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Jim Nutt

2010.809 Jim Nutt
© Jim Nutt
Also known as
James Nutt, James T. Nutt
Date of birth

Jim Nutt pursued a degree in architecture before a drawing class prompted him to discover his true calling in the fine arts. He enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1960, where he met and married Gladys Nilsson.

Drawn to Whitney Halstead’s progressive vision of global art history and visual culture, Nutt thrived, and the men formed a lifelong friendship. Outside of school, Nutt—alongside Jim Falconer—did odd jobs at Allan Frumkin Gallery and worked as an exhibition preparator at the Arts Club of Chicago.

Soon after graduation, Nutt joined forces with five other recent graduates of the School of the Art Institute to form the Hairy Who in 1965. The six artists—Jim FalconerArt GreenGladys Nilsson, Jim Nutt, Suellen Rocca, and Karl Wirsum—decided that the best way to find success was to exhibit their work together, and as the Hairy Who they began mounting unconventional displays of bright, bold graphic work in the mid-1960s. Over a period of four years they transformed the art landscape of Chicago, injecting their new and unique voices into the city’s rising national and international profile.

Particularly invested in the promotion and reception of the Hairy Who, Nutt was instrumental in creating the group’s complex exhibition designs. This complexity ran parallel to developments in his own work, in which lone portrait busts acquired borders of playful typography and morphed into multipanel vignettes. Eventually contained by elaborate artist-made frames, the works often bore Nutt’s instructions on how to care for, handle, and install them on their backs.

Drawing is central to Nutt’s artistic practice. He relies on line whether working with pencil, printmaking, or paint. His studies and cartoons, such as Drawing for “Snooper Trooper,” Drawing for “Wowidow,” Drawing for “Lippy,” and Drawing for “Stem,” reveal the painstaking organization, revision, and refinement to which he subjects his initial graphic thoughts.

A 2018 exhibition at the Art Institute—the first-ever major survey dedicated solely to the Hairy Who—explored how the group’s distinct aesthetic transformed the art landscape of Chicago. Nutt’s juxtaposition of slapstick and profane imagery, on one hand, with exquisite attention to craft, on the other, is typical of the work of many members of the Hairy Who, but the steadfast centrality of art historical references to his practice is unique amongst them.

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