The postcard-size invitation to the opening of the Don Nice exhibition at the Babcock Galleries at 724 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan was certain to grab your attention: it was a piece of aluminum on which was a brightly colored minature of one of the artist's works.
The show itself did not disappoint. The artist's latest works are mostly large cut-outs of aluminum on which he has painted a wild assortment of animals, landscapes and rakish borders. Nice's technique results in a very glossy, almost lacquered surface with intensely vibrant colors.
Nice was born in 1932 in Visalia, California and while much of his work might appear to classic California healthism, he has made his home for more than three decades along the Hudson River in Garrison, New York. His art is a very pleasing synthesis of the hedonistic brightness of a Richard Diebenkorn (see The City Review article) and Wayne Thiebaud, and the environmental conscious idealism of the Hudson River School of painting founded by Thomas Cole, an artist of a tremendous, transcendent love of nature but also possessed of a fervor.
Mr. Nice is no country bumpkin, having graduated from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles and having received a master's degree in fine arts from Yale University. A dapper, congenial and handsome man, he might be mistaken by some passersby to be advertising executive rather than an artist, but so much for stereotypes. He has been described as a "pop realist," and there is no question that some of his work has a similarity with some of the "Pop" work of Wayne Thiebaud, the subject of a recent major retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Nice, however, has a lighter touch than Thiebaud and, especially in his more recent work, considerably more complexity as evidenced by his experiments with making modern "totems."
Nice's work is in the collections
of numerous museums such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney
Museum of American Art in New York, the Pennsylvania Academy of
Fine Arts in Philadelphia, the Minneapolis Institute of Art and
the Walker Art Center and his work as been shown at numerous other
galleries such as the John Berggruen Gallery in San Francisco,
and Pace Editions and Nancy Hoffman Gallery in New York. The Babcock
Gallery held an exhibition of Nice's "Earth Totems"
February 3 to March 27, 1998, with an accompanying catalogue written
by Gail Scott and published by Chameleon Books, Inc., of Chesterfield,
In his acknowledgments in that catalogue, John Driscoll, the director of the Babcock Gallery, wrote that the exhibition reviews "the lively invention, technical brilliance, and steadfast vision that have always been the patent elements of Nice's achievement, and manifests a maturing artistic sensibility that is at once cogent and evocative."
Indeed, Nice's newest work on anodized aluminum is both enchanting and mystical, exhilarating and mellow. At first glance, the imagery of the various sections comprising each work appears almost primitive and naïve, but the amalgam of the individual works has an affectionate, nostalgic curiosity but is not didactic nor pompous. Moreover, his technique utilizing the anodized aluminum is anything but naïve and achieves a lustrous vibrancy that is quite irresistible, a jewelled object of considerable magnetism.
The gallery has a one-page
description of the artist's use of aluminum:
"The element, recovered from bauxite ore, cannot exist in our atmosphere without instantaneous oxidation that results in a very thick, rock-hard, totally transparent oxide film. This oxide, when expanded to hundreds of times its naturally occurring thickness, takes on the properties of an amorphous yet hard film, capable of great absorbencies of specific chemicals. By immersing the selected aluminum alloy into a room temperature aqueous bath of sulphuric acid and connecting it electrically as an anode, the accelerated generation of this thick oxide film occurs. Fresh out of the sulfuric acid bath, the anodic film can be painted with specific dyestuffs that penetrate deeply into the oxide. To insure total permanency, the film need only be sealed - forever locking the beautiful colors inside. This is accomplished by immersion in a boiling aqueous solution of nickel acetate, where the molecular-size pores of the oxide are closed by plugging with precipatated nickel hydroxide and the swelling of the film that occurs due to hydration induced by the boiling water. With the use of this modern technology, the final object created is a work of art permanently preserved in the natural oxide of one of the earth's most versatile elements."
Well, don't try this at home without a chemistry expert and a fine artist.
In his introduction to the 1998 catalogue, Townsend Ludington quotes Nice as recognizing in his early work "that there was a definite search for some way to introduce content back into the mainstream of contemporary art, but without the traditional redundant realism of the academy." His commentary continued:
"From someone who at a young age was truly a cowboy in the west, with a rough-and-tumble attitude toward nature - it was there to be used, not nurtured - he has become someone who has taken on a good deal of the Native American approach toward the earth. He has reached out to it with reverence through direct symbolization - with the objects themselves presented in a celebratory way - something akin to the strivings of the great American poets Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams to capture in their art, as Stevens put it, 'not ideas about the thing but the thing itself.' Like these two modernists, Don is trying not to build monuments against the world but to become more at one with it. What he is doing has a spiritual quality about it that can only be likened to religion."
