By one measure, the rise of the Chicago Imagists was fast and furious.

Exhibits started in 1966 on the South Side at the Hyde Park Art Center. By 1969, the artists, nicknamed "The Hairy Who," were showing in the city's new Museum of Contemporary Art.

And by 1973, these 20-somethings and their funny, irreverent, occasionally cartoonish paintings were asked to represent the United States at the São Paulo Art Biennial, an important international art exhibition in Brazil.

"Think of that," said Madison Museum of Contemporary Art curator Rick Axsom. "(Nineteen) sixty-six to '73, these kids from the block are asked to represent the United States — I call that a meteoric rise to fame."

Yet these Chicago artists didn't achieve the renown of the New York Pop artists who came before, and the style of the Chicago Imagists never became a dominant national influence. With a new exhibition of more than 75 works opening Sunday, Sept. 11, MMoCA will re-examine the work of the Chicago Imagists, a loose group of mostly representational artists whose work captures a key time of pushing social and sexual boundaries.

"The work was seen all over Chicago, made a huge impression," said Stephen Fleischman, MMoCA's director. "But it never really caught fire. Although these artists are well-known in Chicago, they're less known nationally and internationally.

"We really felt there was a need to take another look at the Imagists, that they're important enough, they gave enough. ... Chicago has always gotten short shrift. It's flyover land."


A biologist's passion

Part of the reason MMoCA chose 2011 to hail the Imagists was a gift of 100 works, received earlier this year, from longtime patron and collector William McClain.

An emeritus professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in bacteriology, McClain grew up in the Chicago area but didn't begin collecting until after he moved to Wisconsin in the early 1970s.

"I knew about the movement and as time went by, even though I was a professor in Madison, I would make trips to Chicago," McClain said. "I came to know virtually all of (the artists).

"I wanted representatives of each, but not just anything — I wanted the very best, from my mind's eye."

In 2006, McClain donated 22 works by Wisconsin surrealist John Wilde to the Chazen Museum of Art. His Imagists collection is more substantial, consisting of 27 paintings, 32 watercolors, prints, drawings, collages and several sculptures.

In the Imagists' work, McClain sees a reflection of Chicago's famous architecture. Art Green's paintings, like "Dead Reckoning," can look like the girders on a Chicago River bridge. Others are more loosely urban; Green's "Regulatory Body," from 1969, evokes an ice cream cone being pulled apart to reveal cogs, tire treads and a chain-link fence.

"Their instructors, Whitney Halstead and Ray Yoshida, taught the artists to incorporate their daily lives, to use that as a starting point to make their images," McClain said.

Roger Brown's "Skyscraper With Pyramid" might have been inspired by the artist's travels on the "L" train, gazing into people's apartment windows, McClain said. Brown's 1972 "Sudden Avalanche" incorporates dark humor and absurdity; high-rise residents celebrate and prisoners grip their bars, oblivious to a catastrophic snow slide behind them.

McClain's own interpretations of the pieces — all of which, he said, were on display in his home — have changed over time.

"When you live with them day in and day out, you see a lot you never realized was there," he said.

One example was Christina Ramberg's "Tight Hipped," from 1974. With visible muscles, it recalls the traveling "Bodies" exhibition and the world of high fashion, a comment on the expectations of female beauty.

"In at least three paintings of hers that are in the exhibition, there's a lot of subcontext," McClain said. "There are very subtle revelations in each of her works."


Distorting and contorting

Many recognize the hallmarks of New York Pop art: Roy Lichtenstein's stylized cartoon paintings of full-lipped women and well-built men; Andy Warhol's Campbell soup can.

The word Imagist, coined by Franz Schulze in 1959, originally referred to a broader group of nearly three generations of artists. Over time, Fleischman said, the phrase has morphed to refer to the last generation.

"Think about what was going on in New York (in the) '40s and '50s," he said. "Abstract expressionism ... Jackson Pollock, de Kooning. Away from the image. In Chicago, they clung more strongly to the image, albeit an image that was distorted, contorted, wildly expressed."

Axsom delves into what made the Imagists different from their New York Pop predecessors in his catalog essay, "LA Snap/Chicago Crackle/New York Pop." The Imagists enjoyed humor in art and used a "younger palette" of colors — these artists were perhaps 20 years younger than their Pop counterparts.

"The Chicago Imagists took from their very specific urban environment a world of things to create highly fantastical art," Axsom wrote, "in distinction from the feel of LA and New York Pop. With none of the anonymous qualities that can describe more familiar aspects of Pop art, Chicago Imagism takes pleasure in the autographic gesture of the artist's pen, pencil or brush and in private links between artists and subject."

Some of the Imagists' works, like Jim Nutt's graphic, tattooed nudes, toe a line between repulsion and attraction, pushing the viewer away with coarse drawings of genitalia, then coaxing them back with intriguing details.

Others, like Karl Wirsum's misshapen, grotesque "Fire Lady or Monk's Key Broad," seem to burst from the canvas in flames. Some paintings suggest the artists could have been experimenting with mind-altering substances, though that's never emphasized.

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"One of the most trenchant ironies of Imagism is that the near chaos, irreverence, over-the-top antics and sometimes gross impoliteness always is given form with the greatest craftsmanship," Axsom wrote.

The Imagists drew inspiration from private sexual acts and political drama, flea market ephemera and pop culture. The catalogs for their shows were comic books, some of which are part of the MMoCA show.

"They grappled with real issues," Fleischman said. "Christina Ramberg with her feminism ... they were taking on the issues of their day."

"They're showing at Hyde Park when the 1968 (Democratic) convention takes place, and all of that awfulness," Axsom added. "They were in a hot spot."


Lasting legacy

The legacy of the Imagists, some of whom are still living, continues with contemporary artists like UW-Madison art professor Fred Stonehouse, who is set to give a talk at the museum in late October.

According to Stonehouse, one lasting influence the Imagists left was making the "eccentric figure" beautiful.

"Maybe it's too quirky and personal and odd and too dopey for the art world to really embrace it," Stonehouse said of Imagism. "I don't think it's anti-intellectual, but (art critics) may see it that way. It may get sloughed off to the side but it never goes away."

The exhibition at MMoCA opens with a tribute to the Imagists' teacher and mentor, Chicago artist Ray Yoshida. Then, on walls painted banana yellow, marmalade orange and sea blue-green, it proceeds through the Hyde Park years and beyond, charting the artists' evolution over the following decades.

"We wanted to show the best examples that we own," Fleischman said. "We wanted to show a range of artists, a range of media, a range of dates. These were all important things to us ... in terms of the show itself, you want to make interesting juxtapositions."

Accompanying the Imagists show is an exhibition in the first-floor State Street Gallery, "Chicago School: Imagists in Context."

"Of course, the Imagists would never name it something so scholarly and buttoned-up," Fleischman said. "They'd call it ‘Stuff We Like.' "

"And ‘Stuff We Caused,' " Axsom added, laughing.

"Or blank happens," Fleischman said.