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What Nerve!

  • EXL40.20145.1 SHOWGIRL-WIRSUM-250
  • _What Nerve!_ installation image - Forcefield
  • EXL35.20145 Probed Cinch, 1971
  • _What Nerve!_ installation view - Hairy Who
  • EXL18.20145.5 DAM_band_tinted
  • _What Nerve!_ installation view - Panter
  • Whitney5
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Karl Wirsum, Show Girl I, 1969. Copyright the artist. Courtesy Karin Tappendorf

Friday, September 19, 2014 – Sunday, January 4, 2015

Chace Center Galleries

Design the Night opening celebration, September 18, 5-9 pm
Free, all welcome

What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present proposes an alternate history of figurative painting, sculpture, and vernacular image-making from 1960 to the present that has been largely overlooked and undervalued. At the heart of What Nerve! are four mini-exhibitions based on crucial shows, spaces, and groups in Chicago (the Hairy Who), San Francisco (Funk), Ann Arbor (Destroy All Monsters), and Providence (Forcefield)—places outside the artistic focal point of New York. These moments are linked together by six influential or intersecting artists: H. C. Westermann, Jack Kirby, William Copley, Christina Ramberg, Gary Panter, and Elizabeth Murray.

All of these artists ran against the modernist grain and its emphasis on theory. Rather than distancing their art through irony or institutional critique, the artists in What Nerve! 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. What Nerve! looks at their distinctive idioms, shown in works that are often earnest, sometimes narrative, frequently transgressive, and always individualistic.

​What Nerve! includes
Explicit sexual imagery Parent/adult discretion is advised
Flashing lights Exercise appropriate caution
Fragile and exposed works of art Please do not touch

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

Exhibition Publication

The exhibition’s fully illustrated 368-page book, also titled What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present, is published by the RISD Museum and D.A.P. (September 2014). It is available in RISD WORKS, the RISD Museum store, and online at

Programs & Events

Design the Night opening celebration
Thursday, September 18, 2014 | 5-9 pm | free

Critical Encounters with Body, Place, and Time
Friday, September 19, 2014 | 1-4 pm | free
Gallery conversations with artists, curators, and art historians explore key issues emerging from What Nerve!

Screenings: Hairy Who & The Chicago Imagists
Sundays, September 21 and October 12, 2014 | 2-4 pm | free

Press Information

“A rousing exhibition … samples an extraordinarily lively history that’s been hiding in plain sight for half a century.”
— Ken Johnson, art critic, New York Times

“An alternative, subversive history of Modern art” — The Art Newspaper

“An ambitious revisionist history of later 20th-century art. What Nerve! Alternative Figures in American Art, 1960 to the Present gives pride of place to misfit artistic subcultures that mainstream institutions have long ignored.” — Art in America

“The show features the wacky, often comic-book-esque work of four art movements or collectives: the Bay Area ‘Funk’ artists, the Hairy Who from Chicago, Destroy All Monsters of Ann Arbor, and Forcefield from Providence.” — ARTnews

What Nerve!: A Shadow History of American Art” — ARTINFO

“Absolutely worth seeing … hugely stimulating … filled with brilliant and original work” — Sebastian Smee, art critic, Boston Globe

What Nerve! teases with the tantalizing idea that instead of this being the hidden history of outsiders and the overlooked, almost a counterfactual history of the past half century, that this art and its deep engagement with our old weird America could be the canon. May everybody find it.” — Greg Cook, art critic, Providence Phoenix

“Artists with ‘Nerve’ at RISD Museum”
— Bill Van Siclen, art critic, Providence Journal

“Chicago’s Imagists in the Spotlight” — Wall Street Journal