Nothing Wooden in Nickle collages at UIC
Robert Nickle’s collages represent one of the highest achievements of contemporary art in Chicago.
In the last four decades, only two other Chicagoans – photographer Harry Callahan and sculptor Martin Puryear- created work on directly comparable levels.
But those artists moved away, whereas Nickle stayed. And, sadly true to form when it comes to abstract art in Chicago, his work has not appeared in a significant local exhibition for years, the last show being just before his death, at age 62, in 1980.
The retrospective of Nickle collages at the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Gallery 400, 400 S. Peoria Street, is thus both welcome and long overdue, for it is the first exhibition since the artist began showing that presents enough pieces (33) from enough years (22) to reveal the depth and breadth of his achievement.
Because Nickle taught for 17 years at UIC’s School of Art and Design, it is especially fitting the exhibition is where it is, as a tribute completely free from commercial motives.
Nickle was, after all, a retiring artist who, unlike many of his colleagues, never pushed for recognition and seemed unconcerned when he attained it.
Nickle’s studio had long lines of tables supporting as many as 50 collages he would move among like a chess master playing several games simultaneously. A piece was finished only when he felt it could hang next to a work by the artists he most admired, Piet Mondrian and Paul Klee. It was not unusual for him to labor over some collages for 20 years or more.
Nickle began a piece by juxtaposing found and weathered papers. But when bringing them together caused results he expected, he would begin again. And he said “If something happened that there was no way anybody in the world could have predicted, then I had my nucleus.”
Each collage, Nickle maintained, came together as if on its own, independent of his effort.
The exhibition does not unfold chronologically, so viewers do not get a sense of strongly defined periods. But Nickle’s work evolved, broadly speaking, from the techtonic to the organic, from pieces tightly cohering as grids to pieces loosely hanging together, cloudlike.
The show presents exceptions to every idea about his collages gained from earlier exhibitions, for Nickle worked large and small, with paper and other substances, including commercial printing and handwriting in pieces of both high and muted color.
For some years, he also created pieces in two or more parts, and it’s a pity we do not see more of them. But overall, work by work, Nickle was most concerned with what he called, late in life, “dependent independence.” Because of it, collages from so many years now hang together so beautifully, strong yet always compatible.
Anyone coming to Nickle’s work for the first time can scarcely do better. This is a great show for a great artist.