Articles about George Nick


George Nick: naturalist wonder
by Margaret McCann

(2005 review of "George Nick: An Artist's Conscience," organized by the Concord Art Association (Concord, Mass.), with the support of Gallery NAGA (Boston) and Fischbach Gallery (New York), at the UNH Art Gallery original article here.)


George Nick's primary subject is city and landscape, but his true subject matter may be the pleasure of virtuosity, with the pleasure of paint a close second.


In more than 40 paintings spanning a 20-year period, "An Artist's Conscience" at the University of New Hampshire Art Gallery through March 10, also presents paintings of antique cars, trains, planes, a portrait, and a few still lifes, demonstrating Nick's exuberant mastery of naturalism. Achieving this means knowing how to draw in the classical sense-measuring, light ("chiaro...") and shadow ("...scuro")-how light affects color, and a working knowledge of color theory. It also means knowing how-how much and when-to use illusionist techniques like linear and atmospheric perspective. Nick's work makes this all look deceptively easy. Well-known in his field, Nick recently retired after 25 years as a professor at Massachusetts College of Art. He studied on the GI Bill at the Cleveland Institute of Art, Yale School of Art and with Edwin Dickinson, esteemed realist, at the Art Student's League in post-war New York, when Abstract Expressionism ruled. He still occasionally teaches workshops, sometimes abroad, through the Concord (Mass.) Art Association, which arranged this traveling show.


A catalogue essay describes the prevailing critical milieu of Nick's formative years. Art critics were loud voices in an art world much smaller than today's, and more ideological. Clement Greenberg's credo of "pure painting" meant stripping down to universal visual pleasure-like distilling Matisse-as in color-field painting. Harold Rosenberg championed the untamed enterprise of "action painting," (as reenacted in the film Pollack). They believed that the transcendence found in nature, for example, could only be honestly expressed in painting in rarified or experientially intense abstraction, not in actual depiction.


Nick's painting is too loquacious to adhere to essence in imagery, but his studies, painted "alla prima" (executed in one session), convey a purity of response, as in his direct and unassuming "Oriental Rug, Concord." Some of the imperatives of action painting-or Abstract Expressionism-are operative as well. Bold design and dynamic paint in the very red "Joshua Drooker House" have undercurrents of Franz Kline's brash geometry. Though perceptual responses are masterfully accurate in "Indian Neck Quarry, Stonington," the wild paint handling of rocks and plants is what captivates. Nick's gutsy responses occasionally even approach the excesses of expressionism, as in "763, Roanoke, VA," a visceral description of a steam engine.


In the stunning quasi-abstract "Stonington Harbor," the canvas is divided in half horizontally. The top half, above the shoreline, shows a section of road, houses, rocks, etc. The bottom shows the reflection of houses in the water, delivered in rough bands of color, a man in a boat gradually appearing. Information is delivered in exacting light and color, but edges serve expressive interpretation more than description. Thick, lush paint and bold design dominate, making identifying things a nice surprise. This indirection may have been inspired by his teacher, Dickinson, whose work reveals itself elliptically; the viewer is seduced to re-experience the artist's experience of looking. But where Dickinson is slow and curious, Nick is fast and furious, more about gusto than suggestion.


In "Brackenbury Beach," variation in texture and velocity of mark are combined with unusual point of view. A slim shape of a house on the left edge, upon closer inspection, intrudes into the foreground as strokes of yellow shoot out to the background space on the right, then more carefully curve down around and toward us. Nick makes such complex coordination look effortless. Unlike abstract expressionists, however, who painted as if in a perpetual state of "alla prima," always in the uncontrolled present, Nick makes an initial drawing using the system of linear perspective before he paints. Drawing is choreography, painting is performance; both occur on site, "en plein air." Certain goals are established through drawing, which expertise and impulse actualize in paint.


Nick's fascination with the possibilities of perspective seems to fuel his descriptions of modern conveyance. Using extremes of perspective impels the antique cars into the viewer's space. Where theatricality is balanced with mood, as in the eloquent "Hanging Plane, Roanoke, VA," bravura is effectively, even poetically, qualified.

While "Penelope's Suitors" delights as a tour de force description of fragmented light striking complicated glassware, the more modest still life "Katya's Mask" conveys deeper feeling. This is one of the few pictures with little movement, where thick paint's accrual can suggest evolution. Built-up paint, from reconsidered decision, conveys the history of the image's making. But Nick is more motivated by action than contemplation in painting. When motifs are both technically difficult enough to thoroughly challenge him and grand enough to contain his daunting energy, the emotion of heightened response becomes a powerful byproduct of virtuosity.


The gorgeous color and vibrant painterliness of the complex panorama "Old Harbor, Salem, MA" activate Nick's powers fully. Likewise in the superb interior "Tribute to Shostakovitch's 15th Symphony," where orchestration of the syncopated rhythms of shapes of light and shadow carry the eye dramatically through the space. Here painting becomes a moving performance, like the cadenza in a sonata, the virtuoso's opportunity to display technique, invention and feeling in equal measure.