Chicago Artists

by Chris Duesing

Grant Wood (1891-1942). Painter moved to Chicago in 1913. There he worked at Kalo Silversmiths Shop while taking fine arts classes in the evenings at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Best known artwork: American Gothic.

Georgia O’Keeffe (1887-1986). One of the most influential American abstract artists of the 20th century, she enrolled as a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She spent just one year there, but she developed a loyalty to the institution, exhibiting her first retrospective at the museum in 1943.

Todros Geller (1889-1949). Geller’s Yiddish Motifs portfolio depicts scenes of Jewish identity and daily life in a series of seven woodcuts printed on Japanese wood paper; Maxwell street Jewish district.

Archibald John Motley Jr. (1891–1981). Chicago-based painter Archibald Motley represented the vibrancy of African American culture in the city.

Bertha Stenge (1891-1957). Chicago quilt artist is considered one of the greatest twentieth-century quilt makers and designers.

Alson Skinner Clark (1876–1949), a painter born in Chicago, painted the city on a winter day, in the tradition of the urban realism of the French Impressionists.

Lewis Wickes Hine (1874-1940). Sociologist and photographer graduated from the University of Chicago. He employed photography as a tool for social change and reform, documenting children’s labor and immigrants’ conditions.

Ivan Albright (1897-1983). Chicago-native painter, known as a “master of the macabre”.

Manierre Dawson (1887-1969). Chicago-native painter indebted with abstraction and cubism. He trained as a civil engineer in which he studied geometry, calculus, and mechanical drawing.

Walter Ellison (1899–1977). Born in Georgia, he moved to Chicago in the 1920s. His paintings reflect on artist’s perceptions of the injustices associated with inequitable social conditions of black people.

Aaron Siskind (1903-1991). He was the photography instructor at Chicago’s Institute of Design and served as head of the department there from 1961 to 1971.

Claire Zeisler (1903- 1991). Chicago artist Claire Zeisler was a sculptor who worked off the loom, handled fiber as others handle wood, metal, or stone.

Marion Perkins (1908-1961). One of Chicago’s foremost sculptors, “primitivizing” influence.

Gertrude Abercrombie (1909-1978). Chicago’s Hyde Park arts scene in the mid-20th century; complex self-portraits inspired by Midwestern surrealists.

Harry Callahan (1912–1999). Photographer and teacher at Chicago’s Institute of Design (1946–61). Influenced by the classicism of Ansel Adams and the experimentalism of László Moholy-Nagy, he focused on Chicago streets and architecture.

Harold Allen (1912-1999). Photographer of building, architecture, places and Egyptomania. ;

Eldzier Cortor (1916-2015). African-American painter, influenced by surrealism and African art. Involvement in the South Side Community Art Center (center of development of Chicago’s African American artists, first black art museum of the United States). → South Side Community Art Center, in the 50s:

Charles White (1918-1979). Born and educated in Chicago, White was one of the preeminent artists and painters to emerge during the city’s Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s.

Roland Ginzel (1921-2021). A Chicago abstractionist, he taught at the University of Illinois. The artist used an innovative technique—he called it “paper intaglio,” but today it is commonly known as collograph—to produce a series of large prints similar to his own abstract paintings.

Chicago Imagists (or Hairy Who, or Monster Roster) in 1965. They are a group of representational artists associated with the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. (book exhibition). *[in-depth at the end of the document]

→ Jim Falconer, born in 1943 (founder). Falconer’s compositions and the rudeness of his imagery, which express an anti-formalism that is unique among the Hairy Who

→ Art Green, born in 1941 (founder). Inspired by Chicago’s architectural and cultural fabric, he was engaged with the political turmoil of the 1960s.

→ Leon Albert Golub (1922-2004). Born in Chicago, here Golub became involved with other artists collectively dubbed the “Monster Roster” or “The Hairy Who” (the 50s). Civil rights activist

→ Jim Nutt, born in 1938 (founder). Jim Nutt is a principal member of the Hairy Who, an irreverent group of artists that emerged in Chicago during the late 1960s. Exhibiting Surrealist-inspired work aimed at subverting artistic conventions. Nutt was instrumental in creating the group’s complex exhibition designs (typography).

→ Ed Paschke (1939-2004). is celebrated as one of the leading figures of the Chicago Imagist Movement; subjects from newspapers, tabloid magazines, and television, producing work that taps into the movement’s kitsch aesthetic.

→ Karl Wirsum (1939-2021) (founder). Graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1961, Karl Wirsum, a pioneer of the Hairy Who. Inspired largely by comic book figures and popular icons.

→ Suellen Rocca (1943-2020) (founder). Art Institute of Chicago, the only Hairy Who artist to graduate with a minor in printmaking. Grid-arrangements artworks.

→ Gladys Nilsson, born in 1940 (founder). A lifelong devotee of the Art Institute of Chicago, famous watercolorist. She is one of the six founding members of hairy who.

→ Don Baum (1922-2008). Curator and artist, promoter of Chicago Imagists. Assemblage art influenced by psychoanalysis.

→ Cosmo Campoli (1922-1996). Expressive, primitive, paintings. Affiliated with monster rosters.

→ Seymour Rosofsky (1924-1981). Chicago imagist group, macabre side of surrealism.

