Artist Spotlight: Karl Wirsum

September 17, 2018

From the time he was a young boy, Karl Wirsum showed artistic promise. According to the Chicago-born artist, during a prolonged hospital stay at age 5, one nurse noticed his talent for drawing. She urged his parents to bring him to the free art lessons offered to all ages by the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He religiously attended the Saturday sessions and was eventually admitted to SAIC upon graduating high-school. While pursuing his BFA, Wirsum not only took advantage of unfettered access to the Art Institute’s cache of European masterpieces, but began exploring African, Oceanic, and Mesoamerican art history under the tutelage of artist and art historian Kathleen Blackshear. His budding admiration for non-Western art practices flourished during his post-graduation trip to Mexico in 1961. The culture’s “rich mixture of folk art, masquerade, colorful festivals, sign painting, and ancient relics” enraptured Wirsum over the course of his five-month stay.

Karl Wirsum, Tonto Disguised as the Lone Ranger, 1977
September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

In 1964, Wirsum joined the group of representational artists, comprised of Jim Nutt, Gladys Nilsson, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Falconer, who would come to be known as the Hairy Who. Along with the other factions within the Chicago Imagist movement, the Hairy Who rejected “the detached cool of New York” and championed personal representations of eclectic popular culture. The exhibition group stumbled upon their name when desperately brainstorming titles for their first anti-sophisticate show. They had been searching for a clever way to renounce the suave, ambiguous titles issued by posh New York museums and galleries. Amidst their discussion, someone reportedly brought up Harry Bouras, an “exceptionally self-important” art critic, to which Wirsum begrudgingly responded “Harry who? Who is this guy?” After the initial exhibition at the Hyde Park Art Center in 1966, the group decided to hang onto the name.

Like the other members of the Hairy Who, Wirsum was highly influenced by Surrealism, Japanese prints, and comics. Particularly from the latter two, he wanted to emulate the ways in which their content was “accessible to the common person.” Wirsum dismissed the emotional practice of post-war Abstract Expressionists in favor of precision and “the more controlled application of paint as seen in the work of Kandinsky and Klee.”  He “identified with a tradition of skilled labor” and sharpened the mechanics of his craft accordingly.

Karl Wirsum, Tonto Disguised as the Lone Ranger (verso label), 1977
September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

In the early 1970s, Wirsum began experimenting with sculptural mediums. While his study of non-Western relics and idols greatly influenced this development, he also considers the shift a natural progression of his artistic identity: “Picasso, went from two to three dimensions — I always admired that…[following his] example of approaching art from many different areas…[I started] doing a total figuration.” Around the same time, Wirsum increasingly emphasized symmetry in his works, reflecting his desire to make his figures “feel like icons.” In line with the religious roots of his three-dimensional objects, he says that he “didn’t think of [his depictions] as casual images, but more like stylized, early medieval paintings…something more spiritual.”

Wirsum’s disciplined study of his craft has produced an artistic vocabulary that is truly powerful.  As Wirsum describes it, he provides all the necessary “cues for potential narratives that could be extended by the viewers themselves.” Tonto Disguised as the Lone Ranger (1977), included in LAMA’s September 30, 2018 auction, hints at a postmodern sensibility without making any overt political statement. This nuance lies in Wirsum’s unique ability to layer visual information. Here his synthesis of popular American television culture, Mesoamerican linework, and textures of traditional glazed pottery, generates a work that is inherently contemplative. Wirsum needn’t prescribe any concrete view or opinion for the viewer when the “feverish, pulsating quality” of the piece is so captivating.

“Karl Wirsum.” Hairy Who and the Chicago Imagists, Pentimenti Productions, 2014,
Rudick, Nicole. “Transfigured: An Interview with Karl Wirsum.” Hyperallergic, Hyperallergic, 14 Oct. 2015,

Lot Information:

Lot 45
Karl Wirsum
Tonto Disguised as the Lone Ranger
Acrylic and papier maché
Retains Weatherspoon Art Gallery exhibition label to underside
14.5″ x 14″ x 13″
Together with copy of original invoice from Phyllis Kind Gallery dated December 10, 1979

Provenance: Phyllis Kind Gallery, Chicago, Illinois; Private Collection, West Hollywood, California (acquired directly from the above, 1979)

Estimate: $30,000 – $50,000
September 30, 2018 Modern Art & Design Auction

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