Beer with a Painter: Graham Nickson

Graham Nickson, “Uluru, Australia” (2003), watercolor on paper, 22 x 30 inches (all photographs courtesy the artist)

Graham Nickson and I met in his offices at the New York Studio School, where he has been Dean since 1988. There was a pointed severity to our meeting-place, which offered no distractions from the task at hand. We were separated by his desk, piled high with catalogs, images, announcement cards. I have known Nickson for about fifteen years, and our conversation was direct and probing rather than genial.

This kind of rigor and piercing examination is central to Nickson’s pursuit. What in someone else’s hands would be sensual or quotidian subject matter—beach bathers, sunrises and sunsets—becomes extreme, impenetrable, and haunting in his paintings. Although he often paints figure groups, it is the spaces between and the insistent geometry of their positions that suggests both interaction and distance, self-sufficiency and internalized focus.

Nickson was born in Lancashire, England, in 1946. He studied at the Camberwell School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. He was the recipient of the Prix de Rome in 1972 and the Harkness Fellowship at Yale University. He has lived in New York since 1976. Nickson also originated the legendary “Drawing Marathon,” an internationally recognized, intensive program for art students.

Solo exhibitions of Nickson’s work have been held at the Naples Museum of Art, Florida, the Boca Raton Museum of Art, and the Lillehammer Art Museum in Norway. His work is also in the permanent collections of institutions including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard University; and The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York.

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Jennifer Samet: You grew up in England, and art was part of your childhood. You have said that you grew up with the dual influences of your father admiring John Singer Sargent, and your brother admiring New York School painting. Can you tell me more about this, and how you were introduced to painting?

Graham Nickson: I was intrigued by painting as a very young child. Drawing and painting were my imagination made visible. My father was a commercial artist: a portrait painter and a photographer. I have a distant memory of going into a room where my father used to make his work. It had all these brushes and equipment and material. It seemed like a Merlin’s cave, and made a strong impression on me.

I was living in a rural part of northwest England, called the Forest of Bowland. There are small valleys with fells and dry stone walls in between, sheep on the fells, and cattle in the valleys. There were Celtic stone circles and Roman ruins and early Saxon churches: things that were evocative of different kinds of mysteries from different periods.

However, one of my most crazy memories is about the light and the color: the gray steel of the sky, against the acid yellow-green of the fields, against the bands of dark charcoal gray of the dry stone wall. I am still moved when I see something that reminds me of that.

My brother, who was eight years older, was going to the Slade [School of Fine Art], having been at the local provincial art school. He went to the Slade at a time when modern American painting was just starting to be shown at the Whitechapel Gallery and some other places. He got very involved with the whole New York School.

When I was 13 or 14, I went down to London and met my brother in a place called the French Pub. He arranged to meet this very interesting artist and teacher, and a conversation ensued, which I was privy to, as a silent listener. He exuded seriousness and commitment. It was the painter Frank Auerbach. That was a seminal moment.

JS: You went on to study at the Camberwell School of Art in London, and later the Royal College of Art. Despite feeling like some of your own teachers at Camberwell expended so much energy into teaching that it affected their own studio work, you have taught and been Dean of the New York Studio School since 1988. How have you managed this?

GN: The Studio School is a special place. It encourages its educators to be artists first and foremost. You have to be very generous in teaching. You have to open with questions; it is about opening people more than influencing them. But people want solutions, and solutions are not easy to find, otherwise they are kind of glib. You have to make the possibilities available to discover the adventure.

In the studio, you have to abandon that, and think in a very selfish and personal way, searching your own resources, and finding your own solutions. I can’t give someone that memory that I have of the acid green and the gray, but I can give that to myself, and maybe that comes out in a picture forty years later, as vivid as it was at the time.

Nickson_Upside-down Bather
Graham Nickson, “Upside-down Bather” (1979-82), acrylic on canvas, 125 x 126 inches


JS: The figure in a headstand pose repeats itself in several of your paintings. You have said it was based on coming upon a person doing yoga on the beach. What about it resonated with you?

GN: Coming across a figure standing on her head was a very vivid experience. I was not only coming out of threatening fog into sunlight, but I also was seeing this strange image. It was even more unlikely at the time, because yoga activity was not as popular then as it is now. It was if as if the upside down world had more weight and was more real.

I am constantly scanning and tracking the experiences that I am thrown into. I am cautious that I am not misreading the experience, so I have all sorts of tests. If I see something that captures my imagination, I might draw it from memory for quite some time or make doodles when I’m on the phone or about to go to bed, to see whether the image comes back to me. If it holds in my head for six months, or a year, or a couple years, then it might hold in someone else’s head.

JS: This reminds me of a word that you use often in discussing your work: “obsession.” Why is that meaningful to you?

GN: I’m interested in things that are opposites – dichotomies. Obsession, and what you do with it, is part of that double thing: it is obsessive, but it is good for you. How can you paint bathers for thirty years? How can you paint sunsets for such a long time? Well, you can if you feel that they are as still as thrilling and challenging as they were from the first.

Another dichotomy is trying to make something monumental out of something transient, trying to make something transient out of the monumental. In the large paintings, it is a long road to closure. That’s why the watercolors are helpful, because, by their nature, they have to be closed relatively quickly. Whereas, with the big paintings, if that window is open, I’m going to open it and go back in. Sometimes the paintings go through extraordinarily long periods of activity and inactivity and change.

It is not a question of starting on one side and ending up in another. It’s not a question of craftsmanship. It’s a question of a course of treatment. In other words, you can’t have a fast cure for your obsession. You have a long process that brings you to the solution.

