FLUIDITY IN FOCUS
Originally published in The Huffington Post, 13 February, 2012. "Top Ten Posts, January 2012," Brett Baker.
Je ne puis pas distinguer entre le sentiment que j'ai de la vie et la facon dont je le traduis.*
-Henri Matisse (1908)
Through their medium artists reconstitute and give permanent form to nature's evanescence, to its very authenticity. Painting...is nature's paradox: it gives form to that which, in its essence, is beyond permanence. ... To accomplish this feat...is a painstaking task. ... [It] requires going beyond convention, beyond training, beyond culture, back beyond language, to a state of naive yet sustained scrutiny and inquiry...[to a] world of forgetting.
-Joel Isaacson (1994)
The paintings in this exhibit aim to translate the fugitive conditions of light and color as discovered through the act of painting. They result directly from my desire to find and reveal through the material language of paint that which is essential in what I see. As such, they extend a modernist tradition of perceptual inquiry and representation based upon the raw data of sight, an interpretation of appearances directly apprehended and reconstructed on the canvas in a preform of color patches, unmitigated by any predetermining identification of what those color patches represent.
This way of seeing and of making paintings traces its formal genesis to the Impressionists, through whose expressed aims and practices it gained its first 'modern' foothold. As Monet said, famously: 'Try to forget what objects you have before you - a tree, a house, a field or whatever. Merely think, 'here is a little square of blue, here an oblong of pink, here a streak of yellow', and paint it just as it appears, the exact color and shape.'
As simple and schematic as Monet's advice may sound today, his charge to 'forget what you know,' to engage directly with visual sensations, and to translate those sensations to the canvas using an exacting 'parallel' language of relational color patches, echoes through the work of a number of prominent twentieth-century painters (Cezanne, Vuillard, Edwin Dickinson, Fairfield Porter). The substance of Monet's advice continues to resonate through the practices of some important painters working today, including those of my foremost teacher, George Nick, with whom I studied in the late 1980's.
This way of painting is rooted in the immediacy of perception rather than in what the artist knows about his subject a priori. It is an approach to painting based in finding rather than in making, in perception rather than in preconception, and it can lead to an engagement with fundamental questions about perception itself, its representation, and the 'true' or rightful expression of what one sees. What one sees, however, is - like the images in Plato's Cave - an ever questionable proposition.
Being a perceptual painter means that I accept as a condition of painting that appearances are fundamentally unstable and relational, that 'reality' is vulnerable to distortion both from without as well as from within. The flow of time itself, as measured by the changing conditions of light and color in a given motif before me, alters unceasingly the arrangements of sensations that present themselves at any given instant. So, too, do my perceptions of these things change from moment to moment. The paradox of an approach to painting that is wedded to a poetry of the present moment is that the present moment is always changing. How my paintings appear, as well as how they are made, arises largely from my experience working with these fluid, changeable circumstances, and striving to draw into focus the forms I pull out from such liquid conditions.
*I am unable to distinguish between the feeling I have about life and the way I translate it.
JUDGING BY APPEARANCES: In Praise of George Nick's Teaching
Originally published in the exhibition catalog: Galvanized Truth: A Tribute to George Nick, pp. 8-10. Kimberlee C. Alemian, Curator. London: Blurb Books, 2010
George Nick once said that he began studying painting because he was interested in the world and painting seemed like a good way to learn about it. Conceived as such, painting was an investigative tool that, when turned outward to the world, could yield truths and meaning and an understanding of why things are the way they are. Later, as a teacher, Nick would present his students a way of thinking about painting that, while practical and concrete, was geared toward the sort of enquiry he had envisaged when he himself started painting. Based in the fluid world of perception, this way of thinking had at its core the conviction that the aesthetic and the ethical are not so far apart in painting, that knowledge comes from a search for what is right and what is truthful.
My own studies with Nick began in January of 1986. I would remain in his studio for three and a half years. I responded to the direct and concrete approach to painting that he taught in the classroom. On a personal level, I found something strangely comforting in a classroom focus engaged as directly as Nick's was in the perceptual world. His spirited enthusiasm and openly shared appreciation of the visual world were refreshing antidotes to the overabundance of self-reflection a young person like myself was prone to at that time.
