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James Falconer

1968.176.8 James Falconer
© James Falconer
Date of birth
Date of death

James “Jim” Falconer, one of the instigators of the Hairy Who, didn’t take his first art class until high school. Despite the late start, he was immediately hooked and chose to pursue his college degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

There he studied with Thomas Kapsalis, Seymour Rosofsky, and Ray Yoshida, taking several of the same classes as his fellow Hairy Who artists Jim Nutt and Suellen Rocca. Outside of school, Falconer was powerfully affected by the period of civil unrest and political turmoil that swept through Chicago and the rest of the United States in the late 1960s. In 1969, he cofounded Artists Against the War in Vietnam with Dominick Di Meo, a member of the Monster Roster, an earlier Chicago exhibition group that inspired the Hairy Who.

Soon after graduation, Falconer joined forces with five other recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute to form the Hairy Who in 1965. The six artists—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—decided that the best way to find success was to exhibit their work together, and as the Hairy Who they began mounting unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work in the mid-1960s. Over a period of four years they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile.

In 1966 Falconer and Jim Nutt approached Don Baum, exhibition chairman of the Hyde Park Art Center, about organizing a small group show, which would become the Hairy Who’s inaugural exhibition. Baum agreed and the show enjoyed an enthusiastic reception, garnering both critical acclaim and commercial success, but Falconer chose not to participate in the second iteration the following year. However, he did rejoin the group for their subsequent exhibitions.

Falconer has described his Hairy Who–era work as “punk rock.” This apt characterization sums up the anarchy of Falconer’s compositions and the rudeness of his imagery, which express an anti-formalism that is unique among the Hairy Who—most of whom are known for their assiduous craftsmanship. Forcefully articulated figurative works, including two impish, untitled self-portraits from 1966, are animated outliers even among the Hairy Who’s unconventional work.

A 2018 exhibition at the Art Institute—the first-ever major survey dedicated solely to the Hairy Who—explored how the group’s distinct aesthetic transformed the art landscape of Chicago.

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