David Nolan Gallery is pleased to announcea solo exhibition of 23 recent drawings by Jim Nutt (b. 1938, Pittsfield, Massachusetts; BFA 1967, School of the Art Institute of Chicago), marking the artist’s first show of new work in over a decade. Organized in close collaboration with Nutt, the exhibition showcases the four-decade stylistic culmination of his richly referential, subtly sinister ‘imaginary women’ portraits. The exhibition’s drawings were created between 2022 and 2023.
Nutt was a founding member of the 1960s Chicago Imagists and constituent group, ‘The Hairy Who’. Despite his status as the arguable ringleader of both groups’ vocal irreverence toward the New York art establishment, the visionary qualities of Nutt’s approach earned him mainstream accolades such as group representation of the United States at the 1972 Venice Biennale and 1973 São Paulo Art Biennial. His first solo museum exhibition debuted in 1974 at the Museum of Contemporary Art (Chicago) before traveling to the Walker Art Center and the Whitney Museum of American Art–the latter of which had permanently acquired Nutt’s She’s Hit (1967) in 1969. The Whitney’s artwork blurb proclaims: “In She’s Hit and similar works, Nutt filters the history of portraiture through the deranged sensibility of cartoons, comic books, and 1960s drug culture.”
“In the 1960s and ‘70s, Jim Nutt was breaking down taboos,” remarked David Nolan, who has represented the artist since the 1990s. “Despite flying in the face of the establishment with depraved subject matter and source imagery such as commercial comic strips, Nutt has always had a deep and nuanced understanding of—even reverence for—the history of art and the figure in art. For decades he has approached the female form with a timeless quality of androgyny that cleverly acknowledges yet starkly rejects the art-historical male gaze. From the fuller drawings with cross hatching and density to the clear, simple, surrealist, masterful line of the more recent drawings, in this exhibition we are seeing the ultimate distillation of a practice that has been repeatedly cited by countless younger artists of the institutional canon, from Jeff Koons to Amy Sillman.”
Although Nutt’s name remains indelibly linked with “The Hairy Who” (and the group’s perverse, humorous, and psychosexual approach to surrealism), his work over the past four decades has had an almost singular focus on the ‘imaginary woman’ portrait. Each figure is fully fictional; Nutt compares his process to that of a writer, starting with the suggestion of a personality and evolving it into something more specific through the act of mark-making. Within the visual language he has created for the series, each eyebrow is often conveyed with a stark line, a closed arc, or a squiggle; noses tend to be ogre-like or cartoon-esque, connected by teardrop-shaped outlines to lips made up of just three lines.
The artist’s earlier works on paper functioned as preparatory sketches for paintings (such as Fret, 1990, at left), though from an indefinite painting hiatus emerged a refined dedication to the drawing medium; he now creates his drawings with formal consideration as standalone artworks.He draws in graphite on cold-pressed paper, its toothy surface diametric to the smooth plexiglass on which he painted his earliest works and the tightly stretched linen of the paintings within his ‘imaginary women’ series. Eraser marks are intentionally evident, ostensibly a play on the painterly hand, also representing Nutt’s commitment to the iterative process required to achieve what he perceives to be the correct balance of each portrait.
Nutt has always considered his subjects to be female, despite increasingly androgynous composites resulting from individually strong features. The ‘imaginary women’, decidedly asexual, exist in a neutral and casual state; each composition’s effect on the viewer, like an exquisite corpse, results from the disconcerting totality of the figure’s disparate features.
“Nutt’s refusal to situate his work within any particular narrative offers the viewer more room to connect with a perspective different than their own,” said Nolan.“Just as the imaginary characters in a novel compel us to experience their emotional vicissitudes alongside them, so, too, does Nutt invite us to a place to implore the mystery of being human, with all its tender, quirky, weird, and beautiful possibilities.”
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of each portrait is its hair, which Nutt often treats with meticulous cross hatching, tonal gradations, and improvisational patterning. As Nutt always portrays his ‘imaginary women’ from shoulder height, their upper garments frequently provide another repository for his decorative work. With a few exceptions, Nutt’s newest works display the greatest economy of line —a masterful efficiency of gesture that can render a mass of hair in one extravagant looporan elegant collarbone in a single slantedline. Reflected in the sum of each new portrait’s parts is the refined manifestationof the characteristic absurdity that has distinguished Nutt’s practice since the 1960s.
About Jim Nutt ~ Chicago-based artist Jim Nutt (b. 1938, Pittsfield, MA; BFA 1967, School of the Art Institute of Chicago) gained recognition in the late 1960s as a member of the exhibiting group of Chicago artists known as the “Hairy Who” (later regarded under the broader umbrella of Chicago Imagists), along with his wife, Gladys Nilsson, and four other recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. At a moment when the art world was dominated by New York abstraction, Nutt presented a provocative alternative that depicted lurid, malformed figures engaged in acts of violence, sexual perversion, and scatological humor with exacting precision. While the work unwittingly succeeded in challenging the reigning visual aesthetic, Nutt has insisted that the exhibits were simply “an enthusiastic response of wanting to make something.” Informed as much by comic books and pinball machines as by folk art and Northern Renaissance portraiture, Nutt has developed a singular style over his distinguished career while influencing countless artists as diverse as Jeff Koons, Mike Kelley, and Carroll Dunham. Nutt’s work is includedin the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Harvard University Art Museums; the High Museum of Art; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Smithsonian American Art Museum; the Whitney Museum of American Art; and many others. His numerous solo exhibitions include the Milwaukee Art Museum; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the San Francisco Art Institute.
Jim Nutt: Shouldn’t We Be More Careful? will be on view to October 14, 2023 at David Nolan Gallery, 24 East 81st Street, NYC.