→ Roger Brown (1941-1997). Painter associated with Chicago imagist group; he attended the School of the Art Institute Chicago (SAIC). Known for his style and social commentaries.

→ Christina Ramberg (1946-1995). Chicago imagists exhibition, she is known for enigmatic paintings of fragments of the female body—typically torsos, legs, and hands—

→ Ray Yoshida (1930-2009). Chicago artist and mentor of imagists. Distorted, emotional representational art.

Joan Mitchell (1925-1992). Born in Chicago, she studied at the Art Institute. Member of abstract expressionism movement; exuberant abstractions about landscapes.

Nancy Spero (1926-2009). Cleveland, but she studied at the Art Institute. Artist, activist and feminist.

Ellen Lanyon (1926-2013). Chicago painter and printmaker, Lanyon’s art has been characterized as Surrealist or Magical Realist, influenced by metaphysical art.

Ralph Arnold (1928-2006). A Chicago native, Ralph Arnold is known for his collaged, often abstract images drawn from the materials of popular and consumer culture, about great migration and African-American youth.

Robert Indiana (1928-2018). He attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1949 to 1953 before moving to New York in 1954. Pop art movement, famous for his bold, iconic, images, especially LOVE series.

Stanley Tigerman (1930-2019). From Chicago, city’s architecture, Holocaust Museum project and other buildings.

Ray Kruger Metzker (1931-2014). Photographer from Milwaukee, he graduated from the Institute of Design in Chicago. Series “The Loop” set in Chicago (1958).

Bauhaus in Chicago (late 30s). New Bauhaus was started by notable Bauhaus designers and educators who left Europe during Nazism; later called the Institute of Design (ID) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). László Moholy-Nagy and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe introduced the Bauhaus’s avant-garde ideals to the American Midwest, adapting design and methods. It includes teachers and talented students including Ludwig Hilberseimer, Elsa Kula, Nathan Lerner, Emmett McBain, Art Sinsabaugh, and Angelo Testa. *[in-depth at the end of the document]

June Leaf, born in 1929. Born in Chicago, abstract allegorical painting, she studied at the New Bauhaus.

AfriCOBRA collective, 1968, ‘The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists’ is an African-American artists’ collective formed in Chicago in 1968. They wanted to encourage education and performance amongst the city’s African American population. Associated with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), born in the south side of Chicago in 1967. Famous artworks: the Wall of Respect (1967-1971), a mural painted on a tavern, honored more than 50 African-American heroes, destroyed by fire in 1971: ; *[in-depth at the end of the document]

→ Nelson Stevens, born in 1938. member of AfriCOBRA used what they called “coolade colors” to create empowering images of African Americans.

→ Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017). She became involved in printing while studying at The Art Institute of Chicago, she created political, pro-Black images combining figuration with energetic, graphic lettering.

→ Wadsworth Aikens Jarrell, born in 1929. Born in Georgia, he moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he attended the Art Institute of Chicago. Black aesthetics, race relations, African influence.

→ Gerald Williams, born in 1941. co-founder of afriCOBRA, painter’s work has been influential within the Black Arts Movement.

Yasuhiro Ishimoto (1921-2012), american-japanese photographer, studied with Siskind and Callahan. Street photographer.

Robert Heinecken (1931-2006). Californian photographer who taught at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “para-photographer” because he so often made photographic images without a camera. appropriated images from film, magazines, and television to satirize American popular culture.

Richard Estes, born in 1932. Photographer urban landscapes of the city (in the 80s).

Richard Hunt, born in 1935. Born in Chicago’s south side. African-American abstract sculptor and artist of public sculpture, a descendant of slaves and first African-American sculptor to have a retrospective at MoMA. He realized 2020 installation on the Art Institute’s Bluhm Family Terrace

Diane Simpson, born in 1935. Chicago-based artist, she creates sculptures and preparatory drawings inspired by clothing and how it defines identity.

Joseph Jachna (1935-2016). Born in Chicago, in-depth photographer. He also photographed natural manifestations and the environment.

Robert Lostutter, born in 1939. Lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. Best known for his brightly colored paintings of male figures.

Thomas Knudtson, born in 1939. Photographer, series “Chicago the Rising City” (1970-71).

Red Grooms, born in 1937. Multimedia artist born in Tennessee, he studied at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Elizabeth Murray (1940-2007). Chicago painter, she used shaped canvas to create abstraction

Contemporary Artists based in Chicago

Terry Evans, born in 1944. She photographed the prairies and plains of North America and the urban prairie of Chicago (Revealing Chicago project). One-person shows at the Chicago Art Institute.

Kay Rosen, born in 1947. Painting, text-based artworks, she investigates words and their knowledge; she is in art institute collections.

Bob Thall, born in 1949. Chicago photographer, specialized in urban street scenes.

Anne Wilson, born in 1949. Chicago-based artist and professor emeritus of Fiber and Material Studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, she works with everyday materials such as table linens, bed sheets, human hair, lace, considering the inequities of globalization over domestic rituals.

Julia Fish, born in 1950. Methodical, meditative, abstract paintings.

Richard Rezac, born in 1952. He lives and works in Chicago. He made abstract object sculptures.

Dawoud Bey, born in 1953. Photographer has resided in Chicago since 1998. Reflective photographs that represent African American life and landscapes of slave history

Thomas Struth, born in 1954. Series of photos in museum institutions, including ARTIC.

