Dynamic and eclectic Chicago artist Karl Wirsum dies at 81

After graduating from the Art Institute School in 1961, Mr. Wirsum spent five months in Mexico, traveling with artist Ed Paschke, a classmate, and immersing himself in Mesoamerican art and contemporary relics, textiles and folk art. He found inspiration while visiting New Orleans around Mardi Gras.

In April 1968, he married Lorri Gunn who, under his tutelage, became an artist. She survives him, as does their daughter Ruby, a teacher, and their son, Zack, also an artist.

At the end of May of the same year, the couple went to Europe for four months. One of the highlights of the trip was the visit of Dubuffet and his Art Brut collection (brut or self-taught art) in Paris. Mr. Wirsum was already aware of the phenomenon, having been among the first in the Hairy Who group to see and acquire the fantastical landscape designs of self-taught black artist Joseph Yoakum, who worked in a shop window on the south side of Chicago at the time. . In an ethnographic museum in Rotterdam, Mr. Wirsum was fascinated by the finely applied Mola textiles of the Kuna people of Central America.


Upon his return to Chicago, Mr. Wirsum immediately used the bright colors and flattened patterns of the Mola in “Screamin ‘Jay Hawkins” (1968), one of the many powerful images he created of musicians, including Howlin ‘Wolf, Junior Wells and James Brown. It was acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1970, the same year Mr. Hawkins used it as the cover art for his album “Because Is in Your Mind”.

Mr. Wirsum had his first solo exhibition at the Marjorie Dell Gallery in Chicago in 1967. By 1976 he had migrated to the Phyllis Kind Gallery, also in Chicago, where most of the other Hairy Who artists exhibited. For a while, he also exhibited in Ms. Kind’s New York gallery. But he went without a solo exhibition in New York from 1988 to 2010, when one began to represent him. Over the next eight years, the gallery organized six highly regarded exhibitions focusing on different phases of his career. But he never had the right to the great museum retrospective that his art deserved.

It wasn’t that Mr. Wirsum seemed to notice. In the Hyperallergic interview, he said: “My model was thinking of the artist in the cold water apartment, where recognition only comes when you are underground.”

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