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Karl Wirsum, Dynamic and Eclectic Chicago Artist, Dies at 81

Karl Wirsum, Dynamic and Eclectic Chicago Artist, Dies at 81

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

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

In late May of that year the couple went to Europe for four months. One of the trip’s high points was visiting Dubuffet and his collection of Art Brut (outsider or self-taught art) in Paris. Mr. Wirsum was already aware of the phenomenon, having been among the first of the Hairy Who group to see and acquire the fantasy landscape drawings of the self-taught Black artist Joseph Yoakum, who was working in a storefront on Chicago’s South Side at the time. At an ethnographic museum in Rotterdam, Mr. Wirsum was transfixed by the intricately appliquéd Mola textiles of the Kuna people of Central America.


Upon his return to Chicago, Mr. Wirsum put the bright colors and flattened patterns of the Mola to immediate use in “Screamin’ Jay Hawkins” (1968), one of several 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 show at the Marjorie Dell Gallery in Chicago in 1967. By 1976 he had migrated to Phyllis Kind’s gallery, also in Chicago, where most of the other Hairy Who artists showed. For a while, he also showed in Ms. Kind’s New York gallery. But he went without a solo show in New York from 1988 to 2010, when an began representing him. Over the next eight years the gallery mounted six well-received shows focusing on different phases of his career. But he was never accorded the major museum retrospective that his art deserved.

Not that Mr. Wirsum seemed to notice. In the Hyperallergic interview, he said, “My model was thinking about the artist in the cold-water flat, where recognition didn’t arrive until you were under the ground.”

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