William Pope L., born in 1955. Pope L. is known for provocative, physically taxing performances as well as for text-based drawings and paintings.

Kerry James Marshall, born in 1955 in Alabama, currently lives and works in Chicago. His installations deal with African ancestry, appropriation, and black aesthetics. He reverses museums’ canon.

Tony Fitzpatrick, born in 1958. multimedia collage, artworks inspired by Chicago street culture. A former tattoo artist and semi-professional boxer, his artworks are often inspired by Chicago street life, recalling graphic tattoos, folk art and comics.

Judy Ledgerwood, born in 1959. Abstract painter, she explores perceptual effects of light and colors.

Jeanne Dunning, born in 1960. Photographer, master at the art institute of Chicago.

Dan Peterman, born in 1960. Associate professor at the University of Illinois. Installation art, adaptive reuse; most known example is his running table, a 100-foot-long picnic table located in Chicago’s Millennium Park.

Tony Tasset, born in 1960. Graduated in sculpture at the Art Institute; His works consist mainly of video, bronze, wax, sculpture, photography, film, and taxidermy.

Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle, born in 1961. Born in Spain but raised in Chicago, he attended Art Institute, sound, and site-specific installations. ;

Jeanne Gang, born in 1964. Internationally renowned for her Aqua Tower building (, she also designed Writers’ Theatre, several residential buildings, two boat houses along the river, the Nature Boardwalk at Lincoln Park Zoo, and a community center in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. Familiar space for Chinese immigrants arriving in Chicago.

Jason Salavon, born in 1970. Contemporary artist, associate professor at the University of Chicago. Data artist*. He creates custom computer software to manipulate and reconfigure media and data to create new visual works of art.

Torkwase Dyson, born in 1973. Born in Chicago, she is a painter working across multiple mediums to explore the continuity between ecology, infrastructure, and architecture, spatial relations. She also works on environmental racism. Dyson’s abstract works grapple with the ways in which space is perceived and negotiated, particularly by black and brown bodies.

Amanda Williams, born in 1974. Based in the South Side neighborhood, she confronts issues of race, urban space, and invisibility of the African American community.

Bethany Collins, born in 1984. Currently living in Chicago, she creates deep-rooted connections between race and language. Famous artwork: The Birmingham News, 1963, distressed front pages from issues of the Birmingham News published during 1963, a seismic year for the civil rights movement.

Other contemporary Chicago artists

Elijah Burgher LaToya Ruby Frazier Theaster Gates Myra Greene Magalie Guerin Mika Horibuchi Samuel Levi Jones Laura Letinsky Audrey Niffenegger. Michelle Grabner Jessica Stockholder Hebru Brantley Chris Ware Dan Peterman Industry of the Ordinary Faheem Majeed Lin Hixson and Matthew Goulish
Joseph Grigley Edra Soto Claire Pentecost Barbara Kasten Rashayla Marie Brown Brendan Fernandes Barbara Rossi Dianna Frid Maria Gaspar Jeanne Dunning Jan Tichy William J. O’Brien Lou Mallozzi Alberto Aguilar Deborah Stratman Candida Alvarez José Lerma Alex Chitty Anna Kunz Tony Lewis Jenny Kendler Dan Devening Nate Young Latham Zearfoss

Recurrent Topics: Abstraction Chicago Movements: Chicago Bauhaus, AfriCOBRA, Chicago Imagists, South Side Community Art Center, African-American Art Photography (street and urban)

Chicago Movements

Chicago Context

Chicago is a city of geographic contradictions: a town with a navy tradition that lies nearly one thousand miles from the ocean. It is a dense, urban environment that rises from the agrarian plains of the Midwest. Differing sensibilities also can be detected in the artistic directions that captivated Chicago soon after World War ll. On one front, there was Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who had moved to Chicago and served as the head of the architecture school at the Illinois Institute of Technology (formerly Chicago’s Armour Institute of Technology). In contrast, Chicago simultaneously was nurturing a very different, less rational artistic tradition. There was considerable interest by early collectors in European Modernism. Although the Art Institute of Chicago eschewed early involvement in twentieth-century collecting, they were encouraged by the activities of the Arts Club of Chicago and individuals such as Joseph Winterbotham, who provided the museum with a dedicated fund to acquire contemporary works. Perhaps because of its sprawling geography, artists in Chicago lived, worked, and exchanged ideas in a different fashion than artists in New York. There was a well established tradition of New York artists living, working, and socializing in close proximity to one another. “ There was no district where artists lived, they weren’t geographically compressed as in New York. In Chicago, artist spaces were available all over the city.

source: essay by Stephen Fleischman from Chicago Imagists (2011): Fanning the Flames in the Windy City (

The New Bauhaus in Chicago. “A new Bauhaus for a new world”

