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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After we settle in for our last meeting in Nilsson and Nutt’s dining room, I tell them that if I thought I could write it off as an expense, I would have brought a hypnotist and a psychoanalyst with me. Maybe then we could make some headway with the big, pesky art questions. Instead, I read them a quote by Calvin Tompkins about the artists Susan Rothenberg and Bruce Nauman from a 2009 New Yorker story: “The marriage was something the art world rarely sees: two major talents working at a very high level without competition or interference.”

Nilsson blushes. “I don’t think I’m at as high a level,” she says. “We’re both highly visible in a lot of places. We’ve both had our successes. I don’t know how to respond to that.”

“There are a lot of artist couples who have comparable or noncompeting careers,” Nutt says.

I change tactics. “Why isn’t your hair gray?” I ask Nutt. After all, he is 72. His mustache is gray, but much of the hair on his head is still light brown. “My mustache used to be red, and my hair was never red,” he says.

“I think when you had a lot of facial hair, it was referred to as a ginger beard,” Nilsson says. “Your hair was not ginger.”

At an earlier meeting, Suellen Rocca tells me that the content of Nilsson and Nutt’s work is both sexual “and humorous. Sometimes, with Jim, darkly humorous,” and, with Gladys, playful. “For both, the work is very much about sexuality, and I think sometimes they are characters in their own work.”

So I press ahead.

“Why do you have so many large breasts and phalluses in your work?” I ask Nilsson. “That’s an easy way to differentiate between male and female,” she says. Nutt laughs so hard I think he might start sobbing. “Actually, she’s got some real flat-chested women in her work,” he says. “I was just looking at one the other night, and it was excruciatingly flat.” In Nilsson’s earlier work, they say, the figures were large and bulbous all over, not just in the areas of the usual protuberances.

“So what’s the deal with the noses?” I ask Nutt about his portraits of women. “They’ve got to be in the center of the face,” he says. “Otherwise, there are problems. There are limits to which you can move a nose around before people get upset.”

Young artists, Nutt says, are more adept at explaining their work; he and Nilsson would know because they both teach at the School of the Art Institute. Nutt says that, for the most part, his generation does not engage that way. When asked about his early work’s distorted and mutilated figures in an interview by the critic Russell Bowman for a 1978 issue of Arts Magazine, Nutt replied, “The specific meaning of the paintings I can’t really explain to myself or anyone else. It’s not very clear to me.”

In 1994, when Bowman was the director of the Milwaukee Art Museum, he produced a retrospective of Nutt’s work. “I think at the time there was less widespread recognition of his later work than there is now,” says Bowman, since 2002 a Chicago-based art adviser. “I like to think that retrospective brought attention back to his work. It was well reviewed, and it traveled across the country, although I think the real reason that people took notice was because the work has continued to develop.”

Nutt’s portraits of women, Bowman says, “are a kind of classical phase of Jim Nutt, but they’re still quite strange images when you examine them carefully.”

So what’s with the noses? I ask Bowman.

“Just an area for play,” he says. “He’s playing with form. He’s using the nose as a jumping-off point.”

Like Rocca, Bowman brings up the sexual charge in Nilsson and Nutt’s work: “In a laughing way, I always say, ‘Is it really them, really the interaction between them?’ I don’t think it is that in any literal way, but certainly all those interactions on all those various levels have to be about their life experience. Gladys’s work is more obviously about the domestic world, her life or women’s lives. I think her work is more readable as personal, and Jim’s takes that same interaction to a more almost psychological plane.”

“I wonder if they’re secretly all portraits of Gladys,” the Evanston art and antiques dealer Harvey Pranian says of Nutt’s later work. Pranian has known Nilsson and Nutt for more than 30 years and was the source for their José Machado whirligigs and a number of other objects in their collection, including a delicately carved 19th-century folding chair by the Indiana artist Hosea Hayden.

Pranian recalls helping the couple negotiate a price with another dealer at an antiques show in Winnetka for mid-19th-century American portraits of a man and a woman. He believes Nutt has been highly influenced by 18th- and 19th-century folk portraits. “A lot of these have some sense of severity about them, and they’re all stylized,” Pranian says.

James Falconer, who returned to Chicago five years ago after spending 32 years in New York, most recently as a designer and builder of recording studios, zooms in on the differences in approach he sees between Nilsson and Nutt: “Jim is very analytical and precise; he can be very detail prone. Gladys is more open, emotional. It’s a broader approach to what’s there, whereas Jim is very specific.”

Why do you think they’ve been married so long? I ask Falconer. “Lack of imagination,” he says jokingly.

Lynne Warren, the Museum of Contemporary Art curator behind Nutt’s current show, is next in line to salute him. In her essay for the exhibition catalog, she writes: “[In] a time when the sheer multiplicity of visual expressions can make it seem there is nothing new under the sun, the experience of Nutt’s singularly distinctive work offers a respite during which one’s eyes can delight in the act of seeing.”

That should be true of the cake for Nilsson and Nutt’s 50th wedding anniversary, as well. It should be a towering white confection covered in carrots crafted from orange frosting—for the remembrance of an immediate attraction and a longtime love.

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