An Unmodern Master’s American Moment: William Nicholson at Paul Kasmin
Until March 18
293 Tenth Ave between 26th and 27th Streets, 212-563-4474
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, February 16, 2006
Sometimes, unexpected context can give the requisite jolt that leads to aesthetic discovery. Paul Kasmin’s Chelsea gallery, with its exposed concrete ceilings and whitewashed walls, usually plays host to Frank Stellas or color-field abstractionists. The exhibition opening today, however, with its gilt frames, polite period imagery, and paint quality (intimate strokes, restrained tonality), feels like something wrested from a paneled gallery on Museum Mile.
The English painter William Nicholson (1872–1949) seems at first glance like a quintessential Edwardian. Rolling lowlands, luxurious still-life objects, a lady lounging in a Whistlerian interior, and a snoozing pug are rendered with a fluent, bravura painterliness that belongs as much to a bygone age as the pastoral and urbane experiences it conveys. But “William Nicholson: Paintings” is a bracing tonic for those hungry for the magic of painterly depiction. It makes a foppishlatter day academician suddenly look incredibly relevant, challenging some of the ground rules of what passes muster as representation in contemporary painting.
This is Nicholson’s first American showing since 1926. The exhibition follows on the heels of a recent retrospective at London’s Royal Academy that took account of his varied artistic interests, including his innovative printmaking (he collaborated early in his career with his brother-in-law, James Pryde, as the duo, J. and W. Beggarstaff, to produce advertising posters that rivaled Lautrec and Mucha in vivacity and modernity); his society portraiture, which secured his knighthood in 1936; his monumental group portrait of the World War I Canadian high command in front of a mammoth aerial photograph; and his book illustrations.
The modestly scaled New York show, on the other hand, cuts to the chase with what Nicholson did best, and what his son, the better-known Ben Nicholson, acknowledged as his private passion: small landscapes and still-lifes, painted in front of the subject with equal spontaneity and acuity. “The Silver Casket” (1919) is a tour de force of perceptual luxuriance. Nicholson revels in the distortive reflections of necklaces and a louchely limp, turquoise glove in the concavity of the 18th-century vessel of the title (a prize Hester Bateman in the artist’s collection). He wields daring precision to capture the way things actually look in this complex scenario, differentiating the actual and the reflected. Yet he doesn’t compromise his uncanny sense of nonchalance, of effortlessly deft delivery.
“Miss Simpson’s Boots,” (1919) with its jocular, convivial title, has a painterly succulence, a relish that puts you in mind of Sargent. The kinky patent leather of the once-fashionable footwear glistens against the smooth expanse of painted balustrade and light-dimpled, recently-folded cloth. At the same time, the painting — with its reductive seriality, elevation of an almost humble subject, and use of a real presence as a cipher for transcendent abstraction — has a modernity about it, not unlike Morandi’s work.
Nicholson was a maverick, but an opposite sort to Morandi. Rather than pursue a singular brand of Modernism, Nicholson seemed completely out of the Modernist picture once his printmaking days were behind him. Nor was he a tongue-in-cheek anachronist like Morandi’s compatriots in the Novecento and Pittura Metafisica movements. Although he obviously looked with admiration at Manet, early Degas, Whistler, and Sickert, Nicholson seemed at heart a painter of the 17th or 18th Century. His small, Rococo panel, “A Young Nobleman Surveys the City,” (1910) is almost a riposte to the century of his birth.
This show is an entirely non-commercial venture (Nicholsons rarely appear on the open market). It reflects the passions of its organizers: Sandford Schwartz, who wrote a 2004 critical biography of the artist and co-curated the Royal Academy exhibition, and Mr. Kasmin, a descendent of Nicholson.
An aristocratic hauteur accounted for Nicholson’s popularity with English upper-class taste: The Queen was a lender to the Royal Academy show. Her painting, “The Gold Jug” (1937), had belonged to the Queen Mother, who, guided by Kenneth Clark, formed what could be called an adventurously conservative collection. Another Nicholson fan was Winston Churchill, who took art instruction from the painter.
Today’s roster of Nicholson admirers is much closer to the cutting-edge. The anglophile nostalgist Duncan Hannah has made works after photographs of Nicholson, one of his painting heroes. Merlin James, who showed recently at Brent Sikkema, was an essayist in the RA catalogue; his New York debut at the same gallery in 1998 took the form of a three-painting show—one of his own, plus a Nicholson and an Alex Katz. Mr. Katz himself comes to mind whenever Nicholson captures a specific light sensation with his disarming brevity.
In “April, 1917” (1917), for instance, an unseasonal snow brightens an otherwise dingy, smog-filled London street, recalling Mr. Katz’s solitary, florescent light strips in the New York winter nightscape. The perfunctory monochrome figure in “Cliff Top, Rottingdean, by Moonlight” (1910) has a body language that deftly conveys a sense of huddling up against a cold wind. This lends scale to the otherwise near-abstractness of horizontals and verticals in the depiction of moon-drenched ripples and protruding rock exposed in the wet sand.
Frequently in Nicholson’s painting, actual and perceived scale vary in ways that belie their traditional look and make them secretly daring. This is especially the case in the later landscapes: “Andalucian Homestead” (1935), a painting lent by David Bowie, looks up a vertiginously steep incline, presenting the houses as a shocking white crown to the curved brow of a hill composed of loose, fat swift strokes and dabs of green and brown. The scale is completely thrown by a miniscule donkey being led at the foot of the hill, making you question where on earth the painter (and you, the viewer) might be.
Sickert is an avatar of “Le Retour de la Joconde,” (1914): Gold frames glisten in the otherwise murky interior of the Louvre, where a crowd gathers around the recently recovered stolen Mona Lisa. One figure (thought to be Nicholson) looks in the opposite direction, at the viewer. The painting has an uncanny ability to seem at once mysterious and matter of fact, poignant and present. The depiction of a masterpiece restored to its rightful place is a good metaphor for the present show, a lively, convincing portrait of an unrepentantly untimelymaster whose American moment has arrived.