Ronald Sukenik, author of Up (1968) and Out: A Novel (1973), told me that you became a writer when you reach that moment in your writing when you faced embarrassment and kept on going.
This was more than thirty years ago and I am probably misremembering our only conversation, but the impression I was left with that day was that in order to be a writer you had to go past all the things that might cause you to stop, with embarrassment being one of them. Gladys Nilsson cycled past that and many other barriers long ago, but it seems the art world has not been ready to deal with it for the past twenty-five years. Maybe now it is.
In her exhibition Gladys Nilsson: the 1980s at Garth Greenan Gallery (January 12–February 18, 2017), the artist shows twelve watercolors measuring 40 by 60 inches, done between 1984 and ’87, most of which have never been seen before. There are also two small watercolors measuring less than six by six inches. By electing to work in these divergent scales, Nilsson continually finds ways to test herself, to find out whether she can extend what she has already achieved in the medium of watercolor, which is nothing short of amazing.
The largest work in the show, “Léger Faire” (1986-87), is a diptych, with each sheet measuring 60 x 40 inches. It belongs in a museum. As the punning title suggests, the watercolor is Nilsson’s re-imagining of Fernand Léger, specifically his paintings of construction workers, such as the series of twelve he completed around 1950. Léger, who was a member of the communist party, wanted to celebrate the rebuilding of France after World War II by laborers. With its echo of “laissez-fair,” Nilsson’s title suggests that she is celebrating the opposite, free market capitalism, though I don’t think that is actually the case.
In each sheet of Nilsson’s diptych, bevies of carpenters (varying from oversized to diminutive) are working on a house frame. All the carpenters in the left panel are men, while all the ones in the right panel are women. The verticals and diagonals formed by the house frame serve to section off the watercolor, effectively establishing discrete zones of different shapes and sizes. The four largest figures occupy the largest zone, and those gathered on different beams just above and below them are considerably smaller, as if they are further away. The scale shift evokes perspective and space.
There are clusters of figures in each sheet, forming little groups within the overall group, like what happens at a party. The men are bald and many of them have huge conical crotches, as if they are wearing codpieces under their pants. In this and other details, it is clear that Nilsson has drawn on a multitude of traditions to make work that is identifiably hers. In her sectioning off of the surface — in order to establish an environment for her figures — Nilsson’s formal sense of composition derives from Synthetic Cubism and Suprematism, which is to say she is a master of establishing a dynamic, flattened background-space in which to set her figures.
Look at all the different things she does in “Léger Faire.” What about the way the color of the largest figures’ clothes and skin are mirrored by their counterparts? Look at the man and woman in their respective triangles, which are formed by the beams of the house frame’s pitched roof: Their poses complement each other, and you don’t need to be a rocket scientist to guess what that look they are giving each other is conveying. Once you notice the various links — through color, for example — you begin to look for the differences. This is Nilsson’s genius. She knows how to keep the viewer looking in ways that are both pleasurable and challenging. Her mastery of watercolor is unrivaled. She can go from mottled shapes to evenly colored areas and make it all seem so easy.
Years ago, when Frank Stella famously said, “What you see is what you see,” he was making it simple for the mainstream art establishment. All they needed to do was recognize the brand label. Good taste and the right amount of money was enough to obtain a wall-size trophy, or what Thomas Nozkowski called the “800 pound gorilla in the room” Not only was Stella’s statement a misreading of Jasper Johns’ “flags” and “targets,” but it was a blanket denial of something as messy as meaning, as anarchic as humor, as mortifying as humans interacting with their bodies (scratching their dugs, for example), and as disquieting as ripe sexuality, all of which you are apt to find some aspect of in a Nilsson work.
It is Nilsson’s attention to awkward and unconscious things that people do to themselves while out in public that makes her work fascinating to look at. Why has that figure in “Red Wall” (1987) reached under her armpit? Is it to scratch her back? She’s looking at her four fingers poking out from behind her arm, as if they belong to someone else. Maybe they do. What about the woman in “Vested Interest” (1987), who, while walking, has reached down behind her left leg to scratch the inside of her thigh? Is she doing this because she thinks no one will notice? Each of the other large figures in “Vested Interest” seem to be going through a similar moment of adjustment and momentary shame. Their expressions are distinct, comic, and revealing. Meanwhile, what about the smaller figures in the work? What are they up to? What are all those little men in hats thinking about?
In Nilsson’s imaginative domain, there are least two worlds based on size, as if she has combined the main panel of an altarpiece with its predella. During the Renaissance, the main panel was usually a static view of an individual or group, while the predella beneath it was full of narrative depictions. Nilsson brings large and small together. She has so much affection for human foibles and goofiness that everyone pictured in her work gives you something to consider. It’s the kind of attention that we associate with Pieter Breughel’s genre scenes crammed with hearty peasants. To her credit, Nilsson has brought that satiric, sympathetic possibility forward to the present. In doing so, she reminds us that nothing is exhausted if someone can come along and make it fresh again.