Nilsson and Nutt, in her studio on the third floor of their Wilmette house, with stored works by the couple and other artists in the background.
The setting for the first life-altering exchange between the Chicago artists Gladys Nilsson and Jim Nutt was less than romantic, but their attraction triumphed over harsh lighting and pale food. They met in 1960 in the cafeteria at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
“I was entering the lunchroom, and I looked to the right,” Nutt recalls. “Gladys was all the way in the back, and she was looking right at me.”
“Were you aware of that?” I ask Nilsson.
“Oh, yes, I was waiting for him,” she says.
“Maybe you had been pointed out to me before,” Nutt explains, “because for some reason I realized that was you.”
Perhaps it was the color of her hair. Red, she says. Auburn, he insists. (This is an ongoing debate between these two accomplished colorists.)
“In any case,” Nutt continues, “I got something and then walked straight back and introduced myself, and we immediately sat and talked. My memory is that there was a little spotlight or highlight on her face, and the look on her face, as I’ve learned, was a very typical smiling look.”
Nilsson, 20, was a third-year student. Having transferred from other schools, Nutt was required to retake courses; he was 22 and a first-year student.
“I was sort of intrigued by him, and I thought he was cute,” Nilsson recalls. “We didn’t have any classes in common, but I was hoping to run into him at some point, and there he was.”
“Do you remember what the conversation was about?” I ask.
“Unfortunately, yes, we do,” Nutt says.
“Oh, it was so coy,” Nilsson admits.
“Well, I had this little nugget of information about a study that had been done about carrots and eyesight,” Nutt says. “It was commonly known that carrots assisted your eyesight. And apparently, in studying this with truck drivers, what was discovered was that it wasn’t so much the chemicals that gave you good eyesight but the indigestion that kept you awake.”
“This is such a seductive story,” I say.
“As it turned out, it really worked,” Nutt explains. “She was just the right person to share this with.”
“Because I ate a lot of carrots,” Nilsson says.
“It was also probably an example of my social skills after moving every two years,” Nutt says, referring to his family’s peripatetic lifestyle.
“One or the other of us had a plate with terrible-looking chicken legs that were boiled, as opposed to crisp,” Nilsson says. “So it was this paltry skin, mashed potatoes, and carrots. And I think it was the carrots that started the conversation.”
And what happened after that first meeting?
“We started seeing each other immediately,” Nutt says.
Six months later, on July 1, 1961, they were married in a small chapel on the campus of Northwestern University. Nilsson wore a white dress with pouffy sleeves and a square neckline; Nutt wore a gray-green summer suit.
Did they consider living together and not getting married?
“That was not an option,” Nilsson says. “Not with my parents. No, we wanted to get married. He proposed, and I said yes.”
Nilsson and Nutt finished school and, in 1964, began to exhibit their work in large group shows at the Hyde Park Art Center, where they taught children’s classes. The following year, Nutt suggested a show with fewer artists and more works to Don Baum, the center’s exhibition director, and the raucous, irreverent group of six known as The Hairy Who took hold. Propelled by wit, wordplay, and talent, the artists—Art Green, James Falconer, Nilsson, Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—became a sensation both locally and nationally. As one critic observed, New York artists might be cool, but The Hairy Who were hot. After five exhibitions, the members went their own ways and achieved significant careers in their own right, but for each of them, that time remains extraordinary.
For Nilsson and Nutt, 2011 is a landmark year. From January 29th through May 29th, the Museum of Contemporary Art presents a retrospective of Nutt’s work entitled Jim Nutt: Coming into Character. Nutt is now 72, but those who know him well would say that he has always been a character. Last spring, Nilsson’s 70th birthday was acknowledged with a retrospective at Chicago’s Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art. In July, Nutt and Nilsson will celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary—all reasons to check in with the couple, review some scenes from their lives, and generally be nosy. And in Nutt’s portraits of women, the noses are large.
* * *
Photograph: Anna Knott
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
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.
* * *
“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.’”
* * *
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.