Suellen Rocca with Curley Head, c. 1966, at the 70th Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity, Art Institute of Chicago, 1967. Photo: Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery.

Suellen Rocca (1943–2020)

Suellen Rocca, a leading Chicago Imagist whose hieroglyphic paintings and drawings irreverently surfaced themes of domesticity, sexuality, and consumer and popular culture, has died at seventy-six years old.

Born Suellen Krupp in 1943, Rocca attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) from age sixteen, where she studied with painter Ray Yoshida, a significant mentor to Rocca and other artists associated with Chicago Imagism. She graduated from the institution in 1964 and became a founding member of The Hairy Who two years later, alongside fellow SAIC students Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, and Jim Nutt (Karl Wirsum joined the group shortly after its formation). Synthesizing visual elements from American vernacular imagery as well as African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian art, the group’s idiosyncratic, often cartoonish figuration diverged from the desubjectivizing impulse of East Coast Pop and its emphasis on the commodity form. “In New York the approach was taking that piece of popular culture and putting it into a new context, changing everything by putting it in the gallery,” Rocca said in a 2018 interview with Vice. “In Chicago, we processed similar material in a very personal way.”

While raising two young children, the artist developed her signature strategy of “picture writing,” arranging pictograms of often gendered imagery such as jewelry, handbags, and female body parts in askew, pastel-toned grids. “Rocca’s paintings extend and elaborate the fuzzy, purposefully hesitant linear movement,” artist and art historian Whitney Halstead, who taught Rocca and her peers at SAIC, wrote in Artforum’s May 1967 issue. “The squiggly line, pictographic style and candy-box colors are synthesized into a parody of the gauche and the gaudy.”

Shortly after The Hairy Who disbanded in 1969, Rocca moved to Northern California and went on an artistic hiatus. She returned to Chicago, and to artmaking, in 1981. Thereafter, her work underwent a psychological turn, encompassing surrealistic dream worlds and anxious interior states. Rocca remained active as an artist and educator in recent decades, and, since 2006, she worked as the curator and director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College, just outside of Chicago. In 2016, Matthew Marks Gallery mounted the artist’s first one-person exhibition in New York; she was awarded an honorary doctorate by SAIC the same year. Rocca’s work is in the collections of major US museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. A survey of her work is scheduled to open at the Secession museum in Vienna this summer.