Dan Nadel


    Robert Williams: The Father of Exponential Imagination, by Robert Williams. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2019. 484 pages.

    THERE’S NO SUCH THING as a “popular imagination,” but some artists do access and describe localized dreamworlds comprising popular icons, histories, and lore shared if not by an entire populace then by sizable groups. Robert Williams is one such mythologist, his devotion to the arcana of twentieth-century culture suffusing narrative paintings indebted as much to 1950s Benzedrine-powered cartooning as to classicism. Like other practitioners of a hyperbolic figuration whose perversions


    IT’S 1970 and William T. Wiley, up in Marin County, California, underneath a canopy of trees by a spindly creek, writes to H. C. Westermann:

    I’ve been working and bumming around—spooking myself. Me and the dog and the Iguana. I guess I’ll walk down to the post office mail this letter and then out to the studio and see if there are any miracles to wrestle with. Or maybe I’ll just hang around the stage door and congratulate the winners. Nothing to lose.1 

    Wiley was referring to his own work space, his theater of creation. Painter Baffles and Excess in California, 1969, is one of his numerous

  • “Hairy Who? 1966–1969”

    THE STORY GOES LIKE THIS: In 1966, friends and recent School of the Art Institute of Chicago graduates Jim Falconer and Jim Nutt approached Don Baum, director of the Hyde Park Art Center, about mounting a series of small group exhibitions featuring young artists. The first of these, “Hairy Who,” comprising works by Falconer, Nutt, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and, at Baum’s suggestion, Karl Wirsum, opened later that year. Swiftly embraced by local and national critics, the exhibition announced an open, nondogmatic mode of artmaking, materially polymorphous and engaged with, but not


    ATTEMPTING TO RENDER what it is to be human is an absurd task, which makes it all the more urgent. We are long past the postwar afterglow of the “Family of Man” and other ultimately exclusionary attempts at unity. To know that and yet to pursue unironic ideas about our collective condition—despite all current political, social, and theoretical factors—is a profound act of faith in art. The artists Ellen Berkenblit, Carroll Dunham, Sarah Peters, and Kyle Staver are creating internally consistent speculative spaces in which to explore and, possibly, recuperate the idea that art is capable

  • “HAIRY WHO? 1966–1969”

    The Hairy Who, a self-styled group of six graduates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—mounted six exhibitions between 1966 and 1969 (three in Chicago and one each in San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC). These were highly sophisticated, skilled, and stubbornly independent artists who prioritized language building and imaginative invention to produce primarily figurative work that delved into sex, ecstatic states, class structures,


    HAIR, URNS, AND THE BODY as sexualized object were where Christina Ramberg (1946–1995) began, and they are still what she is best known for. After nearly two decades of making paintings and drawings depicting heads, hands, and torsos, she rigorously pursued quiltmaking, and then created a final group of architectonic abstract paintings a decade before her life was cut short by a debilitating neurodegenerative disease. Throughout, her work is characterized by a fierce attention to structural integrity and an unflinching exploration of the female body, first as a subject of fetishistic fascination


    ONE OF THE BETTER DESCRIPTIONS of Michael Williams’s vision of painting comes from the artist himself. At the end of a fairly exhausting studio visit earlier this year, I asked him whether he had faith in a grand notion of art—something to which most artists decidedly would not admit. He replied:

    I do have a great belief in art, but I’m not as in touch with that as I was when I was thirteen. There is something mystical about making art and paintings. Alone in the studio making a painting can be a strange time. Moving around weirdly, doing weird things. I like the idea of being more purposeful.


    THREE RECTANGLES of blue, yellow, and black underpin Joe Bradley’s Mother and Child, 2016. In the top left corner of the painting, a yellow crescent is crowned, or perhaps being eclipsed, by a great gray disc, and strokes of red shore up the circular forms. This might feel like familiar modernist territory. But look closer: Weirdness seeps in.

    At the far left edge of the canvas, a violence of red and black strikes a patch of tan. In the center, a single red stroke obscures a second yellow crescent. Blurts of green intrude into the blue, as does a substratum of yellow, which lurks in the blue and