Interview with Robert
Nickle Part One
(Robert Nickle's recent one-person show at the Art Institute contained 24 works from the past two years. As welcome as his show was, coming from an artist who never seeks publicity and seldom exhibits, it only whetted the appetite for the major retrospective exhibition that one of the local museums should hold. A judicious selection of, say, fifty collages would permit one to trace the gradual shift in Nickle's work from the more rigid juxtaposition of forms in the earlier pieces, through the problems he set for himself in the 50's and 60's, and into the lyrical freedom of the later works. Nickle is important not only in his own right, but also as a part of the history of art in Chicago. His career spans the period from the death of the Institute of Design to the flowering of a new generation of abstract artists, many of whom Nickle taught at the University of Illinois, Chicago Circle.)
UPSHAW: What brought you to the Institute of Design after World War II?
NICKLE: At the University of Michigan I was aware that Moholy existed and that he had come to Chicago during the 30's. During the war I was sent to Chicago to a naval training and development center, and I immediately ran to the school. I had a very brief contact with Moholy, but it was nice, because it was a night school situation. There were very few people, and we'd sit and eat bag lunches with him.
I knew at that time that Moholy didn't have the visual integrity that Mondrian had. Moholy had spread himself very thin. He was a great guy for getting a person to really want to take off. Moholy could make a picture, or he could go and solve somebody's fountain pen problem, but all I had to do was look at Moholy's work to see that he was not visually and spatially that tough. So my respect for Moholy was there, but my love was for Mondrian and his straight-line pursuit of guts by limitation. It fit in with what I'd realized for myself, somehow. I knew as far back as I can remember that I had tried to walk where nobody else had walked, even if it weren't the broadest path. I was already aware that I was much more able to discern something good than I was able to make something good. The collage gave me a way out of my shortcomings. I couldn't just grab a brush and do anything I wanted to do, but I could move things around.
UPSHAW: Franz Schulze, in Fantastic Images, gives an exchange between you and Leon Golub in which you appear to regard art as a part of the environment in the Bauhaus sense. Do you still feel this way?
NICKLE: I believe that there was a time in my life when simply trying to build an environment was a substantial substitute for art. Mondrian made a bed, and his room looked like a painting. I thought that was pretty stupid, but I have always felt that art can be an environment, although it's never particularly been so for me. I could see where someone could derive many of the satisfactions of making, say, a sculpture by making an environment. I have had long periods where I was getting more satisfaction out of trying to solve a problem than I was out of making a beautiful thing. I designed movable house systems, and you can get so going on these things that it's more exciting than succeeding in getting an image working.
But the image has kept me going better than anything else over a long period. Design is a universalizing thing; it's always trying to hunt for universals and to eliminate what is personal. I look at the school at Circle. Walter Netsch designed this building. It's become very obvious that he should have been going home and making sculpture at night. Then during the day, he could have gone to his business and solved problems. I always felt like I retained a certain integrity by always walking out of the studio and shutting the door before going into the designing room. This is why I could never sell anything.
UPSHAW: Would you talk about "fine" versus "applied" art? What changed your mind about selling?
NICKLE: When I first came to Chicago, I accepted the rightness of some of the things that were presented to us. For example, Moholy said, "Here we are, guys, I know you are artists, and I need you. If the world were under control we'd all just make pictures, and that would be fine. But I feel guilty, and you should feel guilty if you shut the door and paint potatoes or whatever, because the modern machines and this fantastically well-developed technology that exists are doing such wrong things."
And it was true; you couldn't go into a store and get a pair of shoes or a chair you could live with. If you found a logical, good thing, it was probably in an industrial supply house at that time. If a thing had not been distorted, it was probably a hang-over from another period which they were simply shooting out with this great technology. So Moholy said, "We've got to stop the machines and get them going in another direction."
This made a lot of sense. We looked across the river, and we saw the Art Institute people painting potatoes. We said, "We'll paint them later if we can, but we've got to stop the machines." I had come out of a machine shop and a family of engineers. Suddenly I realized that I'd been trying to get away from engineering for so many years, and I'd walked right back into it again. Somehow it all fit together, and that was a great thing.
