Fans of contemporary art, pop culture and counterculture, take note: Madison is now home to one of the best collections of Chicago Imagism anywhere. From Ed Paschke's glowing, robotic-looking figures to the zany and grotesque images of Jim Nutt to the stylized social critiques of Roger Brown, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art's collection is a treasure trove.
"We've quietly assembled one of the most meaningful collections of Imagist art in the country," says museum director Steve Fleischman. These spectacular holdings, on display in two related exhibitions opening Sept. 11, should introduce many viewers to this important but sometimes overlooked group of artists.
The Chicago Imagists encompassed a range of funky subgroups (the Hairy Who, False Image, Nonplussed Some) who exhibited together in Chicago in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Though the individual artists possessed distinctive styles, the group shared an interest in figurative work, a bold color sense, and influences from comic books and the grotesque. Puns and humor are recurring elements.
While MMoCA has long had an interest in Imagist work, the generosity of two men in particular boosted the museum's holdings. Bill McClain, UW professor emeritus of bacteriology, donated his collection of about 100 Imagist works to the museum last year.
The estate of the late Ray Yoshida, a longtime instructor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and mentor to many of the Imagists, provided MMoCA with 33 more works. Fleischman recalls a memorable visit to Yoshida's townhouse in Bucktown: "There were three floors packed to the gills: odd pieces of Americana, work by his students, his own work, everything from lawn jockeys to wind-up toys."
MMoCA's main exhibition, "Chicago Imagists at the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art," begins with what Fleischman dubs "our Yoshida anteroom" - a nod to his influence - and then delves into an exciting exploration of Paschke, Nutt, Brown, Karl Wirsum, Christina Ramberg, Gladys Nilsson and others. Unlike most art circles in which sexism was hard to shake, Imagism included many women as integral members.
"Chicago School: Imagists in Context" features artists who influenced, or were influenced by, the Imagists. Among these is Robert Lostutter, best known for his darkly charged images of man-bird hybrids.
"Chicago Imagists" is accompanied by a 168-page catalogue with fresh scholarly interpretations, plus events including a conversation between Fleischman and artists Nilsson and Art Green during the opening celebration Sept. 10. Collector McClain will speak Sept. 23. For details on these and other events, visit mmoca.org.