Robert Nickle Retrospective

Robert Nickle

Gallery 400 is privileged to present a selection of Robert Nickle’s collages from 1957 to 1979. Nickle brought his experience as an artist, educator, and designer to his remarkable artwork. Nickle's vision was the crystallization, synthesis, and assimilation of a number of twentieth-century artistic principles and movements. His work grew from Cubism and the use of the found object, Dada techniques of collage and the disruption of conventional forms, Bauhausian methodologies of functional design, and the organic and spiritual sensibilities of Abstract Expressionism. He also discovered an affinity with the works of Mondrian and Klee. The resulting interplay of art-historical influences was the foundation on which Nickle created his virtuosic, deeply subtle collages.

Nickle spent many years accumulating and collecting materials for his artwork. He often worked on numerous pieces at the same time, waiting years before he found the solutions. Twenty to thirty works were kept sandwiched between glass in his studio in order to be adjusted at any given moment. Like simultaneous chess games, this method of working allowed him to shift his attention when he reached a temporary obstacle on any given work. The compositions are like jigsaw puzzles: interlocking components only completed when that last missing segment has been found.

Nickle created sublime collages out of the mundane and the found detritus of our culture. He shifted scraps of discarded paper and perishable fragments from the materials of life into the materials of art, aesthetically cleansing them of their former context, helping them to transcend their origins. He left each scrap in the state in which it was found, without alteration. Nickle's self-imposed discipline eliminated the temptation to cut or paint any of the found materials he had chosen for his collages. While the "found" objects showed use and implied a previous existence, one was not so much aware of the earlier life of the object as of its present function as part of a structured organism. The process of the paper's decay had been disrupted only temporarily by the artist.

In these collages, "found" papers have connotations that unmarked or unweathered materials lacked; they create a situation where meaning and materials merge. Nickle's compositions assume a metaphysical and poetic character. When incorporated into the artwork, fragments surrender their former discarded junk status and undergo an aesthetic transformation. Nickle conceived of his work in the tradition of “truth to materials" and his choice of materials dictated the composition of the structures. In a simple, direct manner, the artist created exquisite juxtapositions while responding to the materials’ innate characteristics.

In the monochromatic work, subtle color values augmented by textural effects and organic matter in the papers create mosaic-like collages. In addition to his usually preferred earth tones, Nickle occasionally showed a willingness to use swatches of primary and secondary colors. The artworks balance straight edges against ragged, tonal sections against tidy patches of color, and texture against smoothness. The abstract compositions are a delicate balance of harmonies and visual counterpoints. There is a rhythmic quality, with pauses and interruptions represented by paperclips, string, or holes. Each wrinkle, speck, hole, or flake in the paper proves to be important. Depending on the particular composition, there is often a shift in works from the simple to the baroque.

Compositionally, the collages adhere to a rectilinear or square grid format. Nickle combined the formal stability of the grid with carefully plotted movement through lines, color, texture, or a change in material that enlivens their geometry. In a number of works he used a bold number, letter, or text as a pictorial element denying conventional meaning. Since Nickle was trained as a graphic designer, his sensitivity allowed him to expand on the formal qualities of typographical elements.

Nickle confronts the viewer with profound and powerful work that (re)awakens our interest in the medium of collage in an artistic language that remains distinct and independent from any category or "ism." He was a master of collage, achieving a combination of integrity and beauty in his work, which remains powerful and inspirational for present and hopefully future generations of artists.