When Jim Nutt Met Gladys Nilsson—Plus His New MCA Exhibit

Lightning struck with a wallop when the two artists met at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He has a new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and in July they will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. Here they talk their way back in time

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Since 1976, Nilsson and Nutt have lived in an early-20th-century two-and-a-half-story brick house in Wilmette, a quiet North Shore suburb where a resident passing a stranger on the sidewalk will salute her with a heartfelt “Good morning,” and a dog, told that he is beautiful, will bound straight into the air.

Knock, don’t ring, a note on Nilsson and Nutt’s door advises. Their house is hidden by dense foliage, suggesting that mysteries lie within, and they do, but they far exceed imagination or expectation. On my first visit, Nilsson lets me in, and we spin through the entryway and the living room—past two gigantic whirligigs, walls filled with art, objects on every surface—and into the dining room, where we sit at one end of their long Gustav Stickley table. Before we delve into deep thoughts about art, we agree to talk our way back in time.

Nilsson sits at the head of the table, and Nutt and I sit across from each other—for me, an unsettling arrangement. In the invented portraits of women that Nutt has focused on since the late 1980s, the noses are notable: skeletal, architectural, botanical, rock hard. And my nose is now in Nutt’s line of sight.

Nilsson remains as luminous as she appears in photographs from the sixties, although her hair is now an airy cloud of gray curls. Nutt no longer has a beard, but he has kept his mustache, and his hair, still not gray, is shorter than it was in The Hairy Who years. “He looks like James Joyce,” says the Chicago private art dealer Karen Lennox.

Nilsson laughs easily—melodically at times, hard and heartily at others. Nutt likes to talk but reins himself in with the phrase “in any case” as a way of summing up a story. “He giggles,” says the gallery owner Ann Nathan, a friend of the couple since the sixties. Not in my presence, although at one of our meetings Nutt laughs so hard that he almost starts crying.

Committed golfers, Nilsson and Nutt are both fit, but she plays less frequently now due to hip problems. Their clubs are parked nearby me in the dining room. Nutt’s handicap is an impressive four. He says that soon they may have to consider downsizing and moving to a place without stairs. I suggest that they install an elevator and stay put.

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An only child, Nilsson always knew that she would be an artist. Her parents emigrated from Sweden, where her father worked for a shoemaker and fished. In Chicago, he became a factory worker for Sunbeam, and her mother was a waitress. Early on, unless her parents were entertaining in their North Side apartment, Nilsson commandeered a card table for her projects. “I loved to draw,” she says. “I bought a lot of paper dolls in the dime stores, and then I drew clothes.”

In grade school, she was routinely assigned to art projects and recalls completing a huge mural of cows. On Saturdays or late on weekday afternoons, she attended lectures and drawing classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. She went on to Lake View High School, where My Bodyguard was filmed, recalls Nilsson, a movie fan. “It was a school with no real facilities,” she says. “Our track team had to set up hurdles in the hallways after school and run and jump. It was so bizarre.” And yet most of the looping, elongated figures in her paintings are in motion, although admittedly they are situated in more genteel surroundings. Given her classes at the museum, Nilsson was a natural for the School of the Art Institute.

When he was in his late teens, Nutt planned to be an architect, perhaps in the hope of designing something that would stay still. His family never did. Nutt’s father was an electrical engineer who worked for General Electric, then moved into sales and on to other companies. His side of the family came from Germany and, Nutt thinks, perhaps Canada. Nutt’s mother was of French, Scottish, and English descent and played the bassoon until she developed a respiratory illness. Her father was the conductor of the Denver Symphony Orchestra.

Nutt, who has two older sisters, was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in 1938, and his family soon moved to nearby Stockbridge. After that, his father’s job changes uprooted the family every few years: Silver Spring, Maryland; Maplewood, New Jersey; Glenview, Illinois; Denver, Colorado; and onward. Inspired by newsreels as a kid, Nutt says, he drew fighter planes, but being asked to draw a landscape drove him crazy. A glowering portrait of Beethoven was always prominent at home, along with a pastel of Brahms smoking a cigar.

In college, Nutt remained in transit. He started in liberal arts at the University of Kansas, transferred to the University of Pennsylvania to pursue architecture, then switched to Washington University in St. Louis to study art. Finally, he made the fateful decision to enroll at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.

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