What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present

What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present

RISD Museum

Karl Wirsum, Show Girl I, 1969. © the artist.
Collection Karin Tappendorf.
September 6, 2014
What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present

September 19, 2014–January 4, 2015

RISD Museum
224 Benefit Street
Providence, RI 02903

T +1 401 454 6500


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.

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.


What Nerve! is supported by a grant from The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. The exhibition’s fully illustrated book (D.A.P., 2014) is published with the support of the Dedalus Foundation, Inc.


Related events

Design the Night: Outpost
Thursday, September 18, 5–9pm; free

The RISD Museum’s dynamic evening event series celebrates the opening of What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, and the Providence-issue launch of the publication Outpost Journal.


Critical Encounters with Body, Place, and Time
Friday, September 19, 1–4pm; free
Reservations required at risdmuseum.org.

Gallery conversations with artists, curators, and art historians explore key issues emerging from What Nerve!. Exhibition curators Dan Nadel and Judith Tannenbaum lead talks with artists Jim Drain, Carroll Dunham, Michael Williams, Gary Panter, and Peter Saul, as well as author Nicole Rudick.

Screening: Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists (2013, 109 minutes)
Sundays, September 21 and October 12, 2–4pm; free

This lavishly illustrated romp through Chicago Imagist art looks at the Second City scene that challenged Pop Art’s status quo in the 1960s, then faded from view. Forty years later, its funk and grit inspire artists from Jeff Koons to Chris Ware, making the Imagists the most famous artists you never knew.

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September 6, 2014

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