When I began my studies under Nick, I joined an already well-established legion of young artists from Massachusetts College of Art and Design who had already found themselves and their callings reified under Nick's tutelage during his long-standing tenure at the College. By then, he had set his imprint upon the way an entire generation of young artists at Mass Art thought about painting. Several years later, in 1993, the well-known American realist painter, John Moore-then head of Graduate Painting at Boston University-heralded Nick in an open letter to the Boston Globe as: 'arguably the most influential [painting] teacher in the Boston area.' The truth of Moore's statement is even less arguable today, born out by the successful careers of many of Nick's former students and by his lasting mark upon countless others.
In the studio, Nick guided our attention not to an interpretation of appearances, not to the personal or the analogical, but to what was there, in front of us-either on our canvases or within the motif. Surfaces were the real, and the real was the base; to which the very important qualification had to be added (as it was by Wallace Stevens) that the real was only a base.
Nick insisted that our paintings be autonomous from the world they depicted, not copies of that world. He would refer to them as separate, 'parallel' constructions. 'Don't render the motif,' he would bark. 'Let cameras do that kind of work. Paint parallel to what you see.' It was not copy work we were engaged in (a 'literal' transcription); it was translation-the motif's materialization on the canvas through the facts both of physical paint and our own sensibilities.
Nick's emphasis on the primacy of what could be seen-the outward manifestations of light and color and form-as distinct from the knowledge and history that could inform and adulterate what we saw, extended to his insistence on the primary function of sight. I once heard him argue, vehemently, at a graduate critique that he did not need to know anatomy to paint the human figure accurately. If he could paint an orange sitting on a shelf, he asserted, he could paint the human figure-implying that perception always supersedes knowledge, and that the outwardly manifest facts of a motif, if properly seen and translated through painting, would yield the truth of its underlying structure. It was a buoyantly optimistic attitude. We soon learned, however, that judging appearances correctly was no easy task. It was difficult practically, and conceptually as well.
Making judgments about appearances involved taking into account not only the relativity of visual phenomena, but the relativity of perception itself. Like Bergson's concept of time as an ineffable duration (duree)-always mobile and always incomplete-our perceptions, too, we learned, were fluid and mutable. As Nick's own teacher, Edwin Dickinson, observed with characteristic eloquence: 'The seen distortion is what a thought did to the sight.' A color, here, could seem bluer and darker; there, more greenish and light-depending on how we saw it. Paradoxically, Nick would often and loudly assert in the face of such relativism that absolute accuracy and truth were not only demanded by the facts before us, but were always within our reach. 'That's not dark enough,' he would say. 'You're being too protective of your colors. Make it darker.' His next time around the classroom the same poor student might hear: 'Your colors aren't good enough. They don't have any feeling.'
In time, we too learned to assert our perceptions in the face of this mercurial order. We learned to accept the conditional-embracing it as though it were absolute while acknowledging that its truth was relative. Painting 'parallel' to our own shifting experience of what we saw, the images on our canvases came more and more to reflect our individual engagement not with the nameable world of objects and things, but with the less effable, 'abstract' world of changing conditions and relationships that we sought truthfully to portray. It all seemed a very honest approach, given the complexity both of seeing and what was seen. Meanwhile, for many of us, the idea of 'realism' took on new meaning.
Nick was constitutionally opposed to our painting the ideas of things, or to painting ideas generally, which he viewed as illustrative acts that compromised painting by making it serve other aims (the aim of showcasing an idea, for example). This notion fit with his belief that painting should speak for itself and through its own terms, which are the terms of its medium. Nick wanted his students to paint and engage directly with the world-no filters, nothing between the artist and reality. It was a highly existential stance, and it raised interesting questions and possibilities about how we might each day experience the world anew, as well as how we might paint it.
What would happen, for example, if one painted as though one were the first man-or the first visitor on earth-standing before nature? Nick would sometimes tell a young painter to paint 'more like a Martian,' or he would pepper our class with mantras like: 'Forget what you know'; 'Paint in the present moment'; 'Abstract your eye from memory.' Such prescriptions were not intended to foster some naive embrace of 'the innocent eye.' In Nick's view, the painter's vision was never passive. Seeing like this was an act of will, requiring the same rigorous conditioning and discipline that was needed in order to get the truth of our hard-earned perceptions properly translated to the canvas through paint. We all knew, of course, that Nick's prescriptions were only useful fictions. But the attitude toward painting implied by these and similar proddings was not lost on us.
