Jim Nutt’s Art Deserves a Closer Look

Jim Nutt’s painting and drawing go totally against the grain of internationally celebrated postwar American art. His independence and the fiercely self-reliant artistic ambition that has fueled his work have yet to receive the widespread recognition they have long deserved. The gap between what I believe is Nutt’s accomplishment and the attention he has received was on my mind when I saw the exhibition Jim Nutt: Shouldn’t We Be More Careful? at David Nolan Gallery, the artist’s first show of new work in New York in more than a decade. Using graphite and paper, Nutt makes drawings that resemble nothing else that I have seen.

The exhibition includes 19 contour drawings of a woman’s head, all in graphite on toothed paper and dated from the last two years (none larger than 15 by 14 inches). The press release explains:

While sometimes compared to Ingres or Picasso, Jim’s portraits have focussed on a single figure’s head since 1987. His graphite explorations on paper are mostly to find just the right portrait that will be chosen for the next painting. Fortunately for us, Jim makes a number of drawings until that decision is made, after which there are no more drawings made till the painting is complete. 

Nutt has meticulously pared down his heads as if determined to discover just how few lines he needs to make a distinctive image. The obvious association is with the cartoonist whose goal is to arrive at a simple, unmistakable image, such as Mickey Mouse, rendered as minimally as possible. As I marveled at the economy of Nutt’s lines, and how each one seems to have been made without hesitation, I was unexpectedly reminded of Japanese ink painting. In ink painting, you can neither erase nor revise the mark. By choosing an unforgiving surface, such as Plexiglas in the early 1960s and toothed paper in these recent drawings, and making irrevocable marks, Nutt enters a territory few American artists have dared to go. In this regard, his portraits share something with Jasper Johns’s ink-on-plastic drawings.

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Jim Nutt, “Untitled” (2023), graphite on paper, 15 x 14 inches

Nutt started the drawings on view when he turned 80. Always a fastidious and inventive artist, he found a way to demand even more of himself. This is what makes him a great artist whose work remains challenging. Having received critical acclaim and institutional support, he could have initiated a mode of production that enabled him to make variations, but he didn’t. It is a level of independence that the art world is not used to celebrating.

Nutt’s portraits seem partially influenced by his familiarity with a wide range of portraiture, from 13th-century Italian art to early modern masters, such as Amedeo Modigliani, without devolving into parody or quotation. In two untitled drawings dated 2022 and 2023, the head faces right and tilts slightly downward. The angle echoes Berlinghiero’s “Madonna and Child” (possibly 1230s) in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, one of only two paintings that are verified as the artist’s. One of the striking things about Berlinghiero’s painting is the Madonna’s androgynous appearance.

The androgyny we encounter in Nutt’s recent portrait drawings, as noted in the press release, resonates with our times and discussions about gender and identity, but never directly comments on them. One of the issues these drawings raise is how we determine an individual’s identity. From the outline of the hair to the nose and eyes, each feature is clearly and individually articulated, so that any notion of symmetry we might have about the face is completely rejected. While the eyes are closely related in the earlier drawing, they are positioned at different angles. In the later drawing, Nutt draws two distinct eyes, a semi-circle containing a circle with a dot in the middle and a circle with a dot in the middle. The eyebrows are also completely different from each other. Although the parts fit together and coalesce into a portrait, they do not become symmetrical.

The tension between the whole image and the specific shapes speaks to the multiplicity of identities individuals adhere to. We are our many parts and we are more than that. There is nothing eccentric about these masterful, enigmatic drawings. 

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Jim Nutt, “Untitled” (2022), graphite on paper, 13 x 13 inches
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Jim Nutt, “Untitled” (2022), graphite on paper, 13 x 13 inches

Jim Nutt: Shouldn’t We Be More Careful? continues at David Nolan Gallery (24 East 81st Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through October 21. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

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