Jim Nickel: Artist in Venture
III. New York, New York

Nickel’s move from the Midwest to New York City seemed inevitable to friends, colleagues, family members, and a small circle of collectors, critics and gallery owners. They all followed his work with interest.

He left St. Louis in a rented truck filled with essentials: table saw, grinders, sanders, radial arm saw, power hand tools, drum of Rhoplex, files, darkroom equipment, cameras, bicycle, books, and a selection of his work that he preferred not to leave in storage.

This is Part III of the 1998 commentary on Nickel’s work, covering his first two decades in New York. Its conclusion: “The ideas and images which prompt his artistic response are still being formed, so we know his work is not yet complete.”

The commentary is organized here in three geographic, chronological parts:

Oak Park, Illinois
Brentwood, Missouri
New York, New York


Jim Nickel in Brentwood, Missouri. Industrial areas were a favorite destination for photographic exploration; industrial castoffs were a primary source of raw material.


Arrival in New York did happen. In 1978 Nickel left his teaching job at Washington University and moved into the garment district near Macy’s, a far cry from the Venture outlets in St. Louis. He was venturing artistically and personally. In his first New York studio at 250 W. 35th Street, Nickel constructed a large Venture Piece, left, 32 feet wide, that was installed at P.S. 1 in 1982 as part of the “New Wave — New York” show. He began to experiment with curving the assembly to give the pieces an undulating or shell-like appearance, working with shadows cast by various light sources, and fixing tonal color to the back side of the piece so to capture a rich, warm glow reflecting on the wall.

In a later Curled Venture Piece (1987), right, the rigid wooden structure and painted patterns allude to the biological character of a tropical flower with the wood forms resembling leaves and petals wrapped around a mysterious center. The leaves are louvers that filter light which seems to come from within the plant. Biological growth is a progression from seed to sprout to flower, and the Venture pieces at their apogee begin to capture this idea which will surface again in a later series of etchings. The routed pattern on the outside of the Venture pieces moves the eye toward the idea that life flows in a continuous, harmonious and unending way, though sometimes detoured by chance. Barriers dissolve in following the Zen-like flow of time and force, accepting the accidental as an opportunity for further exploration. Nickel is fond of quoting John Cage: “coincidence is a term for unrecognized cause.”

Higher rents forced Nickel to take a job as restaurant manager at the Plaza Hotel, which put him in contact with all sorts of interesting celebrities from Andy Warhol to Richard Nixon but did not advance his art career. The job paid the rent but left little time to make art (or “do Kunst” — Nickel inherited certain German words and likes to mix them with his English). Life grew heavy again, but 1982 proved to be a decisive year. Nickel’s persistent courtship of Joyce Leung, a pediatric nutritionist whom he had met in St. Louis, ended successfully, and they were married in August. Two years later Nickel quit his job at the Plaza, enrolled at Columbia University School of Fine Arts, and purchased an apartment building with storefront in Brooklyn at 126 Bedford Avenue. The storefront became his new studio. As he earned his M.F.A. he also took on carpentry jobs to fund his various art projects. Word of mouth kept him employed, and took him to work at some interesting places for interesting people, an artist with carpenter’s craft.

Nickel’s work began to coalesce in the Bedford Avenue studio. The connection between the photographs, the paintings, and the sculpture became more apparent as he worked diligently under the influence of classical and jazz music. His search for structure resembled a Bach fugue — opposites seeking resolution in harmony; his search for a lively dynamism moved in the direction of Mozart ... or Brubeck, Coltrane, Miles Davis. His musical tastes grew to be eclectic, appreciating the sitar of Ravi Shankar and the work of minimalist composers Philip Glass and Steve Reich. This music ran parallel to the new mode in which he was working. He began to cover the sculpted wood surface with some painterly applications, using marble dust, modeling paste and mica flakes on the front and hot red-orange paint on the backside. Because the forms come off the wall from two to four feet, the reflected light casts a warm glow onto the wall, as in Parting of the Ways (1990), left.

Caroline Miles, director of the Atrium Gallery in St. Louis, was the first to notice how the structural component in Nickel’s paintings had coalesced in his sculpture. She mounted a 1989 show at her gallery, called “Evolutions: Paintings into Sculpture,” which paired late 70’s paintings with late 80’s sculpture, explaining that “Pattern, density, geometric progression and subtle use of color—all characteristics of ... paintings from the 1970’s—are seen perhaps more directly in the sculpture pieces.”