It was a nice feeling, but it really didn't work. A lot of us went out there, and some immediately became pawns of better advertising, prettier brochures, and smoother can-openers. There was a lot of soul searching in my life, because this whole thing really wasn't adding up to better lives. It was true that it was improving certain creature comforts, but there was still something wrong. I was part of the Dixie-Cup world with expendable everything, but even before the ecological clarifications existed, I realized that somehow things were not necessarily better.
Up to 1963 I said, "If I am going to be half an artist and half a designer, I will derive my income from design, and I will be the purest artist that ever was. If I'm going to compromise , my compromises will be in design. I will know that what I do in art is because I want to do it. I'll do a magazine cover and not sell a picture." So this meant that I could never show in a gallery.
About that time, I met Dick Gray. Gray was a friend of Bud Holland, and he said to Holland, "You ought to talk to Nickle." Holland, who was a pretty good salesman, convinced me of something I had already known - that I was spending more and more time doing other than making pictures. At that point, I knew the pictures were more important that what I was doing, designing better wastebaskets and coffee cups.
UPSHAW: Let's talk about your pictures. You state in your catalogue, "The near-square form of many of my collages is an indication of my respect for the intensity of this field in which all forces are most dynamically inter-involved." Would you talk about the problems of working with a square format as opposed to, say, a circular one?
NICKLE: The dynamics are such within the square that it's pretty hard for anything to hide. I do feel that at times I've constricted myself to the square and have set up some constrictions that I suppose were pretty dumb - like cross diagonals. But I think the square is an intense arena.
It's certainly a harder-working arena than the circle or the elongated rectangle. The circle is a very dynamic shape, but since most of the pieces of paper I work with were originally cut in a square or rectangular fashion, I tend to deal with them in terms of floatations when I have to arrange them to fit a circle. I have never found the circle to be as precarious, so I tend to deal with it more lightly, perhaps. When I'm trying to get something to move intensely, I keep finding myself squaring. I don't try, but it just happens.
UPSHAW: What starts a circular, then, as opposed to a square piece?
NICKLE: Gradually, I got to the point where I was picking up raunchier and raunchier paper. The farther it had gone into a state of degeneration. the closer it had gotten to being pure organic matter. It fell into more organic forms, and the circle was probably more right. I know whether a thing is right or not by how much I'm having to force it.
I have different levels when I work. The first level is so pedestrian, and the stuff is nothing, it's swept away. Then I have another level where there are sparks that are better than my usual flatfootedness, though they may not go anywhere. Those are things that by sheer brute force I have pushed into something I can live with. Then there are times when things get going. There is really no pushing, and those are the good ones.
UPSHAW: Have you done collage with more precious material than the scrap paper you normally use?
NICKLE: I did collage with nice materials before the war - fabric and fine paper and gold foil, the usual art school pretty stuff. When I came to Chicago, my collage materials were pretty clean. They were scraps of paper, but there wasn't any real dirt on them. As I became more involved with design, they became rougher and rougher. It was sort of an antidote to the things I was doing in design.
I just took a year's sabbatical, and one of the things I was going to do was to start some painted paper collages, but everything I do is so slow and transitional, the year got away before I could paint a piece of paper. I want to do this, though, because I recognize that I am extremely limited in color. I've gotten to the point where I want more color, though not necessarily a lot of color. I feel like I've put myself in a very limited arena, and I think that if I get to the point where I had a piece that were a little brighter or a little darker, it would be so fine. But I can't do it.
UPSHAW: Are you talking about primary colors, for example?
NICKLE: I think that it'll end up earth tones, but there will be less of a tendency for color to be a separate entity within the pieces and more of an overall thing. The other thing that I was hoping to do this year was to make collage-based prints. Back in '63, I was one of the early ones to do offset lithographs, and I've been doing them occasionally from time to time. What I was trying to do was to use the collage as a photo-image base and then to play directly with the color on the printing press over and over like washes. It's something I want to work at when I get some money ahead.
I was impressed with Mondrian, who said he would be really happy if he could make something so simple that it could be reproduced in the morning paper and everybody could have one. There should be a way to do an open-ended edition. I reject the idea of doing ten or fifteen prints and throwing the plates away and establishing a price structure based on that. It would be much righter to make something that a person could buy for five dollars that was really good. He could live with it, outgrow it, and then throw it away.