCSI
  • Charles Krejcsi
  • Karl Wirsum (far left) in 1967 with fellow artists Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Nutt

The blues seems to be important to you.

I really like the blues, especially the stuff on Maxwell Street. I did [go to clubs], but not as energetically as I attended the blues sessions on the streets. The group activity and the dancing—it was very strong, that aspect of Maxwell, when I was still in high school.

Speaking of Maxwell Street, is that where you found additions to your great collection of vintage toys?

I mostly went for the music.

What do you collect today?

Not too much. I really have minimalized. If I go [shopping], it's once a year to the flea market near downtown on Randolph Street, and I go there with my daughter. We visit a few [dealers] who have things that are done in Mexico. There is a group of family members who paint on metal, mass figures that appear in wrestling, things of that nature.

Was there a camaraderie or competitiveness among the Hairy Who?

We all are feeling very good about each other. I feel very positive about the group. We all took our own paths. It was partly Don Baum [the late artist and curator who launched the Hairy Who at the Hyde Park Art Center] who created these groups and homed in on these large exhibitions by putting us together. We did it just for that brief period of time. We did shows as a group and after that we went back to our studios and did our own thing.

Are you still sketching?

I have a lot of sketchbooks. The drawing aspect is the most influential for me, and I do a lot of drawings that are related to different ideas. I have various ideas going at the same time—it evolves at the sketchbook phase and then it gets translated into the final image.

A 1965 sketch by Wirsum, one of more than 50 drawings he completed before painting No Dogs Aloud. - CORBETT VS. DEMPSEY
  • CORBETT vs. DEMPSEY
  • A 1965 sketch by Wirsum, one of more than 50 drawings he completed before painting No Dogs Aloud.

When do you know when you are ready to paint?

It depends on the image. I guess it finally says "This is it" and I stop and do the painting.

I read that Riverview Amusement Park was a big draw for you before it was demolished in 1967. Is there any place in Chicago these days that inspires you?

Not on the level of Riverview. I mainly do things that are more interior. I am activated by photographs, and that sort of thing sets me off. The way I develop a piece is through various associations. [That's how I worked] early on in my career, and I continue in that same way. I have an idea and bring in ideas that relate to that idea so they become very transformed by the end of the journey. Sometimes it takes me a year or more to finish with an idea. I remember reading about Alfred Hitchcock coming up with an idea for a scene in a movie and then maybe seven or eight years later getting a complete film out of that original idea.

What advice would you give your younger self as an artist?

Search and see what is important to you, and go with that. Don't be persuaded by the thing of the day, so to speak. Be more directed to yourself and your own inclination to produce an image, whether it be abstract or referential. I try to do that every day.   v

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