The works in this sculpture series are solid and heavy with obvious progressions, but the shadows and backlit auras they project onto the wall contradict the weight. Chute, right, a 1986 work of plaster and acrylic on plywood, looks like a modernized gothic gargoyle, a water downspout with phallic base. Tandem Repeat is a 1989 work which looks like two Canada geese in flight, migrating swiftly along the wall with necks extended. Untitled (“Sine Curve”) 1990 takes its motif from the streamlined look of the 1940s, creating a visual play between solid frontal form and triangular void underneath. Figurehead, a 1990 work of acrylic resin on stained wood, looks like a series of huge opened clam shells stacked face up one on top of the other. The higher it rises, the larger the proportions become, until the sculpture stands almost four feet from the wall at its top, threatening to topple and crush anyone underneath while seeming to defy gravity. It lends credence to the saying, “Uneasy the [figure]head that wears the crown.”

In contrast to the bulk of these wall sculptures, a new direction and style was beginning to develop side by side with them. The Baltic Birch Plywood Series begins in 1991. Each sculpture in this series is made by carefully cutting large sections of stained and colored plywood on a band saw into narrow curved bands of one-quarter to three-eighths inch wide, reassembling these concentric bands in stacked layers one on top of the other. The increasing or decreasing radii when stacked upon each other create the dimension of depth. While the starting point is a 4-by-8 foot piece of new plywood that no longer qualifies as a found object, Nickel often extrapolates the basic shape from chance scraps or cut-outs from previous work found discarded onto the studio floor. The bulkiness of the Brentwood constructions and the Bedford Avenue marble-dusted wall sculptures is lost in lightness and airiness without being down-sized.

The Baltic Birch sculptures are joyous and dancelike, sometimes thrusting and other times flowing, twisting around like the double helix. They float, and their forms change drastically depending on the angle from which we observe them, as in Spiral Bound (1993), left. The narrow, stacked bands are usually see-through planes, but sometimes become a solid blond wall of sanded wood that shuts off the voyeur’s glance. These pieces contradict the minimalist rule from the 1970s: “If it’s on the wall, it’s not sculpture.” No pedestals are needed for the Baltic Birch pieces.

A strong emotional component entered Jim Nickel’s sculptural work, tied as it now is to the world of organic growth. The work comes alive in curvaceous form, no longer geometric but biometric. The two elements that formerly marked a division between Nickel’s painting (“see-through” grids) and sculpture (“work with the given” — cut and reassemble) now cohere. The Atrium Gallery in St. Louis was the place for the first exhibition of these new Baltic Birch sculptures at a 1993 show called “Breakthrough.” There is a new fluid energy that moves through these forms which is at once captivating and mysterious.

References to skeletal forms abound in the Baltic Birch Series. In Kickback, a 1992 sculpture, a rib cage juts out into the room begging lungs to take a deep breath, protecting what is internal from outside forces. A backhoe-like foot sweeps down along the wall to ground the piece. The vertical sweep implies a transcendent dimension, as if the whole structure were a winged figure casting graceful shadows on earthly transactions. The form seems to breathe, inhaling rarified oxygen, and in this pneumatic action resides its spiritual appeal. Koyasan (1992), right, takes its name from a holy mountain in Japan which Nickel and Leung visited in 1991. The mysterious slopes of this “wood mountain” present a rich, solid, comma-like front to the viewer, but underneath the surface there is an ominous dark, caged space, like a crevasse which opens on the slick ice of a slanting glacier.

Fissure (1992) also could be a crevasse in a rock, but it looks like a wood-ribbed canoe which has been collapsed on one side by the pressure of water crushing it against a rock. In the Baltic Birch Series there are references to wings and bone structures — human and animal, all heavenly and sinuous. A hummingbird form hovers along the wall in Arrested Flight (1991); a circle is enclosed in its own revolving and evolving circumference in Spiral Bound (1993), above left; a wing becomes a kingfisher’s beak and juts horizontally along the wall like a jouster’s lance, magically changing references in mid-glance in Monitor (1993). The works look fragile in a way that sculpture seldom does, but in that fragility resides a spiritual quality which alludes to the transcendent meaning partly concealed beneath the rich but changing surface of reality, and if we give these visual invitations a second look the forms promise to bestow a blessing that is both strong and enduring.

Nickel’s work can have a strong didactic quality, deriving, perhaps, from his experience as an instructor. He had been hired in 1977 to teach three-dimensional design at Washington University in St. Louis, and discovered that, coming from a long line of teachers, the aptitude to teach was in his genes. In 1986 he completed his M.F.A. at Columbia University in New York and was certified to teach art in New York public schools. Nickel’s scholarly interest in scientific discoveries also deepens the content of his work, and these combinations surface in etchings he produced, beginning with the Drop Out Series produced at Columbia in 1986. Columbia’s academic atmosphere encouraged the re-emergence of image/word issues which Nickel had been exploring in St. Louis; words appear again in the sculptures (e.g., Emotional Comfort, left) and sculptural forms show up in the etchings ... and the artist is teaching us, lecturing even, about the nature of reality. Business as Usual (1985) “during renovations” suggests that while artistic output appears calm and normal, new agents are beginning to disrupt the austere bilateral symmetry found in previous work.

