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Jim Nutt. Now! Hairy Who Makes You Smell Good, 1968. The Art Institute of Chicago, gift of Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt. © Jim Nutt.
By Isaac Jacobs
From the Autumn 2018 Issue of Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Back in the late 1960s, six young artists from Chicago’s Art Institute came together with a plan to draw attention to their own individual works. The idea was to develop a group exhibition with no real underlying through-line, yet under a unique, perhaps overarching “brand." The result was the Harry Who, one of the most iconic art initiatives in Chicago’s history, an anti-movement, if you will, that would go on to inspire generations of artists and art lovers.
Much more than gimmickry, yet less than a proper artistic faction, Harry Who exhibitions were about a select group of artists who, coincidentally, identified with a movement of change and simply sought to gain more visibility through group exhibitions consisting of their works. The exhibits began with an inaugural show at the Hyde Park Art Center on the city’s South Side. They were comprised of unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic works that often seemed unbridled and spoke to an unease with the status quo. Over the next four years, the Harry Who began to transform the art landscape of the city and beyond. The net result would inject these talented artists’ new and unique voices into Chicago’s rising national and international profile for decades to come.
Comprised of Art Institute alumni Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, James Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum, the Harry Who would achieve the group’s initial goal in surprising fashion with that first informal, yet attention-grabbing exhibition in Chicago, with subsequent shows in San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C. and a final show here at the venue where it all began, the Hyde Part Art Center.
Their unique name sprang out of a humorous reaction to Karl Wirsum’s quizzical response to the mention of self-aggrandizing WFMT art critic Harry Bouras. “Harry Who? Who is this guy?” Wirsum reportedly queried as the artists met to decide a name and venue for their first exhibition. The balance of the group apparently got a great kick out of the response, and, thus, a moniker was chosen.
Again, with no consistent through-line, their works embraced vibrant, yet refined themes whose only real commonality was that they were produced in a period of counterculture, and as such, they spoke to the difficult issues grappled with by the generation from which they sprang.
During the late ‘60s, Chicago, like the balance of the nation, was embroiled in a period of national unrest, spurred on by the war in Vietnam, student protests, racial and gender inequality and the assassinations of beloved political figures like John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Much in response to this climate of disquietude, the Harry Who artists embarked upon works that conveyed the frustration and alarm the events of the day gave way to. Instead of capitulating to these tackled, Harry Who artists often created works that represented a remonstration of conflicts plaguing the country. Drastically and ingeniously reconstructing (or deconstructing) everyday source material like advertisements, posters and catalogs, their art displayed a wit and zealotry with wordplay that underpinned the ills of the issues they embraced. Their work was enigmatic, yet thought-provoking. It challenged norms with progressive ideas on gender and sexuality, the definition of beauty and obsolescence, many of those issues prevalent in the public conscience today.
A new exhibition organized by The Art Institute of Chicago celebrates the work of the Harry Who and their serendipitous impact on the Chicago art scene decades after those six exhibitions. Entitled Harry Who: 1966-1969, the new show is the first major exhibition dedicated to the group and explores its history and significance in the most comprehensive manner yet. It re-examines the Harry Who’s place within the cultural fabric of their time as well as the overarching history of contemporary art.
The exhibition was designed to celebrate and highlight the 50th anniversary of the final Harry Who exhibition held at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1968. And though the concept of a group show was not a new one at that time, the time and place were perfect for creating the impact this particular idea would have on the city’s art scene and its place in the world at large.
Art Institute curator Thea Liberty Nichols, co-organizer and researcher for the new exhibition explains that though their origins as a group was more chance than design, the individuality these artists displayed was as much a factor in the success of the group as any theme or movement could. Said Nichols, each of the Harry Who artists worked chiefly as individuals, and by their own admission, came together to make names for themselves as individuals simply because “their work looked good together” hanging side by side on gallery walls. Yet, Nichols explains, “They challenged gender roles and stereotypes, sexual fantasies and frustrations and other social, political and cultural norms in their art, each in their own way and on their own terms.” And because of that, each contributed distinctively a unique perspective that played a part in the prevailing impact of the whole.
Harry Who: 1966-1969 focuses on the artists’ six historic exhibitions, featuring work shown in one or more of them. The Art Institute has also included work the Harry Who artists co-authored, including their signature comic book exhibition catalogues, posters and other exhibition-related ephemera. Space in the exhibition is also devoted to viewing each artist's work monographically, exploring studies for finished work exhibited in one or more of the six historic Hairy Who exhibitions, or related work from that same moment in their early careers.
It encompasses over 225 objects on view, including drawings, paintings, sculpture and prints, as well as documentary film, lapel pins and other objects that place a context around these artists' creative process, all culled from the Art Institute’s massive collection—a notion that is ironic given that these artists were weaned on that very collection in one way or another.
With the political discourse at work today, the #MeToo movement, gender pay inequality, racial unrest and rising pressures of social norms heightened by social media subculture, the subjects in the Harry Who exhibitions have, in a way, come full circle. But so have the savvy Chicago artists whose work the Harry Who moniker represented—and in their own lifetimes. Says Nichols, “at least half of them literally grew up going to children’s art classes offered by the museum.” All of them attended college at the School of the Art Institute at a time when it was housed within the museum itself. Constant exposure to the Art Institute’s encyclopedic collection must have had a foundational impact on each of them, and today their own works hang on its walls.
Though the Harry Who never intended to launch an artistic movement, the experiment’s impact was none-the-less pervasive, leaving an indelible mark on their contemporaries and those that would follow. Says Nichols, “It is astounding how arresting and contemporary (Harry Who artists’) work feels five decades after its creation. That's due in part to the fact that their experimental art making practices and inventive exhibition design strategies have come to be recognized as the dominant idiom of 20th century art more broadly. It's also because they've influenced generations of artists both in Chicago and across the country, both in their role as artists as well as teachers, with several of them having taught at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), their alma mater.”
Harry Who: 1966-1969 is now open at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Half a century after their iconic exhibitions, the Harry Who artists and their work still hold an indelible place in Chicago’s art profile. The Art Institute celebrates that history with a new exhibition that explores the elements of the Harry Who phenomenon and their artistic output, which worked to make the artists legends in their own time.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts