The Early Prints of Jim Nutt

My first conversation with Jim Nutt was regrettably brief and took place a few years ago. Star-struck at meeting an artist I have admired for over 30 years, I was tongue-tied and did not take advantage of the situation to have a real conversation. Instead, I simply mentioned that as much as I admire his portraits they were out of my price range. So my focus was on his many small prints done in the 1970’s. He smiled and agreed that those early works were, in some ways, as interesting as his current paintings.

Last year I enjoyed a more in-depth discussion with Mr. Nutt. After reminding him of our previous encounter, Nutt graciously agreed to answer a few questions. First I mentioned his earlier comment about his prints versus his paintings. Surprised, he was quick to say that he did not remember making that comment and it was in no way a standard response. He diplomatically added that each body of work belonged to a particular place in his thinking and that, perhaps, it might be better to describe the works as distinct rather than better or worse.

Then I shared my observation of the similarities between his recent portraits and those of Leonardo Da Vinci. This idea was based on an unexpected encounter with both a Da Vinci on display for the first time since the 1960’s from a private collection in France and a retrospective of Nutt’s oeuvre at the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago. Having stumbled over the Da Vinci at the Art Institute on a Thursday afternoon (where I stood enthralled for so long a museum guard asked, “is everything okay?”). That same evening at the CAM show found me comparing the many portraits by Nutt with the Virgin and Child on display at the Institute.

There followed a back-and-forth between the two of us about the differences in mediums and techniques, where Nutt remained skeptical of my conclusions. And he also noted his disappointment at having missed the chance to see the Da Vinci painting. I’ll stand my ground and reiterate a surprising affinity can be found when comparing the originals – it does not work to compare reproductions.

Now, on to the small prints. The selection of works I’ve been exploring begin with an etching from 1967/1968 titled “Gay Nurse” and end with an etching from 1977 tagged “oh! my goodness(NO NO). A total of 30 etchings and three lithographs were printed during this period. One enigma is that some were printed in Chicago and others in California with some printed in short editions at both places, starting with “Gay Nurse.” Only the final four prints in this group saw editions of more than 20 copies, with many seeing only five to ten.

Additionally, many editions included one or two of the impressions being hand colored, or even cutout and reassembled. Within single editions there could also be a variety of paper types in different colors. There is even a print I’ve seen with the mat cut to match the contours (very ragged) of the deckled edges of the paper (very handsome). All of these interesting variations make it a bit challenging to compare and date the individual works, even within the same editions.

The remainder of our talk revolved around the reasons for the many editions, the challenges of finding like-minded printers, the use of students (for a couple of the lithographs) and the relationship of a couple of the prints to the paintings being produced during this period. My work to aggregate these fascinating facts and stats is currently underway.

Though some of the prints feature imagery that is a bit too strong for my taste, and unlikely to be added to my growing collection, all are worth a careful look. And it has been interesting to find works that I enjoyed as reproductions proving to be less desirable when finally viewing the originals (especially the more edgy work). Much of this has to do with the quality of the printing, hence my desire to better understand the backstory of who, where and when these prints were put to paper.

We finished our conversation by looking at works by fellow Hairy Who? member, Suellen Rocca, hanging on a nearby wall.

Note: While examples of Nutt’s work can be found in most catalogs and books discussing the work of the Hairy Who? gang in Chicago (including the terrific work by spouse Gladys Nilsson), for a full view of his prints, both before and after the period mentioned above, look to The Chicago Imagist Print, published by the University of Chicago in 1987.

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