Gladys Nilsson (b. 1940, Chicago, USA) studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, 1958-62. In 1973, Nilsson was among the first women to have a solo exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art (New York, USA.) She lives and works in Chicago, USA.


Gladys Nilsson first came to prominence in 1966, as a member of a group of graduates (Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, Art Green and Jim Falconer) who exhibited under the moniker Hairy Who at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center. Despite only exhibiting together for three years from 1966-69, these shows are now cited as the first defining moments of Chicago Imagism.


Nilsson’s work is enlivened with playful narratives which begin in the real world – a self-proclaimed voyeur, she looks closely at human interactions which she transforms into a universe of her own creation. From a blue-collar background, Nilsson thinks there is a lot to be said for simply getting through the day – ‘I like to celebrate small things.’[1] Monumentalising the humdrum, Nilsson plots big moments and absurd twists for her idiosyncratic characters - favouring humour over realism, limbs unnaturally contort and curve. 


Unencumbered by the rules of gravity, scale or proportion, figures of varying sizes fill the frame. Drawing inspiration from fine art and mass culture, she attributes rapid scale change to both an appreciation for Renaissance alter pieces and growing up with the Sears catalogue which formatted clothing advertisements with a large image alongside smaller images of all the available colours. 


A Window (2014) series highlights Nilsson’s sophisticated use of line. While drawing has always been structurally integral to the artist’s paintings, the sketches are usually disguised under a dense layering of watercolour – however, in this body of work the process is revealed. Celebrating gesture, the artist allows the viewer to see the rough drawing, scribbling and erasing followed by lines growing darker and sharper, with Nilsson stating that these recent works ‘explore the joy of moving.’[2] Her confident application of lines snake around organic forms with ‘a vitality and independence similar to the linear patterns of Celtic designs or late medieval manuscript illuminations.’[3]


[1]Nilsson, G. in Interview With Gladys Nilsson: Painting Stories, Painting Life (2008) [accessed: 6/12/18] 
[2]Nadel, D. Gladys Nilsson quoted in Gladys Nilsson, Garth Greenan Gallery: 2014, p38
[3]Bowman, R. Gladys Nilsson: Greatest Hits from Chicago, Selected Works 1967-84, Randolph Street Gallery, Chicago, IL, USA: 1984, p15



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May 28, 2020