The Circle Pieces:
Carefully designed sawing strategies transform cast-off materials

On his long hikes and bicycle trips in suburban St. Louis, Nickel discovered extraordinary materials among the industrial cast-offs. Discarded timbers used for ballast in Missouri-Pacific gondolas: solid oak! Gray, weathered 4-by-4 planks, dragged back to the studio and cut on the table saw revealed a salmon-pink redwood interior. Nickel respected these materials, preserving their weathered patinas and rough surfaces as he made strategic cuts and pulled them apart into striking geometric works. He used the materials as he found them — in their entirety, losing nothing but sawdust.

Standard Pipe Protection Co., near his Brentwood studio, sealed and coated lengths of pipe for the Alaska pipeline project. The pipes arrived on railcars, their ends protected by plywood disks (left) during shipping. Nickel salvaged several of these, devised and executed a variety of precise cutting schemes, pulled them apart, and reassembled them into an array of intriguing and varied works: delicate, solid, evocative, with pitted surfaces carefully preserved.

A series of concentric arcs, increasing in length as they moved from center point to circumference, became a Medusa-like figure with thin, delicately curved tendrils. A disk cut into concentric U-shapes suggests two overlapping circles being pulled apart. A disk cut horizontally into one-inch strips and spread out sideways like a deck of cards across a tabletop is nearly unrecognizable as a circle. Several of the pieces had their cutting strategies stenciled on the original disk.

The disks themselves suggested a fundamental circular motion, which some of the circle pieces preserve and emphasize, particularly when the weathered surfaces highlight the rotation of concentric circles. Other pieces combine that circular motion with linear movement, as when the concentric U-shapes are pulled apart.

The concentric circles never seem to be at rest. Years later in New York, Nickel created what appears to be another circle piece. His Aluminum Piece (1982, right) is not made of wood and did not begin as a disk, yet it shares the same energy and sense of movement.

It is the cutting itself — its scheme and process — that creates the work.