Beloved Chicago Imagist Barbara Rossi Dies at 82

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Barbara Rossi, year and location unknown (photo by William H. Bengtson, courtesy the Kohler Foundation)

Barbara Rossi, a former Catholic nun turned artist, died on August 24 at the age of 82. Her death was announced in a Facebook post by the John Michael Kohler Arts Center, the Wisconsin museum that has owned her collection and library since 2020.

Rossi was associated with the Chicago Imagists group of the 1960s and ’70s and taught generations of students at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) since 1971.

Rossi was known for her meticulously constructed multimedia works anchored in reverse acrylic paintings on Plexiglas. She was celebrated for her playful and surreal artistry, a balance of cartoonish humor and sensual abstraction that took shape in portrait-like images of colorful, distorted figures.

Born on September 20, 1940, in Chicago, Rossi was raised in the city’s Berwyn suburb in a Roman Catholic household. Growing up with a long-held determination to devote her life to the church as a nun, she received her Bachelor’s degree from St. Xavier College in 1964. In 1968, Rossi pursued a graduate education in painting at SAIC with the support of the Catholic church and received her Master of Fine Arts in 1970. She studied under Ray Yoshida and Whitney Halstead, who taught art through a non-hierarchical lens that focused on non-Western art movements and anti-conformist aesthetics.

Rossi was also influenced by her printmaking teacher Vera Berdich, who taught many of the Imagist artists who studied at SAIC, including her peers Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, and Philip Hanson. Inspired by the works she saw at Chicago galleries and museums during the ’60s, Rossi’s early artwork mostly comprised two-dimensional pencil drawings dotted with the occasional stray limb or corporeal bulge.

Following a 1968 student exhibition during her first year at SAIC, the artist was invited by curator and artist Don Baum to participate in the 1970 Marriage Chicago Style exhibition at the community-based Hyde Park Art Center. She also took part in Chicago Antigua (1971), the final installment of Baum’s original Chicago Imagist shows at the center.

In the late ’70s and throughout the ’80s, Rossi’s work increasingly drew influence from the shapes and themes featured in Indian painting traditions after the artist made a number of trips to the country. While her works remained abstract, Rossi turned toward rounded lines and spiraling shapes to compose amorphous characters with recurring body parts in interior architectural settings.

Installation view of Barbara Rossi: Poor Traits (2015) (photo by Maris Hutchinson, courtesy New Museum)

Rossi exhibited her work in group shows outside of Chicago including at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art in Wisconsin, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. In 1991, she was the subject of a solo exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Renaissance Society museum.

At age 75, she received a solo show at the New Museum in New York titled Poor Traits, which featured a selection of graphite and colored pencil drawings, in addition to her reverse Plexiglas paintings. Her works are held in the permanent collections of museums across the country including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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