In the Drop-out Series (e.g., Drop Out No. 5, right), each image depicts an object placed in what the artist calls “galactic space” from which amorphous forms ooze or “drop out.” The two-dimensional objects are very sculptural and seem to float gravity-free. They are strangely surreal, one resembling a prickly pineapple top attached by silly putty to a dangling hand grenade which “drops out” toward the bottom of the print. There are hints of plant forms with sword-like leaves or else a weird crown inventing itself on the spot in Impromptu (1986, 9” x 8”). In these early etchings Nickel is experimenting with various techniques, working as hard on the pictorial space in which the image is placed as on the image itself.

The “entrancing beauty of geometrizing” has been part of Nickel’s artistic work from the beginning. He is always searching for the structure inherent in reality and the spiritual power that brings life to form. He writes: “We have limited knowledge as to how forms take their shapes, and we can only speculate as to why they unfold. In the end, it is not important to know why. It is enough to observe that Form Follows Energy.” During the Renaissance, scholars became fascinated again with the Platonic idea that one could discover metaphysical reality by isolating the ideal geometric forms that material objects and life forms imitate. While there are no perfect geometric forms in nature, the forms that are visible make reference to the realm of the ideal, and can help “confront the profound questions of existence” by teaching us balance and visual harmony. Robert Lawlor concludes his book, Sacred Geometry, by musing about “Spirit which has become entranced by the beauty of geometrizing.”

Some of Lawlor’s geometry exercises provide inspiration for Nickel’s etching designs completed at the Bob Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in 1996. In the Double Spiral Series of 1996, the common denominator is the growth spiral or Fibonacci curve. Art imitates nature, for we find the spiral in a bean seed beginning to sprout, in a mollusk shell, ram’s horn, or umbilical cord. The title of this series could be something like “grow up,” “break out,” or “replicate onward” to capture the dynamic of the spiral. Two spirals are juxtaposed in reverse to each other as if mirrored in a diptych and appear to be contained within or bursting out of an inverted “T” structure. If the image is inverted it resembles the capitals on a Greek column; if turned on its side it could become a streamlined, wind-displacing logo for Amtrak, and neither position would obviate the artist’s intention. Spiral shapes are alluded to in some of the Baltic Birch pieces which come later in the chronology of artistic creation, as well as in Running Fix (1995), left, part of the Aggregate Images Series.

The twenty prints in the Aggregate Images Series use various print-making techniques—intaglio, aquatint, mezzotint, and soft ground lift in various combinations—to achieve a densely textured print. These works grow out of a concern for the environment and the place of bioforms within it. Their images often are surrealistic and incredible, floating in undefined space, anticipating a techno-judgment in the manner of Hieronymus Bosch, or suggesting an impending reckoning prompted by the consequences of unchecked human choices. They overflow with contrasts: a contrast between the organic and manufactured, between humor and horror, between evolving geometry and social commentary. The titles chosen for the series come from news reports and scientific and medical studies, some of them alarmist and anxiety inducing: Vulnerability of Specialized Species, Blood Brain Barrier Begins to Yield, The Aged and Medicine Are Forming an Alliance, Environmental Disruptions, The Inarticulate Move On To Other Areas, Innuendo, Close the Loop, and Running Fix. There is a heavy didactic element buried in these titles, but little helpful information about an alternative salvation in the images. The newly alerted but not yet converted audience is left to ponder the ominous silence that surrounds them. Like the early photographs of signage and the rubber stamp drawings which contained imperatives, these etchings insinuate a judgment that begs the originating authority to step forward unveiled and subject such idiosyncratic judgements to the relativizing defusion of popular opinion. Who says this is thus and so? No such revelation is forthcoming, at least in these etchings. Is there an impending ecological or apocalyptic crisis? The situation is uncertain and edgy.

There is seems to be a “good cop—bad cop” interrogation going on here, the examiners personified by the Baltic Birch sculptures and the etchings of the Aggregate Images. The juxtaposition of the sculptures and etchings intensifies the impact each make. On the one hand the etchings show us the vulnerability of life forms, our dark survivalist instincts, and the ominous consequences of human folly from which there is no immunity. On the other hand the sculptures offer us a free, undeserved and unearned glimpse of spiritual lightness and soaring hopefulness, an unexpected numinous blessing of healed, reconstituted skeletons newly enfleshed. The bones can live. They can even fly.

