Graham Nickson’s Paintings Are Extreme, Important

When we think of the great colorists in the history of Western painting, we tend almost automatically to associate their work with the light of Southern Europe. From Giorgione and Titian in Venice to the Impressionists at Argenteuil, from Cézanne in Aix to Matisse at Collioure and the Riviera to Bonnard at Le Cannet, the triumphs of the classic colorists seem all but inseparable from gentle climates and abundant sunlight–the lands of ” Luxe, calme et volupte ,” as Matisse called one of his paintings after a well-known line in Baudelaire.

Yet there is also a tradition of Northern color, which is significantly different from the colorism of Mediterranean Europe and is often seen at its peak in the work of Northern painters who have been deeply affected by their encounters with the light of the South. Northern color–think of Edvard Munch, Walter Sickert, Max Beckmann and Marsden Hartley, among the modernists–tends toward sharper contrasts and more theatrical densities. In climates where the brilliancy of the sun is a fugitive experience for much of the year, its pictorial representation is often endowed with a psychological intensity that is alien to Southern sensibilities. As a consequence, Northern color tends to be highly dramatic, and for that very reason its fidelities to certain extremes of light and shadow in nature are often mistaken to be excessive or unnatural.

This is no doubt the reason why the painter and critic Andrew Forge–himself a master of what I would characterize as Southern color–recently wrote of Graham Nickson’s paintings that “His color is extreme.” The occasion was the exhibition of Mr. Nickson’s paintings and drawings last year at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle, but the statement applies equally well to the artist’s current exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries. Extreme, in Mr. Forge’s sense, Mr. Nickson’s color certainly is, and pretty spectacular as well.

What, then, did Mr. Forge mean by “extreme”? “In all of his work,” wrote Mr. Forge, “there is a sense of something being pushed to a limit–a limit of saturation, of tonal contrast, of dissonance. What establishes the limit is a certain conception of light. This is where the line is drawn beyond which color would run berserk.”

If this makes Mr. Nickson sound like an exceptionally exciting painter, well, the truth is that he is one of the most exciting and ambitious painters on the current art scene. You would never know this, of course, from the indifference and neglect his work has met with from most of the critics and curators in this town. But that’s true of a lot of good painting nowadays: Many of our critics and curators seem to have written off painting itself as a lost cause–unless, alas, it can be seen to embrace some trendy subject like race or gender or whatever the O.K.-cause-of-the-month may be.

For such blighted sensibilities, Mr. Nickson’s paintings may indeed be hard work. He thinks big and works big. One of the paintings in his current show, Inlet: Dark Water (1981-97), is 10 feet tall and 14 feet wide, and contains, among much else, nearly a dozen figures. Another, Sanctuary II (1996-2001), is even bigger. As these dates indicate, the artist often devotes years to a single picture, reworking the complexities of its color and composition over time until they have reached that amazing “limit” which Andrew Forge spoke of. Often, the paintings are preceded by large-scale charcoal drawings–and I mean large: a drawing for Sanctuary II , dating from 1984, measures 74 by 90 inches. (Unfortunately, it is not included in the current show.)

For some years now, Mr. Nickson has concentrated his attention, in both drawing and painting, on outsize compositions of figures on a beach, often seen in moments of threatening weather or outright downpours. These motifs and Mr. Nickson’s command of Northern color are brought to a grand, full-throttle climax in such paintings as Inlet: Dark Water , Sanctuary II and Departure: Gulls (2001). Yet another big painting in the current show, Traveler: Red Sky (2001), appears to inaugurate a new series of figureless landscapes and skyscapes based on the artist’s copious on-the-spot production of watercolors of dawns and dusks recently executed in locales as diverse as Australia and Italy, Florida and New England. What another fine critic, Karen Wilkin, has written about these watercolors may also be said of Traveler: Red Sky : “The natural world has been so exaggerated, intensified, and refined that it becomes, for all its familiarity, utterly strange, and magical.”

Sooner or later, the panjandrums of the New York art world are going to have to wake up to the fact that Graham Nickson is one of its living masters. This would not even have to be argued if one of our museums had had the sense to bring last year’s exhibition at the Frye Art Museum in Seattle to New York. Never mind. The day will come when we shall see such a retrospective in a New York museum, and the public will be amazed. Meanwhile, the current show at Salander-O’Reilly is not to be missed.

For the benefit of those not yet familiar with Mr. Nickson’s work, let me explain that he was born in the North of England in 1946, trained in London and Rome, and has been living and working in New York for a quarter of a century. Since 1988, he has also been the dean of the New York Studio School. How he manages to do so much at such a high level of achievement is a mystery even to those who know him well. But art of this quality is always something of a mystery, isn’t it?

The exhibition at Salander-O’Reilly remains on view at 20 East 79th Street through April 28.