In 1933, when the Nazi regime closed down the German Bauhaus, the renowned school’s history of progressive design education and arts, craft, technological innovations seemingly ended. Bauhaus redefined what design could do for society. However, during the end of the 30s many designers and educators, who wanted to create a new aesthetic appropriate for a modern industrial society and create quality and functional objects, left Europe to escape Nazi persecutions. They found their way to Chicago, transforming the city into an incubator for new industrial products . Here they took positions at a New Bauhaus school -later known as the Institute of Design (ID) and the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT). The New Bauhaus was founded in 1937 by Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy. A year later Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, a former director of the Bauhaus in Germany, became head of architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology. The New Bauhaus not only exported design methods and aesthetics from Germany to the United States, but it also translated them to the Midwest urban spaces, materials, and industries. Moholy-Nagy was sure that the USA could represent the ideal ground for his pioneering school which connected art and tech: ‘Now a new Bauhaus is founded on American soil. America is the bearer of a new civilization whose task is simultaneously to cultivate and to industrialize a continent’. An approach that is still maintained by Chicago Institute of Design, cultivating Bauhaus experimental spirit:as the school continues to push the boundaries of design. However, the new Bauhaus life has been tumultuous: it changed names, locations, leadership and it highlighted the clash between the search for creative exploration and the relentless consumerism.

Why in Chicago? Chicago industrial context was active in this period. The Chicago Association of Arts and Industries was founded in 1922 to promote the relationship between visual arts and commerce. Midwest manufacturing leaders wanted a school to catalyze innovations. In 1931 Chicago hosted the Third Annual Exposition of Contemporary Industrial Art, which included work from the German Bauhaus. They also invited Walter Gropius to Chicago to create a new learning center. He suggested the name of László Moholy-Nagy. Moholy-Nagy, Hungarian émigré, was emigrated voluntarily from Germany in 1934, first to Amsterdam, and then London, to escape the threat posed by the Nazi regime; eccentric teacher and pioneering photographer and film-maker, he highlighted the importance of this new medium, defining the reluctant “illiterate in a changing world.” Moholy-Nagy loved Chicago: “There’s something incomplete about the city and its people that fascinates me,” he wrote to his wife. “It seems to urge one on to completion. Everything still seems possible.” The Chicago Association of Arts and Industries promptly hired Moholy-Nagy and set him and the rest of the New Bauhaus up inside a mansion designed for retail kingpin Marshall Field, located on the city’s tony Prairie Avenue. The classic building was extended with a modernist touch: a concrete-and-steel cube. This school supported experimentation and teaching the whole student, a spiritual descendant of the original Bauhaus’s “total work of art” concept and workshop method. The cost was just $150 a semester. Designs from the New Bauhaus were included in the famed 1938 Bauhaus exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, including a “tactile chart” filled with strips of wood and tactile shapes, described as a “scenic railway for the senses.” However, there are lights and shadows about this pivotal experiment in the Chicago art and design scene. Moholy-Nagy’s pivot couldn’t hide the fact that the school, while a hotbed for creativity, wasn’t strictly focused on creating viable, salable, commercial designs. However, his passion left an important legacy. Alumni of the school would later start major photo programs across the nation. More than an object, Moholy-Nagy left to Chicago an approach, a vision.

New Bauhaus Artists

  1. Nathan Lerner (1913-1997) Nathan Lerner was an influential graphic designer, photographer and educator who helped transmit Bauhaus ideas in the United States during the 1940s. A native of Chicago, he began making photographs while a teenager, documenting the effects of the Depression on his neighborhood. After interviewing with László Moholy-Nagy, the founder and director of the school, and being offered a scholarship, Lerner entered the New Bauhaus in 1937. He then began to make experimental photographs in addition to his documentary work. From 1941 to 1943, Lerner was head of the photography department at the Institute of Design, and from 1945 to 1949, the head of production design and dean of faculty and students. Consistent with the teaching and philosophy of Moholy-Nagy, Lerner’s mature photographs were experimental in nature and probed the structural characteristics of light and dark. In order to study these properties of the medium more thoroughly, Lerner developed new photographic instruments and techniques. He is credited with developing the light box, a tool for studying the tonal and directional behavior of light still in use in art schools today, and Moholy-Nagy considered him the inventor of “montage without scissors,” a process of distorting images by combining dissimilar objects.

  2. Elsa Kula (1918-2019). Elsa Kula left Chicago to join the staff in design at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. With her husband, Davis Pratt, she was attached to the group surrounding R. Buckminster Fuller and established the Design Development Program of Thailand. After six years in Bangkok, she returned to Southern Illinois. Elsa Kula was the only female faculty member in Design from 1956 until 1970. She continued to teach until her retirement in 1978. She worked across a huge range of design, but in the ’50s it wasn’t common for women to achieve the same prominence men were getting. ARTIC museum displays a charming line of plywood mannequins she designed for storefronts.

  3. Angelo Testa (1921-1984) Son of Italian immigrants, he was born in 1918 in Springfield. Testa studied fine art painting and sculpture at the Chicago Institute of Design in the 1940s. In 1947, he set up Angelo Testa & Company, producing hand screen-printed and woven textiles for the many architectural studios of Chicago. Testa developed collaboration in textile design with several companies, including Schumacher’s. He was interested in form and line and saw his work as being suited to the new minimal approach towards architecture. Incredible furnishing fabric designed by him at:

