1998 - En Route with George Nick

“En Route with George Nick,” ART New England, Feb/Mar, 1998

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 As Nick's colleague, John Moore, wrote in an unpublished letter: "[Nick's] subject matter heightens our perceptions about all that is wonderful about Boston.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.