Critics’ Picks

Jim Nutt, Toot-Toot Woo-Woo, 1970, acrylic on Plexiglas and paper; enamel on wood frame, 46 1/2 x 30”.

Jim Nutt, Toot-Toot Woo-Woo, 1970, acrylic on Plexiglas and paper; enamel on wood frame, 46 1/2 x 30”.


Jim Nutt

Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago)
220 East Chicago Avenue
January 29–May 29, 2011

Jim Nutt’s latest exhibition homes in on the artist’s singular portraits of women, arguably his most celebrated works and certainly his most immediately recognizable. Typically depicted from the shoulders up, their faces framed by gleaming coils of hair, they are striking amalgams of Nutt’s wide-ranging pictorial enthusiasms, which include Northern European portraits and sacral glass paintings, Persian miniatures, pulp novel covers, and pinball machine art.

Nutt rose to prominence in the mid-1960s during his association with Chicago’s loose-knit “Hairy Who” group of artists, whose cartoonishly lurid approach to human figuration offered a carnivalesque antithesis to the heady Conceptualism of the day. Nutt’s own tumescently fleshed characters, with their sweaty excretions, pockmarked faces, and prodigious noses, were among the group’s most outrageous. Yet as exhibition curator Lynne Warren demonstrates, early Nutt paintings like Don’t Touch Her, 1969, and Nose Jam, 1968 (the latter relying on a painstaking reverse glass painting process), also heralded aspects of the more self-contained portraits that would follow, such as the stalklike neck emerging from an upper body that, oddly, evokes both torso and tabletop, and the precision patterning of clothing and background.

Collectively, Warren’s deft selections from each decade of Nutt’s career argue that the artist’s latter-day focus on portraiture signals not a radical break with prior concerns so much as a condensation of key characteristics that had been in play all along. Over time, the swooping black outlines orchestrating the early figures have lessened in prominence, replaced by a subtle curvilinear modeling of facial planes and meticulous hairline texturing. Remaining constant are those extravagant hairdos––riffs on the voluminous wimples, ruffled collars, and corno ducales framing subjects’ faces in Renaissance-era portraits. They are the crowning glory of Nutt’s own, curiously handsome creatures, each born of paint and exquisitely wrought line.