Look Hard: Jim Nutt

by Hans Ulrich Obrist


Starting at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the gathering of artists later known as “Hairy Who” formed the basis of three fundamental exhibitions held in the second half of the 1960s at Hyde Park Art Center in Chicago. The Hairy Who created their own comicbook catalogue and deployed Duchampian strategies in the presentation of their works; their efforts were variously pugnacious, scatological, graphic, comical and absurd, referencing art history, comics and other pop culture phenomena, from pinball machines to pulp magazines. All the artists had their own particular, autonomous way of working, making them hard to fit into the idea of a “group” or a program. Hans Ulrich Obrist met with Jim Nutt to talk about that period, in which he played an active role, and the intense work that starting from the platform of that circle has led to personal research on drawing, painting and surfaces.


HANS ULRICH OBRIST: How did you come to art, or how did art come to you? Was there some awakening or epiphany?

JIM NUTT: When I arrived at college, I thought I wanted to be an architect. One of the required classes was figure drawing. I didn’t think it would be very difficult if I just applied myself and so forth. And I was amazed at how bad my drawings were. So, in other words, I ended up getting hooked by the frustration of not doing it well, but knowing I could.

HUO: How old were you when you came to Chicago?

JN: It was in 1960, so I was 22. I spent the next five years at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. And because the classrooms are within the museum building, for five years I spent virtually five days a week in and around the collection.

HUO: What struck you most?

JN: The enormous El Greco Annunciation. That group of five panels by Giovanni di Paolo of St. John the Baptist. At that point, there was only one area devoted to 20th-century painting, so you saw that work mostly in your art history classes. And then Frumkin gallery and Feigen gallery had a lot of shows.

HUO: It was at the Art Institute that you met James Falconer, Art Green, Gladys Nilsson, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum. I am always fascinated by how collective endeavors come together. Obviously all of you were individual artists, and it wasn’t a movement like Surrealism or something. But it still was a group. When did you first realize that something was forming?

JN: I think it was when we got the go-ahead for the Hairy Who exhibitions. Karl Wirsum graduated in 1961, so I never knew him until after I finished school. Gladys graduated in 1962 but we were married in 1961, so of course I was familiar with her work. But Art Green, Suellen Rocca, and Jim Falconer were my classmates, so I got to know them in school. Falconer and I were good friends and actively discussed how to get us more space and exposure at the Hyde Park Art Center, which was the only place in Chicago where a younger artist could get a chance to exhibit. We came up with a proposal where, maybe if there was a smaller group of, say, five artists, each person could show eight or ten works and have some sort of impact.

We took the idea to Don Baum, who ran the Center, and he liked it very much. We actually had five lists of groups of five. The group character of the Hairy Who evolved as a result of us getting together and planning the shows. All of us seemed to enjoy what our work looked like in the same space together.

HUO: What were the kinds of conversations you had? There wasn’t a manifesto, but did you have exchange, dialogue?

JN: We never talked much about one another’s work other than to see something and have an immediate reaction. It was more about an enthusiasm for the work.

HUO: Leon Golub was a generation older than you, and he was part of a group called Monster Roster in Chicago. It was completely different from your group, but one interesting thing in common was that they were very anti-Abstract Expressionism, and I have the feeling that the Hairy Who were also not into Abstract Expressionism. Was that a Chicago thing?

JN: I think Golub was an art historian, and by the time he came back from the war he was in his middle 20s and far more aware of the larger art world. He probably did have a sense of Monster Roster’s relationship to what was going on in New York and was concerned about it. Whereas the Hairy Who didn’t have such an anti-statement.

HUO: And so it seems that Don Baum at the Center was a catalyst for the group.

JN: Don was the same generation as Golub. He was an older, established artist. He was very open to showing all kinds of things at the Center, sometimes in relationships that didn’t make common sense. In other words, he was happy to show an experienced artist together with a young artist who had no experience, no exposure, if there was some kind of visual or conceptual connection that tickled his fancy.

He also created an environment, a scene. He was comfortable talking to collectors and critics and other people and quite often was a go-between. He would say, “You really ought to talk to this person, you ought to see that person.” Even though there was virtually no economic advantage to him. He wasn’t like a dealer trying to encourage a wealthy person to get interested in art. He just did it because he thought it was interesting.

HUO: The group had three shows, right?