Since his student days under Dickinson, Nick had evinced in his own work an appreciation for the quicker, reactive kind of painting that Dickinson, alongside his more sustained paintings, had produced. Nick recognized the honesty that such direct translation of
visual circumstances could potentially bring to a work. He passed on this appreciation, like family history, to his students. Painting in the 'here and now', as if there were no tomorrow, meant expression unmediated by any other agent. In Nick's view, painting does not need mediation. Any painting adulterated too much by self-consciousness, or by the pre-conceived, or relegated to the subservient role of 'conveying an idea,' had already compromised the integrity of one of painting's most unique gifts: its capacity to express through a language that is uniquely its own. Nick was fond of quoting Stravinsky, as when Stravinsky said, famously: 'Music expresses nothing; it expresses itself.' This did not represent, on Nick's part, a shallow retreat from significance beyond the canvas, but an avid belief in the importance and value of meanings conveyed only by the terms of painting. Living, as we do, in a culture so preoccupied with codes and decoding, Stravinsky's declaration will no doubt sound outdated to those indoctrinated with post-modernist sensibilities, as will Nick's parallel convictions about painting. But, for Nick, paintings are not meant to be 'read'-they are meant to search, uncover and reveal.
Encouraging us alternately to work at both long- and short-term paintings, Nick wanted us to explore different ways to define and get at the truths we each were seeking. Importantly, he taught us to confront head-on the resistance and difficulty of the oil medium. Nick believed that a painter's perception of the intransigence of the oil medium was a mirage, and that the artist's will was all powerful. He was not being Pollyannaish. He knew all too well the rebelliousness of our medium and its opposition to facility. But Nick the teacher was also an artist who, like Degas, relished obstacles and felt alive and engaged only when art was a struggle. He energized our classroom by getting us to believe that the artist's will was the best means to enable artistic imagination to discover its potential-implying that that potential was itself born of a dialectic involving struggle and artistic desire.
Each student-artist's philosophy of painting, Nick understood, would come of its own over time, as would the inflection of personal aesthetics in her or his work and the manifestations of the ideas and feelings underlying them. These individual qualities, Nick believed, must come through painting, through finding their articulation through the irreducible utterances of paint. Nick knew how vital the inner worlds of his students were to their finding meaning in their work. He said he learned to be hands-off regarding these important inner dimensions of his students from Dickinson. He knew how crucial were his students' personal aesthetics, and he knew how best to respect them: he rarely spoke of them at all.
Once, when I was in the midst of a long struggle involving my own personal aesthetics and the paint on the canvas, I turned to Nick, privately, for some sympathy. I was at wits' end and morosely dispirited over a painting that was going badly. When I had finished my blubbering, Nick said volubly and in a manner that was matter-of-fact, while looking me straight in the eye: 'You ought to be chained to your easel.' Embarrassed by his words and stung deeply as they sunk in, I never forgot them. Yet there was nothing calculated in what he said. It was his honest response-and this was what we had learned always to expect from him. Over time, looking back upon that moment, it came to represent an important turning point in my development: I came to understand how truly difficult painting was, and that if I was going to be a painter, I had best learn that, notwithstanding the trials yet to be endured, there was no giving up.
Like many before me, I had my own naive and as-yet-to-be-tested ideas about what painting was, or should be, when I arrived in January of 1986 to study Nick's observational approach to painting. I remember painfully well the blunt trauma brought down upon my precious sensibilities regarding painting when, after assigning the first semester sophomores (of which group I was then one) to their own room away from the upperclassmen working from the live model-and then referring to our collective unit derogatorily as 'the Bumblebees' ('I'll just go see how the Bumblebees are doing,' he would announce loudly while leaving the upperclassmen to check on us)-he set up an ugly old snow-blower on the model stand in front of our disbelieving eyes. Turning to us, he then said, unequivocally: 'Use four colors only. And only four values. Apply the paint with your palette knives. And try to make the colors 'felt'. He then walked out of the room. If it was blind faith that kept us around after this kind of assault, there was also something more, something momentous that we already sensed about the man. As it turned out, for many of us, our intuitions paid off.
EN ROUTE WITH GEORGE NICK
Originally published in ART New England, February/March issue, pp. 28-30, Boston, MA.
Several years ago, George Nick sat with a small group of graduate painters at Boston University whose work he was critiquing, and told them, midway through the evening, a fable. The cautionary note of his tale was one that he obviously relished, just as he obviously relished conveying the tale itself. He spoke directly and vividly, without rhetorical embellishment, and with the same straight-talking immediacy that has for decades characterized both his unmannered speech ("nickspeak," we used to call it in the classroom) and his equally unmannered painting. On this occasion, a telltale hurried edge in his voice conveyed a clarity of moral conviction that underlay his words.