  4. Harry Callahan (1912–1999). One of the most important figures in modern American photography, Harry Callahan was a humble and intuitive artist. He was largely self-taught, and as a teacher at Chicago’s Institute of Design (1946–61). Influenced by the classicism of Ansel Adams and the experimentalism of László Moholy-Nagy, he focused on Chicago streets and architecture.He photographed a wide range of subjects—female pedestrians lost in thought on Chicago’s streets; architectural facades; his wife, Eleanor; and weeds and grasses in snow. Chicago, one of his best-known pictures, shows trees covered in snow along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive. Although Callahan captured all of the detail available in the bark and snow in his negative, he purposely printed this image in high contrast to emphasize the black-and-white forms of the trees against the stark backdrop. With a graphic sensibility typical of the Institute of Design

  5. Aaron Siskind (1903-1991). The new Bauhaus opened its experimental and multidisciplinary program to photography, with the intervention of Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan as heads of a dedicated department. Between 1951-1961, under the direction of these two photographers, the curriculum of design students expanded. Photography also encouraged students to be aware about social issues in the streets of Chicago, where photographers usually worked. Aaron Siskind (1903–1991) is best known for his abstract photographs, often of natural forms or architectural features that were manipulated in order to produce unfamiliar images. Abstract key-images by Siskind questioned the idea of photographing reality, and producing an image which is “the thing itself”.;


Chicago Imagists

The Chicago Imagists were a group of figurative artists who emerged in Chicago in the mid-1960s and exhibited at the Hyde Park Art Centre. They used vibrant color, bold lines, and depicted the human body grossly distorted and highly stylized. Graphic strength is a hallmark of the Imagists. Their bizarre portrayals of the human form expanded on Chicago’s artistic tradition of the grotesque established by artists like Ivan Albright and Leon Golub. Although influenced by the encyclopedic collection of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Imagists were equally inspired by ethnographic collections at the Field Museum, self-taught artists, comic books, storefront window displays, and advertisements in magazines. As working artists in the 1960s, the Chicago Imagists took a world of inspiration from their very specific urban environment.

Who? The Imagists had an unusually high proportion of female artists. There are three distinct groups which, outside of Chicago, are indiscriminately bundled together as Imagists: The Monster Roster, The Hairy Who, and The Chicago Imagists:

Development. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and the Hyde Park Art Center in the city’s South Side were both central to the development of Chicago Imagism. Several of the Imagists’ instructors, in particular Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, were influential to the young artists. Halstead, who was an assistant in the Field Museum’s anthropology department in addition to teaching at SAIC, introduced the artists to African art, Native American pottery, and self-taught artists like Joseph Yoakum. In addition to his own artistic endeavors, Yoshida was an avid collector of flea market objects that were often outside the boundaries of traditional “art.” The young Imagists also benefited from the encyclopedic collection housed next door at the Art Institute of Chicago. At the Hyde Park Art Center, Don Baum was a driving force for innovation and an astute observer of young talent. He worked with Jim Nutt and Gladys Nilsson to organize the first “Hairy Who” show in 1966 with Karl Wirsum, James Falconer, Art Green, and Suellen Rocca -, Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—all recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—. Over a period of four years, they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile. Between 1966 and 1969, they staged six uninhibited and informal exhibitions—three in Chicago and one each in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC. Like all Americans of their generation, the young Chicagoans of the Hairy Who came of age during a period of national upheaval that witnessed the escalation of the war in Vietnam, assassinations of political figures, student protests, a rising counterculture, tumultuous racial and gender relations, and the expansion of a capitalist consumer economy.

Why are Chicago imagists so important? Post-war New York’s centrality in the art scene eliminated the contribution of other cities: Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. However, the Chicago group is a predecessor of graffiti art, due to its kitsch inspiration. The aesthetics of this generation of artists, in fact, was linked to the streets, not to the traditional and institutionalized painting. Chicago Imagists iconography was inspired by cartoons and urban murals, it used an aggressive and direct way of expression. Its painting style was characterized by political commitment, figurative narratives and radical graphics, and therefore rejected by mainstream New York culture – which was more interested in the abstract and impersonal dimensions of art. Chicago Imagists told a story of explicit sexuality, grotesque scenes. Chicago during 60s and 70s was a center for figurative production, and the contribution of Chicago Imagists, a very heterogeneous group (Roger Brown, Ed Flood, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Ed Paschke, Christina Ramberg, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum) anticipated the new tendencies of 80s and the 90s, particularly Graffiti and Street Art. The art critic Celant curated at Fondazione Prada (Milan, Italy) in 2017 an exhibition called “Famous Artists from Chicago. 1965-1975”, an in-depth analysis of the artists active throughout the 60’s and 70’s. He reinterpreted Chicago Imagist in contemporary art history, although not entirely acknowledged by critics, as a moment of influence for new generations of artists, from graffiti to neo-digital artists.

Chicago Imagists Artists (Monster Roster + Hairy Who)

Leon Golub In his 1972 book Fantastic Images, critic and historian Franz Schulze described a history of Chicago Imagism that was composed of three generations of artists. The first emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, dominated by a group of artists that Schulze first described in a 1959 article in ArtNews as the “Monster Roster.” This group included artists such as Leon Golub (and Don Baum). Each artist had his or her own unique style but were bound by some common preoccupations, including the depiction of the human figure; the horrors of war; dramatic and tortured moods; and a diverse range of aesthetic influences such as art from antiquity, Oceanic art, and West African sculpture. Leon Golub (1922 - 2004) was born in Chicago and attended SAIC as an undergraduate and graduate student in the late 1940s. He was known for his grisly depictions of monstrous figures and in his interest in war and violence, which were inspired by his time as a soldier in World War II. With the rest of the so-called Monster Roster group of artists, Golub’s psychologically-charged figurative style was an inspiration to younger generations of Imagist artists. His experience in Vietnam led him to create harder, rougher, often wounded and cut canvases with tragic subjects. Golub’s painting carries with it the trauma of war.

selected artwork: Combat A leading cultural and civil rights activist in the United States from the early 1960s until his death in 2004, Leon Golub consistently created works that addressed humanitarian issues. Here the artist placed monumental images of violence on public display, thereby compelling viewers to examine their own relationship to the brutality depicted.

