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Gladys Nilsson

2000.740 Gladys Nilsson
© Gladys Nilsson
Also known as
Mrs. James T. Nutt
Date of birth

Gladys Nilsson has been a lifelong devotee of the Art Institute of Chicago. She attended children’s art classes at the museum, studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for college, and has taught at the school for over 25 years. While in college, she met and married Jim Nutt.

Soon after graduation, Nilsson joined forces with five other recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute to form the Hairy Who in 1965. The six artists—Jim FalconerArt Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim NuttSuellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—decided that the best way to find success was to exhibit their work together, and as the Hairy Who they began mounting unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work in the mid-1960s. Over a period of four years they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile.

Nilsson is exceptionally prolific. During the Hairy Who era, she made new works for each exhibition rather than repurposing work across shows— perhaps because so many of her works sold immediately. Nilsson received critical recognition early on as well: she is the only artist to have ever won first prize two years in a row in the Art Institute’s Annual Exhibition by Artists of Chicago and Vicinity (in 1967 and 1968).

The joy Nilsson derives from observation lies at the heart of her practice. Her playful, mischievous figurative tableaux express her sense of humor and boundless curiosity. These figures engage in disguise, voyeurism, and a complex web of interactions.

Nilsson primarily works in watercolor, but she uses pencil underdrawing as a guide as she paints. Although these drawings are hidden under layers of colorful transparent washes, they give the paintings their crisp definition. Nilsson also exhibits a thorough command of collage, most recently evident in her suite of works represented by Girl in the Arbor #6. The scale shifts and layering of figures in her compositions create an organized chaos unlike that found in any other Hairy Who work.

A 2018 exhibition at the Art Institute—the first-ever major survey dedicated solely to the Hairy Who—explored how the group’s distinct aesthetic transformed the art landscape of Chicago.

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