Karl Wirsum Has Died at Age 81
By GINNY VAN ALYEA
Corbett vs Dempsey, the gallery that has represented Karl Wirsum, an internationally known artist and co-founder of the Hairy Who, announced Thursday via Instagram that the artist has died at age 81.
They shared, "We are mourning the loss of one of Chicago's true originals. [We] celebrate Karl Wirsum's joyful life and work and his profound generosity as a teacher and colleague. We are so proud to have known him and to represent his rich legacy."
Wirsum passed away early in the morning of May 6th after a long illness.
Edited from Artic.edu:
Wirsum, raised on the South Side of Chicago, was a member of Chicago’s Hairy Who, a group magically organized by a handful of artists in the 1960s and borne of a shared vision and electrified, figurative artistic style that is still highly recognizable today and forever associated with Chicago itself.
Even as a child Wirsum was drawn to rhythm and blues music and the Maxwell Street Market, an open-air flea market. Inspired by his visual and sonic experiences and memories, drawing poured out of Wirsum in much the same way as sound does from an improvising musician. And like improvised music, his direct drawings rarely show correction or revision. He often depicted musicians in his artwork and took inspiration from source material he scavenged at the flea market.
Wirsum enrolled at the School of the Art Institute in 1957 and was the first of the Hairy Who artists to graduate. It was through Wirsum’s friendship with Don Baum, the exhibition chairman of the Hyde Park Art Center, that he became part of the Hairy Who. Baum recommended that Wirsum be included in the small group exhibition that Jim Falconer and Jim Nutt proposed to him, and it was Wirsum who unintentionally coined the name Hairy Who. Over a period of four years the six artists of the Hairy Who—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—exhibited their work together, and as a group they began mounting unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work in the mid-1960s, transforming the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile.
The Art Institute of Chicago mounted the exhibition, Hairy Who? 1966–1969, in 2018, the first-ever major survey dedicated solely to the Hairy Who.
When interviewed in 2018 about AIC's exhibition, Wirsum's Hairy Who colleague Suellen Rocca said of her relationships with the group, "Don Baum...had a series of thematic shows called Animal, Vegetable and Mineral. Each show had a wide variety of work with only a single piece by each artist. Jim Nutt and Jim Falconer went to Don with a proposal to have a show composed of Falconer, Nutt, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and me. Don thought it would be good to add Karl Wirsum. We all were in school together but we didn’t know Karl. Our work was very compatible, and showing as a group gave us each the opportunity to show more work."
Rocca credited the link with Wirsum and his work at the time as pivotal for her artistic future.
"As a young artist getting to see my work alongside my peers’ work that I was excited and enthusiastic about was so important at that stage of my development. Then, of course, planning and installing the shows was a very creative experience. Together we made a comic book and poster for each of the shows."
For decades after the friends remained in touch with each other, and, as Rocca who passed away in 2020 said, they continued to support one another by going to each other’s exhibitions, truly because of their shared interest in the work, not just out of good will. They were really interested in each other as artists.
Wirsum shared with CGN in 2011 that it was a 1-month stay in the hospital, when he was a young boy, that first connected him to the wonder and escape drawing could offer. It was a love that would last his whole life. A few weeks ago I was scrolling through Instagram and came across some photos from Zack Wirsum, Karl's son, who is also an artist in Chicago. Zack and his dad had come back to visit the Art Institute of Chicago when it reopened and were able to get a tour of Bisa Butler: Portraits.
"Thank you James Rondeau and the entire @artinstitutechi extended family for arranging for Karl and the Wirsums to see the stunning Bisa Butler: Portraits exhibit today with ease and grace. We are all extremely grateful to have been given the opportunity to enjoy this extraordinarily meaningful family experience at our home away from home and collective happy place. Thank you @litemootz for astutely recognizing that Karl would connect with Bisa’s creations, the parallels in sensibilities and for being instrumental in getting him in front of the wonderful work. Thank you @connoisseurofcomfort for taking the time to walk us through the exhibit and for providing insightful context to the incredible visuals. Appropriately, given their shared interest in the figure, color, shape and pattern, one of Karl’s favorite works was the 2019 cotton, wool and chiffon, quilted and appliquéd assemblage, Kindred. The artist suggested accompanying track of Sly and the Family Stone’s Family Affair also seemed poetically fitting. Karl told me during his second intense exploration of the work that the striped background and palette reminded him of his printed fabric inspired mid 60s Awning series and mused that using the actual eye catching textiles to construct the composition could be “a better way to do it”.
Today was truly the kind of magic that can only happen at a museum and I am so happy this magic happened at our home museum."
Wirsum will be greatly missed but his legacy is sure to continue on.
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