Digitally restored by Pentimenti in 2016, Suzanne Simpson's Karl Wirsum is a little-known documentary short that peeks into the sun-dappled California studio of a young artist as he embarks on an extraordinary career. Wirsum's psychedelic marionette sculptures still dazzle today, while his narration and a mind-bending soundtrack draw viewers into his process and personality.

"This little-known cinematic gem also provides a rare opportunity to see into the Chicago Imagist’s West Coast oasis…Simpson leaves viewers in Wirsum’s private garden filled with imagination and eccentricity." - Frances Dorenbaum, Newcity

"'Karl Wirsum' focuses on the three years the young artist spent teaching at California State University Sacramento—his longest time living outside Chicago—and on his early psychedelic marionette sculptures and puppetry." - Leah Pickett, Chicago Reader


In 1973, as her thesis project in the master’s program in art history at California State University Sacramento, Suzanne Simpson set out to create a short film about a young artist named Karl Wirsum, who was then teaching in the art department at the same school. Armed with a Bolex camera and tape recorder, Simpson headed to Wirsum’s home and studio to capture him at work. Simpson was a first-time filmmaker, and Wirsum was also just finding his way as an artist and teacher, living away from his hometown of Chicago for the first time.

The resulting film is an idiosyncratic and poignant peek into the world of an artist as he embarks on a life-long creative journey. The camera skips between stages of artistic labor and display. Wirsum crouches on his floor drawing, cutting, sanding, and painting wooden marionette forms; the completed puppets dance in the artist’s front yard, dangling from strings manipulated by Wirsum just out of frame; articulated figural paintings hanging on a white wall, frozen in place while the camera dances and cuts across their limbs. In a voiceover, Wirsum is shy and reserved, hesitantly elaborating on his personal history and sources of inspiration: mass-produced toys and the work of “primitive” and “naive” artists, nowadays usually referred to as “self-taught.”

Throughout the film, Simpson’s free-wheeling shooting and editing style is matched with a musical score that alternates between ragtime piano music and a mixture of electronic space sounds and primal drumming. For the 2016 release of the film, Pentimenti commissioned a new interpretation of the score by young Chicago musicians Marc Riordan and Alex Inglizian. Domestic scenes at the beginning and end of the film showing Wirsum interacting with his puppet sculptures are scored with a wobbly ragtime piano song, “Frog Legs Rag” by Scott Joplin. In the middle part of the film, Simpson’s camera probes more deeply into Wirsum’s art and the score follows her through the looking glass. The music spreads out into a mix of electronic and percussive music that is simultaneously futuristic and primitive, expansive and regimented, manic and controlled - an unorthodox symphony of contradictions which perfectly captures the harmony and dissonance that makes Wirsum’s artwork and Simpson’s expressionistic editing so compelling.

After a few initial screenings in the 1970s at museums and universities in California and elsewhere, Simpson moved on to other pursuits for the majority of her career. Wirsum returned to Chicago, and the short film was mostly lost to the sands of time.

Flash forward 43 years to 2016: Wirsum grew into an internationally renowned and respected figure in the contemporary art world. He solidified his place in art history as an individual artist and as a key figure in the loose affiliation of artists known as the Chicago Imagists, generally considered to be Chicago’s most significant contribution to 20th century art. While working on a feature documentary film about the Imagists, Chicago filmmaker Leslie Buchbinder stumbled upon Simpson’s Karl Wirsum and determined to release it to 21st century audiences for the first time via her non-profit production company specializing in documentaries on the arts, Pentimenti Productions. In this digitally-restored release, Wirsum’s artwork and Simpson’s playful touch are as fresh and relevant today as they were in 1973. Pentimenti is proud to bring this film out of the attic and back onto screens around the world.

2016 Premiere & Panel discussions

Last fall, the Terra Foundation for American Art generously sponsored screenings of Karl Wirsum, followed by panel discussions at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Block Museum. To celebrate the digital release of Karl Wirsum, Pentimenti has made these Terra-sponsored post-screening panel discussions available online free of charge. We invite you to view these remarkable discussions here.

The MCA program took place on Oct. 27th, 2016 and features a conversation between Karl Wirsum and Gladys Nilsson on the historical, personal, and philosophical connections between the visual art scenes of Chicago and Northern California in the 1960s and 1970s. The conversation was moderated by critic, curator, and art historian, Rob Storr, Dean Emeritus of Yale University School of Art.

The Nov. 4th, 2016 screening at the Block featured live musical accompaniment by Alex Inglizian and Marc Riordan, followed by a discussion moderated by John Corbett, featuring Karl Wirsum, filmmaker Suzanne Simpson, Alex Inglizian, and Marc Riordan.

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Karl Wirsum x Sonnenzimmer Poster

To commemorate the release of Suzanne Simpson's restored & remastered film, Pentimenti has commissioned the award-winning Sonnenzimmer design duo, Nadine Nakanishi & Nick Butcher, to collaborate with Karl Wirsum himself on a limited edition film poster, which is available for purchase at both events as well as via our online store.