Saturated Color and Subtle Harmonies: Graham Nickson’s Watercolors
Graham Nickson: Cumulus, Monumental Trees and Transient Skies at the New York Studio School
September 4 to October 21, 2018
8 West 8th Street, between Fifth and Sixth avenues
New York City, nyss.org
Although Graham Nickson has been Dean of the New York Studio School since 1988, it has taken this long for the institution to persuade this beloved teacher and leader to agree to allow an exhibition of his own work to grace the walls of this historic institution. Karen Wilkin and Rachel Rickert, the curators of the exhibition, have drawn works exclusively from the indepth collection of Nickson formed by the late William Louis-Drefus, with watercolors and one related oil painting spanning the period 1999 to 2013. Nickson is perhaps better known, or is at least equally known, for monumental figurative compositions of bathers by the sea, as seen recently in exhibitions at Betty Cuningham Gallery as well on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. But sunrises and sunsets have been an important interest from the outset of his career.
I vividly recall, from a talk he gave at the school about his work almost two decades ago, him discussing the formative experience of painting the skies morning and evening, each day for weeks on end, at the British Academy in Rome where he had won a scholarship from the Royal College of Art in London where he studied. This discipline fed his passion for light, color and nature. The discipline and the passion go hand in hand with Nickson. As he explained in his Beer with a Painter interview with Jennifer Samet in July 2014:
I’m interested in things that are opposites — dichotomies. Obsession, and what you do with it, is part of that double thing: it is obsessive, but it is good for you. How can you paint bathers for thirty years? How can you paint sunsets for such a long time? Well, you can if you feel that they are still as thrilling and challenging as they were from the first.
Another dichotomy is trying to make something monumental out of something transient, trying to make something transient out of the monumental.
From Tuscany to Cape Cod, Australia to Hawaii, the force of Nickson’s look into nature, the rapid yet meticulously built up rush of light, water and paint, is deliciously bracing. Sensual, wild, almost outlandish combinations of color and bold contrasts are balanced by a deep dark internal sense of structure.
Particularly powerful in this exhibition is the way the dual themes in the show’s title – trees and skies – are arranged in two large wall installations comprised of individually framed watercolor paintings: . Eighteen dramatic skyscapes dominate the first room, while in the second, each composition depicts a single “monumental” tree in different seasons exalting in shifts of growth, light and color. For me, these installations bring to mind associations and contexts likely very far from the artist’s intentions that nonetheless serve, through contrast, to bring out what I think is the true spirit of these works.
For example, in viewing the Skies wall it hit me—after beholding the beauty and intensity of hue and texture, light and clouds folding about one another in rich, almost dizzying color–how our iPhone world has us living in snapshots, scrolling through image walls and timelines on social media: Our clichéd desire for the sentimental landscape, the romantic sunset- shot over and over, used endlessly to express a sense of nostalgia, what Karen Wilkin, in her catalogue essay, refers to as “forbidden subjects…for contemporary artists”. But Nickson’s paintings could not be further from the snaphot. Sensation here for the viewer is immediate and yet wonderfully slow: The images demand real looking, as the artist so passionately yet with full control of his paintbrush, looks, using hue, value, opacity and fluidity to full effect. The accumulation of form and movement, from image to image, resonates as musical interludes, riffing off one another with saturated color and subtle harmonies, while each painting remains an entirety. In Black Hush: Dawn, Luciano d”Asso, (2005) purples and grays layer atop one another as darkness presses down into land, leaving the gold of light like a razor’s edge across the earth. Red Stream Sky (2005) unfolds upward from reds through deep oranges, slashed with violets and rising toward a soft yellow patch in the painting’s upper left corner. One is reminded that while experiencing nature, we soak it in all around us, looking left, right, up, and down – often the beauty is so strong it is hard to bear. Nature, through paint, occupies us wholly.
The second wall installation presents 15 watercolor images in which a single monumental tree motif is central to each composition. At first impact there is strong sensation of repetition. One, another, then another tree, painted through seasons, growth, change and stability. Each image contains a principal color contrast, or opposition, such as the pale yellow sky against green black tree in Serena’s Tree: Yellow Sky, (2000) or the orange-green clash of light to shadow in Serena’s Tree (2000).
Thanks to the massed installation, I could not help thinking about Andy Warhol, though it is hard to think of two artists who have as little in common conceptually or aesthetically. Why does the artist choose to come back again and again to a subject? In the Pop aesthetic, Warhol’s subjects lost a sense of individual meaning through multiple repetitions, photographic mediation and screen printing process. Irony prevailed, and the artistic temperament and hand were of little value. For Nickson, repetition serves to see more deeply into the subject, to create metaphors between nature and art, to question vision itself in the seeing and re-seeing of a single subject as a vehicle for color expression. His concept of repetition says that vision is endlessly changing, not static. Personal sensibility prevails, even though there is a determined detachment capable of maintaining close observation while painting en plein air. While in substance and intent Nickson’s work reveals quite opposite or contrasting meanings to that of Warhol, I believe these meanings stand out all the more because of the veil of similarity.
This show is a tour de force for Nickson, after decades of dedication to building a history through his powerful body of work. We stand before this devotion, rich in feeling, memory and sensation.