In her catalogue essay, Gail Scott notes that Nice is involved with "the translation of recognizable objects into icons, and the subsequent iconoclastic deformation of those same objects," and provides the following commentary:
"Nice's early mentors ran the gamut of movements from those heady times of the late 50s and early '60s. They included Oscar Kokoschka [see The City Review article] (with whom he briefly studied in 1958), de Kooning [see The City Review article] and Pollock, Rothko and Gorky, Hartley [see The City Review article] and Matta, and a group of pioneering younger colleagues with whom he studied in the M. F. A. program Yale that included Nancy Graves, Brice Marden, Chuch Close, and Janet Fish.....The fact that the work of de Kooning especially resonates with Nice is understandable since among the Abstract Expressionists, de Kooning found ways to let the figurative element remain beneath the overriding gesture of the painted surface. This same play between gesture and figure persists as a defining character of Nice's own art....His father managed a Sunkist packing house, and the ubiquitous Sunkist labels on every crate of fruit - the commercial art of Nice's youth - were imprinted on his brain and eventually formed the basis of his initial revisioning of the object..., just as the Campbell's Soup can entered the domain of art under Andy Warhol's hand. Nice, however, saw himself as somewhat apart from the Pop Art mainstream, despite his use of popular culture subject matter. For instance, he looked to Renaissance sources to re-present the subjects of his paintings. Artists like Mantegna and Crivelli presented their madonnas and saints in ways that intrigued him....Nice also borrowed the convention of the Renaissance predella, using it..., not to tell a story, but to reinforce the content by encasing the object in a highly structured framework. Along with others like Chuck Close, Nice began to focus on scale as a way to revision objecthood....Striving for a totally anti-compositional way of giving the object presence, Nice depicted objects in sharp focus placed against a flat neutral ground, endowing them with heraldic presence....Nice retained a brushy, painterly touch. He has never entirely let go of his expressionist legacy, and his gestural stroke allies him more with Wayne Thiebaud than with Warhol or James Rosenquist....In Nice's work, the swags, which repeat the color tonalities from the dominant objects, are meant to enliven the extremities of the composition, and reinforce the energy of the main event....Nice sees the totem as 'stacked information,' a syntax for organizing images. As an art form in native cultures, the totem pole serves as an emblematic representation of character or family lineage....As a gifted watercolorist with a keen eye and sensitive touch, Nice continues the habit, drummed into him from Kokoschka, of keeping his hand and his creative energies flowing through constant sketchbook studies and countless drawings....He relishes the watercolor of John Singer Sargent....Sargent was, in Nice's view, invariably right on in his watercolors, almost to his own detriment. Nice acknowledges that the world doesn't need any more Sargent watercolors, beautiful as they are. The need is for risk-taking, the courage to paint dissonance, or create a new visual harmony out of dissonance."
One might argue, of course, that the more great Sargent watercolors the merrier, or better. Gail Scott's observations are very perceptive about the abundant energy of many of Nice's works and about the very interesting maturing of his style. For a while, Nice produced large "portraits" of animals like buffaloes but it is not until he began his "totems" that his art really begins to resonate. At first, he did vertical "totems," but more recently he has experimented wildly and very effectively with their form, sometimes using a star form and often far more complex forms, sometimes perforated. The "predellas" at first were at the bottom of rectangular pictures, but now often surround the central image and even, in the "spinners," are not always right-side up. Whereas traditional predellas on Renaissance altarpieces were usually different scenes from the subject's life, Nice's predellas are often single animals, like a bird or a squirrel, and while the Renaissance masters were deeply involved with quite specific symbolism of animals and objects that they included in their works, one gathers that Nice does not have a specific iconographic hierarchy and is content to let viewers of his works free-associate. His "predella" concept could be seen as "sub-texts" but one senses that Nice is not overly concerned with Post-Modern interpretations and analyses. The subjects of his predellas are probably comfortable, nostalgic, friendly remembrances.
His "anodized aluminum" technique could be seen as something of a gimmick were it not for how stunning it appears, not for the metallic texture but for the wonderfully saturated colors of his brushwork that is extremely painterly. Some computer art glossy prints have a similar sheen, but cannot compare with the textural quality of these works. Many of these works have the aluminum painting mounted on a thin wooden backing that is cut to the same shape. In many of the works, Nice incorporates elaborate abstract, often, zigzag borders that serve partially as frames and partially as connectors. Some artists, such as Louis Elshemus, who painted the outlines of curved frames on his rectilinear paintings, or John Marin, who occasionally painted frames to meld into his paintings, or Thomas Eakins, who once in a while created elaborate carvings of objects pertinent to his portrait subject's life on his frames, have made interesting experiments with how best to contain and display their art. In the post-World War II-era many abstract and Pop artists have been content to the narrowest of frames, a choice not often in the best interests of the art. Nice's asymmetrical aluminum works, however, stand very much and very well on their own.
Nice clearly has a fond regard for landscapes and some of his harken back to the spectacular fiery sunsets of Frederic Church [see The City Review article]. While he apparently declines to be categorized as an "environmental" artist, he surely has an infectious love of nature.
There is whimsy, wonder and affection in these works, but they are grounded in reality, not fantasy, and they are poetic follies of an inquisitive mind without the overbearing weight of some Surrealists or the blatant and often ponderous attempt of some abstract artists.
This exhibition will be shown June 4 to August 22, 2004 at the Albany Institute of Art.