Born in Chicago in 1940, Gladys Nilsson studied painting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She first came to prominence in 1966, when she joined five other recent Art Institute graduates (Jim Falconer, Art Green, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum) for the first of a series of group exhibitions called the Hairy Who. In 1973, she became one of the first women to have a solo-exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art. In 1990, she accepted a teaching position at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where she is now a professor.
Nilsson is known for her densely layered and meticulously constructed watercolors and collages. Like many of the Hairy Who artists, Nilsson employed a type of horror vacui; many of her works feel filled to the brim with winding, playful imagery. Her work often focuses on aspects of human sexuality and its inherent contradictions.
Since 1966, Nilsson’s work has been the subject of over 50 solo exhibitions, including sixteen at Phyllis Kind Gallery (1970–1979, 1981–1983, 1987, 1991, and 1994, Chicago and New York), and two at The Candy Store (1971 and 1987, Folsom, California). Her work has also been featured in many important museum exhibitions, such as: Human Concern/Personal Torment (1969, Whitney Museum of American Art); Who Chicago? (1981, Camden Art Center, London); Parallel Visions: Modern Artists and Outsider Art (1992, Los Angeles County Museum of Art); and Chicago Imagists (2011, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin); and What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present (2014, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence).
Nilsson’s work is featured in the collections of major museums around the world, including: the Art Institute of Chicago; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art, Wisconsin; the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Morgan Library, New York; the Museum Moderner Kunst, Vienna; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art; the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.