'What Nerve!' Opens at the RISD Museum in September

  • PROVIDENCE, Rhode Island
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  • August 20, 2014

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Karl Wirsum, "Show Girl I," 1969. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Karin Tappendorf.

The RISD Museum explores an alternate history of contemporary American art this fall in What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present.

The exhibition opens with a Design the Night celebration, and an afternoon of Critical Encounters gallery conversations with curators, art historians, and several of the featured artists on September 19. What Nerve! is on view from mid-September through January 4, 2015.

“The RISD Museum is excited to present this ambitious exhibition,” says John W. Smith, Museum Director. “Both individually and collectively, the artists represented in What Nerve! have had a profound impact on contemporary art—yet, with few exceptions, they remain under-examined. I’m confident that this exhibition and its accompanying catalogue will open up dynamic new conversations within our community and beyond, and bring these artists much deserved attention, scholarly and otherwise.”

What Nerve!
traces a history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular imagery that has been largely overlooked and undervalued relative to modernist abstraction and conceptual art. Since the 1960s, many artists working outside New York developed idiosyncratic forms of figuration, unsettling the strict rationales of dominant visual and theoretical trends. When confronted with a system that might seem impenetrable, outsiders often band together, and four important regional gatherings of artists across the nation generated powerful ripples in the art world and beyond.

At the heart of What Nerve! is a re-creation of these four crucial exhibitions, happenings, spaces, and groups: Hairy Who in Chicago, Funk in San Francisco, Destroy All Monsters in Ann Arbor, and Forcefield in Providence. These installations are linked together by six influential or intersecting artists who similarly grappled with figurative and expressive interests. Radiating outward as spokes of connection, these artists— William Copley, Jack Kirby, Elizabeth Murray, Gary Panter, Christina Ramberg and H.C. Westermann—were markedly influenced by, or a crucial influence on, the four artist groups or hubs at the core of the exhibition.

“The groups and individual artists represented in What Nerve! were not naïve or unaware of the art world around them, they simply trafficked in an alternate history, which is explored in this exhibition and book,” says curator Dan Nadel.

All of the artists in What Nerve! ran against the modernist grain and its emphasis on theory. Rather than attempting to compete with mainstream modernism, their influences ran towards comics, folk art, and vernacular signage—as well as the vulgar, profane, and out-of-bounds. Instead of distancing their art through irony or institutional critique, they seized imagery and ideas from vernacular sources as diverse as comics and pottery, pulling and reshaping material from their environments to tackle a variety of subjects with equal doses of satire and sincerity.

Featuring more than 180 paintings, sculptures, drawings, prints, photographs, and videos—as well as ephemera, posters, and other materials featured in reconstructed installations—What Nerve! and its accompanying book represent the first historical examination of the circumstances, relationships, and works of this increasingly important lineage of American artists, and the exuberance, humor, and politics of their artworks remain powerfully resonant.

"In going against the canon, the artists in What Nerve! devised distinctive idioms and created works that are sometimes narrative, often earnest, frequently transgressive, and always individualistic,” says consulting curator Judith Tannenbaum. “Exaggerated forms call into question what we know about ourselves, both physically and psychologically.”



About the Artists

Several of the artists in What Nerve! have been the subject of significant exhibitions or publications, but this is the first major exhibition to focus on the broader impact of figurative art to connect artists and collectives from different generations and regions of the country. These are: from Chicago, the Hairy Who (James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum); from California, Funk artists (Jeremy Anderson, Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, Robert Hudson, Ken Price, Peter Saul, Peter Voulkos, William T. Wiley); from Ann Arbor, Destroy All Monsters (Mike Kelley, Cary Loren, Niagara, Jim Shaw); and from Providence, Forcefield (Mat Brinkman, Jim Drain, Leif Goldberg, Ara Peterson).

Created in collaboration with artists from these groups, the four historical hubs of What Nerve! are linked by work from six artists who profoundly influenced or were influenced by the groups: William Copley (Paris and New York), Jack Kirby (New York and Los Angeles), Elizabeth Murray (New York), Gary Panter (Texas and New York), Christina Ramberg (Chicago), and H.C. Westermann (California and Connecticut).



About the Curators

Guest curator Dan Nadel is the author of Art Out of Time: Unknown Comic Visionaries, 1900–1969; Gary Panter; Art in Time: Unknown Comic Book Adventures, 1940-1980; and, most recently, Electrical Banana: Masters of Psychedelic Art. He is the co-editor of The Comics Journal, and has published essays and criticism in Frieze and Bookforum. As a curator, his exhibitions include: Return of the Repressed: Destroy All Monsters, 1973-1977, PRISM, Los Angeles; Karl Wirsum: Drawings, 1967-1970, Derek Eller Gallery, New York; the first major Jack Kirby retrospective, The House that Jack Built, Fumetto Comix Festival, Lucerne, Switzerland; and Macronauts for the Athens 2007 Biennale in Greece. In 2000, Nadel founded PictureBox, a Grammy Award-winning publishing company. He lives in Brooklyn, teaches at the School of Visual Arts, and is the Key Account Sales Director at ARTBOOK | D.A.P.

Consulting curator Judith Tannenbaum was the RISD Museum’s Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art from 2000 to 2013. Her exhibitions for the Museum include Painting Air: Spencer Finch (2012); Made in the UK (2011); Lynda Benglis (2010); Styrofoam (2008); Beth Lipman: After You’re Gone (2008); Wunderground: Providence, 1995 to the Present (2006); Betty Woodman: Il Giardino Dipinto (2005); Island Nations: New Art from Cuba, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Diaspora (2004); On the Wall: Wallpaper by Contemporary Artists (2003); and Jim Isermann: Logic Rules (2000). From 1986 to 2000, Tannenbaum served variously as curator, associate director, and interim director at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), University of Pennsylvania. Now living in Philadelphia, she received an honorary doctorate from Moore College of Art in 2014. Tannenbaum is also curating Framing Fraktur, a major exhibition for the Free Library of Philadelphia, funded by the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.




The exhibition’s fully illustrated 368-page book, also titled What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, is edited by Dan Nadel. It includes contributions from Nadel and Judith Tannenbaum; artists including late Chicago Imagist painter Roger Brown (1941-1997), Providence-based artist Brian Chippendale, and filmmaker Carey Loren and painter/singer Niagara of Destroy All Monsters; John W. Smith, Director, RISD Museum; Dominic Molon, Richard Brown Baker Curator of Contemporary Art, RISD Museum; Robert Cozzolino, Senior Curator and Curator of Modern Art, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Michael Rooks, Wieland Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art, High Museum of Art; Naomi Fry, writer/editor, London Review of Books, Frieze, Artforum, others; and Nicole Rudick, Managing Editor, The Paris Review.

The book is published by the RISD Museum and D.A.P., September 2014. It will be available in RISD WORKS, the RISD Museum store, and online at risdworks.com.




What Nerve! is supported by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The book is published with the support of the Dedalus Foundation, Inc.

RISD Museum
225 Benefit Street
Providence, Rhode Island
401 454 6500

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