As the elevator descended into the Minneapolis Institute of Art's basement, the temperature dropped and the lights changed from museum dim to fluorescent bright. A heavy metal door opened on a long hallway leading to the Midwest Art Conservation Center.
Here, Ted Halkin's 1957 painting "The Harpy" of a winged, man-bird character had just been restored, having arrived badly flaking and full of grime after sitting in the artist's apartment for more than 40 years. Nearby was Miyoko Ito's "Gorodiva" (1958), on which an abstract, cartoonish-looking floating cloud and handbag were smooshed together like a marshmallow.
Both paintings are getting a new life, thanks to associate conservator Rita Berg, for the end-of-summer exhibition "New to Mia: Art From Chicago," opening Saturday in the museum's first-floor Cargill Gallery. It's a collection of work from the 1960s to '80s by a group broadly known as the Chicago Imagists, a network of artists who portrayed the surreal, psychological and traumatic, bucking the New York art world's bias toward cleanliness and abstraction.
"This collection from Chicago represents a very strong, influential tradition of art that came out of a center that is not on the coasts and that is still oftentimes overlooked simply because it is not New York," said Robert Cozzolino, the Art Institute's curator of paintings. "It's as blunt as that."
Bluntness is not part of Minnesota's culture, but Chicago and Minneapolis do have this in common: They often get left out of art world dialogues.
The umbrella term of Chicago Imagists really embraces two distinct generations of artists: "The Monster Roster," which included artists Dominick Di Meo, Leon Golub, Nancy Spero and June Leaf, many of whom served in World War II and went to art school on the G.I. Bill, and a younger group known as "The Hairy Who." Artists such as Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Karl Wirsum and Jim Falconer, who exhibited in the late '60s, were more concerned with the body, the language of advertising, challenging gender roles and general pop culture.
"The people in the younger group, oftentimes their art doesn't look like a human hand made it, whereas the older generation was interested in how a messy, imperfect body made these things," said Cozzolino.
A Chicago native, Cozzolino came to the Art Institute two years ago from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia and is co-editor and contributor to a new book, "Art in Chicago: A History From the Fire to Now" (University of Chicago Press). He organized this show, comprising recent gifts to the museum, mainly from three Chicagoans: late art critic Dennis Adrian, art historian Richard Born and collector Kiyoko Lerner.
The works are heavily experimental, chock full of bright colors and thick coats of paint.
Although the exhibit consists mostly of paintings, there also is a display box full of comic books made by members of the Hairy Who. Chicago art aficionados will recognize Falconer's cartoonishly painted bodybuilders and slick noir-looking detectives in these comics. Then there are the wild bubbly freaky characters of Nutt and Wirsum, which give off a circus sideshow vibe.
Nothing was off-limits for these Chicagoans, who were more inspired by neighborhoods and crowds than white walls and fancy cocktails. A few abstracted works by Di Meo and Sarah Canright pop up, but depictions of people outnumber abstract works.
Linda Kramer's "Can Do Everything" (1969), a sassy blonde with many breasts on her chest, was inspired by the artist's tongue-in-cheek joke about how hard it is for a mother to do it all. Another painting, "Bunny in Chains" (1970), showing a decrepit-looking Playboy Bunny wearing heavy black eyeliner and looking drunk, was Kramer's response to the gross treatment these women received.
Roger Brown's iconic "Skyscraper" (1971), a painting of a gray building filled with shadowy figures, greets viewers at the exhibition entrance. Two political pieces — Seymour Rosofsky's "Daley Machine" and Ed Flood's acrylic, plexiglass and wood piece "Kick Me" — were part of a 1968 gallery show in response to the attacks by Chicago police on Vietnam War protesters at the Democratic National Convention.
Chicago had such a tight-knit artistic community that, as Cozzolino states, every artist in this show knew each other. And some knew a now-famous Minnesota artist, Frank Gaard, who studied with Ray Yoshida, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago who mentored many of the Hairy Who artists.
"I remember seeing Frank Gaard's work when I first came here and thought, 'That looks familiar,' " said Cozzolino.
Although Gaard is not in the exhibition, his teacher is — a curious reminder of the nature of artists' networks and Chicago's unsung influence, even on artists who aren't from its windy streets.