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Jim Nutt at the Museum of Contemporary Art

“Coming into Character” collects Hairy Who cofounder Nutt’s portraits of women.

 (Photograph: Jim Newberry)
Photograph: Jim Newberry
Jim Nutt
 (Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago)
Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago

Jim Nutt, Lippy, 1968.

 (Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago)
Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago

Jim Nutt, Good-bye, Have a Nice Journey!!, 1973.

 (Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago)
Photograph: Nathan Keay, � MCA Chicago

Jim Nutt, Drawing for M., 1987. Courtesy of the artist.

 (Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York)
Courtesy of David Nolan Gallery, New York

Jim Nutt, Bump, 2008.

 (Photograph: Courtesy of the artist)
Photograph: Courtesy of the artist

Eric Lebofsky, Anxiety Man or Anxiety Woman, 2009.

“Jim Nutt was the enemy. I hated his work,” critic Jerry Saltz wrote in the Village Voice in 2003, reminiscing about his own artistic career in late-’70s Chicago. As a cofounder of the Hairy Who, Nutt (b. 1938, pictured above) made bawdy, cartoonish paintings that engaged everyday visual culture rather than highbrow abstraction or post-Minimalism. The art world—including Saltz, eventually—embraced him anyway. The MCA presents 70 of Nutt’s paintings and drawings in “Coming into Character” through May 29.

Nutt worked on Plexiglas after he graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Reached by phone at his Wilmette home, the artist says he became interested in the material through playing pinball and observing painted ads in gas-station windows. To create Lippy (1968), he put Plexiglas over a full-size study drawing and painted over the image so that the final version appears reversed. “I do the lines first and then start filling in the shapes. Basically, you work backward.” The process yields a crisp, bright picture—but mistakes can’t be fixed.

In her “Coming into Character” catalog essay, curator Lynne Warren suggests Plexiglas’s frustrations led Nutt to work on canvas. In Goodbye, Have a Nice Journey!! (1973), the subject’s giant, blue-veined nose and demure ’40s hairdo mark a transition from his early paintings of figures whose bodies seem beyond their control to his later portraits of imaginary women, which dominate the MCA show. When asked why he’s painted only female portrait busts since the late 1980s, Nutt tells me, “I don’t know.”

Drawing for M. (1987) and other studies “begin with a general idea,” Nutt says. “I have to start somewhere. Invariably, it’s with an eye or a nose that I put somewhere on a piece of paper. If I like the shape, then I’ll put something else to go with it. It sort of builds, adding and taking away. Eventually, I arrive at an image I find interesting.” Once he starts painting, he sometimes realizes what looked good in pencil falters in a more colorful, three-dimensional format: “Usually the hair is what becomes extremely problematic.”

“There are any number of different types of portraiture that have interested me,” Nutt explains when I bring up his supposed devotion to Northern Renaissance art. “Picasso’s paintings…or someone like Otto Dix.” Critics forget the Max Beckmann, Francis Bacon, Max Ernst and Jean Dubuffet retrospectives that came to Chicago when most of the Hairy Who and imagists were at SAIC, he adds. Though Bump (2008) appears more restrained than his Plexiglas pieces, its asymmetry still evokes those 20th-century artists.

As an SAIC graduate adviser and instructor, Nutt influenced Eric Lebofsky, whose Anxiety Man or Anxiety Woman (2009) appears in the MCA’s “Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion.” Nutt’s not sure why Chicago hasn’t produced another Hairy Who, but he suspects apartment galleries make it easier for emerging artists to show their work. “Times have changed.”