Interview with Robert Nickle Part Two
By Reagan Upshaw
New Art Examiner, November 1978


UPSHAW: How has your work changed over the years, aside from the raunchier paper? What problems have you set for yourself?

NICKLE: I started out in a very random fashion, but my need for continuity was such that I found myself playing games like the stupid one I set for myself, where each successive picture that I made would have to better than the one before, and I would have to recognize it to be better. That was great at first, but I got myself in a terrible knot.

The purpose was OK, though, in that I was trying to demand of myself a discernible, directional system. The thing that I consider reasonable about it, though I now call it stupid, was that so many people paint their hearts out without much concern for what they've done. And this is fine, except that this spitting out process is everything for this sort of person. When he's through, somebody almost has to come and pick out, and say "this is a good one, and this is a bad one. We'll have the good ones framed and take care of them for you."

But that person has something going, in that he is non product-oriented. He's interested in the process. So I admire that person and what he's got, but I sense that he lacks the thing that I push myself so hard for. I push myself so hard that I hurt those qualities that he has and that he protects. Over a period of time, I've become more aware that one has to be more concerned about the process of doing or the pleasure of doing, and not so concerned with how it will end. In a way, this tendency of mine to be so concerned with, "Is it good?" is both my hindrance and my everything.

The move from the middle to the late 40's was pretty much a move towards simplification. The less-is-more kind of stuff. I used to say that if I could make a collage of three pieces, it would be a great victory. Then it was regularization I went through, where I had six squares or six rectangles that were adjacent. It was elimination of form. I was not concerned with form as such, but with its relationships. I had begun with form carrying me, and systematically I wanted to take away the crutch.

UPSHAW: What would have taken its place?

NICKLE: You never get rid of form, but I was trying to take away the dominance of form as the carrier of the interest. Albers was doing the same thing when he worked with only a couple of squares. He was not worrying about form, but about color, the values, and their relationships. To get back to the basic problem, I was simply taking a few rectangles and seeing what they could do. This was OK, but I could only go so far with it. Any further, and I would have had to go to paint for greater control. The absolutist sort of thing was not conducive to the collage I was doing.

UPSHAW: I understand that at that time you would not let pieces overlap or alter their shape in anyway.

NICKLE: I grew more concerned about not wanting to manipulate the pieces, not cutting or doing anything that would destroy their nature. This became more important as I became more and more partial to the material. I was pretty stringent about not wanting to overlap. I came to fold pieces occasionally that hadn't been folded, but I did it with a guilty conscience. But I overlap abundantly now, and if I have a piece with a hang-out that bothers me, I just fold it under and glue it down.

UPSHAW: So you moved towards simplification. Then what?

NICKLE: To more complex arrangements, and then to freer rectilinear arrangements. As the paper got dirtier and raunchier, the rectangles became almost secondary to the organic events that were part of the rectangles. The whole very fluid thing grew to where I felt at home with it. But this didn't happen on a steady month by month or year by year basis.

UPSHAW: Why did you decide to build collages that could be seen from more than one direction?

NICKLE: In the late 40's and 50's, it seemed a good thing that an image should be able to function in four directions. I was working squares as a limitation quite a bit at the time, and the square field was a natural for four ways. Besides, when you make a thing, you tend to turn it to see what you have you've done. So the four-way image was a reasonable thing at the time I could get the four ways going, there was probably a diminishment of the best side in order to compensate.

UPSHAW: A blank page can be seen from four sides.

NICKLE: Yes, a blank page, or one where little happens. Or one where it happens in a harmless and pleasant way. So I lost some ground when I thought I was gaining. I built frames that you could walk up to and turn.

UPSHAW: I noticed that the Smart Gallery's piece has hanging wires on top and bottom, so that it can be seen from two directions.

NICKLE: I made frames with fixed hanging wires, but I also made a panel-type frame. Stainless steel clips held sandwiched glass, and you could walk up and turn the whole thing. These were influenced by Moholy, who made a frame of Plexiglas suspended by stainless steel clips on a background.

UPSHAW: You say in your catalogue statement, "A work is complete only when framed, a kind of integral relationship of space and color."

NICKLE: Making the frames provides a rest from the way I work. I'm like the action painter who will make a mark and instantly react to the mark. The kind of intense exchange I try to make in starting something makes me exhausted. So the frame becomes my knitting, my getting away from my work.

But the frame is important to me, not only in using the designer part of me, but also because the nature of the collage materials is such that, unless I protect it, my picture can easily be overwhelmed. If I try to surround a picture by anything of its own kind, it doesn't work. I feel like I'm making a protective environment. I would probably like to make white frames, but I don't know how. The minute I make a white frame, it works on white, but then it won't work on something that isn't a white field.

UPSHAW: You mentioned a poster which you made for your first show which was hung upside down.

NICKLE: It was just a poster, but nice enough. It was purposely made so that it could be framed after cutting the announcement portion off the bottom. A lot of them were framed, and I noticed that several were hung upside down. I was very upset. I felt that these people had pretty bad vision or something, but it turned out that these were left handed people. This was a shock. I realized that I wasn't everybody, and that other people saw as clearly as I did, but in quite another way.

This was the beginning of a further minimalization and another set of restrictions. I found myself working in front of a mirror, so that I could see what I was doing in reverse. In order to overcome this dominance of one side, the collage became a pretty passive event. It was OK for me, because in the passivity I was still hunting for something, I was no longer hitting people with a sledgehammer. But somewhere along the line, I felt silly and said, "Am I not to please myself?" I guess it was like when you grow up and say, "So I'm homely, So what?" So I do load the corner or I do load one end. So I cut off all of the left-handed people or whatever.

UPSHAW: What are your plans for the future?

NICKLE: Talking of Albers reminds me of what a nice thought he conveyed one time. I was walking him to the Art Institute, where he was going to lecture. This was when he was pretty old. I said to him "Are you painting everyday?" And he answered, "Every day. You know, I've got thousands and thousands of squares yet to paint." And sometimes I come to my studio and I say to myself, "I've got thousands and thousands of pieces of paper to put together." I wouldn't trade my next ten years for my last twenty. In a way, I've spent the last thirty or forty years getting ready.


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