The fable told of race cars and their drivers, and of a curious onlooker, Nick himself, who stood "transfixed for five hours" alongside a treacherous S-curve in the track. Nick described how, with his eyes riveted to a single spot of pavement by a barrier, he calibrated by fractions the inches separating each driver's successful negotiation of the turn… from "catastrophe." Thus depicted, driving seemed an act of defiance, wildness, precision, and will, with drivers steering a thin line between peril and potential victory. Then, midway along his course, Nick stopped, and said emphatically to his audience of young painters, "Now that… is concentration!"
Nick's exclamation carried with it a thinly veiled but nonetheless clear-cut warning And directive: casualness in painting can have dire consequences; strive to be in peak form—technically and mentally; paint in the present moment, and become capable of reacting with precision to the here-and-now perilous curves of painting. Clearly, Nick's fable was meant to be instructional; but it was also deeply revealing of the artist himself.
At the millennium, George Nick's career as a painter will be entering its sixth decade. Nationally recognized as one of our premier realists, Nick's reputation owes principally to the images for which he is most appreciated and best known: his urban (and suburban) images of greater Boston, the city that has been the locus of his painting haunts for almost thirty years. As Nick's colleague, John Moore, wrote in an unpublished letter: "[Nick's] subject matter heightens our perceptions about all that is wonderful about Boston. His paintings define the image of this city in the national art world as much as West Coast artist Wayne Thiebaud has defined San Francisco." Boston and New England have laid claim to this resident realist as their own. But Nick's approach and subject matter extend well beyond the boundaries of greater Boston, a fact that his many images make clear.
Nick has never been a studio painter in the conventional sense of the term. Studio life, for him, is too static. He likes the one-on-one engagement with nature, with light and its surprises, with subjects he chooses, wherever he finds them. And he finds them.
Crisscrossing not only greater Boston but all of New England, Nick travels, like a hunter, searching for subjects, slamming on his brakes here, backing up there, checking out an angle at a Charlestown shipyard, or a narrow dirt lane in the mountains of northern Vermont. Nick's paintings mirror the activity of his search. He has never been one for destinations. The idea of painting with a routine that will determine the course nd outcome of a painting is completely foreign to him. He finds this kind of "efficient mastery" to quote the critic Christian Wiman, "lacks the risk and range of real craft," and finds it suspect. "Art thinking," or "painting thinking," as Nick sees it, can only occur (again, quoting Wiman) in "a continual engagement with the... actual, [in the artist's] refusal to foreclose on the terms of experience by imposing any pre-existing forms of the imagination."
Nick does not know the destinations of his paintings and he does not want to know. But he wants to find out, and his art is the art of trying to maintain, like an athlete or virtuoso pianist, the intensity and clear thinking necessary for the most direct and unfiltered engagement with the "actual." As he said in an interview for an article by Bonnie Grad ten years ago and published in the Boston Globe: "[What is important to me] is to be purposely ignorant of process in order to stay open to a greater sensitivity and to respond to the present moment, the sensation, in its essential purity and immediacy, without past and without future."
Nick's paintings are the record of this activity, and with their rawness and immediacy, and the frontiersman-like courage informing them, they manifest a distinctly American character. His later work in particular (since 1983), with its stabs and slashes and swirls and strokes of paint, shows a gestural kinship to the abstract expressionism that he never embraced. Nick knew from the start he wanted only to paint from life.
Raised in an environment where "there wasn't a book in the house," Nick would come across one of those "100 Greatest Books" lists and methodically sit down to read every one of them. This appetite for knowledge has persisted throughout his adult life. I recall that in my first introduction to Nick (when I was an undergraduate at Massachusetts College of Art), he came into the classroom and, without even asking our names (he has never been one to stand on formality) began reading the entire "Postscript" to Thomas Mann's, The Magic Mountain. To read aloud the "Postscript"—which was written by Mann himself on the making of his novel—took Nick the full class hour. Closing the book, Nick expressed his appreciation for Mann the artist, and then dismissed the class.