In trying to repair ecological and spiritual damage, social preachments don’t fare very well among those who demand their gratification now. “Don’t preach to me!” Those who are perceived as threatening to take away choices must be prepared to deal with violent self-assertion. So a quiet, clandestine witness is in order. While not confrontational, Nickel’s Aggregate Images contain an ominous atmosphere; and by comparison the numinous sculptures of the Baltic Birch series display a hope that is inherent in the sacred mystery of life. The fact that both series exist side by side chronologically in the same studio, even though their appearance and media are disparate, should not confuse their linkage. Dialectic tension between judgment and hope, condemnation and grace, may yet guide and direct people who best serve the earth by loving heaven.

Firebird, left, is the name of a 1997 Baltic Birch piece that was exhibited in the “Of Growth and Form” show at the Atrium Gallery. A stick of root-like catalpa wood appears to rise into the bowels of an avian plywood form, bursting above it into shapes of flame. In mythology the Phoenix was said to arise perpetually from its ashes after a purifying fire had consumed it, conveying an ever-renascent vitality to the society in which the bird resided. Is there healing in its wings? Nickel added coprolite to a Baltic Birch piece called Digby (1999) as in archaeological “dig” and “by” as in “to be” — also a point of arrival and departure for a ferry in Nova Scotia. Coprolite is fossilized dinosaur dung; its presence within a 1999 wood sculpture creates a paradox of time. Nickel writes: “Nature’s ability to replace one mineral with another of similar, but different, composition while maintaining the same crystal matrix is an intriguing metaphor for art. It seems we are doing this all the time, making one thing stand for another, replacing one object for another around some basic organizing principle.” The ancient is contemporary and the contemporary is ancient. Nature contains a recreative power and may heal itself if the human species gives it a chance. Life marches on.

In none of his statements as an artist does Nickel aver a religious or spiritual interpretation of his work, and thus it is risky to imply such a link. He would say that too much explanation impedes spontaneity by forcing reality into ill-fitting, confining and defining cubicles — sort of like a chair Nickel built in the early 1970s with a seat only ten inches wide. The sculptural chair, made from 4-by-4 lumber was rather large and solid; it looked normal and invited visitors to “take a load off,” but once they were crammed into the narrow seat between the armrests, the chair caught its occupant in a vise. In the same way verbal exposition can steal the mystery and release the audience from the engagement of artful response. Nickel issues a caution when words would steal the power of a visual image by quoting Susan Sontag, asserting that “interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.” When logic and intuition, performance and intention collide and the result is indecisive inaction, Nickel issues his German verdict: “Nayah!” Part resignation, part freedom declaration: Just let it go!

Even “letting go” can move in an artistic direction. Working out ideas in a sketchbook is like keeping a visual diary. When there is an impasse between sculpture and print-making, Nickel makes visual notations in a series of watercolor, ink, gouache and graphite drawings that began in 1990 and number more than 500. These are an ongoing review of old ideas seen in new light: Venture Piece black and white slats juxtaposed with colorful bands that come from the Baltic Birch designs, bio-morphic and linear progressions tumble around each other, structural “Vs” and “Xs” dance when covered with accidental drips and splatters. A careful look might reveal a weather forecast heavy with humidity or a jazz improvisation by Art Farmer, a hint of a visit to the dark, claustrophobic basement at 126 Bedford Avenue or a splash of silvery roof coating left over from a job that the landlord hopes has sealed the leaky roof. The daily grind provides grist for the drawing mill — a bit of yellow from the plastic police ribbon at a crime scene, a notation of the latest mouse caught in the studio trap, a spot of tea, a scent of soap, a flickering idea — it all goes into the mill, a speck of reality that has been layered onto life as art and art as life. Just let it happen.

Jim Nickel began his artistic career in search of a masterpiece. He was willing to let the past fall away as useless baggage so as not to inhibit his vanguard thrust into the unknown future, a frontier which Heidegger romanticized and Nickel pursued in the Venture pieces. As he took stock of the path he traveled, he discovered that the linear progressive attitude of Western culture was supplanted in his outlook by the circular pattern of thought common to Eastern culture. He saved his work, and warehoused the bulky plank pieces, all the while feeling a bit guilty about not letting go. He continues to fight a battle between retaining the material baggage that marks achievement and the necessary spiritual freedom not to be chained to it. The dichotomies are not yet synthesized in perfect unity, and the paradoxes are not yet relieved, which means that more work will be forthcoming. What is assumed to be new has always been here just beneath the surface of our consciousness. It may be buried in the dust from prior civilizations and earth atmospheres, or it may be hidden by divine intention waiting to be discovered, but art materiel is everywhere at hand.

It is fitting to take a retrospective look at the work Nickel has produced over the past thirty-five years in this his fifty-fifth year. The ideas and images which prompt his artistic response are still being formed, so we know his work is not yet complete.