JN: Yes, three years running: 1966, 1967, and 1968. In 1966, a lot of energy was put into the comic book and the poster. The installation had lots of work hung close together. It was fairly chaotic. And there was a big range: some of us were doing very large paintings, and other work was quite small. We were simply thrilled to get it on the wall. That was enough.

The second year we decided to think of other things we could do to make the installation slightly more interesting. We took some tiny photos from Hans Prinzhorn’s book on prisoners, showing people very heavily tattooed. Then we added numbers that corresponded to the show’s checklist and placed them next to the appropriate works. Chewed some bubble gum, stuck it on the photos to embellish their clothes and bodies. To us the space was transformed, when in reality, when you see a photo of the installation, it was just these little itty bitty things to the right of the paintings.

HUO: And the third one used linoleum in almost a Duchampian way, as a display feature.

JN: It was a strong visual affront. It was partly because the Hyde Park Art Center had these ugly wood walls that were sacrosanct: you couldn’t paint them. So we put up that inexpensive floral linoleum. Part of it connected to the 19th-century artist William Morris and English Arts and Crafts wallpaper, and part of it was about the glossy surface.

HUO: I’m very interested in William Morris’s idea of art for all, with Arts and Crafts as a way to give the best possible art to the masses. Was that on your minds?

JN: No, I don’t think we were getting involved in the philosophy of the English Arts and Crafts movement, although it was certainly something that I found very interesting in textbooks.

HUO: And the catalogue for the show was a comic book.

JN: We devised the concept for a comic book catalogue. Everybody dealt with it slightly differently. Suellen Rocca showed some of her characters walking through a Hairy Who exhibition and then commenting on what they saw. One of my things was—I don’t know whether it was a drawing of one of my paintings after I’d done the painting, or a drawing that I then turned into one of the paintings at the show. Karl Wirsum did a lovely thing, a two-page spread of a silent narrative dealing with broken balloons. We made some advertisements in it like you’d find in comic books.

It was something that we sort of worked our way into as opposed to planning it out. The only thing we discussed as a group was who got what pages, in what sequence. Karl had an idea for the muscle man cover, and did that drawing. Art Green did the lettering for it. So there was some collaborative work, but basically each artist worked on it however he or she wanted to, not knowing what the others were doing with their pages.

HUO: In early interviews, you said that you were as much inspired by comics, magazine graphics, and pinball machines as by art history. Is that something that connected the group?

JN: In the early 1960s when I was getting into the art world, the feeling was that Abstract Expressionism was no longer the major movement. Early Oldenburg, Warhol to some extent, Jim Dine: they were becoming the current thing, and so we were also looking at the vernacular and making use of it. At the Art Institute, a couple of key art history teachers, Kathleen Blackshear and Whitney Halstead were very open to non-Western art, nontraditional art. And as artists themselves, they felt that art history should be for people who wanted to be artists. This gave it a very practical bent.

HUO: Art history for the makers.

JN: Yes, exactly. Looking back, quite a number of us thought basically that when you see something and it’s interesting, you should use it. It makes absolutely no difference where it comes from.

HUO: What about pinball machines?

JN: I played a lot of them, starting in junior high school. I didn’t make a study of pinball machines, but I sure liked to play.

HUO: And then of course there are also the pulp magazine graphics. You were looking at them, as well.

JN: Certainly. They usually weren’t far from the comic books in a magazine store, so they were just as easily accessible. One commonality among all of these different cheap things were the kinds of advertisements at the back.

HUO: Kasper König always told me H. C. Westermann was so important in Chicago. I suppose he was also important for you? Did you meet him?

JN: When I moved to Chicago I lived about a block from him, so I learned who he was from seeing him in the neighborhood and then seeing his work. Frumkin handled his work, so it was very visible in Chicago. He was friends with Whitney Halstead, who was a very important teacher for me, and he went to school with Don Baum. Karl Wirsum was friends with one of Westermann’s friends. So I got a lot of information about Westermann both from seeing the work and from talking with him. His work was one of the common denominators in terms of the interests of the Hairy Who.

HUO: Jeff Koons adores you; you’re his hero. He mentioned to me once that Dalí was the beginning of Pop art. What would you say about you and Surrealism?

JN: Whitney taught a regular course on Surrealism, and it showed up in any number of his other classes when there was an appropriate connection. And in Chicago, both Feigen and Frumkin handled a number of Surrealists’ work. Later on, we got access to some of the collections in Chicago, and saw some very important Surrealist work there. And Franz Schulze, the local critic, quite often talked about a Surrealist sensibility in Chicago.

