Nickle’s Gorgeous Collages Endure

By Alan Artner

Chicago Tribune, October 20, 1996


The late Robert Nickle received a retrospective of collages just last year at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now comes another smaller selection of pieces at the Richard Gray Gallery, but such is the exquisitness of the work that both shows together still do not satiate the viewer.


In its sensibility of quiet deliberation, this is some of the finest art ever produced by an American artist.  Nothing in it is the least bit facile or showy.  And from the countless small decisions that went into each piece, there emerges the sense of an artist always working at the highest levels of inspiration and self-criticism.


In his last studio on North Halsted Street, he had literally hundreds of collages in play, and he walked among them like a chess champion, moving this or contemplating that until his found papers came together as if by resolving themselves and, sometimes after more than a decade, he finally could feel a work had come to completion.


Given such deliberateness, one might expect most of the electricity to have been drained away, and by all rights, Nickle’s work should look severe if not downright puritan.


Yet there remains in nearly every piece a strong undercurrent of seduction either in the color or texture (or combination of the two) that is positively disarming.  The degree of work he put in might well have killed any effects so subtle, but they’re all there, yielding more of themselves with the viewer’s every visit.


Nickle’s collages were in no sense anti-art exercises like the early work of his great German forebear Kurt Schwitters; they were not an invitation for the hurly-burly of life to shake everything up.


If anything, Nickle’s collages represent the opposite, painstaking attempts to transmute the base materials of life into the noble stuff of art, without making any noise about nobility or, indeed, anything overly precious or refined.


He worked like a medieval craftsman, showing vanity only in the photo-documentation he put into each of his handmade frames as the sign a work was finally finished.


All the pieces have this elaborate means of identification.  It’s there as a kind of joke directed against oblivion.  Nickle worked with rubbish but so transmuted it that he could be sure it would last, and included signed photographs simply to take his credit.


This gorgeous exhibition of 20 pieces from several phases of Nickle’s career should restore anyone’s faith that the greatest art does survive to give endless pleasure.  (at 875 N. Michigan Ave. through October.)




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