Graham Nickson, “Sphinx” (1983-85), acrylic on canvas, 96 x 192 inches

JS: Many of your paintings are about a complex organization of multiple figures and multiple panels. Can you describe, specifically, how you constructed a painting like “Sphinx” (1983-85)?

GN: Prior to that, I had been working on a lot of single images. The moment you put two powerful images together, you don’t necessarily get twice as powerful of a work. In fact, it actually modifies each of them. Francis Bacon was influenced by the Odessa steps scene from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925) – the image of the nurse with the cracked glasses. But if you imagine Eisenstein’s film having several nurses with cracked glasses, it wouldn’t work in the same way. It would be something else. It would be closer to Warhol.

How can you have an image of power share that power multiple times and still make a very strong work? I want this complex mass of individual people and things to talk to each other the way words in a poem talk to each other, with the spaces and the intervals between making one whole construction.

JS: There are certain art historical paintings that you return to, like Giorgione’s “The Tempest” (c. 1506-08) and Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson” (1916). What is it that interests you in these paintings?

GN: “The Tempest” is still as mysterious as ever. All the words that have been written about it still do not destroy or crack the meaning of the piece. It is a paradigm of mystery and impact through almost banal imagery that holds truth to our existence even in this late date. The presence of the human figure affects the space and the space affects the figure. Paintings like that make me think that extraordinary things might be gotten out of very simple means.

I love the layering of meaning in certain great works. Titian’s “The Flaying of Marsyas” (c. 1575) is a gruesome subject, but optimistic and pragmatic at the same time – it contains the theme, “It is better to have failed than to have not tried at all.” It has been connected to contemporary politics – the loss of Cyprus and the Mediterranean islands to the Ottoman Empire by the Venetians. The Venetian captain, Marcantonio Bragadin, was flayed by the Ottomans.

Graham Nickson, “Reflection” (1989-2005), acrylic on canvas, 126 x 96 inches

Titian’s painting is about as far away from history painting as you could possibly imagine, yet it contains history. It contains a more profound grasp of history, because of the layering of meaning, and because of its humanity. It is a human picture. That is why the endeavor to represent the figure is such an extreme force.

Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson” also still holds a very powerful impact. It shows his son engaged in learning an artistic language – music. That image is combined with an almost perfect abstraction. Those two forces—the human, and the found geometry, the found abstraction—make something more than the two parts.

JS: Geometry is obviously a huge component of your paintings. Can you talk about this, and your interest in the Fibonacci sequence as it plays a role in your paintings?

GN: Sometimes the geometry is about intervals, where objects are located, the flat organization of the whole. Sometimes it is about different spaces: the space in front of the viewer, behind the viewer, or behind the subjects and in front of the subjects. Sometimes it is contained by one of the subjects that is repeated by the whole image.

It is about trying to keep everything connected. The painting goes through a lot of procedures in order to do that. One of the ways is through the geometry, and the Fibonacci is a delightful system. I probably found out about it when I was in Italy – it is a mystical series. The Fibonacci sequence is 1,2,3,5,8,13, etc. – with the preceding number added to the next number.

If you are looking at a rectangle and are at a loss to decide what is interesting, that is an example of a simple painter’s tool that can make for something quite thrilling. It is a strategy to keep it exciting.

JS: The figures in your paintings seem very deliberately self-contained and self-sufficient. Despite the fact that they are bathers, they are not particularly sexual. What are your thoughts on this issue of the sensual?

GN: There is an ancient mosaic in Piazza Armerina, Sicily, of female athletes in seemingly modern bikinis. They exude a simple and direct power and presence. It is their sense of prowess that is conveyed by the image. One of the most moving responses to my paintings of bathers was when someone came up to me at a gallery show and said, “Your paintings are all about the strength of women.” Sexuality in paintings needs to be surprising and not necessarily where you would expect it.

It’s easy to look at the Titian portrait, “Doge Andrea Gritti” (1546/48) and see the implied power of the Doge of Venice, but it is hard to look at Titian’s “Venus of Urbino” (1538) and see her as the Doge with all that power. But it would be wonderful if one did.

JS: When you discussed Matisse’s “The Piano Lesson” you mentioned the theme of learning an artistic language. I have heard you say that understanding the language of painting is now endangered. What do you mean by that?

GN: I am loath to get into negativity, because I think it is a great time for painting. The ability to make a very powerful image will always be around. The urge for image making will always be there, just like that first shaman, who probably was a she, who put the image down. The reason for putting the image down is quite different to how the image is received.

I think it is great when the receiver of that first early image recognized that that was not just an image, but was a metaphor for all sorts of different experiences: the bear was dangerous, the horse was able to run and carry, the deer had antlers that could be used for clothing and tools. It is understanding and reading the image that we are in danger of missing.

Tree of Birds by Graham Nickson
Graham Nickson, “Tree of Birds” (2011), acrylic on canvas, 108 x 144 inches

Art is more than just a cipher. It’s more than just an object for bartering. It is something mysterious, and worth keeping, rather than trading. One of the great things about paintings in museums is that we sort of own them. The great thing about being able to talk about “The Piano Lesson” or “The Tempest” is that you own them, I own them. Everybody who sees that painting owns it. In order to understand it, one’s got to go back to the original work. If it’s not available, then you can’t get the information. It is better that a great work is not in a bank vault because of its monetary value, or in storage, unless that storage is in the mind—memory.

In painting, it is not necessary to know all the references. You just have to sense the experience and translate it. A lot of really interested people have lost access to the ability to find the clues. So it is not that it is impossible for them to see painting, or to make paintings. But it can create a barrier to the incredible possibilities that extraordinary paintings have to offer.

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