What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960s to the Present at Matthew Marks Gallery

This summer Matthew Marks Gallery lent its three Chelsea spaces to What Nerve!: Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960s to the Present. Showcasing work by collectives from “alternative” locales, the exhibition sought to expose the twentieth-century New York art hegemony from within. In his New Yorker review, Peter Schjeldahl wrote that the exhibited artists’ mutual “outlandishness stems from non-New York (even anti-New York) roots.” Like many critics, and like What Nerve!’s curators, Schjeldahl positions groups like Chicago’s Hairy Who or the Bay Area’s Funk Artists in relation—specifically, in opposition—to their New York contemporaries (namely, for the Hairy Who, Pop Artists and Minimalists). Such a positioning, however, is delicate: correct in some ways, harmful in others.

Although all of the artists on display in What Nerve! share “outlandish” interests in color and content, as well as extra-Manhattan origins, their work cannot be properly amalgamated. There is no real “stem,” as Schjeldahl suggests—aesthetic and ideological dotted lines course through the show, not continuous threads. Hairy Who artists like Karl Wirsum, for instance, employ kitsch as a means of exploring aesthetic and emotional ranges, whereas Funk members like Peter Saul charge their kitsch images with explicit politics. But Schjeldahl’s passing claim frames distinct cultural movements in New York-ian terms, stripping them of their local color. Despite his subtle Manhattan Exceptionalism, though, the critic has a point: living outside of New York indeed helped the collectives in What Nerve! traverse artistic ground untouched by New York artists, who more often than not are forced to consider the proximal trends and markets.

So, non-New York: sure. But anti-New York? The Hairy Who in particular did not appear to care enough about New York to oppose it. “I don’t think it was a product of trying to do something different,” Hairy Who’s Jim Nutt told Richard Hull in a 2010 interview. “It could be explained by the fact that all the people who weren’t interested in this sort of thing left town, and we were the only people left.” Nutt and his cohorts were less “anti-New York” than New York was (and is) “anti-them.” The Hairy Who’s distance from New York only exposes its dominance. Hairy Who work rarely shares Manhattan gallery or magazine space with the Pop Art to which it is often compared, a fact that bolsters What Nerve!’s claims to the “alternative.” But this “alternative” character of ultimately affirms that established notions of genre, taste, and art-historical and -critical consensus in the contemporary era stem from pro-New York roots—and while these establishments may be on their way to dissolving, they persist for now.

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The Hairy Who existed as a unit in the second half of the 1960s, a time for Pop and Minimalism in New York. All of the Hairy Who’s members studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and exhibited together at Chicago’s Hyde Park Art Center, an important venue for them and their similar-minded Imagist peers like Ed Paschke and Roger Brown. They enjoyed local success then and, following the group’s dissolution, many of its artists have continued to enjoy the same. Fifty years on, however, despite the occasional middle-tier New York gallery show and correlative New York Times review, Jim Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum rarely see their work in larger museums and remain on the outskirts of contemporary art history.

When they get their due, as with What Nerve!, critics besides Schjeldahl are likewise quick to contextualize the work in relation to better-known ‘60s material. In a 2011 review of a Jim Nutt show in Chicago, Modern Painters’s Jason Foumberg refers to Nutt and the Hairy Who as “the dirty uncle of New York Pop.” Foumberg then identifies similarities between Nutt and canonized Pop Artists, namely their mutual use of department store and magazine imagery. Like Schjeldahl’s, Foumberg’s review is positive and insightful; however, linking the Hairy Who to New York Pop in such a way suggests the former as an aesthetic appendage. Nutt denies interest in, or even awareness of, New York Pop during the 1960s. “Being in St. Louis and in Chicago, there wasn’t a great deal of contemporary art,” Nutt said in his interview with Hull.

The work on display in What Nerve! affirms this disjunction. Jim Nutt’s 1968 piece Wow rejects comparisons to then-contemporary New York art despite its cartoon-ish forms and colors (oft-used by Pop artists) and its shaped canvas (a popular technique for Pop artists and Minimalists alike). The flatness of Nutt’s composition, in conjunction with its general silliness, undoubtedly turns the viewer’s thoughts to comic books; but instead of cribbing pop culture like Roy Lichtenstein, Nutt crafts his own character—a monstrous woman whose geometric face and extended limbs liken her, if anything, more to the work of Joan Miró than the Sunday newspaper. And although Gladys Nilsson’s playful collage-painting Very Worldly shares the color palette of a newspaper—or of Lichtenstein’s Tire—its fluid and overpowering mixture of surrealist, comic book, and pop culture imagery gives the piece a pan-cultural dynamism that directly opposes Lichtenstein’s passive, black-and-white objectivity.

Nutt and Nilsson’s gleeful approaches relate less to Pop than they do to “Camp” as articulated by Susan Sontag. “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” Sontag explains in 1964’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Wow and Very Worldly, unlike many pieces by Lichtenstein or Warhol, make no appeals to the commonplace, to the “real.” They are literal masquerades, their characters wearing all kinds of unique, often grotesque, masks. The artists collect from—and distort—a variety of visual sources spread across time, space, and taste, from Ingres to R. Crumb. In each instance, Nutt and Nilsson refrain from postmodern commentary. In its place, they offer another postmodern tactic, shared with filmmakers like Jack Smith and designers like Robert Venturi: overload, which is to say dense compositions that freely synthesize influences old and new, “good” and “bad.”1

The Hairy Who artists were more interested in exploring these parameters and hierarchies of taste and history than of economics and artistic labor, like Andy Warhol or Robert Morris, a Minimalist. Set in the Midwestern United States, apart from New York’s fast-moving developments of postmodern art, thought, and commerce, the Hairy Who drew from books and from museums such as the Art Institute of Chicago or, by Nutt’s admittance, Chicago’s natural history museum, The Field. “Ninety percent of the class assignments [in art school] had to be done while at The Field Museum,” he mentioned. “The school was in quarters at the time I took the ethnographic class: the first quarter was African, the second was American Indian, and the last, Oceania.” This childlike appetite for unmitigated knowledge and inspiration manifests itself in Nutt’s ever-evolving, always delicately outrageous aesthetic style.

