Whitehot Magazine

February 2011, Jim Nutt @ Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago

Jim Nutt, Trim, 2010
Courtesy, the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011

Jim Nutt: Coming Into Character
Curated by Lynne Warren
Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago
220 East Chicago Avenue
Chicago, IL 60611
January 29 through May 29, 2011

After World War II, New York City emerged as an art world center, due in part to the influx of avant-garde artists from a war torn Europe. By the 1960s, the American art scene had established itself as a global creative force with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Allan Kaprow leading the hip new art scenes of Pop Art and Happenings. It was in the mid-‘60s that art audiences saw the blurring of pre-established boundaries between high and low art forms—the classic avant-garde v. kitsch paradox that would soon define postmodernity and its growing cultural malaise. Writing two decades prior to the ‘60s, Clement Greenberg observed, “One and the same civilization produces simultaneously two such different things as a poem by T. S. Elliot and a Tin Pan Alley song, or a painting by Braque and a Saturday Evening Post cover” (Greenberg, Avant-Garde and Kitsch,1939). It was this very confusion that made room for a new kind of artist, art, and audience. Notions of taste and connoisseurship would forever haunt those participating in the realms of art and culture.

Jim Nutt, Twinge, 1998
Courtesy, the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011

Artists working in NYC were also playing a large role in the culture of cool. Art as well as art shows at the time were using wit and banality to promote a cool pseudo-carelessness, a seemingly non-pretentious move that resulted in covert snobbery. The contemporary scene in 1968 saw shows such as Warhol’s plainly stated, Wallpaper and Silver Clouds and Jasper Johns 1968 work, Targets.

Meanwhile, in Chicago, a small band of ‘60s misfit art students at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago were making their own brand of anti-New York art, an art that appealed to their interests in the various marginalized forms of popular culture. These artists were inspired by pulp comics, cartoons, soft-erotica, pinball machine images, advertising graphics, and sailor tattoos. They would later be responsible for some of the earliest and most original forms of Low Brow and Popsurrealism of the 20th century. Achieving international fame in the late ‘60’s, The Hairy Who struck a balance somewhere between a Midwestern contempt for all things New York and that notorious second city vibe of Chicago. Exhibitions at the Hyde Park Art Center galvanized the group’s formal energy and paved the way for the DIY (do-it-yourself) ethos that continues to define Chicago’s art scene.

As The Hairy Who slowly evolved into what would later be termed the Chicago Imagists, its artists worked through the idiosyncrasies of urban culture while tapping into an authentic Midwestern sensibility. At the center of this rebel crowd, was artist Jim Nutt, with high-level painting and illustration skills and a passion for 15th and 16th century portraiture and female headshots. Nutt’s 45-year retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art, highlights some of the artist’s most interesting works from the past four decades. Reverse paintings on plexiglass like Miss T. Garmint (she pants a lot), 1967 and Cotton Mouth, 1968 showcase the earlier styles of Nutt, while traditional portrait paintings like, Twinge, 1998 and Trim, 2010 signal the artist’s evolution into singular styles of dynamic portraiture. These works indicate how interests for an artist mature over time after much experimentation, exploration, and knowledge is gained. The exhibition is symbolic in that it sums up the character of the artist and our great city.

Jim Nutt,
Miss T. Garmint (she pants a lot), 1967
Courtesy, the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011

Jim Nutt, Cotton Mouth, 1968
Courtesy, the artist and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, 2011


Keith Brown

​W. Keith Brown is a Chicago-based art educator, writer, and researcher. In the past, Brown has been an editor and writer for the Illinois Art Education Association, Stockyard Institute, and the Critical Visual Art Education Club. His writing has appeared in two books and a handful of local, national, and international publications and writing projects. Brown uses critical pedagogy, social justice, and education knowledge to expand his thinking on contemporary art history, theory, and criticism.


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