‘Magic Drawings’: The Chicago Imagists Show Their More Meditative Side

The movement wasn’t all hard outlines, puns and absurdism as a show in London reveals

With middle fingers raised high to the studied moodiness of abstract expressionism, the frigid disinterest of minimalism and the taunting irony of pop, the imagists – a freewheeling group of artists active in Chicago from the mid-1960s to early ’70s – brushed off the echo chamber of the New York art world to make way for something far more feverish and raw. Whilst the group did not pander to a prescriptive house style, a certain derangement underpinned much of their output. It was all discordant colours, hard outlines, puns and absurdism. But, as Chicago-based gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey divulges in a recent show – hosted by The Approach in London as part of Condo 2020 – there was a more serene, meditative side to the movement. 

Karl Wirsum, Untitled, 1974, blue ballpoint pen and black ink on notebook paper, 43 x 34 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and the Approach, London; photograph: Tom Van Eynde

Eight modestly sized works on paper by Robert Lostutter, Barbara Rossi and Karl Wirsum ring the gallery’s annex space at eye level. The first pieces we encounter are by Rossi, who spent several years as a Catholic nun before turning to art. In the first of her three graphite drawings – all Untitled (1967) – we glimpse hints of lips, teeth, a nose dribbling snot. But, ultimately, her marks unfurl into playful abstraction: rhythmic dot-work, gaseous hazes of shading, staccato darts and dashes. The scratch of Rossi’s pencil is almost audible in the presence of these patient, tender sketches. Eventually, they would be taken to their conclusion in the form of the artist’s slick Perspex paintings (such as Eye Deal, 1974), but here they channel an organic process similar to the automatism of the surrealists, in which the subconscious acts as the hand’s driving force. ‘Magic drawings’, Rossi called them. As her pencil roves, hieroglyphic symbols are born, but their meanings are indecipherable. Just out of reach, they leave me yearning for more. Their form, silken like gossamer, ghostly and pale, renders them more distant still.

Barbara Rossi, Untitled, 1967, graphite on paper, 33 x 25 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and the Approach, London; photograph: Tom Van Eynde

Next are three watercolours by Lostutter, an artist who drifted on the periphery of the imagists. The paintings read like icons, precious in their order and delicacy, fantastical in their subject matter. As with Rossi’s drawings, their form implies an obsessive process and a measured passage of time. (The myth goes that Lostutter used brushes with just three hairs.) His saccharine picture planes – all Untitled (1970) – present costumed protagonists, their faces at once silly and sad, with aquiline noses leading to plump lips, stretched like sausages ready to burst. Lostutter’s men are lonely and disconnected, bound and dismembered by a world of implausible architecture that shifts from the two-dimensional to the three-dimensional at whim. Like Truman Burbank imprisoned in his dome (The Truman Show, 1998), these characters seem to long for a world beyond their staged reality. 

Robert Lostutter, Untitled, 1970, watercolour on paper, 17 x 10 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and the Approach, London; photograph: Tom Van Eynde 

Finally, we arrive at Wirsum’s notebook drawings. The heavyweights of the show, these inky doodles brim with a nervous energy, their marks fat and hurried. In Untitled (1974) a wide-eyed robot gyrates, limbs protruding at awkward angles, geometric innards splayed and schematized. Wirsum’s source imagery ranged from comic books and vintage circus ephemera to the graphic, stylized patterning of Mesoamerican pottery. In Untitled (‘Vinegar Bent Measel’) (1974), a feline face meets our gaze, the suggestion of a body disintegrating into wings, symbols and letters. With an arrow pointing at this unfettered figure, the word ‘neck’ is scrawled in blue biro. There is an urgent, searching quality to these works. As a member of the Hairy Who, a collective of six artists who paved the way for many of the imagists, Wirsum is well-known for his paintings, pristine and highly controlled in their surface. Here, however, we are afforded a look beneath that surface and into the artist’s interior world, where whirring thoughts and experiences are arrested on paper. Much as with Rossi or Lostutter, Wirsum revels in the intimate, spontaneous nature of drawing, interrogating the self to generate an extraordinary personal vision.

Main image: Robert Lostutter, Untitled, 1971, watercolour on paper, 31 x 29 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago, and the Approach, London; photograph: Tom Van Eynde 

Sophie Ruigrok is a writer based in London.

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