New York

Jim Nutt

Phyllis Kind Gallery

Ever since gaining recognition in 1966 for work included in the first of the “Hairy Who” exhibitions, Jim Nutt has shown a decided preference for painting and drawing on the smoothest available surfaces—glass, toothless brown paper, Masonite, and wood. Nutt seems to like the challenge presented by these mediums. His highly determined approach is the result of integrating a rigorous process with a highly focused attention to details of color, tone, and light. The world he depicts is one of extreme scrutiny, a place where chance and accident are virtually banished. Consequently, the taut, glowing skin of Nutt’s recent paintings formally echoes the subject matter: imaginative portraits of individual men or women gazing into a mirror. The world he depicts is sealed off by the glossy acrylic medium. A face stares into a “mirror,” which is actually the painting plane itself, its surface bounded by a handmade and hand-painted frame. The acrylic both articulates the image and preserves it. By making the viewer examine the act of looking, Nutt is able to investigate the metaphysical properties of the act of painting.

The faces—their distortions, curvilinear shapes, and planes of glowing color—allude to comic books, Picasso’s portraits, American “outsider” art, and European Modernism. In a single painting, the viewer is likely to encounter a composition consisting of a linear grid, curvilinear shapes, subtle tonal gradations, and coloristic shifts. Nutt can articulate a welter of tiny lines in order to evoke loose strands of hair. His preconceived, limited focus and demand for extreme, almost surgical precision is a mirror embodiment of the relentless gaze. Nutt knows that the act of looking at the self can shift from introspection to narcissism in the wink of an eye.

Nutt’s most recent exhibition, which consisted of nine intimately scaled portraits done between 1986 and 1988, marks a significant development in his already distinguished career. In contrast to the scatological and provocative humor of his drawings and paintings of the early ’80s, these works are, for the most part, relatively somber portraits of isolated individuals. Nutt never gets heavy-handed or “existentialist” about this. But the faces, for all their quirkiness and evident humor, seem older and perhaps wiser. The change is due to Nutt’s use of color. During the three years he worked on these paintings, he redirected his attention from graphic contrasts (black, white, and gray) to tonal shifts within largely monochromatic compositions. Nutt’s growing mastery of color enables him to articulate adjacent planes through a shift in tonality. Elsewhere in the same painting, he will gradate a color so as to convey the slightest change in the flesh’s topography. By entering this phase, Nutt accomplishes something altogether rare and undervalued in American postwar painting—he leaves the paintings of his youth behind. Andy Warhol, for example, was never able to do this. One could divide American painters now over 50 into two disproportionate groups, those who cling to their youth and those who look forward and address the inevitable. Jim Nutt belongs to the smaller, more compelling group of contemporary masters.

John Yau