Gladys Nilsson was born in Chicago in 1940 and grew up visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, which she then attended from 1958 to 1962. In the mid- to late sixties, she was a member of the Hyde Park–based art group the Hairy Who and created exuberant figurative paintings using both acrylic on Plexiglas and vibrant watercolors on paper. While at SAIC, Nilsson studied with the art historian Whitney Halstead, who taught his students to look beyond Western art and also beyond traditional realms of art to more vernacular sources. Though Nilsson has periodically integrated cut-paper elements into her paintings since the sixties, she has recently begun to make heavily collaged works, in the series “Plant” (2010) and “A Walk … ” (2014). But perhaps none of Nilsson’s work exemplifies Halstead’s directive better than the collages currently on view at Garth Greenan Gallery, in New York. The series, called “A Girl in the Arbor” (2013), comprises thirteen lush works, each of a woman sitting on a brown chair under a blue arbor and surrounded by greenery. The surface of each collage is littered with tiny cutouts, some of which compose and adorn the large female figure; many others seem oblivious to her and are engaged in their own affairs.
I met Nilsson the day before her show opened late last month, and we talked over the phone a few weeks later—she, in Chicago, where she still resides—about the intricacies in these collages, her experiences as a budding art student in the city, and the horror of trying on swimsuits.
You visited the Art Institute as a grade-school student and then as an art student, and you’ve said that in that time, it changed from a nineteenth- to a twentieth-century institution. What did you mean?
What I meant when it changed from being a nineteenth-century building into a twentieth-century is that the building had been modernized. Things were hung in new places, and some galleries were configured differently.
When I was in grade school, a friend and I—she and I drew cows—would walk around a bit in the museum, and I remembered a catwalk in the back, over a large area that no one ever went to, that had large plaster casts of building facades and statuary from other times and other places. It stuck in my mind because it was a very curious area. So when I went to school there, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out where this area was. But I couldn’t find it. At first I thought I had imagined the place, until I discovered old pictures in the archives of the museum.
Do you recall looking at Seurat’s painting at the institute?
Yeah, very much so. I wasn’t necessarily crazy about it. I liked it, but it wasn’t a favorite. But I found sitting and looking at it because it had a nice bench in front of it. That it was one of the most soothing things for me—not that I was in turmoil. It was just a very quiet experience, because Seurat has got a lot going on surfacewise. But then it’s also an extremely static painting. I spent a lot of time looking at it, and it’s probably the one painting that I remember most, aside from Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles, which is a whole other thing. Read More