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Karl Wirsum, visionary, ‘utterly original’ artist, dies at 81

The North Side artist gained fame locally and nationally during the 1960s for his witty, entirely original and meticulous exploration of the human form.

Artist Karl Wirsum, shown in 2007 at his home studio in Chicago.
Artist Karl Wirsum, shown in 2007 at his home studio in Chicago.
Sun-Times file

Karl Wirsum first began drawing when he was 5 and stuck for weeks in a hospital room, recovering from a fractured skull.

And he never stopped — not even after he’d had several strokes and could barely move his hand.

“Even if it was just wiggly marks and circles and little angles on paper,” said his wife of 53 years, Lorri Gunn Wirsum. “He did it every day. He looked out our back window at an apple tree, and all through the winter with the tree skeletal, he just would draw the branches – his version of it.”

Mr. Wirsum – who gained fame locally and nationally during the 1960s for his witty, entirely original and meticulous exploration of the human form – died Thursday at Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Lake View, his wife said. He was 81. He’d lived almost all of his life in the city.

Karl Wirsum (far left) with his family (from left): children Ruby and Zack and his wife, Lorri Gunn Wirsum.
Karl Wirsum with his family (from left): children Ruby and Zack and his wife, Lorri Gunn Wirsum.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Wirsum’s father, an amateur artist, likely inspired his son to draw. He would bring his own cartoon creations to the hospital to entertain the boy, who fractured his skull after taking a tumble down some stairs in the family’s North Side home.

The boy then spent the weeks recuperating with pencil and paper in his lap. He enrolled in classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he would later teach.

He lost both of his parents when he was only 9 — when the car his father was driving collided with a truck. The son escaped without injury.

“He didn’t have anyone to influence him anymore — or encourage him [in art] for that matter. It all came from within,” Mr. Wirsum’s wife said.

“Walking Past His Say He,” a work by Karl Wirsum.
“Walking Past His Say He,” a work by Karl Wirsum.
Sun-Times file

Mr. Wirsum was perhaps best known for his collaboration with a group of five other Chicago artists during the 1960s known as the Hairy Who. The group - Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt and Suellen Rocca - mounted “unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work. … Over a period of four years, they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile,” according to a statement on the Art Institute of Chicago website, which has several Wirsum pieces in its collection.

“Karl was an artist of major consequence,” said James Rondeau, the art institute’s president and Eloise W. Martin director. “His visionary, imaginative, utterly original take on figuration both epitomized a Chicago school and registered in a national and international consciousness.”

Artist Karl Wirsum in 1977, when one of his works was being painted on the east wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Artist Karl Wirsum in 1977, when one of his works was being painted on the east wall of the Museum of Contemporary Art.
Sun Times file

Derek Eller, a gallery owner in New York, has exhibited Mr. Wirsum’s works for a little over a decade.

“They were extremely vibrant and joyous, but also they could be dark and complex,” Eller said. “They were extraordinarily inventive and rigorous in his exploration of the human figure … ”

Though Mr. Wirsum painted, his first love was drawing.

“Strangers on a Terrain” by Karl Wirsum.
“Strangers on a Terrain” by Karl Wirsum.
Sun-Times file

“He would rather draw than paint any day of the year,” his wife said. “But he realized that for the work to have a more developed life, if you will, it needed to be translated occasionally into a painting. … But it was a little more of a chore for him because the creative part was in the drawing.”

In addition to his wife, survivors include a son, Zack Wirsum, and a daughter, Ruby Wirsum, both of Chicago.

A public celebration of Mr. Wirsum’s life is expected to be announced in coming weeks.

Artist Karl Wirsum created this glass mural, “Tuskegee Airmen Commemorative, 2000,” which was installed at the south end of Midway Airport’s ticketing hall.
Artist Karl Wirsum created this glass mural, “Tuskegee Airmen Commemorative, 2000,” which was installed at the south end of Midway Airport’s ticketing hall.
Sun-Times file