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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Nilsson and Nutt’s son, Claude, was born in 1962, the year after they were married. Asking if Monet inspired the name provokes a certain consternation in the couple. Nilsson’s Chicago dealer, Jean Albano, sets me straight. “There’s no way that Monet would have been an influence on their work,” she says. “It’s much too pretty; it’s much too facile; it’s much too landscapey. Other than maybe the light, a little bit.” Nutt says they chose “Claude” in large part because no one in the family had that name.

The young family was living in a basement apartment on West Cornelia Avenue in Lake View when Whitney Halstead, an art history professor at the School of the Art Institute, stopped in, having agreed to oversee an independent study class with Nutt. The couple’s living room served as their studio, and when Halstead arrived that first time, they all settled in, with Claude on Nilsson’s lap. Both Nilsson and Nutt had taken art history classes with Halstead, and Nutt had shown slides for his courses. Still, Nutt recalls feeling doubtful about Halstead’s response to his work; Nilsson wondered if she should take Claude and disappear.

Having just celebrated his first birthday, Claude assumed control. He climbed off his mother’s lap, toddled down the hall, returned with one of his birthday balloons, and placed it on Halstead’s lap. Back and forth Claude went until Halstead’s arms were filled with balloons. After that buoyant breakthrough, Halstead was not just Nilsson and Nutt’s teacher; he became their mentor and friend, as well.

The couple met Don Baum through Halstead in 1964, and the following year, Baum gave Nutt, Nilsson, and James Falconer the go-ahead to plan their own show, along with Art Green and Suellen Rocca, at the Hyde Park Art Center and suggested adding Karl Wirsum, another School of the Art Institute alum, to the mix. And so the six initiated a three-year run of accomplishment and revelry in Hyde Park. Even with the Beatles and the Vietnam War in the forefront, the artists made their own way, staking out their time, their place, and their work as an unforgettable happening in art history.

“The Hairy Who sourced surrealism, Art Brut, and the comics,” the private art dealer Karen Lennox says, providing context. “Pop art sourced the world of commercial advertising and popular illustration. One was very personal; the other, anti-personal.”

Many of The Hairy Who’s formative meetings were held at Nilsson and Nutt’s apartment. “Jim had painted the ceiling yellow with blue clouds, and we sat around and did a lot of laughing,” recalls Rocca, now the curator of the art collection and the director of exhibitions at Elmhurst College.

“It was a nice place,” Falconer says. “The used furniture was almost antique.” The gatherings were like listening to radio comedians, like Jack Benny, says Karl Wirsum, a longtime professor at the School of the Art Institute who is now represented by Chicago’s Jean Albano Gallery. Words flipped and flew in their conversations as they did in the artists’ works. Sample titles: Bulging Beatniks, Snake in the Glass, Leg-Leg-Leg, Spawning a Yawn with an Awning On.

“We had a good time responding to one another’s silliness,” says Art Green, who taught at the University of Waterloo in Ontario from 1977 until his retirement in 2005. Green does not remember performing dramatic readings of the Chicago phone book in his sexy, sonorous voice, but Nilsson recalls them with a fond quiver. Although some of the six drank and smoked, they did not do drugs, Green says, at least not in one another’s presence.

A question from Wirsum ended the group’s search for a name. Wirsum was familiar with the work of the Chicago artist Harry Bouras but not with his commentary as a critic for WFMT Radio. Repeated references to Harry and his lofty opinions didn’t click. “Finally, near the end of the evening, my curiosity just got to me, and I thought to myself, If they think I’m a jerk, fine,” Wirsum recalls. “So I said, ‘Harry who?’ And they said, ‘That’s it!’” To make the name more of an inside joke, “Harry” became “Hairy.”

The Hairy Who designed their own comic-book catalogs and installed their own shows, the first in 1966. “One didn’t know where to look first, at the audience or the art on the walls,” the collector and Hyde Park Art Center board member Ruth Horwich says of the group’s packed openings.

