One of the more memorable exhibits of the new millennium was at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago in 2011. Essentially a retrospective of the painter Jim Nutt, it was the first public showing of his work in about a decade. As a longtime fan of Nutt, and as much as I enjoyed seeing some of the earlier works again, it was his recent portraits that literally took my breath away.
Comparatively intimate in scale, and most accompanied by an original pencil preparatory drawing, the work is masterful. Layers and layers of color applied in ways that created both striking textural patterns and an inner luminosity. These life-size portraits of women could easily be dismissed as a “slicker” version of earlier work where faces and figures are distorted to an extreme that is regularly described as grotesque. But the colors and patterns serve to provide focal points that make the imagery playful rather than malicious. Regrettably, the handsome and competently printed catalog just can’t do these portraits justice.
Recently spending time looking at a book of the handful of known paintings by Leonardo Da Vinci and glancing up at work of Jim Nutt above my desk, I was reminded of the other show I saw on that spring day in Chicago. Pure serendipity, and the kind of coincidence that keeps life interesting, earlier that same day I had wandered through a show at the Art Institute of Chicago with medieval art that included, to my absolute delight and surprise, a small Madonna and child by Leonardo Da Vinci known as Virgin with Yarnspinner. It was the first time this work had been on public display since being purchased by a private collector in the early 1970’s. Even a background reminiscent of the Mona Lisa but poorly executed by assistants, could not diminish the power of the two figures. I was intrigued by the similarities between the Da Vinci and the Nutt portraits, including the bizarre foreshortening on the face of the child, and the luminosity of the Madonna’s face.
When I later shared my observation of the similarities between his portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci, Nutt disagreed. I defended my idea by explaining that I stood enthralled for so long while staring at the Yarnspinner a museum guard warily inquired, “is everything okay?”. The same evening found me at the CAM show where the similarities of the many portraits by Nutt with the Yarnspinner seemed so obvious. After a brief back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.