HUO: Where does your catalogue raisonné begins? With what piece would you say your student work ended and your professional career began?

JN: That’s something I never thought about! I don’t know. Perhaps the work at the very beginning of the Hairy Who—something that was in the first Hairy Who show.

HUO: How did you start painting behind Plexiglas?

JN: I think it had to do with the trying to re-create the way a pinball machine looks: very glossy, the glass with the imagery on it, a perfect surface. Somewhere in 1963 or 1964 I tried it and had a horrible time. Subsequently I saw a work of Karl’s where he nailed it, with none of the technical problems I was having. I figured if he could do it, I could, so I tried it again. Later I found out that he was painting on glass with oil paint, whereas I was painting on Plexi with acrylic. But once I figured out how to do it, I jumped in with both feet.

HUO: How did you then later get away from the Plexiwork? At one decisive moment you abandoned that reverse technique.

JN: The first thing you had to put on the Plexi, because you’re working on the reverse side of it, was the lines containing the shapes. Once all the lines are drawn, you start painting in the areas of color. You may have to do five or six coats so that you get an even surface and can’t see any variations, and so you’re locked into that color, you cannot change it. If you paint a subsequent area of the painting and then realize it doesn’t hang together as you hoped, there’s nothing you can do. So after the frustration of seeing paintings where I really would have liked, say, a yellow area to be a little more intense or a little duller, I finally decided I was going to start painting on surfaces so that I could change things if I decided I didn’t like a relationship.

HUO: You chose metal.

JN: And some canvases, plywood. I began to experiment with different surfaces as supports. The early paintings tend to be not unlike the Plexi paintings except that they’re on a surface. In other words, they are flat areas of color bounded by lines.

HUO: The textbook by Robert Storr talks about your portraits in the 1980s and 1990s, but one could say that already in the beginning there were portraits. In a way, your entire output has always been portraits.

JN: It’s kind of depressing, like I haven’t gone anyplace!

HUO: But maybe it’s simply an infinite topic.

JN: The interest in the human face has been there forever, it seems, for me.

HUO: At a sudden moment in the late 1970s, you began to focus exclusively on heads. Was it triggered by something?

JN: I don’t have a clue! I mean, it could have been from seeing a painting, perhaps something like Ammi Phillips, or 16th, 17th century European painting.

HUO: And they’re never portraits of specific people. They’re always imaginary.

JN: True, they’re not actual people.

HUO: When do you decide that a painting is finished? Do you sometimes repaint?

JN: Well, I repaint everything because I make a lot of mistakes. But there’s a certain point when it’s clear that it is done. The problem with seeing a painting again is that you inevitably want to change something.

HUO: And when you can’t change anything anymore, then it’s done?

JN: Well, you can if you can get your hands on it.

HUO: And how does drawing fit into your practice since the 1980s? How do the drawings and the paintings relate? Some drawings are very autonomous; they’re not always preparatory sketches.

JN: Some of it has to do with my process. I only work on one panting at a time. Because the paintings take so long, by the time I’m done with one, I don’t want to paint again. And so I turn to drawing. Then after a few weeks or a month I’ll want to get back to painting. Before, the paintings didn’t take quite so long and I’d want to go right back to painting.

HUO: How long does it take you to do a painting?

JN: Right now I’m averaging one a year. That’s a ridiculously long time; it shouldn’t take that long.

HUO: Do you have unrealized projects? Paintings you didn’t do? Dreams? Architectural ideas?

JN: Yes, there’s a lot. Of course at this point in my life, most are never going to get done. There’s not going to be enough time. For instance I’ve got a roll of canvas, maybe eight feet tall. I bought it around 1977, 1978, when I moved back to Chicago and had a big studio and wanted to do some large paintings. I haven’t even come close to doing anything on that scale.

HUO: What’s the biggest painting you’ve done?

JN: I think it was seven feet by five feet. It was around 1973, 1974.

HUO: And you did etchings, which are amazing!

JN: Yes, there was a period in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I did a number of small etchings.

HUO: They’re incredible. Almost microscopic.

JN: They seemed pretty big to me at the time.

HUO: Do you have any unrealized projects outside painting? To do a building, or your own museum?

JN: I guess one fantasizes about designing a house to live in, a space to live in. But then I would never get anything else done.

