The Headliner: One Artist's Evolution

Dec 1, 2010

Jim Nutt, Bump, 2008.Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, MO
Credit Jim Nutt / David Nolan Gallery, New York
Jim Nutt can take more than a year producing his paintings of women’s heads.

“I don’t recommend that,’’ quips the 72-year-old Wilmette artist whose work will be on display in a major retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago beginning January 29. An exhibit of the Chicago Imagists that came into prominence in the 1960s — including the Hairy Who, a group he is associated with — continues until January 9 at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

Those aren’t just any heads the painter creates. Nutt’s drawings sell for prices starting at $30,000 and his paintings have fetched up to $400,000, says Chicago art dealer Karen Lennox, who notes there is an international market for Nutt’s work, which is in collections of the MCA, the Art Institute of Chicago, The Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and American Art Museum in Washington D.C. 

”I like to think in a 100 years, people will look back and say Jim Nutt’s work is among the most wonderful work to be produced in the 20th century and the early 21st century, but I’m not Nostradamus,” says art critic Ken Johnson, who writes for the New York Times. “I can’t say what people are going to think. Personally, I think he’s very important, and I think he’s been a lot more influential than is recognized.’’ If anything, Nutt has been underrated, Johnson says.

“I think of all the artists of his generation that emerged from Chicago, he’s the one that’s developed and just gotten better and better over the years.’’

Nutt says: “I never think about that kind of stuff. There are lots of people who don’t like the work, and there are people who do like it, and it’s counterproductive to think about.”

Art critics and art historians, the people who are paid to think about that stuff, have used a colorful and broad palate with which to create the language that describes his work, past and present: Traditional. Abstract. Surreal. Realistic. Precise. Exquisitely crafted. Funky. Sexually charged. Meaningful. Mysterious. Strange. Beautiful. Sensuous. Moving. Picasso-like. Intoxicating. Enigmatic. Image-based. Demonic. “But in the case of somebody’s who’s as unique as he is, labels don’t feel quite right,’’ Johnson says. 

Jim Nutt, Trim, 2010. Hall Collection
Credit Jim Nutt / David Nolan Gallery, New York

  Of Nutt’s early work, writes former Chicagoan Jerry Saltz, then an art critic for the Village Voice: “Bizarre characters did batty things in shallow space. Women with teeny, atavistic arms gaped at men with squished penises as pint-size figures darted about like crazy wraiths. Everything seemed caught in some demonic cartoon kaleidoscope.”

Nutt, a Massachusetts native who came to Chicago when he was a student of the Art Institute in the first half of the 1960s, says the museum’s works were a major influence. 

“My development had a lot to do with looking and seeing things.” He saw James Ensor, Georges Seurat, H.C. Westermann, Willem de Kooning and Dadaists and the surrealists. He was particularly interested in 15th century Italian painter Giovanni di Paolo, and a series of his paintings at the museum that told the story of John the Baptist. “With the advent of pop art and [Roy] Lichtenstein’s focusing on a series of comic book images, I made the easy connection between that sort of presentation of a narrative, [which] was used quite often by lots of painters in the 15th or early 16th century. [Di Paolo] told a story from one panel after another not unlike a comic strip, making that connection from the low art and high art. Something like that has stayed with me.’’

While at the Art Institute, Nutt met a series of painters, including Gladys Nilsson, who has been his wife since the mid 1960s. He and the five other painters, including Nilsson, had a series of shows in 1966, ’67 and ’68 at the Hyde Park Art Center. 

At the outset of the shows, the painters struggled to come up with a name, agreeing that anything too serious “wouldn’t necessarily be proper,” Nutt says. The conversation turned from art to arts critic and broadcaster Harry Bouras and what comments he had made on his last WFMT broadcast in Chicago. “Karl Wirsum apparently had never heard of Harry Bourus and said, ‘Harry who?” All of us found this extremely funny because ... anybody involved in the art world, we thought, would be aware of him. In any case, we found it very silly that Karl was unaware of him, and we were all laughing, and then we began to realize we could move the letters around a little bit. We came up with hairy spelled like hair and realized it would have sort of a nonsensical and not really clear meaning and yet it had sort of a gripping, a sort of attractive quality to it. We thought that really sort of fit the situation well.”’

The name stuck. “Curiously, they began to talk of a Hairy Who style, but it is really more like five styles, six styles. Their connection, says Nutt, was his “gut instinct’ that the six would hang well together.

“Considering some of the cool minimalist work that was beginning to be announced in the New York art world, our work looked much more related to itself than it did to, say, Ad Reinhardt’s all black paintings or [Mark] Rothko’s large expanses of color.’’ 

