the quiet presence of Nickle
August 6, 1978
The sign that reads “Robert Nickle Collages” hangs next to a placard heralding the forthcoming Pompeii extravaganza. Both are lodged in t he niches high above the portals of the Art Institute, a spot reserved for announcements of the museum’s major events.
It is probably safe to say that Nickle, a Chicago artist of long standing but emphatically retiring nature, would not have been awarded so public an advertisement if it weren’t summertime, when sign-hanging is easy. Still, it is wonderful to see his name up there in that neo-Renaissance arcade. He deserves the attention even if relatively few people who see the name will recognize it.
Moreover, if the take the trouble to look for him, they better look hard, because his exhibition (on view through September 4) is tucked in one of the museum’s smallest – though niftiest – gallery spaces, the bandbox alcove in the prints and drawing department that is called simply 108A. Such a setting, modest but tasteful, is more in keeping with Nickle’s persona than the big placard outside.
He is known in local art circles for exerting a quiet, but memorable, presence. And those who have watched over the years know he is one of the best – in my opinion, one of the dozen best – artists working in Chicago today. It is high time he is given this kind of serious museum coverage.
In some senses, Nickle is a strange creative spirit, whose working habits are not at all consistent with the popular notion that artists are mercurial souls who ride crests of inspiration and make occasional far leaps for the imagination.
Nickle has been producing essentially the same sort of object for about 30 unbelievably steady years, and the object itself is correspondingly simple. Not only in form but in description. It is almost invariably a spare composition of rectilinear pieces of old paper and cardboard set side by side. Very old they are, or at least very old-looking: They have obviously been lying out-of-doors under the full range of the elements for a long time, until they have gained a rough, beaten patina, which Nickle finds beautiful.
The lineage of Nickle’s interests is also relatively simple to trace. Collage became a serious art form with the early cubist research of Braque and Picasso, around 1911, though Nickle is clearly more mindful of the example of the later German, Kurt Schwitters, who during the 1920s and 1930s transformed scraps of flotsam into fastidious arrangements of great elegance.
Nickle began making collages as a student at the old Chicago Institute of Design, a resurrection of the Bauhaus, in the 1940s. To several of the early Momentum shows, around 1950, he contributed objects that looked like a cross-breeding of Schwitters’ textures and Mondrian’s geometries. It is well to recall, too, that Mies van de Rohe was working in Chicago at that time. Nickle thus came of age when geometric abstract art was in the ascendancy in America and the view was current in some quarters that art of high order could be made by reducing form to its simplest elements, then ordering those elements in the most endlessly painstaking way.
One may wonder at first glance how an artist can keep worrying and laboring over those few bits of paper and cardboard for so long. Yet without bothering to explain how some people are indeed content to study the placement of a single shape for hours at a time and to move that shape as little as an eighth of an inch, over and over again, for weeks and weeks, it may be enough here to reflect on the final effect of Nickle’s exertions.
His works have the capacity, so to speak, to look better and better, righter and righter – yes, even purer and purer – in their distillation of form, their marriage of textures, their relationships of shape to surrounding space, the longer you look at them. They take on an increasing serenity, endowed as they are with a simplicity of the noble kind that one finds in some of the Psalms or in classical architecture.