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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Today, Arts and Crafts furniture defines the seating area in Nutt and Nilsson’s living room. At our meetings, from my designated chair in the nearby dining room, I face not only Nutt but also an elegant Roycroft sideboard. Nilsson politely refills my coffee cup while I grill them.

How do Nilsson and Nutt exist together? Closely but independently.

“We don’t eat breakfast together; we don’t do lunch together; we do dinner together,” Nilsson says. In the morning, she runs errands, going to the grocery store, the library, the bank, doing what needs to be done—her idea of charging up for the day. She walks; she doesn’t drive. Nilsson works in the afternoon, she says, but not as often at night as she once did.

Nutt feels compelled to amend that story: “I would say that, basically, out of 365 days a year, she is probably doing artwork on about 350 of them. She does a little something day to day; she is continually doing it. I’m not like that at all.”

Nilsson, who worked in oils before she became pregnant with Claude and switched to watercolors to avoid using turpentine, can spend a month or more on a painting. Nutt, who paints in acrylics, can work on a portrait for a year or longer.

Nutt has been busy settling the estate of his father, who died in 2009, although last year he had a well-received show at New York’s David Nolan Gallery, where he has been exhibiting since 1999. In a New York Times review of the show, Roberta Smith wrote: “Jim Nutt works slowly, so an exhibition of three new, and newish, paintings and seven drawings mostly finished this year feels like a gift. The works are all portraits of women. They look back to Van Eyck, Ingres and Salvador Dalí for their extreme refinement and intense lucidity, but not for their intense realism.” Smith concluded that “this display is also a sad reminder that no New York museum has had the vision to assemble a full-dress Jim Nutt retrospective.”

“I’m going to have to get into the studio right away and get into a work schedule,” Nutt says. “I’m feeling extremely guilty about not doing that. But I tend to work in different spurts. It’s typical after getting work done for a show that I don’t work for a period of time, and then I go back to work.”

Three years ago, Nilsson moved from a smaller studio on the second floor of their house to Nutt’s larger room on the third floor, and he relocated to a studio space in Evanston. He says that he found the repairs that needed to be done in the house too distracting. When I ask him about his new studio, he says there is nothing to see, although a neighbor tells me that it is equipped with a putting green.

In her studio, along with photos of family and friends, Nilsson displays snapshots of the many cats she and Nutt have had over the years: Pussy, Hubert, Brenda, Fred, Rosemary, Dewey, Emma, Hank, and Olivia. Not pictured: Elmer. “He was deceased before we started taking pictures,” Nilsson explains. Currently, they are without felines; I urge them to check out the blog The Catorialist and start stocking up. (Five of The Hairy Who artists are cat people; the one who is not will remain unidentified.)

And The Hairy Who still rule: In 2003, The Ganzfeld #3, a New York art magazine, published a long feature on the group, and last fall, Wirsum had a show of his drawings from 1967 to 1970 at New York’s Derek Eller Gallery.

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“I’ve read that you don’t criticize each other’s work,” I say.

“That’s why we’ve been married for 50 years,” Nilsson explains.

“Does that mean you don’t discuss it at all?”

“Pretty much,” says Nutt. “Early on, I would see some of her work, and I would start to make some suggestions. And I finally realized that, for good reason, Gladys wasn’t interested in my suggestions, and I caught on that it wasn’t a good idea.”

“The conceptual, philosophical questions about art are not part of our conversations,” he adds later.

“I think everyone assumes that we have these very deep conversations,” Nilsson says. “Little do they know that we’re really not very deep.”

In her studio, she plays country and western, rock ’n’ roll, easy-listening radio from the eighties, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He tunes in to classical music and opera. She reads fiction—not short stories or the heavy tomes of her younger years but airport trash and thrillers. He is committed to The New York Times and its op-ed columnists, including Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, and Thomas L. Friedman.

They subscribe to Lyric Opera of Chicago and Chicago Opera Theatre and often go to Lyric productions twice. They have seats in the first or second row and also in the dress circle. “I like to sit close, and Gladys likes to sit up higher, at a distance, where she can see the staging,” Nutt says.

When they go to museums, they set a time to reconvene and split up. “We go our separate ways because we have a very different pace,” Nilsson says. An abbreviated list of the artists they admire includes H. C. Westermann, James Ensor, Max Beckmann, Jean Dubuffet, Edvard Munch, Joan Miró, and Paul Klee. Nutt is also drawn to Japanese and Persian work; Nilsson, to Egyptian.

On nights at home, Nilsson and Nutt try to keep up with Netflix. Recently they watched Andrei Rublov, a three-and-a-half-hour film about the 15th-century icon painter, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky in 1965. “It was a very depressing realization of what life was like probably everywhere in Europe,” Nutt says. “Touching on all kinds of things,” Nilsson adds, “the pillaging of churches, gouging people’s eyes out if they wanted to work for someone else. But I didn’t want to stop watching it—it was fascinating.”

Preston Sturges movies are favorites, and his style has been an inspiration for Nilsson. “There’s a lot going on in the foreground, and then there’s also something developing in the background, so there are two structures going on,” she says. Most of Nilsson’s paintings have a similar narrative complexity, featuring a large figure with smaller characters adding other layers of meaning to the story that is still unfolding.

Jean Albano, Nilsson’s dealer, tells me people do not want to know what Nilsson and Nutt are thinking. They want to know the couple’s golf scores, their favorite restaurants.

“Where do you like to have dinner?” I ask Nilsson and Nutt.

“The place that we really liked to have dinner no longer exists,” Nutt says. “That was our favorite place, Café Provençal.” The award-winning Evanston restaurant closed in 1993. Now, they often stop at the Convito Café & Market in Wilmette.

I mention that Benita Eisler, a biographer of Alfred Stieglitz and Georgia O’Keeffe, married artists who seemed to get along better when they lived in different states, had benefited from access to hundreds of the couple’s letters. Perhaps Nutt and Nilsson had a similar trove they would like to share with me? Nutt’s response: “We leave each other notes saying, ‘I’m going out.’”

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