Jim Nutt at the Museum of Contemporary Art

Jim Nutt, Lippy (detail), 1968.

Jim Nutt, Lippy (detail), 1968.

Jim Nutt tried to clear up some misconceptions about his work when I interviewed him by phone earlier this month about his Museum of Contemporary Art show “Coming into Character.”

The artist, who’s lived in Wilmette since 1976, seems a little frustrated by how critics and historians simplify the origins of the Hairy Who: the group Nutt cofounded in 1965 with SAIC classmates Gladys Nilsson (his wife), Jim Falconer, Art Green, Suellen Rocca and Karl Wirsum, all of whom have works in the MCA’s “Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking: A Jim Nutt Companion.”

One common narrative of Chicago art history emphasizes the influence of SAIC professor Ray Yoshida (1930–2009) on the Hairy Who and the closely linked Imagists, suggesting that Yoshida’s interests in comic books and other forms of pop culture helped shape his students’ work. 

“I think it’s a lot more complicated than that,” says Nutt. “What I gained from Ray was that, if anything interests you, then do something with it. Don’t worry about its category.… Just look at the damn thing and do something with it. If it ceases to interest you, then move on. As it turned out, because of the evolution of Pop Art, there was a bit more emphasis or awareness of [popular culture]. So, as much as I was interested in comic books growing up and enjoyed them, when I was a freshman in 1960 at [SAIC], I wasn’t thinking, How can I take my interest in comic books and do something with it?”

Nutt also describes as inaccurate the widespread belief that outsider art had a strong impact on the Hairy Who. “There was virtually no outsider art to look at during our formative years,” he says. “Joseph Yoakum’s work wasn’t discovered until 1968, and [Martin] Ramirez wasn’t seen in Chicago until ’72. By ’68, there were three Hairy Who shows. Our basic interests had already been established by that point.”

“Coming into Character” isn’t a true retrospective—it’s dominated by the portraits of women that Nutt has created exclusively since the late 1980s—but it includes some of his early works. Lippy (pictured, 1968) is one of several striking paintings on Plexiglas, which often incorporate collaged elements—or appear to. The artist says these insets let him convey information without resorting to a conventional narrative. “You have the main image and then this secondary image that in a sense qualifies the main image,” he explains. The concept “came from a couple of places. One was the way Sears catalogs are often put together, where you have these great big images—the main subject of the page—and then these tiny little images spread throughout the page that give you other versions of the main subject.” Nutt was also interested in Max Ernst’s 1929 collage novel La Femme 100 Têtes and the collage techniques of his friend Dominick Di Meo, whose work appears in “Seeing Is a Kind of Thinking.”

In 1990, Nutt became a graduate adviser at SAIC, where he now co-teaches a painting class with artist Richard Hull. Given Nutt's familiarity with Chicago’s up-and-coming artists, I asked him why the city hasn’t produced more internationally recognized groups like the Imagists and the Hairy Who. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Some of the reasons why we initially exhibited together may no longer apply for artists coming out of school. In a sense, I think a lot of the start-up galleries, apartment galleries, that sort of thing, are related to reasons how we got together.… There are far more galleries around here now than there were [in the 1960s],” offering artists more opportunities to exhibit individually. Even the Hairy Who’s works, Nutt told the Chicago Reader last month, “aren't that related to one another.”

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Laura Baginski, Editor (@TimeOutChicago)