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Jim Nutt

Born: 1938 (Pittsfield, MA, United States)

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.