Karl Wirsum, Chicago Painter and Hairy Who Member, Dies Aged 81

Chicago-born artist Karl Wirsum, a member of legendary art group Hairy Who, died on May 6 at the age of 81. of the Art Institute of Chicago, as evidenced by the outpouring of social media recognition from dozens of alumni and fans. “Karl was an artist of great importance,” says James Rondeau, president and director of the Art Institute of Chicago. “His visionary, imaginative and wholly original approach to figuration embodied both a Chicago school and was part of a national and international consciousness.

Wirsum was born in 1939 and attended the School of the Art Institute in Chicago (SAIC) where he received his BFA in 1961. In the early 1970s, he took a teaching job in California for three years; it was the longest period that Wirsum would live outside of Chicago. Finally, he joined the faculty of his alma mater which awarded him an honorary doctorate in 2016.

An early interest in comics as a child never left Wirsum and once became an artist. His largely colored figurative work, which he executed on a range of materials from paper to inverted paintings on plexiglass, reflected his love of robots and toys, as well as his admiration for El Greco’s distortion. Wirsum was also fond of blues and R&B music, and he frequented Chicago’s famous Maxwell Street flea market, back in the days when musicians played in the empty lots nearby. His portrait of Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins was used on the cover of the singer’s album, Because Is in Your Mind.

Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins (1968) by Karl Wirsum, now in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, was used on the musician’s album Because Is in Your Mind

The Hairy Who, also known as Chicago Imagists, which included artists Art Green, Jim Falconer, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, and Suellen Rocca, shared an interest in pop culture. The group made their debut in a series of landmark exhibitions organized by artist Don Baum at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966. In 2018, the Art Institute of Chicago presented a major investigation into the movement.

Wirsum’s works are now in many public collections, including the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, High Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and RISD Art Museum.

While Wirsum has been included in numerous gallery and museum exhibitions, his two major solo exhibitions were held in 1991 at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and in 2008 at the Chicago Cultural Center. “He’s someone who deserves more than a serious retrospective in the United States,” said John Corbett, of Corbett vs. Dempsey who represents Wirsum in Chicago. Wirsum is also represented by the Derek Eller Gallery in New York.

As former SAIC students, Corbett and his business partner Jim Dempsey recalled seeing Wirsum in the school’s painting studios. “We were both huge Karl fans,” Corbett said, adding that they contacted Wirsum about nine years ago to offer to work together. “Our belief was that we could help get the word out,” Corbett said. An upcoming exhibition at the Indianapolis Museum of Art (aka Newfields), Private Eye, will be curated by Corbett and Dempsey and will be titled after one of Wirsum’s paintings.

Wirsum is survived by his 53-year-old wife, artist Lorri Gunn, and children Ruby and Zack.

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