In 1948 Nick enrolled at the Cleveland Art Institute. From the beginning, his reason for painting and, to some extent, the reason for what and how he still paints, was his desire to know the world. "I went to study art," Nick once reflected, "because I was interested in the world, and art seemed like a good way to learn about it." This curiosity about the world, about what makes it work visually and how it is put together, has always underlain Nick's painting, and has always made it investigatory, and somewhat confessional, by nature: one paints as an admission that one does not know; one paints in order to find, to borrow Richard Shiff's term, as distinct from painting in order to make that which is already conceived, or known. When Degas told Valery that drawing was "a way of seeing form," he was defining the activity of drawing as a way of seeking, of opening the eye to what was otherwise closed to it. One draws to see and, by extension, to find and, hence, to know.
Nick left the Cleveland Art Institute in 1951 after three years and traveled to New York at the urging of a friend and fellow artist who was going there to study with Edwin Dickinson. To Nick's initial query, "Who's Dickinson?" the friend responded, "He's the greatest painter in the world." In the crucial years that followed, first at Brooklyn and later at the Art Students League, Dickinson was to become for Nick the most important figure in his education.
As a teacher, Dickinson was unassuming and open-minded. He offered no "answers" to his students. Nick liked his teacher's practical and intuitive approach. Dickinson's teaching was like his paintings: restrained and sensitive and spare. I once asked Nick if he ever went painting with Dickinson. "No. No. He wasn't like that, you know. He was too private."
Dickinson taught through understatement. "Mixing colors," he would say to his students with deceptive simplicity, "is very serious, and important." Or he would teach them to see by having them draw a single contour edge "perfectly." Dickinson's premier coup art—his broadly painted, one-sitting landscapes "of little corners of nature"—made a profound impression on Nick.
Nick spent the first fifteen years of his career learning what he believed were the skills and ways of thinking necessary to become a painter. By 1964, fifteen years after beginning in Cleveland, five years after leaving Dickinson, and one year after Yale (where Nick took his B.F.A. and M.F.A.) he was finding his voice as a painter and was feeling confident about it. At Yale, Nick cut classes to go outside and paint. There, as elsewhere in the early sixties, a prevalent bias in favor of abstraction pervaded school life, and Nick found himself viewed as an antique. But he did not withdraw. In his last act as a student, he walked into his final graduate critique, just as he had walked into Yale three years before, with paper bags filled with small one-sitting paintings—mostly still lifes and landscapes. One hundred and nineteen of them! There was to be no question as to how Nick had been spending his days.
In 1965, two years out of graduate school and after a trip to Europe, Nick realized that he could "paint anywhere." By 1970, the itinerant painter had begun taking painting trips to Europe with regularity-shipping home his hot-off-the-easel paintings in cardboard tubes. He has maintained these annual, and sometimes semiannual, excursions ever since, producing a body of paintings that comprise a significant part of his life's work. Paintings from Spain, Italy, Albania, Greece, Bulgaria, Israel, Russia, France, England... the list goes on, and it is a testament not only to Nick's need to refresh himself visually, but to the importance he places on his affiliation with the tradition of Western painting. The names of the painters whose work he has copied in museums here and abroad gives an idea of his eclecticism and the breadth and nature of this affiliation: Rubens, Bonnard, Tiepolo, Rembrandt, and the lesser-known eighteenth-century Spanish still-life painter, Melendez.
Nick's teaching career began with a series of one year appointments after completing his studies at Yale. In 1969 he accepted a position at Massachusetts College of Art, where he would remain for the next twenty-five years.
Students loved Nick's energy. His excitement about painting infected his classrooms. At 9 a.m., when classes began, it was not unusual to see Nick bound into the studio—his eyes alert, his affect loud—full of an excitement brought from a morning of looking and painting. He taught by example—the example of his own life as a painter, with his disciplined work habits and youthful enthusiasm. He was a great motivator, inspiring students with stories of his own struggles from his life as a painter." I have never encountered a teacher," wrote one former student, "who is a better role model for his students than George is." He taught, and exemplified, what this same student termed "artistic integrity: the ability to be true to oneself in spite of fashion." Nick's colleagues have made similar observations. The well-known realist, John Moore (whom I cite earlier in this article), has called Nick "arguably the most influential teacher… in the Boston area."
