It’s a balmy summer evening in Chicago in the 1960s. Important curators, critics, and collectors of the Imagists are gathered amongst the squat apartment blocks of the suburbs. It’s dark, but a fluorescent glow from the skyline illuminates all: accusing hands and erections, museum directors sipping punch and collectors coddling their newborns. Even Franz Schulz, the moody Austrian philosopher who gave the Imagists their name, is there: brooding at a desk on the left corner of the image. Like a Where’s Waldo of the art world, Roger Brown’s painting depicts the main players of the Chicago art scene, shot through the messy and glorious stuff of life.
This spectacular scene is one of many filling the Goldsmiths CCA in London as part of its current show, How Chicago! Imagists 1960s & 1970s. It’s the first UK exhibition to survey the work of the Imagists in 40 years—a paucity that can be chalked up to their time out of the limelight as much as the difficulties of reigning in and organizing their sprawling, eclectic practice.
Sharing more of a state of mind than any identifiable style, the Chicago Imagists were a loose band of some two dozen artists active in Chicago in the late 60s and 70s. The gang got together during their student days at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), a radical creative laboratory that predates the prestigious Institute by more than a decade. SAIC’s student body came from a broad range of socio-economic and racial backgrounds—certainly a rarity for the time—and the school encouraged its students to challenge the art historical canon as part of their education.
“Half of the Imagists were women, and they all had strong female teachers,” explains the CCA’s Director Sarah McCrory, who co-curated the show with Rosie Cooper. “There was a level of equal representation that was just not happening in New York or Los Angeles at the time.”
The students worked on equal footing with their professors, often creating work and exhibiting together as they broke down the hierarchies of higher education. One instructor in particular, Ray Yoshida, became so instrumental to the Imagists work that it’s impossible to extricate him from the movement. Sketchbooks overflowing with ecstatic drawings of limbs, patterns and clothing scribbled by Yoshida and two of his students, Suellen Rocca and Christina Ramberg, behave like a family tree with its roots intertwined. Besides, to draw such distinctions would go against everything the Imagists stood for.
The Imagists were a product of their time, and their work fully embodies that schizophrenic, giddy, paranoiac optimism endemic to postwar America. They revelled in the dystopian atmosphere, glorifying the growth of cities and suburbs, indulging the logic of capitalism and the visual language of advertising while dissecting and mocking it uproariously. True cyclones of excitement, everything that crossed their paths—and I mean everything, from pinball machines to curtains, Dad jokes and modernist architecture—got soaked with that energy, blown up big and colorful, shouting, shaking, infectiously alive.
They championed commerce and industry, celebrated kitsch and tack, questioned the value of taste and playfully subverted the art world they moved inside. Unlike the parallel Pop movement, their love of everyday objects was neither ironic nor an elevation. Obsessed by the symbolic power of the mundane, from kitchen mops to ice cream cones, the Imagists diverge from one another in their intensely different styles, whose nearly endless variety becomes fully apparent in the show at Goldsmiths CCA
In the first gallery, fall into Suellen Rocca’s stormy Cho Cone (1966), where gloopy ice cream, wedding rings and showgirls collide in a triptych of hieroglyphics whose pale pink, pistachio and muddy gray palette is spectacularly jarring. Directly opposite is Ed Flood’s First Nighter (1968)—a layered sculpture-painting on reverse acrylic, its slick graphic style drawn from the materiality of pinball machines. Equally inspired by shop signs, advertising, and comics, many Imagists adopted the reverse painting technique, often cutting the sheets into eccentric shapes to become more pop than pop itself.
Descending into the basement, you’ll come face-to-face with Roger Brown’s hypnotic canvas, The Four Seasons: A Benefit Painting of the Hyde Park Art Center. The celebrity safari is emblematic of the Imagists’ market-savvy attitude. By depicting chief patrons, their work served as a type of family portrait that shows off the artists’ relationship with deep-pocketed influencers—to the pleasure of both parties.
While many of their contemporaries attempted to establish a critical distance from the economic realities of the art world, the Imagists chose to embrace these truths head-on. In doing so, they demonstrated a level of ingenuity and self-promotion that’s strikingly contemporary, as today’s artists attempt to team up financial precarity is the new normal.
Embracing self-promotion, the Imagists also rejected the pseudo-populist pretenses of Pop, whose lowbrow aesthetic continues to belie its outrageous prices. Instead, the Imagists took a radical DIY approach to designing their exhibition materials, creating a whole spin-off of affordable and wearable works that fully democratized their practice.
