By Elliot J. Reichert
Hans Ulrich Obrist is an internationally renowned curator and co-director of the Serpentine Galleries in London. He is the author of The Interview Project, an ongoing collection of interviews with artists and other creatives, and a new book, “Lives of the Artists, Lives of the Architects.” At EXPO Chicago on September 19, 4pm, Obrist will conduct a live interview with Art Green, Gladys Nilsson and Karl Wirsum, three members of the Hairy Who, an artist collective who began mounting group exhibitions after studying together at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Obrist spoke with us by phone from Johannesburg, South Africa, about his connections to Chicago, his interests in the Hairy Who and the larger group of Chicago Imagists, and the philosophy that inspires his interviews.
What draws your interest to Chicago and the Hairy Who at this moment?
My interest in the Hairy Who began with my interview projects, which are parallel to my curatorial practice. These interviews are an oral history of contemporary art, and they were actually inspired by Chicago. When I was in Chicago for the first time for a lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art about fifteen years ago, I met the late Studs Terkel, the great oral historian. From then on, Terkel mentored my whole process of making these oral histories more systematic. He gave me a lot of advice, so it’s wonderful to bring the whole project back to Chicago.
How do you structure these conversations, and what inspires you to have them?
When I do conversations, they are usually one-on-one with an artist or an architect. Of course, at a certain moment dialogues can expand. I thought it would be interesting to do a larger conversation with several artists or architects in order to make a portrait of a group and of a movement. The Chicago Imagists and the Hairy Who are not necessarily a movement, but they are a group of artists who inspired many more artists who came after them. When you make a portrait of a group, it is fascinating to show the different aspects and facets of such a collective; how it was formed, how it was constituted, etc. The Hairy Who are one of the last artist groups from the sixties of which many of the members are still around, so it is possible to talk to all of them now and record this important history.
Do you have other connections to Chicago?
As a student, I became friends with Nancy Spero and Leon Golub, two great Chicago artists. As a student in the nineties, I would visit Golub and Spero regularly and they became my mentors. During the first visit I did with Golub, he told me about the Monster Roster group, which is also now being rediscovered as a signifiant postwar movement. The group included Cosmo Campoli, George Cohen, Golub, Spero and others. Several of these artists served in World War II and went to school with the GI bill. It was the critic Franz Schulze who gave them the name in the late fifties. Many of them were producing very raw, very political work after the war. Like the Hairy Who, they were also connected to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, but they came a generation before them.
What interests you most about the Hairy Who?
For me, it is fascinating that the Hairy Who emerged around exhibitions. I am an exhibition maker and a historian of exhibitions, and one of the reasons why I record these oral histories is that very often these experimental exhibitions’ history inspire us for future shows. The Hairy Who exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center invented new rules of the game. But exhibitions have limited lifespans; they exist for a certain very limited amount of time. They are often not very well documented, usually with only a few photographs. So, it’s the memory of the people who showed in it and saw it that becomes important to document. Recording an oral history allows us to reconstitute a deeper memory of these shows.
Also, I am drawn to their DIY approach, which comes through most in their magazines and publications. These have all been republished very recently upon the occasion of the exhibition organized by the Rhode Island School of Design, and which was at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York this summer. This book reprints these early publications of the Hairy Who. Recently, I conducted an interview with Jim Nutt, which has just been published in Mousse Magazine.
Your conversation will take place in the context of an exposition of modern and contemporary art. As an exhibition maker, what do you think is the significance of art history, even recent art history, within the realm of contemporary art being made in the immediate present?
Panofsky once said that the future is invented with fragments from the past. The first time I met Jeff Koons he told me about the great inspiration he got from H.C. Westermann and Ed Paschke during his time in Chicago. And we must also not forget Don Baum, who curated the three legendary Hairy Who exhibitions. There is often a kind of amnesia about curators and the role they play in the formation of these collective conversations. Beyond the Hairy Who, the larger picture of the Chicago Imagists has been very influential ever since the important show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1969.
It is also very important not only to look at art, but also poets, architects, etc. Etel Adnan, the Lebanese poet, artist, theater writer and activist, often says that inspiration can come from all kinds of other fields, which are like different rooms in the house that we inhabit. So it is important not only to isolate art but to investigate other disciplines. This investigation is something that conversations can do, and they can happen in all kinds of contexts: art school, universities, biennales and, since the early nineties, they have also happened in the context of art fairs, which bring together not only different kinds of knowledge but also different kinds of people who would not have otherwise met.
How do you approach your conversations with artists, and what are you most interested in learning from your conversation with the Hairy Who?
For me, it’s never predictable how a conversation will go. In order to prepare for a conversation, I read a lot, and I start with a single question. There are a few questions that I always return to when I have a conversation with an artist. The first is “How did it all begin?” It is fascinating to learn what brings an artist to make art. Similarly, I ask “What was the beginning of the group? Who brought them together and how did they meet?” We start at the beginning.
The second thing that always comes up in my conversations is the idea of the unrealized project. We know a lot about architects’ unrealized projects, and often they are eventually built. But even with very well-known artists, we do not often think about the unrealized projects, projects that are too costly or too big to be realized at the time, and have since been forgotten.
A third thing, especially with artists of the generation of the Hairy Who who have such a long experience, is to ask a question inspired by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. So, I will ask: “What is the advice you would give to a young artist?” Very often at these talks there are a lot of young artists and curators in attendance, so I think it is important to ask artists to offer their advice to the next generation.
This interview was published in EXPO Chicago magazine 2015.