Imagists, Pinball Art and Pop Culture

“Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists, and Chicago” at the Elmhurst Art Museum

Pinball machines whirr and ding amidst groans of frustration or shrieks of excitement. These are sounds at a current art exhibit, but one that is decidedly aware of its context. Imagist art was never meant to be neat or easily categorized. It was a fusion of academia and pop culture from its beginning, and it seems only right it be exhibited in the same spirit.

“Kings & Queens: Pinball, Imagists, and ­Chicago” was curated by Dan Nagel for the Elmhurst Art Museum which is nestled in the Chicago suburbs. The exhibit tells the story of a lesser-known art movement and its link to one of the most pervasive American art styles of the mid-20th century—pinball art, of course. Imagist art and pinball machines were both notable Chicago exports, and their influence on each other is undeniable. Bright colors, strong delineating lines, and fantastical images define both.


“Kings and Queens: Pinball, Imagists and Chicago” at Elmhurst Art Museum. Photo by James Prinz.


Chicago Imagism was the name given to young artists experimenting in similar ways. Like most art movements, it was not a cohesive whole, but rather a stylistic, thematic, and geographic association. It began with students from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. They first shared their work in 1966 at the Hyde Park Art Center in an exhibit called “Harry Who,” which became the group’s working name.

Many more shows at the Art Center followed, and the movement quickly grew beyond the Harry Who members. Curator Nagel wrote in the exhibit’s accompanying essays that the Imagists looked to comic books, Mesoamerican pottery, indigenous art of Oceanic peoples, hand-painted signs, and artists Miró and Max Beckmann’s work for inspiration. Though each artist had a unique approach, abstract, colloquial, and grotesque imagery was the common thread.

The art of pinball machines combined many of these elements, making them an important Imgagist source of inspiration. Though the proof lies mostly in the images themselves, there are also more distinct connections. Jim Nutt, in a direct homage, back-painted a wildly colorful mug shot on Plexiglas (Officer Doodit, 1968).

Other Imagists followed suit. Perhaps the best-known Imagist, Ed Paschke, found a friend and collaborator in pinball artist Constantino Mitchell. In 1982, Paschke organized an exhibit about pinball machines at the Chicago Cultural Center. [Flip! Flash!] treated the pinball machine and its artists with just as much reverence as any other art form.

“Kings and Queens” continues that exhibit’s legacy in 2017, though it’s reasonable to ask why Elmhurst is the place to tell this story that seems so innately tied to Chicago. The answer is two-fold. Elmhurst College provided much of the art in the exhibit. In the 1970s, the college built the largest single collection of Imagist art while decorating their library with the fresh and affordable works of Chicago artists. (That collection can be enjoyed free of charge in the A.C. Buehler Library, just a block from the museum.)

Elmhurst was also home to the Gottlieb family, owners of a pinball empire. D. Gottlieb and Co., a Chicago company, was the main producer of American pinball machines for decades. Their machines, and the artwork on them, dotted towns across the country, but their story started in Elmhurst.

The Elmhurst Art Museum created something truly wonderful in this exhibit. It is history, art, pop culture, and amusement all wrapped into one. Serious art lovers and arcade enthusiasts alike will be delighted by the collection and its sense of discovery. Many art movements are so well-charted, but this one, despite its age, is still mysterious.

The museum also boasts Mies Van der Rohe’s McCormick House (1952), David Wallace Hoskin’s Skycube (2015), two installations from Matthew Hoffman’s “You Are Beautiful” project, and smaller rotating exhibits of contemporary artists’ work, making it worth a visit even after the Kings and Queens exhibit leaves on May 7th.


Evangeline Reid is completing her studies at the University of Chicago, where she studies English literature and art history. An editor and writer for The Chicago Maroon and Grey City Magazine,
she has covered art and culture in Chicago since 2013.


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