A first encounter with the paintings of Graham Nickson is likely to be a daunting experience. Almost everything about the paintings-the physical scale, the intensity of color, the multiplicity of vividly depicted figures with muscular, highly charged physiques; above all, the shower-of-gold quality of the light that seems to derive from a solar system very different from our own-can be shocking for newcomers to the artist’s work. There’s more pictorial wattage in a single painting in Mr. Nickson’s current exhibition at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries than we might expect to find in another artist’s entire retrospective. And there’s no diminuendo from painting to painting; on the contrary, the sheer visual overload seems to increase with each successive visit.
The current show is devoted to the subject of bathers-one of the classic motifs in Western painting, to which Mr. Nickson brings a very contemporary sensibility. The men, women and children in these paintings are not to be mistaken for the figures of classical mythology. With their scanty bathing suits and other beach gear, they are unmistakably our contemporaries, yet they abound in the kind of energy and action we associate with an earlier period of painting.
In the bodily gestures and hyperactivity in such paintings as Sandbar Bathers (1999-2005) and Edge Bathers (1983-2005), for example, I am reminded of martial scenes in certain Old Master paintings. Just as William James once spoke of a certain kind of ambition representing “the moral equivalent of war,” so these paintings sometimes evoke for me the battle-scene paintings of an earlier era. There are no doubt very good reasons why painters nowadays are seldom, if ever, tempted to return to the subject of warfare. Contemporary opinion tends to look upon military action as amoral folly rather than a heroic endeavor. Yet there’s no doubt, either, that this represents a loss for painting.
Be that as it may, Mr. Nickson can be said to have succeeded in bringing back an element of heroic ambition to the depiction of outdoor scenes of human activity. Some of the paintings in the current show are set in the landscape of Australia, to which he’s been a frequent and enthusiastic visitor. A few years ago, Mr. Nickson produced a remarkable series of paintings on paper devoted to sunrises and sunsets in the Australian outback-a series that has not, as far as I know, been exhibited here. All of this suggests that we are overdue for a full-scale retrospective exhibition of Mr. Nickson’s paintings and drawings-a show that is certain to be a revelation for a public that has remained more or less ignorant of the scale of his achievement.
For newcomers to his work, let it be said that Mr. Nickson was born in Lancashire, England, and studied painting in London and Rome before establishing residence in New York in the 1970’s. Since 1988, he has been the dean of the New York Studio School, where he has exerted a very creative influence on an entire generation of painters and sculptors. One of his most successful endeavors at the Studio School has been the creation of a crash program called the Drawing Marathon, which requires students to draw from models and other subjects more or less around the clock. This program has proved to be so popular with students that it is now in demand in art schools in Italy and Australia.
Drawing is indeed the foundation of the art training program at the Studio School, but the school also offers a continuing program of exhibitions of student work and lectures by distinguished artists, critics and art historians that are free to the public. I’m no doubt prejudiced in its favor, as I’ve been for many years a member of the school’s board of trustees, but I nonetheless do not hesitate to say that the New York Studio School is one of the reasons why New York remains the art capital of the Western world. It’s located at 8 West Eighth Street, just off Fifth Avenue, in a building that originally housed the Whitney Museum of American Art.
Meanwhile, Graham Nickson: Paintings remains on view at the Salander-O’Reilly Galleries, 20 East 79th Street, through April 30.