Robert Nickle at Richard Gray
by Regan Upshaw

Robert Nickle's art, though much admired in Chicago, has never conformed with what outsiders think of as Chicago School. It has been this way almost since the beginning of his career; while Leon Golub, Seymour Rosofsky, Cosmo Campoli and other of his contemporaries, who were later to comprise the "Monster Roster" were studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nickle was across the river at the Institute of Design, which was established by Moholy-Nagy and other Bauhaus refugees. From Moholy-Nagy and indirectly from Mondrian, who became his hero (he even named his son Piet), Nickle absorbed the Bauhausian principles of functional, balanced design. Driven by a perfectionist nature and yet feeling that he would not reach the first rank as a painter, he early decided to concentrate on the medium of collage, partly in emulation of the "strength through concentration" process he saw operating in the works of Mondrian.

The 38 collages in Nickle's latest show are closely related to what he was doing over the past 30 years. There has been, however, a significant shift during his career from the simple to the baroque. While Bauhausian parameters are readily apparent, the artist sees himself as a participant in postwar American abstraction. While Nickle is certainly not representative of the mainstream, his work nonetheless reveals significant affinities to that of the Abstract Expressionists. For example, Nickle's is an art of reaction: he makes a mark and then plays his following marks against it. His approach demands sharp, intensive bursts of creativity, the making of a work while the energy lasts (though Nickle may work on a particular collage for years, he usually keeps about 50 such pieces going at once, like simultaneous chess games, to permit him to shift his attention when he reaches a temporary obstacle.)

That Nickle's "mark" is made by a piece of paper rather than a loaded brush is in keeping with his quiet, unflamboyant character. HI collages are paradoxes that work: records of lyrical spontaneity tempered by an almost scientific experimentation. In his early works, a spirit of rigorous simplification prevailed. Nickle set various restrictions for himself, such as not altering the paper in any way, and then pursued a series of formal problems, such as making a successful collage with only three pieces, or creating works with crossed diagonals, or constructing compositions that would work from any direction (his frames were designed to be hung from any of their four sides).

The mastery of his medium that these experiments gave Nickle is evident in his new works. A good number of them, with their rectangular elements and subtle tonal variations, resemble his collages of the past several years. The surprise, though, is in the new boldness of many of the works now. The curvilinear, organic forms of his earlier round collages are now being played off against his traditional square or rectangular backgrounds. As always, Nickle limits himself to the use of unaltered found objects. There is a new willingness, however, to use louder pieces with large letters or numerals on them and to let their visual weight vie precariously with the rest of the composition. In addition to his traditionally preferred earth tones, Nickle now uses large swatches of primary colors along with orange and hot pink. The Abstract-Expressionist side of his heritage has come through, and Nickle welds it to Bauhausian good design with a freedom born of strength.


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