Artist to Know: Karl Wirsum

Liz Catalano
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Art by Founding Member of the Hairy Who Comes to Auction

Karl Wirsum in 1973. Image courtesy of Mary Baber.
Karl Wirsum in 1973. Image courtesy of Mary Baber.

As artists Jim Falconer and Jim Nutt started to scout shared exhibition spaces in 1960s Chicago, a mutual friend introduced them to another rising star of the city. Karl Wirsum was a young artist working on wacky, irreverent paintings. Wirsum joined Falconer and Nutt to form a loose art community rivaling New York’s Pop Art movement. During their first meeting as a group, Wirsum listened to a fractured discussion referencing Chicago radio art critic Harry Bouras. Feeling left out, he famously asked, “Harry who?” Wirsum’s new group immediately christened themselves ‘The Hairy Who’ as a joke. They eventually dominated Chicago’s art landscape and set the stage for the Chicago Imagists of the 1960s and 70s.

Hindman’s upcoming Post War and Contemporary Art sale will feature several items from Karl Wirsum. Bidding for Wirsum’s pieces will start at 11:00 AM EDT on September 28th, 2021. Before the sale starts, learn more about the artist and his work.

Karl Wirsum, Harry Kari’s Arms Exchange, 1976. Image courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery, New York.
Karl Wirsum, Harry Kari’s Arms Exchange, 1976. Image courtesy of Derek Eller Gallery, New York.

Karl Wirsum was a born and bred Chicagoan who spent most of his life in the city. He showed an early interest in art and attended weekend classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Wirsum’s parents encouraged this interest, but they died in a car accident when the artist was only nine years old. He stayed with friends until graduating high school, and he nursed a lifelong passion for Native American art, comic books, and murals along the way. Wirsum earned a degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago before traveling to Mexico with friends. 

The Hairy Who formed in 1966 with a radical new exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center. Wirsum joined fellow Art Institute graduates to pose an exaggerated counterargument to Pop Art. Although the Hairy Who drew inspiration from commercial art, the group also developed personal motifs that leaned toward figuration. “[Their art] is warm but not sentimental, immaculately crafted but not cold. It is art that embraces mundane realities, wet sexuality, fantastic realities, and a hard-edged spirituality,” wrote curator Dan Nadel for a 2015 show, as quoted by ARTnews. “It asks for nothing from the viewer, makes no special cases, and yet is not against or for anything.”

Wirsum particularly enjoyed playing with garish colors and energetic forms within his free association paintings. Many of his works show distorted faces or figures with bold lines. Spontaneity was key. Wirsum preferred drawing his ideas with a pencil and paper. Painting the final product was nearly an afterthought.

Karl Wirsum, Rabbit Double Gyro with Windshields, 1981. Image from Hindman.
Karl Wirsum, Rabbit Double Gyro with Windshields, 1981. Image from Hindman.

Success came slowly for Wirsum. He placed himself outside of conventional Abstract Expressionism— “I didn’t want to be part of the active-painting school where paint was vigorously and emotionally applied,” Wirsum told Hyperallergic in an interview. He also disliked appropriation art and styles that lacked creativity. Wirsum more frequently admired the work of Chicago abstract artists such as Miyoko Ito and Evelyn Statsinger. Other influences were more mundane. References to street signs, scotch tape packaging, and amusement park awnings frequently appeared in his paintings.

Wirsum started to prioritize symmetry in the 1970s. Despite his references to pop culture and everyday objects, Wirsum wanted his work to be anything but common. Symmetry offered a path to nearly spiritual or religious aesthetics. Available in the upcoming Hindman sale are three pieces from this period of Wirsum’s career. Leading the listings is Rabbit Double Gyro with Windshields, a 1981 acrylic on canvas painting (USD 20,000 – $40,000). A bright blue anthropomorphic rabbit holds glowing cones in seven-fingered hands. Electric blue grids pepper the black background.

Other available Wirsum lots include a 1976 piece titled Private Nakamura ($10,000 – $15,000). This painting also draws on symmetry and geometric forms to show a soldier’s head and shoulders. Collectors can consider a collection of aqua lithographs and exhibition posters as well ($2,000 – $3,000).

Karl Wirsum, Doggerel III, 1967. Image from Hindman.
Karl Wirsum, Doggerel III, 1967. Image from Hindman.

Following his rise to fame with the Hairy Who, Karl Wirsum enjoyed a robust collectors market in Chicago and beyond. Hindman presented numerous works by Wirsum at auction over the last several years. Before 2019, prices for his works typically did not exceed $20,000. One exception occurred in 2015 when Christie’s sold Wirsum’s Standing Figure for $112,500. The hammer price far exceeded the presale estimate of $8,000 to $12,000. 

Hindman broke the previous record in 2019. The auction house offered Doggerel III, an acrylic painting from 1967, with a high estimate of $70,000. It eventually sold for $170,000. Wirsum paintings from the late 1960s and early 70s tend to fetch the highest prices, though the artist continued drawing until his death in May of 2021. 

Movement was difficult in Wirsum’s final months. However, he continued to sketch the world as he experienced it. “There’s some kind of strong magic that we can’t explain,” he said in 2015. Art was his way of communicating that magic to the rest of the world: “… there are mysterious things that happen and I feel that being a creator you link up in some way to another realm of reality that is not part of the everyday.”

Hindman will present three pieces by Karl Wirsum in the upcoming Post War and Contemporary Art auction on September 28th, 2021. The live sale will start at 11:00 AM EDT. Visit Hindman’s website for the complete catalog and to place a bid.

Auction Daily regularly explores modern and contemporary art coming to the market. Check out our profile of contemporary sculptor and multi-media artist Alison Saar.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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