Don Baum (curator) The early work of Don Baum fits squarely in the Monster realm. Like Leon Golub, Baum underwent psychoanalysis, a key artistic input for him in a formative stage. He produced dark head paintings and assemblages of plastic dolls. Later, he adopted the house as a working structure for multifarious sculpture. A great booster and supporter of Chicago art, Baum befriended artists including Gertrude Abercrombie and Jim Nutt, used his position as director of Hyde Park Art Center to spotlight several waves of Chicago artists, including the Monster Roster, and presented the key exhibition, Don Baum Says: Chicago Needs Famous Artists. selected artwork: Pitchfork Lady. James Falconer James Falconer was born in 1943 and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. Around 1962 he came to Chicago to study at the School of the Art Institute, where he first met Jim Nutt and eventually the rest of the artists that would become the Imagists. James “Jim” Falconer, one of the instigators of the Hairy Who, didn’t take his first art class until high school Falconer and Nutt became particularly close during school when both worked as art handlers at The Arts Club of Chicago. Falconer’s artwork from the mid-1960s already displays the extreme individualism that would characterize the rest of his unusual career. His paintings, drawings, and prints synthesize a variety of personal and artistic influences gathered from his environment (the intensity of German Expressionism, the weirdness of Surrealism) Falconer explored his physical surroundings for inspiration as well, picking up and incorporating the vintage linoleum and hand-painted signs that filled the apartments and neighborhoods in which he lived. Falconer was also a keen craftsman, carefully piecing together artworks that were precious objects more than just paint on canvas, featuring painted frames and idiosyncratic mixtures of neon colors and disparate media. Falconer has described his Hairy Who–era work as “punk rock.” This apt characterization sums up the anarchy of Falconer’s compositions and the rudeness of his imagery, which express an anti-formalism that is unique among the Hairy Who—most of whom are known for their assiduous craftsmanship.

As he abandoned his Hairy Who body of work, he moved to New York in order to more freely explore his burgeoning interests in photography and film. Selected artwork:

Gladys Nilsson Gladys Nilsson was born in Chicago in 1940 to a working-class family.1 Her artistic talent first became evident in high school, and she began attending art classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.2 After graduating from high school, Nilsson enrolled at SAIC full-time, graduating in 1962. While at SAIC, she met fellow student Jim Nutt, and the two married in 1961. Nilsson became fascinated with art history and loaded up on classes with Kathleen Blackshear and Whitney Halstead. Halstead introduced Nilsson to a wide variety of non-Western art forms, as well as to the Hyde Park Art Center’s curator, Don Baum. n 1966, Nutt, Jim Falconer, and Don Baum organized the first Hairy Who exhibition at HPAC in order to give greater attention to a select group of young artists: Nilsson, Nutt, Art Green, Jim Falconer, Karl Wirsum, and Suellen Rocca. Nilsson is exceptionally prolific. During the Hairy Who era, she made new works for each exhibition rather than repurposing work across shows— perhaps because so many of her works sold immediately. Nilsson received critical recognition early on as well: she is the only artist to have ever won first prize two years in a row in the Art Institute’s Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity (in 1967 and 1968).

Nilsson began to approach vernacular art, popular culture, and quotidian content with the same curiosity and non-judgmental openness that Halstead modeled for his students when lecturing about non-Western art traditions. Nilsson had been interested in cartoons and comics since childhood, and in the late 1960s, while living in California, she discovered a television station broadcasting early Popeye cartoons. Nilsson’s works from this time begin to reveal some major elements of the artistic language that she would continue to develop for the rest of her career. Her compositions were dense and complicated, with objects and characters floating in space or crowding the frame, unconcerned with rules of gravity, scale and proportion. Nilsson played with human forms as though they were made out of putty, flattening torsos into angular masses and extending limbs to absurd, curling lengths. She also continued to use humor, especially in her titles, which often contained puns or bizarre misspellings.

