Jim Nutt won his first fame as a member of the Hairy Who, a group of Art Institute-trained Chicagoans who began exhibiting at the Hyde Part Art Center in 1966 and became notorious for what New York Times critic John Russell called “outstandingly repulsive works of art.” “There is no doubt that the Hairy Who artists were perceived as odd characters,” writes curator Lynne Warren in the catalog for Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character, a retrospective running January 29 through May 29 at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Their works “provided more than enough evidence of perversity, deviance, and adolescent inanity—not to mention a debased attitude toward art, what with the sweaty armpits, boil-covered torsos, distended sex organs, and chopped-off limbs that Nutt especially seemed to delight in.”
Warren argues, however, that Nutt and the others—Jim Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca, Karl Wirsum, and Nutt’s wife, Gladys Nilsson—were interested in much more than shock value. Nutt’s continued commitment to developing bold new styles is evident in the MCA show, which features recent as well as older works by the 72-year-old Wilmette-based painter.
You’ve painted almost nothing other than female heads for the past 20 years. Why?
[Laughs.] You’re going to be disappointed in my response, because I really don’t know. This interest has manifested itself at different times here and there, but about 20 years ago I really sort of limited myself to it.
Was that a conscious decision?
No. Frankly, there have been very few conscious decisions in the evolution of my work. It just dawned on me that that was what I was doing. Intellectually I wonder, “Is there something else I want to do?” And nothing comes to mind, so I continue to focus on what interests me, to see where it’s going to lead.
When you work, do you just start randomly doodling or do you already have an idea in your mind?
I think I’ve always had some sort of a general idea of what I wanted to do with a painting, usually stemming from something that happened in the previous work. I draw an eye. And as the eye is being drawn, it has some character to it. Not necessarily good character. It might be a lousy eye, an uninteresting thing, and then you just erase it and start over again. But it may have something that you sort of identify, in the same way as when you see a stranger and you immediately form some kind of opinion. I form an opinion about the eye. And if I like it or it’s interesting to me, then I’ll try to get a nose to go with it.
And this is all drawing on your imagination?
Yes. I’m not working from source material or the thought of a particular person. It’s more attitudes, or something like that. I might start with a female personage that might have a certain attitude or a certain character.
What do you mean, “attitude or character”?
Attitude would be something like body language. People emphasize what they’re saying by the way they cock their head or the way they raise their eyebrows, that sort of thing.
Are you constantly thinking about this as you observe people?
For all I know I’m hypersensitive to the way people look. I spent my whole childhood moving into new schools, and so I spent a lot of time observing how people were looking at me. I do read those kinds of things and take them very seriously.
Critics have speculated that some of your female heads are portraits of your wife or your mother.
[Laughing.] No, no, no. As I’m working on something, quite often a drawing begins to remind me of somebody. It could be anyone I know or it could be a famous person. I’ll leave it in there, but I usually don’t play with it. I don’t end up doing a riff on a personality. That doesn’t particularly interest me. And if for some reason it starts to remind me of a person I really don’t like, then I usually just get rid of it.
The noses have a lot of things going on in them—colors, textures, shapes. Why is that?
I understand why someone would notice the nose as being different. But quite often, while they’re trying to figure out why the nose is the way it is, they’re not concerned that, say, the forehead is red or the chin is green or that they’re shaped in peculiar ways. So, in a sense, the nose is really in character with the rest of the painting. If, say, the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington suddenly had one of my noses plunked on top of it, I think the question would make a little more sense.
The recent paintings have one-word titles, such as Trim or Coin. Do you want a viewer to look at a piece and think, “Why is this called Coin?”
Well, it’s not a puzzle to be figured out. Usually, I look for a title that isn’t one-dimensional, focused on a specific meaning. It has something to do with the way I look at paintings myself, and how associations come to mind as the eye wanders across a painting. What would be an interesting thing to be in somebody’s mind?
The Hairy Who are now remembered for helping to establish Chicago Imagism. Did you think you were starting a new art movement?
No, no. I was really excited to be exhibiting with the other five artists. I really liked their work. It hung well. It looked great on the wall together, but the works aren’t that related to one another.
But weren’t the Hairy Who perceived as having a common grotesqueness?
I don’t think of the work as having a common grotesqueness. When you’re seeing the work, the dissimilarities become more and more apparent, even though there are common formal elements. For the most part, we all were using fairly bright, intense, primary colors. But the way we used them and our purposes for using them were very different. I was more aware of the differences than I was of the similarities. Gladys’s way of transforming the literal world was very different from the way Suellen did it, or Art Green. And as we’ve aged those differences have become more apparent.
You’ve been married to Gladys Nilsson since 1961. Do you influence each other as artists?
We’ve always had separate studios. We actually spend a great deal of time apart during the day because we spend most of our time in the studio. I’m aware of what she’s doing, but, basically, we don’t talk about our work with one another. You really have to figure it out yourself. I’ve never understood how writers could allow an editor to talk to them. It just doesn’t make any sense to me. It would drive me absolutely crazy. There isn’t that kind of relationship, where you discuss where things are going. There’s absolutely none of that. On the other hand, living with her and seeing her work all these years has just been terrific.