Karl Wirsum (1939–2021)

Karl Wirsum. Photo: Derek Eller Gallery.

FOR A BOOKLET published on the occasion of the third Hairy Who exhibition in Chicago, in 1968, Karl Wirsum drew a woman whose head has been replaced by a mandala—not a groovy meditative symbol but a pulsating, agitated, electrified pattern vibrating in red, blue, yellow, and green. This must have been what the inside of Wirsum’s mind looked like: protean and always switched on. For sixty years—from his graduation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1961, through his association with the Hairy Who in the mid to late ’60s, and right up to his death on May 6—Wirsum produced a legion of strikingly inventive figures rendered in garish, unmodulated colors and his fearless line.

Wirsum dreamed of being a comic artist in the EC tradition, but while in art school he saw H. C. Westermann’s cartoonish 1954 painting My Buddy Montoyo (Portrait of Luis Ortiz), which, he said, “encouraged me to bring this kind of sensibility into the format of a more fine-art context.” It’s hard to imagine Wirsum pursuing a career making crime or war comics. His art is alive with humor and play. In one of his earliest paintings, Armpits, from 1963, a bodacious woman runs her hands through her thick red mane, revealing tufts of real hair (some kind of synthetic fur, actually) sprouting from under her arms. In Gargoyle Gargle Oil, 1969, he painted his even-more-grotesque version of the gargling Dick Tracy villain Gargles onto the mirrored door of a medicine cabinet as an advertisement for the fictitious titular product. Wordplay and puns were Wirsum’s métier. His titles included Marcel Dude Champ, Thumb Thwack, Half Pint Apple Playing Paper Bag Pipe Music, and A Long Way from Foam (a sublime series of alien faces painted on commercial Styrofoam heads).

Karl Wirsum, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, 1968, acrylic on canvas, 48 x 36". The Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Frank G. Logan Purchase Prize Fund. © Karl Wirsum.

Formally, too, his work was a process of free association. Wirsum carried ideas with him for years until they finished percolating in his mind. He then put them into a series of drawings, what he called “auditions,” in preparation for a painting in which multiple interests came to bear. A single work might draw equally from the graphic patterning of Byzantine clothing, comic-book stylization, and the reflective sheen of insect exoskeletons. One of his most astounding works—and there are many—is Christ Kite, 1970, a confluence of his childhood interests in marionettes and Tony Sarg’s designs for Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade balloons. Onto a diamond-shaped kite, Wirsum inked a crucified Christ. Were the piece to take flight, it would represent, he said, “the crucifixion and the ascension at the same time.” He added cutout balloon feet at the bottom of the figure, and the hole in the center (through which you’d pull the knotted neck of the balloon) stood in for the stigmata.

Wirsum found inspiration everywhere—in Scotch tape packaging, Al Cap’s L’il Abner comic, geysers at Yellowstone, the Egyptian Sphinx, Moscot glasses frames, the phenomenon of extreme ironing on cliff tops, Halloween decorations, Japanese woodblock prints, and Chicago’s Riverview Park amusement park. Yet the specificity of his referents is never an obstacle to appreciating the peculiar beauty of his forms. At the Art Institute, his teacher Kathleen Blackshear had emphasized the importance of non-Western art as well as Surrealism and Dada, and this wide range of approaches fed Wirsum’s sensibility over time, both his linear stylizations (dense patterning, geometric facial features, curvilinear ornamentation) and his distortions and contortions of physical form. Consider Mr. Whatzit on the Road to Burmashave, 1985. Its references aren’t obvious, but its spirit is: retro robot, modernist zip, sign-painterly freshness, Mesoamerican styling, and subtle sensuality (which comes through in person, as is the case with all of Wirsum’s art). No other artist could have transformed this unlikely combination of elements as inimitably, as charmingly, as Wirsum did.

Karl Wirsum, Mr. Whatzit on the Road to Burmashave, 1985, acrylic on canvas with painted wood frame, 48 1/4 x 36 1/2".

When he first graduated from the Art Institute, he told me in 2015, “my model was thinking about the artist in the cold-water flat, where recognition didn’t arrive until you were under the ground.” He found initial renown as part of the Hairy Who, a gathering of kindred spirits who came together in part to differentiate their work from that of so many other young artists. Despite long independent careers, each of the Chicago-based artists (Wirsum, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, and Jim Falconer) is still most strongly associated with the group. But fame was never Wirsum’s goal, and though his mind was set on the ecstatic and irreverent, he was modest in person. He once described himself as “reclusive and isolated” and, other than a few years in Sacramento in the early 1970s, he spent his entire life in Chicago, where he was born in 1939. (I’ll never forget that he told me, of his California sojourn, that Chicago had gotten “too pizzazzy.”)

After I heard of his death, I watched a half dozen recordings of Wirsum on panels and giving presentations. In many of them, when he has difficulty remembering something or to help clarify a point, he directs a question into the audience. He is querying Lorri, his wife of fifty-three years, and in each instance her voice unfailingly sounds out with the lost bit of information. While I was on the phone with Karl in 2015, following up on an interview we had done a few days before, Lorri was, even then, at his side, googling images as he spoke and serving as his aide-mémoire.

During our interview, I asked Wirsum whether he felt there was a spiritual aspect to his work, and he was momentarily overcome with emotion. That instant was perhaps the best indication of what art meant to him, of his faith in it and commitment to it and of his unironic belief in art’s ability to be transformative. He noted, more than once, the mysterious relationship he felt with his creations. He thought the characters he made, in two and three dimensions, were alive. How could they not be? He put the entire world into them. In Suzanne Simpson’s short film of Wirsum made in 1973, he sits on the floor of his studio painting a marionette’s head. He talks about art as a calling, one he can’t resist and wouldn’t want to. He continues to talk but a moment later he’s no longer onscreen. Now it’s the marionette, its mouth moving in time to Wirsum’s voice.

Nicole Rudick’s life of the French-American artist Niki de Saint Phalle, What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined, will be published by Siglio Press in February.