In his Hairy Who days, he had a wider range of subjects, but since 1990, Nutt has painted ‘portraits’ of women. Of the current Nutt incarnations, critic Johnson writes in the New York Times: “He works slowly, with tiny brushes and thinned-down acrylic paint, on laptop-scale canvases, building up luminous, subtly multicolored surfaces like a medieval panel painter. … The women in Mr. Nutt’s paintings look uncannily alive and seem to belong to a certain period: something about their bobbed and waved hairdos, their crew-neck, geometrically patterned sweaters and the muted colors and warm light suggests the 1940s. There is, moreover, a strange emotional appeal to these fictive women; they exude a calmness and a kindness that seem distinctly maternal.”

Yes, Nutt says, the women look to be ’40s vintage. “My family had portraits taken around ’42, ’43, and so there are some photos of my mother [with] that sort of stylization … that sort of dovetailed with the Hollywood stylizations. But the paintings aren’t of my mother. I certainly don’t have that in mind.”

Nutt says: “When I was a kid I was really very fascinated by motion pictures, and I came of age going to motion pictures in ’45, ’46, ’47, when I could start going to films by myself. … I think it’s been sort of exposure to all of that sort thing — like a duck marking the first thing it walks by — and being interested by that sort of idealized representation.” He likes the formalized, stylized look of the ’40s, “the highly dramatic stage photo,” and says, “I’m not that interested in contemporary films and contemporary movie stars.”

Though neither his subject nor style has changed in recent years, “the work has always evolved slowly from one painting to the next,” Nutt says. “There aren’t dramatic changes from one painting to the next, so at times the work has evolved and … in a year and half’s time, there might be significant movement. For the last 19 years so, the change from one painting to another has been very slow. I am surprised when I see a painting from three years or four years ago how different it is from what I’m doing now. But at first glance, they don’t look that different. But I realize immediately if I’m doing something different and I just didn’t realize. I’ve sort of changed slowly.’’

In his Evanston studio, Nutt, the son of a symphony bassoonist, paints to the strains of Stravinksy, Prokofiev, Bartok and Shostakovich. “Sometimes if things aren’t going well in the studio, I sort of worry that maybe I ought to turn the music off and concentrate a little bit more, or maybe it’s ruining my concentration. I do know there’s some times if I’m listening to Vivaldi, I have to worry that I’m not trying to time my brush strokes to the 16th or the 32nd notes. ... Every once in a while, I realize I’m listening to the wrong thing relative to what I’m doing, and I’d better change that.”

Nutt, who has team taught a course at the Art Institute during spring semester for the past six years, says he tends to work in long bursts. “I can work on a painting and sort of be half-hearted about it, spending half my time at the studio. But once I really get into to it, then I spend virtually all my time at the studio until the painting’s finished.

“So I have an irregular pattern. My wife, Gladys, works every day and has a very consistent time period in the studio on a day-to-day basis. Basically, I do three things: I paint, I listen to a lot of music and I like to golf and that’s about it.”

At the start of a project, he says: “I really don’t have a preconceived notion of how a painting is going to finally look until [I’ve been] working on it for a considerable length of time. Basically with an idea by drawing, I start with a generalized thought that it’s going to be a head, a female head — at least currently. … I might have an inclination — the head is leaning this way or that way, a little bit of body language.

“At the starting point, I usually start with a eye, and I put that one thing down and another to go with it, and it may turn out what goes with the initial form is far more interesting than the initial form, and I’ll get rid of the initial form and replace it with something that goes with the second form. This sort of continues on and on until the head is sort of more developed. What I’m getting at is, I’m sort of adding and taking away in the development of the image. So it evolves out of trial and error and getting rid of a mistake and trying to improve upon on it. Basically, I’m building sort of a visual character, and it’s a feeling process as opposed to an analytical — well, it’s analytical in sense that I identify what I don’t like, and I get rid of it. I sort of stumble through it toward an image.

“The painting of it comes somewhat so soon because the color is very important for me as an expressive, rather than just descriptive, element. Basically, it happens the same way. I’m continually putting down a color that I think is right, and then I adjust it. I adjust what’s next to it, and then I remove what was put down first and so on and eventually there’s a certain point where it really becomes much clearer to me what needs to be done. I have frame of reference, and from that point on, everything usually is done within the frame of reference, and I have something a little secure to identify whether this new color is going to be the right color or I need to adjust it in some.”

Why for nearly two decades only women — women’s heads? 

“I really don’t have an answer for it. I’m trying to find an analogy that would perhaps explain it. But I can’t think of one. ... In any case, for whatever reason, I just haven’t been that interested in focusing on a male head, and so I haven’t. In some respects it’s kind of that simple.”

Illinois Issues, December 2010