Review | How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s at Goldsmiths CCA

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How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s opens at the Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art on the 15th March, showing until 26th May, before moving to De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex in June.

The Chicago Imagists were a group of artists in the 1960s and 70s that moved against the New York scene, employing a new visual narrative that broke from the pop art dominance on the East Coast. The ‘imagist’ classification itself is a point of contention, as, despite a strong sense of camaraderie, the artists wished to avoid a unification of their creation.  Much of the work has not been displayed in the United Kingdom before. The curators of the show, Sarah McCrory and Rosie Cooper undertook a trip to Chicago, meeting many of the artists, discovering a wide body of high quality work that provides a fascinating insight into the artistic styles of the 14 artists on display. Unlike many artistic groupings throughout history, the Imagists remained friends after attending The School of The Art Institute, continuing to create as friends.

The artists formulated shows under a variety of names, constantly morphing their artistic display,  employing a strong sense of humour and self-referentiality. The first grouping, Hairy Who, saw its name derived from a mishearing of “Harry who?”. Word play was a central element of the grouping, which consisted of Art Green, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, Jim Falconer, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt. Following the collective, the Hyde Park Art Center staged a series of exhibitions, bringing together many of the aforementioned artists, alongside other Chicago figures, under names such as Marriage Chicago Style and Chicago Antigua.

Flood Constructions by Ed Flood

The artworks formulate a visual language that is strongly influenced by comic books and advertisements. The Imagists’ use of such imagery is not a negative comment on capital, as one may find in amidst the pop art movement of the time, but rather one of appreciation for the modes of design employed by such media. The Imagists published a number of short run comic books, that appear to draw upon elements of the ‘zine’ tradition in their fundamentally DIY style. The tongue-in-cheek humour continues, with puns such as ‘Cat-a-log’, alongside small glyphs. So too do works such as Ed Flood’s Flood Constructions, and First Nighter utilise the comic book aesthetic to great affect, painting the reverse of plexiglass to achieve vibrant, cartoonish colour. The layering of the plexiglass in First Nighter and One Side Edge Round adds an intriguing graphic depth to the pieces. Phillip Hanson’s Image Decal draws upon similar style, with bold lines and strong colour. Hanson’s other works, such as Room with Vases, Flowers and Knives and Light Wrap make use of the line in intriguing ways. There is a graphic beauty to many of the works, through their bold use of colour and form. Jim Nutt’s Officer Doodit takes inspiration from the graphic design of pinball machines. The curation of the show should very much be applauded, succeeding in bringing sometimes unrelated works into conversation with each other, works that play upon a wide variety of themes, from advertising, to the human form.

Rented Bathing Suits by Gladys Nilsson

Particular highlights of the show include Christina Ramberg’s Double Hesitation, which draws upon her interest in Renaissance-era clothing during visits to Italy in the 70s, alongside her childhood observations of her mother donning a corset, transforming ready for the evening. The image itself is a contorted and abstracted human form, beset with lace. Gladys Nilsson’s Untitled (Boots) and Rented Bathing Suits employ an interesting drawing style that appears to precede more contemporary developments in illustration.

Despite much of the work standing alone as the work of a single artist, there were moments of collaboration, perhaps most notably Triple Twins, a collaborative piece by Barbara Rossi, Christina Ramberg, and Ray Yoshida that draws upon the ‘Exquisite Corpse’ parlour game developed by the Surrealists, in which collaborators take turns to add to the drawing in a new style, giving unexpected results. This moment of collaboration, alongside the various publications, provide an insight into the the interactions between the practices of the artists, that grounds them in a singular artistic moment. The Imagists were not an art movement per se, as they avoided such classification, instead they appear, as this show demonstrates, as a group of friends promoting and supporting each other. First and foremost they created work for each other; their fame a by-product of association and a drive to create. Theirs is not a space of competition, but of absolute creative freedom.

Triple Twins by Barbara Rossi, Christina Ramberg, and Ray Yoshida

The artistic canon in the 1960s and 70s is dominated the artists working in the East and West coasts of the United States, most prominently Pop Artists. How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s demonstrates the multiplicity of artistic influences in the US at the time, shining new light on works previously overlooked by UK audiences. The work itself is bold and intriguing, with the  curation succeeding in bringing together a variety of themes in a coherent manner that allows each artist to stand alone, demonstrating their own artistic language.

In the canonising of Western art, important artistic moments are often overlooked in favour of more dominant visual narratives. The artistic history of the United States tends to focus on the coasts, neglecting important artistic groupings such as the Chicago Imagists. By bringing to light the important work of these artists, Hayward Gallery Touring have created a truly fascinating retrospective that helps to entrench the Imagist’s influence on contemporary visual culture. 

Words by Charlie Dixon.

How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 70s runs from the 15th March to 26th May. For more information, please visit the Goldsmiths CCA.


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