Karl Wirsum

Strangers on a Terrain

Mar 21 — Apr 25, 2020
London

Open by appointment.

Marlborough is pleased to present Karl Wirsum: Strangers on a Terrain, a historical survey of the artist’s works on paper from the 1960s to recent years. Including sketchbook drawings filled with marginalia, pristine images on larger sheets, and studies for paintings and a 1967 Hairy Who comic, this exhibition features a carefully selected group of drawings which span the entire career of this well-known Chicago imagist.

Sketchbook drawings from the 1960s provide the origins of Wirsum’s visual language and incorporate studies for the important Hairy Who era paintings. In the 1970s, Wirsum’s artistic vernacular evolved, often leaving behind the curvilinear forms and highly keyed color of the past and initiating a hard-edged geometric language with fewer colors. These changes were worked out in detail via meticulously rendered drawings.

The evolution of Wirsum’s work into the more bizarre, cartoonish, high-color field “portraiture” of the 1980s is similarly reflected in the drawings as well. Throughout this period, the drawings are filled with diligent notes (ideas for color changes, potential titles) and improvised variations. During the last three decades, Wirsum’s singular figures have been joined by other actors and sometimes placed within elaborate contexts. So too, the drawings from this period reflect multiple iterations of scenarios and backdrops, as well as notes which provides insight into Wirsum’s decision making process.

For Wirsum, drawing has always been central to his creative practice, an outlet for spontaneity as well as a means of working through an idea in terms of both content and form. Through repeated iterations, sometimes spaced over the course of years, lines are meticulously perfected and color is finely tuned.

Selected works also highlight the decades-long evolution of Wirsum’s exploration of the body and figuration. Sometimes using drawings as a means of creating a catalogue of body parts, Wirsum finely tuned his imagery of torsos, arms, and legs, working on an array of versions (bulbous, robotic, crustaceous, elastic).  He would often find his way back to this inventory to construct a kind of seamlessly executed exquisite corpse which has become iconic in his work.

He explains, “a lot of my activity is via the drawing modality, which is associative, meandering, and takes elements of fragments from various sketchbooks that may have separate idea threads to form composite images.” 

Karl Wirsum (b. 1939) lives and works in Chicago. His work has recently been included in Hairy Who? 1966-1969 at the Art Institute of Chicago; How Chicago! Imagists 1960s and 70s at Goldsmiths Centre for Contemporary Art, London and De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, UK; 3D-Doings: The Imagist Object in Chicago Art, 1964-1980 at The Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery, Saratoga Springs, NY. Wirsum was also featured in Famous Artists from Chicago at the Fondazione Prada, Milan, Italy; America is Hard to See at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; What Nerve! at Matthew Marks Gallery and the RISD Museum of Art; Sinister Pop at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Made in Chicago: The Koffler Collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C; and Seeing is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion at Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago. Wirsum’s works are in numerous public collections such as the Whitney Museum, Museum of Modern Art, High Museum of Art, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Smithsonian American Art Museum, and RISD Art Museum.

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Works

An installation view of four Karl Wirsum framed ink works on paper hanging on a wall horizontally.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
An ink on off-white paper drawing by Karl Wirsum that depicts a central anthropomorphic figure surrounded by four, idiosyncratic, old-fashioned, automobiles.
Untitled, 1970, ink on paper, 18 × 24 in., 45.7 × 61 cm
A black ink on off-white paper drawing by Karl Wirsum that depicts several abstracted, anthropomorphic figures.
Untitled, 1970, ink and graphite on paper, 18 × 24 in., 45.7 × 61 cm
An installation view of four Karl Wirsum framed and color ink works on paper hanging on a wall horizontally.
Installation View. . Photo: Luke Walker.
A color ink on paper portrait of a long-haired figure by Karl Wirsum wearing a green and black patterned garment with multicolored eyes and mouth.
Untitled, 1966, ink on paper, 14 × 11 in., 35.6 × 27.9 cm
A color ink on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of a smiling, female figure, seated on a throne wearing a sash and crown and holding a doll.
Untitled, 1965, ink on paper, 14 × 11 in., 35.6 × 27.9 cm
An installation view of four Karl Wirsum framed works on paper hanging on a wall horizontally.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
A color ink on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of a grey-haired figure wearing dark sunglasses and a striped garment.They are sticking their tongue out and placing a small, round, green object onto it.
Untitled, 1963, ink on paper, 14 × 11 in., 35.6 × 27.9 cm
A graphite and color pencil on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum that depicts a male police officer on the face of a bottle cap.
Bottle Cop, 1965, graphite and color pencil on paper, 5 1/2 × 4 3/8 in., 14 × 11 cm
An installation view of four Karl Wirsum framed works on paper hanging on a wall horizontally.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
A graphite, ink, and color pencil on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of a boldly outlined, anthropomorphic or cyborg figure surrounded by several lightly rendered sketches.
Untitled, c. 1970, graphite, ink, and color pencil on paper, 24 × 18 in., 61 × 45.7 cm
A color pencil and graphite on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of an abstracted, colorful figure holding a yellow and green orb, surrounded by the faces of three additional figures.
Untitled (Snow Bowler), 1994, color pencil and graphite on paper, 7 1/8 × 9 1/2 in., 18 × 24 cm
An installation view of two Karl Wirsum framed works on paper on two opposite walls.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
A color pencil on black paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of a dark, abstract figure rendered in geometric shapes.
Untitled, 1980, color pencil on black paper, 7 7/8 × 10 1/4 in., 20 × 26 cm
An ink and color pencil on yellow paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of an abstract figure with sharp outlines, with touches of soft green, red and grey.
Untitled, c. 1980, ink and color pencil on paper, 11 × 8 5/8 in., 28 × 22 cm
An installation view of three Karl Wirsum framed works on paper hanging on a wall horizontally.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
A color pencil and graphite drawing by Karl Wirsum that depicts two abstracted figures with sharp outlines. The anthropomorphic figure in the foreground is kneeling and is rendered in red, green, blue and magenta while the smaller figure is red and animal-like. Both are set against a cloud-like background.
Study for Strangers on a Terrain, 2004, color pencil and graphite on paper, 7 1/8 × 9 1/2 in., 18 × 24 cm
A color pencil and graphite on paper drawing by Karl Wirsum of a figure in a green suit, red shirt and red hat on a mostly green background. A hand emerging from out of frame is pulling on the figures mustache.
Untitled, c. 2000, color pencil and graphite on paper, 24 × 18 in., 61 × 45.7 cm
A partial view of five Karl Wirsum framed works on paper hanging in the gallery.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.
A partial view of nine Karl Wirsum framed works on paper hanging in the gallery.
Installation View. Photo: Luke Walker.