rn_brunettireview "Robert Nickle: A Retrospective"
Gallery 400, University of Illinois at Chicago
January 10 - February 5, 1994
By John Brunetti

Those individuals who primarily view Chicago as a city that produces great figurative work need only to have seen the retrospective of Robert Nickle's collages to realize how general impressions often cause one to overlook the most compelling art made outside the mainstream. This was a continual factor in the development of Nickle's career. A dedicated teacher of 17 years with the School of Art & Design at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), Nickle exhibited steadily but never generated the attention that is work should have brought before his premature death at the age of 62 in 1980.

It is especially appropriate that UIC honored this distinguished artist and educator, as the exhibition allowed students and those unfamiliar with Nickle's work to immerse themselves in the graphic and emotional potential of a frequently overlooked medium. For others, the exhibition provided a rare opportunity to compare Nickle's collages through a 22-year span (1957-79) and to rediscover the freshness of vision his unique pieces have maintained through the years. The 33 collages displayed were installed based on formal rather than chronological relationships, underscoring Nickle's remarkable consistency for creating an evocative body of abstract images that generated their own dialogue.

Nickle integrated the functional design philosophy of the Bauhaus with an affinity for finding beauty and meaning in the cast-off and ugly. The discipline of studying with Laszlo Maholy-Nagy at the Illinois Institute of Design in the late 1940s informed Nickle's approach to collage in the deliberate, structural geometry of his grid-based compositions and the surgical placement of the most delicate scraps of paper. However, despite being strongly influenced by his modernist heroes, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee, Nickle shared a kinship with Chicago writers such as Nelson Algren and Studs Terkel, whose poetic search for meaning was found in the underbelly of the urban environment.

Nickle spent years searching for and accumulating commonplace scraps of paper, plastic and fabric that were invested with new meaning through is deft juxtapositions. He remained steadfast in his self-imposed rule never to alter a found material. Working painstakingly on up to 30 or more collages at one time, he would wait until each element found its chosen position.

Though he worked in a close monochromatic tonal range of earth tones and grays, Nickle selected prices whose soiled and bleached surfaces created surprisingly rich and unexpected harmonies. Metallic reflections of a candy wrapper are contrasted with the muddy beige of a manila envelope, which in turn is abutted against the ethereal transparency of worn cellophane. An occasional fragment of a red numeral or letter from a ticket stub interjects a liver of saturated color. Yes Nickle never allowed a dramatic element to disrupt the overall harmony of a work.

Nickle preferred the rectangular and square shapes intrinsic to envelopes, matchbooks, baggage tags, flattened cardboard boxes, and a myriad of other less identifiable flotsam. Assuming the role of a gifted stone mason, Nickle deftly interlocked and overlapped seemingly incongruous shapes, whose tight, formal interdependence suggest patched and weathered facades of archaic walls.

The shipping tag was the artist's favorite material. Slightly irregular in shape, it became a signature motif that could be open to multiple interpretations Number 13 is the most effective example of the emotional range generated by this prosaic item. Developed by the artist over the span of six years (1970-76), this dark gray collage, comprised of soiled, cloth shipping tags, arranged in staggered horizontal and vertical arrangements, is elegiac in spirit. It is an appropriate symbol of the emotional weight capable of being delivered by the mundane when placed in the hands of this consummate artist.

John Brunetti is an artist and writer living in Chicago.

(This review appeared in the May/June 94 issue of dialogue.)