“Feminine work of Chicago Imagists”, controversy→ “In one of the Hairy Who shows, and I can’t remember whose review it was, that went on to describe the work, everybody’s work, and then they got to me, and they said ‘…And Gladys Nilsson, the most feminine of the work.’ And that shocked me, thinking feminine? Is my work is feminine? Because I don’t think of work as being masculine or feminine.” Interview with the artist, 2012

selected artwork:

Suellen Rocca Born in Chicago in 1943, Suellen Rocca enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago around 1960, receiving her BFA in 1964. One of the first instructors Rocca encountered at SAIC was Ray Yoshida, who would become a tremendously influential mentor and friend.1 As he did with all of his students, Yoshida suggested specific artists for Rocca to study, and she began prowling the collection of the Art Institute for further inspiration from art history, paying particular attention to the work of Marc Chagall. Although primarily known as a painter, Rocca decided as an undergraduate to pursue a minor in printmaking. The only Hairy Who artist to graduate with a minor in printmaking, Rocca’s drawings, paintings, and prints feed off one another, and she considers her works in all media to be of equal value to her art-making practice.During the Hairy Who years, Rocca’s visual vocabulary expressed her personal taste as much as her experiences as a newlywed and young mother. Given her interest in comics and catalogs, Rocca was naturally intrigued by the Pop Art that was sweeping the New York art scene, and shared in that movement’s disinterest in the Abstract Expressionist mode of working. In her own work, Rocca sought to explore popular culture through a personal lens, probing the nature of her relationship to mass visual culture. She eventually began to add color and create denser compositions, often with a large central figure surrounded or filled with floating line drawings of people, palm trees, fingers, and shoes. Although there is no intentional feminist content in these paintings, Rocca’s autobiographical approach led to an emphasis on items associated with women, including handbags, wigs, and jewelry.

selected artwork: Night Light for Little Girl, she painted the silhouette of a lamb lamp commonly found in 1960s nursery rooms. The lamb is rendered in soft, dream-like, pastel tones and is crowned with a lamp shade adorned with a cartoon figure of a yawning little girl in a modest blue dress and curly blonde locks. The painting itself is bordered with a ruffled, blue ribbon, as if created for a child’s bedroom. In Night Light for Little Girl, Rocca pairs the sweet dreams of childhood with the realities of womanhood. The lamp is surrounded by clouds, some with a floating bare foot, dropping yellow and blue drops of water—reminiscent of acid rain—and small, cartoon penises.

sources: Lynne Warren from Chicago Imagists (2011): Chicago Imagism: The Derivation of a Term;

AfriCOBRA. Empowerment of black communities through art

AfriCOBRA (African Commune Of Bad Relevant Artists) was a Chicago-based group of black artists whose shared aim was to develop their own aesthetic in the visual arts in order to empower black communities. The African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AfriCOBRA) was founded in 1968 on the South Side of Chicago, by Jeff Donaldson, Barbara Jones-Hogu, Wadsworth Jarrell, Jae Jarrell, and Gerald Williams; it had a lasting impact on peers and subsequent generations. Rather than bringing about change through political revolt, these artists used the black identity, its style, attitude and worldview to foster solidarity and self-confidence throughout the African diaspora. It was a revolution of the mind, body and spirit and the art reflected this. Black aesthetics was a cultural ideology that developed in America alongside the civil rights movement in the 1960s and also promoted black separatism in the arts, in order to develop an African-American’s identity and document the experience of racism and marginalisation in the West. In fact, AfriCOBRA’s founding members were first associated with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), established in 1967. This group, formed in Chicago to encourage education and performance amongst the city’s African American population, was responsible for the famous Wall of Respect.The wall consisted of a series of portraits dedicated to individuals considered heroes and heroines of African American history. The Wall of Respect was ultimately destroyed in a fire in 1971. However, it served as an inspiration for further artistic representation of the African American experience.

Selected Artists of afriCOBRA

  1. Jeff Donaldson. Jeff Donaldson is an African American artist, art historian, and critic who has helped to articulate the philosophy and aesthetics of the Black Arts Movement in the United States. Born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, he graduated with a Masters Degree in Fine Arts from the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago, and obtained a Ph.D. in African and African American Art History from Northwestern University. Through his involvement with the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), a group Donaldson helped form in Chicago, he organized the visual arts workshop that painted the Wall of Respect in 1967. The mural celebrated significant African Americans and set in motion a movement of outdoor murals painted in United States cities throughout the 1970s. Along with Wadsorth Jarrell, Barbara Jones-Hogu, and other African American artists, Donaldson founded AfriCobra (an acronym for African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists) in Chicago in 1968. AfriCobra established its objectives in developing a new African American aesthetics as well as its commitment to the principles of social responsibility, involvement of artists in their local communities, and promotion of pride in Black self-identity. Few years later, Donaldson headed the North American committee of Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC), the “largest pan-African cultural event ever held” as its chairman.[9] The international festival took place in 1977 in Lagos, Nigeria. Other international and national conferences ensued, resulting in what Donaldson referred to as “an informal international coterie of creative people of African descent.” artwork. Victory in the Valley of Eshu. Interested in developing a Pan-African aesthetic, Donaldson draws on the religion and iconography of the Nigerian Yoruba people. Victory in the Valley of Eshu depicts Donaldson’s mother and father. According to Donaldson, the transAfrican style is characterized by “high energy colour, rhythmic linear effects, flat patterning, form-filled composition and picture plane compartmentalization. The transAfrican style was manifest in Donaldson’s individual work as well, as is demonstrated in the 1971 piece entitled Victory in the Valley of Eshu. The work depicts an elderly black couple holding what appears to be an eye-shaped pinwheel. The pinwheel is actually an “African American symbol of freedom, the six-legged star”, or it symbolizes Eshu, the deity of fate. In addition to displaying national diasporic symbols, Victory in the Valley of Eshu incorporates many elements of traditional African culture, paying homage to the common heritage of diaspora members. Donaldson synthesizes African and African-American images in order to define a shared ancestral identity and foster an uplifting communal spirit.

