© Jim Nutt. Courtesy of the artist and David Nolan Gallery, New York.
Jim Nutt completed his bachelor’s degree at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) in 1965. The following year, he and five other SAIC graduates exhibited together at the Hyde Park Art Center, calling themselves (and titling the exhibition) the Hairy Who. In addition to Nutt, the group included James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson (who was married to Nutt), Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum. The art center’s exhibitions coordinator, Don Baum, championed the group and organized two additional Hairy Who exhibitions (1967 and 1968).
Reflecting back on the infamous emergence of their group, Nutt has noted that they assembled “not out of a unified, carefully thought out philosophical position, but rather the need to present our work as powerfully as possible within our means.” It especially pleased Nutt to exhibit with Karl Wirsum, an artist he had not known previously, but whose flat, colorful forms he found innovative and inspiring. Both Nutt and Wirsum, as well as Ed Flood, Gladys Nilsson, and Barbara Rossi became invested in the process of reverse-painting on Plexiglas and were attracted to the sleek surface effect the material enabled.
Like many of his fellow Imagists, Nutt was greatly influenced by the culture of SAIC. Walking through the Art Institute of Chicago on his way to instruction, he was exposed to an encyclopedic collection of artworks. In an interview with Russell Bowman in 1978, he also noted he was particularly inspired by Japanese and Persian art as well as fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Northern European artists such as Peter Bruegel, Roger van der Weyden, and Hieronymus Bosch. Nutt was additionally inspired by comics, metropolitan signage, and the acclaimed self-taught artist, Joseph Yoakum. Nutt first experimented with narrative-based vignettes before becoming known for picture planes populated with rubbery, sexually charged figures that often engaged in a nonsensical dialogue.
Nutt met Gladys Nilsson at SAIC in 1961, in her third year and his first year as a transfer student. The couple was married just a few months later. In 1969, Nutt and Nilsson moved to Sacramento, CA, where Nutt had been offered a teaching position at the Sacramento City College. In the following years, Nutt’s style evolved and he focused on portraiture, creating acrylic paintings that echoed characteristics of Northern Renaissance painters in Nutt’s use of a three-quarter presentation, prompting greater engagement between the sitter and the viewer. In the late 1980s, Nutt turned his attention to painting portraits of imaginary women with sculptural hairstyles and misshapen noses.
In 1976, Nutt and Nilsson returned to Chicago and settled in Wilmette, where they still live and work.
Toot and Toe (1969)
Acrylic on Plexiglas, reverse painting, in artist's painted frame
In the early 1960s, Jim Nutt began reverse painting with acrylic on Plexiglas, an approach he had seen used by fellow Chicago Imagist artists Barbara Rossi, Ed Flood, and Karl Wirsum. Reverse paintings require that the artist paint on the back of a clear sheet of material by first laying out all the detailed lines and finishing with the larger areas of color. Nutt quickly realized just how unforgiving the technique is: acrylic paint dries rapidly, leaving little room to correct mistakes.
Undeterred, Nutt discovered some helpful tools, including a sign-painter’s brush, to produce works that feature bold, fluid lines and bright, glossy areas of color. Nutt’s approach starts with a drawing. Once he’s satisfied with it, he tapes it to the front of the Plexiglas and traces it on the reverse. An example of this type of drawing, called a “cartoon,” was used in the creation of Rosy Comon, a painting in the collection of the Madison Museum of Contemporary Art; the cartoon itself is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In the reverse painting Toot and Toe, an animalistic man ascends through the air—his hands and feet are underdeveloped and deformed, his face dirty and topped with an elongated snout. Surrounded by musical notes, the word “toot” rests under his shriveled, blackened penis, suggesting he just passed gas. The grotesque realities of the human body are on full display: curly hairs, worm-like veins, bloody wounds, and blackened sores cover the pale, ghostly figure. Juxtaposed with the foul and offensive are sexy, floating icons of high heels, stockings, and garter belts. Nutt often pulled these images from the pages of shopping catalogs and magazines—as seen in the cartoon for the painting Rosy Comon—and traced them directly onto the Plexiglas surface. These images were not copied precisely, instead they served as a guide for Nutt’s ghoulish caricatures, which comment on the idealized and romanticized version of the human body presented in advertisements. The result is a fascinating array of images that absorb the viewer in the act of looking—transfixed by Nutt’s bizarre and humorous imagination.