by association: Don Nices Deer.
New Twist on the Old School
Nice: Hudson River Paintings
Institute of History and Art, through Aug. 22
Don Nice put it to me this way: “I’ve been lucky all my life.”
Looking at the 50 pieces from the past 40 years in Don
Nice: Hudson River Paintings at the Albany Institute of
History and Art, and knowing that they represent only a fraction
of his daily, lifetime output, one understands that Nice made
his own luck.
Beginning where he first wrested himself out of the grip of
late abstract expressionism into the midst of pop-tinged,
California-school realism, Hudson River Paintings presents
the Nice he wants us to know—a classically inspired frontiersman,
forging ahead into fresh territory armed with the knowledge
of the past, the blessing of his masters, and an almost egomaniacal
certainty in the importance of his task.
The canvases are large, the colors brash, the shapes definitive,
and the juxtapositions bombastic. You need to know the rules
in order to break them the right way, and Nice’s Yale education
gave him the right to do that; equally, his 24 years teaching
at the School of Visual Arts in New York, followed by a booming
art market in the ’80s and ’90s, gave Nice the stability to
take the risks that led to a unique style that he continues
to push forward and transform today, in his seventies.
At the center of the work, whether of landscape, figure, object
or animal, is the Hudson River, Nice’s home since he moved
to Garrison around 1969. Despite maintaining the cool detachment
that characterized the pop phase of his work, Nice has become
associated with the environmental movement through persistently
depicting the fauna of the Hudson River valley and speaking
strongly of the need to preserve the river’s resources.
Perhaps most emblematic of this concern is the central hall
of this multi-gallery exhibit, where a flotilla of friendly
fish cutouts glitters along deep indigo walls like a display
in a city aquarium. Virtually compelling a name change to
the Albany Institute of Natural History and Art, this exuberant
fish alley (made of nearly two dozen paintings on aluminum
mounted to 2-inch-thick wood, dated 2003-4) will attract children
of all ages in a lighthearted introduction to Nice’s playful
but serious artistic attitude.
It leads the eye directly to an oversized 1991 watercolor
(also featuring a large fish portrait) at the center of the
museum’s largest gallery, where work from four decades (1967—1997)
is gathered together in a realm lying somewhere between harmony
and pandemonium. Because Nice the rule-breaker won’t restrict
himself as to subject matter or medium (even within single
works), a certain amount of chaos reigns here. Even so, repeated
icons (and there are many), a mostly consistent painterly
technique, and that ineffable quality known as style combine
to convince the viewer that this is indeed the work of one
rather creative mind.
By the way, there are other points of entry into the exhibition—this
is just one option. The true beginning is an entry hall where
just a few paintings hang in quiet company with a biographical
panel and a pedestal holding the show’s beautifully produced
hardcover catalog, which features an essay by Nice’s longtime
dealer John Driscoll, of Babcock Galleries; Driscoll also
curated and designed the exhibition. Yet another entry places
the visitor at the show’s logical end, with the most recent
work—but a biographical panel there allows it to be a beginning,
too, if you like.
For me, the best work in the show—and the most compelling
as a body—comes from a middle period when Nice was combining
iconic images such as Coke bottles, sneakers, bears and fruit
with peaceful landscapes of the river, often including eccentrically
shaped canvases or odd juxtapositions in the mix. Several
pieces from this period (roughly 1975-1991) incorporate a
predella, which is a design element taken from Christian altarpieces
in which smaller images augment the main one, usually by being
added in a row along the bottom.
Among my favorites are two watercolors: the 1976 Hudson
River Ziggurat and 1977 Adirondack Totem, each
of which takes a different approach to the problems of combinations
In Ziggurat, Nice has created 10 equal-sized square
images and joined them through framing into a man-sized pyramid.
At the top is the classic river landscape; below that, a robin
and a squirrel; then come three comestibles (marshmallows,
ale and pie); and the bottom row of four contains an apple,
a pack of cigarettes, a toy Indian feather bonnet, and a hamburger.
While a hierarchy is implied, it seems at least partially
random, and there is one clear inside joke: a firm nod to
Jasper Johns in the form of the partially consumed six-pack
of Ballantine ale, placed right at the arrangement’s center.
The Totem, on the other hand, leaves less doubt as
to projected value. Painted on a single sheet of paper about
8 feet tall, its triangular top has a mountain landscape;
below that is a duck; then marshmallows, a work boot, and
finally the six-pack of ale. We have Gaia, animal life, food,
toil and, lastly, leisure.
In Nice’s 1975 Deer, a more than 6-foot-square acrylic-on-canvas
portrait of the eponymous animal has a row of seemingly unrelated
objects added along the bottom, in a separately framed watercolor
on paper. How the water pistol, Hershey’s Kisses, pear and
turtle are meant to be associated with the deer is left up
to the viewer; one thing not ambiguous, however, is Nice’s
obvious skill with the brush—the expressive realism of both
the acrylic and the watercolor leaves no doubt that this artist
can paint anything he wants, in any way he likes.
And here we have the rub. Nice’s interests and abilities have
such range that he can’t seem to completely direct them, resulting
in a significant amount of work in this show that struggles
for resolution. This may explain why it is only the second
retrospective he’s had (the first was in 1985); a body of
work this eclectic just doesn’t want to hang together.
Additionally, Nice seems to be trying too hard to be innovative,
especially with the decision several years ago to paint on
aluminum. Though he contends that this is a leap forward in
terms of light, transparency and color, I have a hard time
distinguishing the qualitative difference between Nice’s dye
paintings on metal and all manner of commercial objects, from
signs to toys to furniture to cars, that use similar materials.
Equally, the shapes he has adopted seem to be straining to
be popular—not that popularity is necessarily a bad thing
for art, but that I sense a lack of conviction in this work.
A case in point is the latest piece in the show, a 2003 shaped
aluminum “spinner” which hangs from a centerpoint around which
it can be rotated. Here, at last the river landscape has been
eliminated, though the icons (squirrel, fish, rose, apple
and bird) remain. They are joined together by cartoonish symbols
meant to represent earth, water, wind, fire and gravity in
a five-point star arrangement; and like a carnival game, they
spin and spin but seem to have no real purpose other than
I hope that this doesn’t become the final impression of an
otherwise worthy career.