  2. Barbara Jones-Hogu (1938-2017). Barbara Jones was a founding member of AfriCOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a Chicago-based organization of black artists started in 1968. Unite is a consummate example of the AfriCOBRA ethos because it embodies all of the group’s visual and theoretical ideals. It shows a group of Black Americans making the recognizable Black Power salute, thus communicating an expressive humanism while depicting a fight for cultural liberation. Layered on top of the strong verticals of the raised arms, the word UNITE appears repeatedly in striking block letters that fit together like syncopated pieces of a puzzle. The words alternate in both size and color, creating an effect of symmetry and luminosity.The AfriCOBRA group focused on creating a Black art movement that would positively impact the cultural lives of Black people around the world. They believed that the identity of the group was more important than that of the individual. Their work was specific and functional, and expressed statements about the artists’ existence as Black people, often integrating pointed text with their images.

  3. Wadsworth Jarrell. Wadsworth Jarrell is a painter and sculptor born in Albany, Georgia. Raised on a working farm, he was inspired by the art in the Saturday Evening Post. While serving in the Army he became the company artist for his unit. After the army, Jarrell enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago, where he earned his BA in 1958. After college, Jarrell established his painting practice on Chicago’s south side. In 1963, Jarrell met fellow artist Elaine Annette Johnson, also known as Jae. The couple married in 1967, and they remain together today. They have influenced each other profoundly in their creative pursuits over the years. In the years since, Wadsworth has developed many distinct bodies of work, including sculptures inspired by the African cultural traditions, and a series of paintings dedicated to jazz musicians. In 1968, Jarrell came to prominence as one of the five co-founders of AFRICOBRA (African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists), a Black artist collective formed on the South Side of Chicago, which helped define the visual language of the Black Arts Movement of the 60s and 70s. Yet, for decades prior, Jarrell had already been experimenting with his aesthetic voice, transitioning gradually from the illustrative figuration of paintings like Come Saturday (1959), to the Orphic Cubist-inspired, abstract dynamism of Cockfight (1965).

  4. Jae Jarrell American sculptor, painter and fashion designer. Jarrell was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Her grandfather was a tailor, and her uncle was a haberdasher. Jae and her mother frequented vintage clothing stores admiring how the outfits were made. Jae taught herself to make her own clothing, and revealed in the fact that her fashion was unique, and had a secret, vintage past. In the mid-1950s, Jarrell moved to Chicago and enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. While in school, she confided to a friend about her desire to open a clothing boutique. artwork. Revolutionary Suit 1970 in which the artist is photographed wearing a two-piece matching outfit with an ammunition belt sewn into the jacket. The Revolutionary Suit (1968) is a two-piece suit that has Jarrell’s signature style from the late 60s. The suit has a tweed, collarless jacket and a-framed skirt, which matched the fashion trends of the time. This ensemble also incorporates a colorful, faux bandolier that stands out against the salt-and-pepper color of the suit.This piece, which inspired ideas about wearing clothing for protest and revolution, motivated Jet magazine to write a piece called “Black Revolt Sparks White Fashion Craze” which criticized white, mainstream fashion for cultural appropriation. The magazine accused the fashion world of taking the bandolier, which was meant to be a symbol of the righteous protest against the unfair treatment of African Americans, and attempting to turn it into a trendy accessory.

  5. Gerald Williams. Gerald Williams is an American painter whose work explores culture, place and identity from a global perspective. Williams is one of the original five co-founders of AFRICOBRA, an artist collective formed on the south side of Chicago in 1967, which became the definitive visual expression of the Black Art Movement.Over time, Williams’ work has evolved into a polyrhythmic representation of life at the intersection of figuration and abstraction, defined by what he calls “mimesis at midpoint.” After serving in the U.S. Air Force for four years, Williams earned his BA from Chicago Teachers College in 1969, and his MFA from Howard University in 1976. He served two years in the Peace Corps as Prevocational Director in the Jacaranda School for the Mentally Handicapped in Nairobi, Kenya, then taught for four years in the Washington, D.C. public schools. From 1984 through 2005, Williams served as the Director of Arts and Crafts Centers on United States Air Force bases in South Korea, Japan, Italy, the Azores and the United States. Williams distills the visual language of time, place, culture and identity in order to express the essence of reality in an aesthetically contemplative way. Influenced both by AFRICOBRA and his travels, he has continued the practice of aesthetic distillation while opening himself up to new techniques, materials and processes. The quiet nights in Nairobi; the rich colors of African clothing and architecture; the dynamic rhythms of life in the country and the city: all of these things affect his aesthetic approach, and inform the polyrhythmic aesthetic he maintains today. artwork. Malcolm, 1970. Williams painted Malcolm on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the assassination of civil rights leader Malcolm X. The haunting image of Malcolm’s face emerges from an array of abstract lines, forms, and patterns, intermixed with symbols, all painted in the iconic, AFRICOBRA “coolade colors.” The words “lives” and “is alive” repeat throughout the composition.

Other contemporary artists which deal with African-American empowerment:

Further Reading
Chris Duesing
Chris Duesing

I am a photographer, writer, entrepreneur, and programmer living in the great city of Chicago. I love to solve problems with technology and share what I have learned along the way.