In the early 1970s, Chicago-based artist Ed Paschke made a series of paintings of fashionable shoes of the moment. In neon colours, he rendered spectator wingtip oxfords that nary a banker would don and platform boots that rose nearly the height of fishing waders. But Paschke’s shoes weren’t merely formal interpretations of fodder minded from fashion. They showcased a moment when ornamenting oneself in outrageous, garish garb was a statement — a signal to those adhering to convention that subversion was not to be stopped from creating a new world order.
After the counter culture and strife of the 1960s dialed back to the liberal establishment of the 1970s, Westerners were emboldened to give peace a chance, to let it all hang out, to express their individuality. This sterling moment of 20th-century culture was no better documented artistically than by a group of Chicago artists known as the Imagists. Influenced by Art Brut, Surrealism, Outsider Art, and Pop, as well as commercial and street culture, the Imagists, many of whom studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, emerged from a series of exhibitions mounted at the Hyde Park Art Center. Their work was charged with sexual and political references depicted within fetishised, chimerical formal compositions nearly in defiance of the developments heralded by New York artists and arbiters.
‘A hallmark of Chicago is eccentricity,’ says John Corbett of Corbett vs. Dempsey gallery, which has tasked itself with mining the rich artistic history of its native city. After excavating the practice of local artists through the early and mid 20th century, Corbett arrived at the 1970s practitioners, many of whom are still working and a few of whom he now represents. ‘The work of these artists was not documented the way say, the scenes in New York or LA were, which has left them ripe for rediscovery,' says the dealer.
Although history has been slow to take note — the group had a champion in art historian Franz Schulze, who endowed them with the Imagist label in his 1972 book Fantastic Images — local gallerists, such as Alan Frumkin, Phyllis Kind, Marianne Deson, and Carl Hammer, seriously supported the work, as did collectors who hung it in the context of collections including more celebrated New York school styles. An early adapter was Ruth Horwich, several of whose holdings form the centrepiece of the First Open sale to be held at Christie’s New York during the city’s March art fair week.
Currently, the Imagist fan base is broadening from pockets of niche admirers to viewers for whom the perspective of history provides a clearer view of the work’s intent and accomplishments. ‘As an architect I’m attracted to Modern masters because their vernacular was developed in tandem with the design vernacular I use daily,’ says collector Carlos Martinez, a principal at Gensler, who has deep holding of Paschke and Roger Brown. ‘But what defines my architecture is that I tell stories about culture and the world we live in. Similarly, the Imagists create a reflection of culture — pop culture, street culture, television, the underground — that becomes a great commentary on what we find in life and the way we live.’
‘Both the historical and contemporary work feels very fresh today, in part because so little attention has been paid to them, but also because they were inspirational to a whole group of younger artists,’ says Corbett. Peter Doig regularly acknowledges his influence by Paschke and Brown; 2014 Whitney Biennial artist Ricky Swallow speaks about his impressions of the work of Christina Ramberg
The market is reflecting that resonance. Paschke’s Bag Boots, 1972, soared past its $30,000 to $40,000 estimate to achieve $245,000 — over eight times the high — at Christie’s New York last May. More impressively, Jim Nutt’s Boot, 1991 (see below), realised €361,500 on a €20,000 to €30,000 estimate at Christie’s Paris last December.
In primary venues, What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, which featured several Imagists and closed at the RISD Museum of Art last month, will have a showing at Matthew Marks in New York this summer. For his part, Corbett has shown the work at Frieze Masters, Art Cologne, and Art Basel Miami Beach. He also curated a show of vintage Imagist work at Thomas Dane in London and vintage and contemporary offering at Karma International in Zurich. ‘It’s not timeless, but it has a quality that transfers to different times and places,’ Corbett says of the genre. ‘It steps out in part because of the magnetic force of its own logic. That’s what the best Imagist work does.’