Born 1940, Chicago, Illinois
Between 1966 and 1969, Gladys Nilsson, a recent graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, collaborated on a series of Hairy Who group shows with like-minded fellow alumni—including her husband, Jim Nutt, as well as Jim Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum. These presentations appeared at the Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago, the San Francisco Art Institute, and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. The name “Hairy Who,” initially an exhibition title but quickly seized upon to refer to the group of artists, was born of an accidental “knock knock” joke about Chicago art critic Harry Bouras. Substituting “Harry” with “Hairy,” the name poked fun at Chicago’s art establishment and also encapsulated the absurdist humor and bodily grotesque that linked the young artists’ work.
Nilsson’s early paintings, densely packed with intertwined figures rendered in thick black lines, are like tapestries woven of the Sunday funnies. In Loving Couple a large pair of figures embraces in the center, while smaller creatures emerge from the crevices of their bodies, grasping at the pronounced nose of one and the woolly hair of the other. Painted on Plexiglas in reverse—a technique also employed by Nutt and Wirsum—the work has the gleam of pinball machine art or commercial signage. Nilsson’s fascination with comics and all manner of popular art, which provided an alternative to the abstract, formalist tradition of painting that dominated the postwar art market, has continued to inform her work since the 1960s.
Though Nilsson collects and admires visual work produced outside the mainstream art world, she never quotes these works directly. Perhaps quotation would reinforce a hierarchy of avant-garde versus commercial or folk art. And Nilsson, like many of her Chicago-based colleagues, rejects such divisions. In 1970, when Nutt and Nilsson were living in Sacramento, they organized a three-person show with self-taught Chicago artist Joseph Yoakum at the Candy Store in Folsom, California. Titled Three Famous Artists: Gladys Nilsson, Joseph E. Yoakum, Jim Nutt, the exhibition encouraged viewers to consider the artists on equal terms.
Nadel, Dan. “Hairy Who’s History of the Hairy Who.” In The Ganzfeld 3. Ed. Dan Nadel and Peter Buchanan-Smith. New York: Monday Morning, 2003.
Yood, James. Gladys Nilsson. Davis, CA: John Natsoulas Press, 1993.