1983 marked a major turn in Nick's approach to his paintings. Since the purchase of his first studio-truck eight years before (in 1975), he had been making larger, multiple-sitting paintings on linen-up to fifty by eighty inches, or three times larger than anything he had painted on location before. He had switched to bigger bristle brushes (from sable) and started using more paint. But he still maintained the kind of exacting and self-conscious search for "truthfulness" that had characterized his smaller, more finely wrought canvases of the decade before. Nick's approach to these bigger paintings was still like a writer's: he worked and reworked things, a third, fourth, a tenth time if necessary to get a passage, a color, or a relation of colors "just right." He probed, conscientiously, trying with each revision to inhabit the work more fully, to get to the bottom, to bring up a "truth" that he saw—or believed in: "The aesthetic and the ethical are no great distance apart," wrote John Updike in an affectionate essay on Nick five years ago [in 1993]. The large paintings of this period, of shop fronts or corners of buildings, of locomotives (the subject matter did not change), have a restrained and poetic dignity about them. Meanwhile, Nick continued pushing the art of his premier coups.
Then in 1983, "something happened." Nick needed a new vitality. He no longer wanted "improvement," he said. He wanted "new danger," and "trust." He needed "to find that mysterious thing that was eluding [him]." He was compelled to refocus his purpose.
Since 1960 (beginning with some plein air landscapes that he painted in Central Park), Nick's one-sitting paintings had occupied an important and "personal" side of his activity. The art and challenges of these premiers coups—where the artist brings all his skills to bear upon the moment (there is no repainting)—appealed to Nick's impulsive, "childish" nature, to his intuitive side, and to his innate attraction to risk. More spontaneous and less filtered-less "crafted"—than his large, meditatively constructed paintings, Nick felt compelled to find a way to get that excitement and spontaneity in a larger format.
So he changed over to bristle brushes completely and began pushing more paint. He kept setting up ambitious paintings on large canvases (up to forty by eighty inches) but now would not permit himself to rework anything. He began to spend weeks (if necessary) "locking in" the drawing on these larger canvases, and then would unleash himself, painting in wet-in-wet "chunks" of the painting each day, never going back over them.
His excitement returned, and an exhilarating sense of great risk. Painting this way, and trying to sustain it evenly from day to day, from "chunk" to "chunk," was like riding a charging animal, or steering a race car. It was a test of his mastery, of what he had learned, could apply, from his history of premier coup painting, on the one hand, and his years of searching patiently for the paint equivalent of le mot juste, on the other. It was a test of his ability to respond with paint and to the needs of a painting with the same immediacy, directness, and honesty with which is characteristic of the enthusiasm he brings to life itself.
The result gave his work a more autonomous life. They are full of marks, clumps, swirls, scratches, slurs dabs, and smears that simultaneously serve as a masterful equivalent of the visual information they portray. Nicks recent Boston-area exhibition at Gallery NAGA showed him pushing this autonomy of the two-dimensional to a new climax.
For fifty years George Nick has remained true to the impulses that guided him initially to a direct and daily engagement with the world around him. During these decades his intuitive and immediate approach to painting has never involved the polemics of realism's more mannered or self-conscious attempts to find its place in the shifting contexts of the art world. Nick's work shows an indifference to its place in that world. One senses in the urgency behind his painting that he believes there simply is not time to engage in the topical, the au courant, the social hermeneutics of our era.
But the nature of Nick's search can also be read as a vivid response to our times—as a pure and deeply felt alternative to representations less directly engaged with life, and as a collective monument to the fleeting circumstances of our experience itself. On the one hand, it could be argued that the core themes in Nick's work begin with his rejection of the premise that a human being is not able to grasp his experience. On the other hand, his surrender to what he encounters and his attempt to set down what is most ephemeral suggests a profound appreciation of life's fugitive circumstances and a will to celebrate what is given.
Two years ago I took a late afternoon train with Nick out of Washington, DC, returning to Boston. We had spent the day in the National Gallery at the Vermeer show, and with the Rembrandts, El Grecos, and late Cézannes. It was January and nearly dark after the train began its pull north. Before long, our conversation was reaching back through the afternoon, to the paintings we had visited, and to the unexpected revelations they had provided us. Thus absorbed, time passed quickly.
As the train approached one and then another of the cities on our route, it sped through those bleak corridors that line railroad tracks for miles in and out of urban centers: harsh environments, safely distant from the moving train window. Suddenly, looking out from the dim light of our car through the choked, dirty glass to the wasteland beyond—a veil of steam from refineries punctured by acrid yellow lights—Nick, as though jamming on the brakes of his truck, remarked excitedly: "No one's ever painted that before! But look at it! And with these dull reflections on the windows here...!"
The remark was classic Nick, ever alert to the sites on his way. In Nick's world the train is always leaving, right now. And he's on it.