HUO: What’s your favorite museum?

JN: Well there’s two considerations: one is the building that the museum is in, and the other is the collection. I’ve only visited it a couple of times, but I love the Gemeentemuseum Den Haag. I just responded so positively to the building and a lot of what’s inside of it. But also, I could say that my favorite museum is the one I’m in at the moment I’m there.

HUO: You often compare yourself to Max Ernst in that you are like a midwife; that’s something Ernst observed about his practice. How does that work?

JN: It’s a process like giving birth. You’re going through some sort of natural process, and something is resisting. I’m assisting, making it possible, but it’s more of a magical, creative thing than an intellectual process of stating a purpose, analyzing how to do it, then doing it. When I was in school, I was never able to say something that I thought was particularly interesting or meaningful. A teacher would ask me, “What are you doing? What are you trying to do?” and I never knew quite how to answer because there were so many things I was trying to do that weren’t going well. I don’t know that I ever had a goal, an outline, in mind. Then when I discovered that quote by Ernst, I was delighted because people suddenly thought maybe I was halfway intelligent at least for knowing who Max Ernst was.

HUO: You quote a lot from cinema as well. Czes?aw Mi?osz told me that we can’t understand poetry in the 20th century if we don’t look at cinema, because cinema changed poetry. And I suppose it’s also true that one must think about cinema when looking at the painting of the 20th and 21st centuries. You’ve said that your most important early visual experiences were the movies, in particular Hitchcock. Looking at your work, there isn’t a direct connection to Hitchcock, but clearly it inspired you.

JN: Hitchcock knew how to create suspense. As a kid, much of a film’s story line wasn’t understandable, but there was more than enough to keep me interested. I can remember in Notorious, that scene where the camera’s way up high, looking down at Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant, and bit by bit it comes on down and finally zeroes in on her fist. I can’t remember if I understood that the key was in the fist, or if it was simply the way the camera made you focus on what would otherwise be mundane. Films have a sort of magical power. You become completely immersed. It’s a far more overpowering experience than looking at a painting or a sculpture.

HUO: Dan Graham says we can only understand artists if we know what kind of music they listen to. What’s your connection to music, and what do you listen to?

JN: My mother was a musician. She played the piano and the bassoon. So I grew up with classical music, mostly from the 19th century, Beethoven and Brahms and Schubert. I was also interested in big bands: Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton. I eventually discovered Baroque opera. I enjoy listening to it while painting because it goes on for three hours. Currently my interest in 20th-century classical music has returned, though I still have little enthusiasm for twelve-tone works.

HUO: You have a lot of amazing titles. What’s the role of the titles? They’re very laconic.

JN: It’s the sound, how you form a word. Perhaps there’s something about the way the word sounds, or the way it looks on the page. The hardness, the softness of the word. The way it lingers in the mouth, even if it’s a very terse word.

HUO: Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a little book of advice to a young poet. What would be your advice to a young artist?

JN: Look hard. Stand in front of something that interests you and really look at it.



Jim Nutt (Pittsfield, Massachusetts, 1938) is an American painter who was a founding member of the Chicago surrealist art movement, known as the Chicago Imagists, or the “Hairy Who”. Using at the beginning of his career a peculiar technique of painting on plexiglas he created shiny graphic surfaces of scabrous figures, and phantasmagoric portraits of imaginary women in the junk aesthetic of vernacular culture, with roots in mid-20th-century pop culture. Abandoning the plexiglas technique in the 1970s, he began to paint on canvas. This series of paintings frequently presents an imaginary absurdist theatre, where the characters appear in a state of sexual frustration. Nutt attended the Art Institute of Chicago in the 1960s. He is married to fellow-artist and Hairy Who member Gladys Nilsson.


Originally published on Mousse 49 (Summer 2015)


Related Articles
Brushing History against the Grain: Samson Kambalu and Vincent Meessen
(Read more)
Design, Reset: Studio Formafantasma
(Read more)
Indistinct Murmur: Özgür Kar
(Read more)
Mousse 70
An Index of Shadows: Sarah Ortmeyer
(Read more)
Mediation Has the Strongest Echo: Sam Lewitt
(Read more)
“From a History of Exhibitions Towards a Future of Exhibition-Making: China and Southeast Asia”: On the Importance of Institutional Commitment and Slower-Paced Operational Modes
(Read more)