“People dressed outrageously,” Rocca recalls. “And Karl had the resale layered look long before it became vogue.” Some of the men appeared priestly in their Nehru jackets, and the ceremonial punch was a Hyde Park Art Center standard: a fifth of Wolfschmidt vodka, a quart of club soda, and six ounces of Rose’s lime juice.

In a 1967 Chicago Daily News review of the second Hairy Who show, the critic Franz Schulze wrote:

[[[They commit rather than withhold themselves. They do not preen. They couldn’t care less whether their message is elegant or profound. . . . They are charmed by anything which is ratty, cheap, ungainly or ludicrous in modern urban culture, but they do not strike any moralistic poses about it. They would rather fantasize about athlete’s foot preparations, old garter belts, and bubble gum than celebrate satyrs, saints, strikers, the harmony of blue and yellow, or the autobiographical implications of a brush stroke.

Furthermore, they make pictures which are lively as mercury and stylistically guileless.]]]

In an accompanying photo of the artists, they are jumping, and Nilsson’s garter belt is revealed. “Where is that garter belt now?” I ask.

“One wonders,” she says.

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The third Hairy Who show, in 1968, traveled to the San Francisco Art Institute; by the time of the last show the following year, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., Nilsson and Nutt had moved to Sacramento, California, where he had accepted a position as an assistant professor of art at Sacramento State College. “I got the job based on reviews of my work in magazines,” Nutt says. “We thought this would be a good opportunity to step back, catch our breath, and work as individual artists,” Nilsson adds, and health and dental insurance were included.

She filled in for classes when needed. Nutt taught painting and drawing, a gallery management seminar, and a film course he called A Night at the Opera and a Day at the Races—until a dean insisted that the title was too silly. That critic later redeemed himself by buying Nilsson and Nutt’s work.

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Sacramento State was in turmoil when Nutt landed there, with younger and older faculty members at odds as the school made the transition from a small teachers college to a university. He dodged those battles and was granted tenure in four years. In 1969, at the suggestion of several artist friends, Nutt and Nilsson met with the Chicago gallery owner Phyllis Kind, who agreed to represent them, and they both mounted solo shows with her the following year.

“It was a wonderful yin and yang they had as an artist couple in the late sixties,” says Karen Lennox, the director of Phyllis Kind’s Chicago gallery from 1971 to 1981 and now a private art dealer. “Everyone bought Gladys’s work first,” she says of The Hairy Who shows. “Everything of hers sold out. And then this big push toward museum exhibitions occurred; it would have been in 1972. And Jim’s career has been driven not by dealers but by important curators and museum people. Walter Hopps, then the director of the Smithsonian Institution, chose Jim to be one of the artists representing the United States in the 1972 Venice Biennale, and that was huge.”

A year later, Nilsson was the first of The Hairy Who artists to have a solo show at the Whitney Museum in New York; she also had the distinction of having two of her paintings stolen from the exhibition. The following year Nutt had his first solo show at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art; the exhibition then traveled to the Walker Art Center and the Whitney.

After four years at Sacramento State, Nilsson and Nutt were selling enough art that he no longer needed to teach full time. “Each year, we would get a little more successful—more or less,” Nutt says. “Not quantum leaps, but things were going along.” In 1974 the couple decided to move back to the Chicago area, where a number of artists whose work they liked and with whom they had exhibited were living—among them, Roger Brown, Christina Ramberg, Philip Hanson, and Barbara Rossi. At the time, of The Hairy Who alums, only Wirsum remained in town.

When Nutt’s family lived in Glenview, he had attended New Trier Township High School, and he and Nilsson thought the school would be a good place for Claude. They bought their house in Wilmette and drove cross-country, just ahead of a brutal snowstorm, arriving at the beginning of January 1976. When a neighbor stopped by to welcome them, she asked when the rest of their furniture would be delivered. That was it, said Nilsson.

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