For their group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center—collectively called Hairy Who? after an inside joke with a slightly deaf collector—the Imagists reimagined every exhibition catalogue as a comic book that doubled-up as a genuinely affordable limited-edition artwork. They crafted vinyl stickers, buttons, and bold graphic posters in eye-searing colors to spread the word of each show, becoming an equally ecstatic and prolific paper trail of their legacy.
“These creations were the Imagists way of advertising, but also making a few dollars to fund them,” suggest the curators. “The stickers, bad jokes, and buttons say as much, maybe even more about the Imagists as their more polished artworks.”
Thankfully, many of these artefacts have found their way to the CCA. They sit proudly in the basement amid a sea of jazzy paintings, displayed inside elegant pastel wooden display cases crafted uniquely for the exhibition. Terrible puns and janky drawings run amuck from page to poster to pin, as the Imagists try out new taglines and tease one another into oblivion. It becomes apparent that having a good time was as important to the unruly gang as actual studio time spent making work. As entertaining as they are, these artifacts provide a powerfully different perspective of a more intimate view into the secret lives of the Chicago Imagists.
Turns out that reigning in all the paraphernalia wasn’t as difficult as anticipated: the Imagists were each other’s biggest fans, collecting the others’ work in the spirit of collaborative support. Ahead of the opening, some of the original gang flew in with buttons and posters long hidden away in drawers, while others were able to put them in direct touch with artists and collectors. “One loan naturally led to another,” explains McCrory. Imagists also helped identify their friends and colleagues who make a cameo in several of the works on show at Goldsmiths CCA, including Brown’s seasonal masterpiece.
On the second and final floor, the scale of the paintings grows, as do the layers of their meaning. Mickey Mouse in a superhero suit soars fist-first into a cloud of acid rain in Ed Paschke’s positively psychedelic Mighty Mask (1969). Luchador masks flank our hero, while a two-tone sunset embellished with Chinese script surrounds a lurid green torso—the female rival of the Incredible Hulk? Roger Brown’s sculptural Mask for a Waitress (1974) seems to goad the mouse on from across the room, its chainsaw-like head is embellished with knives, spoons, and forks. Both humorous and a huge weight on the shoulders of the poor server, the piece embodies a theatrical drama typical of the Imagists; it also speaks to a deeper critique of the brutal conditions of the service industry.
Next door, several cutting works by female Imagists finally have the floor. While it’s somewhat unfortunate that they are relinquished to the final room in the show, it does add a critical weight to the work. Less flourescent than their male counterpart’s work, a large-scale painting by Christina Ramberg and a mixed-media work by Barbara Rossi are locked in a powerful conversation. Ramberg’s Double Hesitation (1977) is a personal dive into a dark world rarely seen in the schizophrenic psyche of the Imagists. The distorted torso of a woman is set against a grey-green background, its body divided into sections that are distinguished between hair, lace, and bandage-like finishes.
The deep textures almost dehumanize the body before us, splitting it into neat sections that aestheticize its disfigured shape. Ramberg’s mother worked as a tailor and the artist recalled seeing her often in a corset that restricted her movement; blended with the artist’s fixation with medical illustrations, fabric and hair, this painting critiques the unnatural forms superimposed upon the female body by the fashion industry.
While Ramberg’s subject appears frozen in place, other paintings in this room exude a vibrating energy impossible to ignore. In Rossi’s Black Rock Top (1972), a cartoonish fight erupts in the delicious delicacy of silk and pointillist grace. Here well-heeled feet and wine-wielding hands emerge out of an eggshell blue cloud of smoke. What looks like a menstrual cup seems to suck the chaotic scene into the top right corner of the painting, while the smoke clears enough at the bottom to reveal a rotund suited torso. Meanwhile, Ray Yoshida’s Untitled (1969) is like a Keith Haring mixed with Memphis style against a desert backdrop, and Roger Brown’s The Girl (1969) exudes the architectural symbolism and existential absurdity of a de Chirico (with a covered monument to boot).
The Chicago Imagists were impossible to pin down because of their heterogeneity, but that’s precisely what makes their work so welcome today. Their work finds new relevance in the return to figuration of contemporary painting, after Zombie formalism almost sucked the life out of it for good. Meanwhile, their survival strategy of self-promotion and working with the superstructure of the art world rather against it echoes the approach of today’s artists. Although the Imagists never fully made it into the spotlight—their frenetic world was all too soon eclipsed by the ironic cool of Pop—one imagines that’s exactly how they would have wanted it: shooting shit backstage and hanging loose on the periphery of modern life, creating far-out work more relevant 50 years on than anyone—not least the art historians they rebelled against—would ever know.