Suellen Rocca, a founding member of the short-lived but influential 1960s Chicago art group the Hairy Who and a fiercely original artist whose hieroglyphic, phantasmagoric work poked a finger in the eye of late-20th-century modernist purities, died on March 26 at a hospice in Naperville, Ill., a suburb of Chicago. She was 76.
Matthew Marks Gallery in New York, which represents her, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
At a time when the deadpan consumer imagery of Pop Art was giving way to the restraint of Minimalism and Conceptualism, Ms. Rocca and five former classmates from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago came together under the sway of influences as disparate as Dubuffet, Native American art, hand-painted store signs, the Sears catalog and the natural-history displays at the Field Museum to create a rambunctious form of painting and sculpture that tacked hard against prevailing orthodoxies.
“There is about many of these works a relentlessly gabby, arm-twisting, eyeball-contacting quality that comes as a great surprise in a gallery that we associate with the spare statements of Agnes Martin and Brice Marden,” John Russell wrote in The New York Times in a review of a 1982 Pace Gallery show. He added: “Why are they so repulsive? Are they all equally repulsive? Are we wrong not to like them? These are fair questions, and they deserve an answer.”
Eventually the answer was that their unorthodox ethos, ignored by many East and West Coast critics as a regionalist aberration, came to be embraced by younger generations who saw themselves reflected in its exuberance, irreverence and vernacular American overload.
Ms. Rocca and her compatriots, whose work helped foment a wider movement known as Chicago Imagism, “weren’t interested in binary oppositions or the modernist arrow of progress,” the curator Dan Nadel wrote in the catalog for a show of Ms. Rocca’s work at Matthew Marks Gallery in 2016. “Art was art. This stoic, rather Midwestern philosophy would prove to be foundational.”
In 2016, Ms. Rocca listed some of the imagery that formed the lexicon of her early work, often rendered in flat, quivery, cartoonlike lines.
“Palm trees, diamond rings, bra styles in the Sears Roebuck catalog, dancing couples from Arthur Murray ads and pictures of fancy hairdos tucked into the back pages of magazines were the cultural icons of beauty and romance expressed by the media that promised happiness to young women of that generation,” she said. “This was the culture that surrounded me.” In a 2018 interview with Garage magazine, she said that much of her work was a form of picture-writing, analogous to hieroglyphics, taking in much of the same consumer flotsam that Pop art used but deploying it much more subjectively.
Asked in that interview about her approach, she said the short answer she liked to give was that “while New York was cool, Chicago was hot.”
Suellen Krupp was born on Oct. 2, 1943, the only child in a middle-class Jewish family. Her father, Phillip, whose family had immigrated from Russia, worked as a salesman for a lighting-equipment company, and her mother, Mildred, a talented amateur pianist who performed throughout her life, worked as a legal secretary and accountant.
Suellen’s art talent emerged early and had propelled her by age 16 to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where one of her teachers was Ray Yoshida, a hugely important mentor to the Chicago Imagists who emphasized nondoctrinaire thinking and eclectic sources of inspiration.
In 1962, she married Dennis Rocca, a third-generation jeweler; they divorced in 1975. She is survived by her son, Paul; her daughter, Lia Plonka; and three grandchildren.
The first Hairy Who exhibition, featuring the work of Ms. Rocca, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Jim Falconer, Art Green and Karl Wirsum, was held at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago in 1966. (The group’s memorable name is said to have been inspired by a riff on the name of a local radio personality and art critic, Harry Bouras, whom the artists did not hold in high esteem.) Between 1966 and 1969, the group — which did not consider itself a movement or school, but simply an informal collection of like-minded artists — staged five more exhibitions, in Chicago, San Francisco, New York and Washington.
Ms. Rocca’s work was included in several other shows before she moved to the San Francisco Bay Area in the early 1970s, at which time she stopped making art for a decade.
Upon returning to Chicago in 1981, she took up teaching and began to work again, making drawings and paintings that were emotionally darker, with titles like “Beware of My Mouth,” “Don’t” and “It’s a Secret.” A motif of purses and bags that runs through her work took on more unsettling implications. As she told an interviewer for the Archives of American Art in 2015: “Bags can hold things that you don’t want to get out. Sort of like Pandora’s box.” She added, “I’ve always felt that my work is autobiographical.”
She was featured in “What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to Present,” an exhibition curated by Mr. Nadel at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum in Providence in 2014 and 2015 and Matthew Marks Gallery in 2015 that has been credited with igniting wider institutional interest in Chicago Imagist work.
A survey of Ms. Rocca’s work — which is held in the collections of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Art Institute of Chicago and several other important museums — is scheduled to open this year at the Secession museum in Vienna.
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