It betrays, too, the Hairy Who’s humanity—a quality J. Frueh presciently dubbed “emotional realism” in an otherwise messy 1978 Artforum review. In Wow Nutt uses geometric and surrealist imagery to communicate his subject’s emotional complexity; he offers an ostensibly happy woman, saying “wow,” who because of the way her eyes separate and her body contorts implies a sense of hidden unease. Karl Wirsum’s Schlitzie likewise implicates darkness beneath a smile; the combine piece comprises a bust of a developmentally-disabled girl propped upon an endtable. Of course, in addition to playing on emotions, Wirsum also bends conceptions of taste beyond their breaking point with his pseudo-furniture, affirming Sontag’s claim that “Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

Included, too, in this questionable play on “high” and “low” or “what is art” is a grasp for emotion, for human connection, for innocence—the innocence Wirsum, for better or for worse, ascribes to Schlitzie herself. In Camera Lucida Roland Barthes finds beauty in a similar image, Lewis Hine’s photograph of two similarly disabled young people. Barthes, like Wirsum, uses the image as a conduit for human connection, for skipping across the line between art and life. “I am a primitive, a child—or a maniac,” Barthes writes, describing his reaction to the photograph; “I dismiss all knowledge, all culture. I refuse to inherit anything from another eye than my own.”

Whereas Barthes uses his image’s innocence to escape established cultural trappings, though, Wirsum uses his to interrogate them. Sontag further locates this earnest-but-uncouth tendency in Camp, suggesting, “Camp discloses innocence, but also, when it can, corrupts it.” Often, Hairy Who pieces read as tests: what do you see here, Nilsson seems to ask with the cluttered Very Worldly. What do you feel, how does this or that fit, where does it come from, where is it going, is this okay? “I don’t think [their teachers] were asking you to look beyond anything,” Nutt said. “They were saying, ‘You should consider this, along with everything else.’ In other words, they weren’t promoting [the taught content] as something beyond, they were saying, ‘It’s a part of it.’” The Hairy Who forge unseen, sometimes taboo, connections from across history, across the globe.

For a ‘60s New York art world so concerned then and now with the up-to-the-minute, nitty-gritty distinctions between Minimalism and Pop Art, how could something like Schlitzie—a bad-taste piece of furniture, like a childish take on an outmoded Rauschenberg piece—bare any importance?

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Indeed, New York’s hegemonic structures did not harm just “outsiders” but New York artists as well. Art critics and curators frequently sought to define the emergent New York school, “Minimalism,” in the mid-‘60s. Barbara Rose proposed the term “ABC Art” in 1965, which in 1967 morphed into “Minimal Art” for Clement Greenberg and “Literalism” for Michael Fried. But Donald Judd, “Minimalist” par excellence, dismissed this rhetoric. In his 1965 essay “Specific Objects,” Judd states, “The new three-dimensional work doesn’t constitute a movement, school or style.” To him, there was an exciting new wave of art in New York City; however, it was neither “Minimalism” nor “Literalism.” Instead, it was “Specific Objects,” an umbrella term that included not only Judd and Robert Morris’s simple geometric forms, but also Claes Oldenburg’s grotesque “Pop” sculptures. No matter Judd’s objections, however, MoMA and the Whitney maintain separate galleries for “Pop” and “Minimalism” to this day.

That Judd, an active critic himself before his art career took off, rejects accepted New York trends—movements, schools, styles—speaks to their ultimate intrusions upon artistic practices. Jim Nutt and the rest of the Hairy Who demonstrate similar, though less pointed, disregard for codified conceptions of art. One can imagine a young artist in New York in the mid-’60s reading Art News or going to Green Gallery and thinking they had two equally restrictive options: to make Pop or Minimal Art. Working in Chicago, their studios alight with historical texts, comic books, and decorative art—and without art-market distractions—the Hairy Who happily avoided those restrictions.

They also avoided other consequences of art-world hierarchies. Nilsson, speaking with Hull, noted the comparative gender equality in Chicago’s ‘60s art scene. “When we were showing in groups here in Chicago,” she said, “there wasn’t any difference gender-wise. It was all about your art.” Nilsson added, “what I’ve heard from women in other cities is that the good ol’ boy system was really heavy.” Where Chicago’s numerous art collectives often split down the middle in terms of men and women, women artists were generally absent from New York galleries. The only canonical woman Minimalist, Anne Truitt, received scorn from Judd and his fellow male artists because of her more traditional, painterly approach.2

The practice of defining rigid hierarchies within art criticism and exhibition reveals itself to correlate to the overarching hierarchies that govern the New York art world and the surrounding society, in the thralls of civil and women’s rights movements, at large. Eventually, New York alienated even its brightest stars; in the 1970s artists like Judd, Robert Smithson, and many others moved west, in search of the unmitigated perspectives “alternative” artists from other locales had all along.




Images courtesy of Matthew Marks Gallery unless otherwise noted.

  1. The Sontag-approved Jack Smith was New York’s chief practitioner of Camp; it may be no coincidence that he, like the Hairy Who, is often omitted from major museums and publications on ‘60s American art.
  2. For Minimalism in the public eye, at least, women belonged in “minimal” clothing, photographed in demure poses for Harper’s Bazaar next to “serious” artists like Judd and Ellsworth Kelly (a real spread, published in the July 1966 issue of the magazine).

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