Artist Gladys Nilsson is known for densely layered, stunning watercolor paintings and collages of people performing everyday activities of life in an absurd manner. Her overlapping colors are forceful, her imagery is sometimes bizarre, and the scale of her paintings are at times monumental. Her cartoonish and surreal style gives exuberance to her paintings in playful imaginings of various narratives in a fantasy world.
Nilsson attended the School of the Art Institute of Chicago where she met and married fellow student, the artist Jim Nutt. The two were among the original members of the Hairy Who, a group of young graduates from the Institute who made figurative art, that was rooted in the Surrealist traditions of the mid-1960s Chicago art scene. Their art could be vulgar, loud, and amusing with psychedelic patterns and clashing colors.
While Nilsson first painted in oil, she switched to watercolor when she was pregnant to avoid the dangers of turpentine. She painted watercolors with delicacy with colorful geometric shapes in the background, inspired by German Expressionist film. Sometimes these abstract forms played a narrative role in her work. “Watercolor is my primary medium – because I enjoy how far I can take those subtleties. My fingers and my brain and my brushes just die in the pigment, I love it so much.”
While her works have primarily been watercolor on paper, in 1966 she used a graphic technique by painting with acrylic paint on the back of a Plexiglas sheet. She applied paint to the opposite side of the sheet so that the image would be seen through the clear plastic. She had to lay down each layer in reverse order, and this required a more graphic composition. “The line is the first thing you put down, and everything else builds from that.” She also combined collage with gouache, colored pencil, and watercolor on paper portraying the human figure in “a certain kind of distortion” in inventive scenarios.
After 1970, she returned to painting on canvas. Her work often focused on aspects of human sexuality. Although idiosyncratic figures and graphic objects were in her paintings, they are often centered around a single protagonist. “I would draw a big figure, but that figure always needed another figure, and then those two figures needed a third to interact with. And then, before I knew it, the whole place would be teeming.”
Nilsson was one of the first women to have a solo-exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Other solo exhibitions of her work have taken place at Sacramento’s Crocker Art Museum, Chicago’s Ukrainian Institute of Modern Art, and art galleries of various universities.
Nilsson’s work is in the collections of numerous museums including the Art Institute of Chicago, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Milwaukee Art Museum, New York’s Morgan Library, the Museum of Modern Art, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Whitney Museum of American Art, among others.