Further Thoughts on the Artist Tim Nichols

Responding to Reader Comments

By: - Nov 05, 2012

Nichols Nichols Nichols Nichols
My blog on Tim Nichols and the subsequent comments from people who knew him, opened up my eyes to the difficulty of simple descriptions of a life as long as Tim’s. As we all navigate our life, how we must appear to others is so variegated that in the end there is not one Tim but as many as there were observers of his life.

My take on him was colored by what stages of our lives our path’s crossed. The Nichols,, several years out of grad school, that I first met in the late '70s, who was running his own summer school to earn extra money was not the well-established teacher of the Museum School, who was one of the artists I showed in the mid-nineties at the Art Institute.

The comments on my blog, one from a former student, and another from someone who was aware of Tim’s public persona in the Boston scene, both belied my take on him as an outsider. The student saw the power he had as a teacher over his students and felt marginalized by his criticism. The latter saw him from afar as a player in the world of Boston art with the prestigious Museum School as his platform. Both saw themselves more outside the orbit of the Boston scene than he was.
I guess my effort to perceive in his contrarian demeanor artistic authenticity, has a good deal of self-projection in it. I see myself as an outsider, but I am sure with my Ivy League pedigree and almost 30 years of teaching at the college level, most people would not allow me any pity that I did not have access to the punch bowl.
As social beings we must have an innate sense of there being a scene, and what is our relationship is to it. It is hard to shake. It is the childhood image I have of the guys hanging out in my hometown of Watertown at the drugstore, that I would walk by on my way to church on Sunday. By standing out there for all to see, they wanted to let you know that they were the insiders. They were going to play the game. There were stories of rumbles and territory and stabbing deaths at Five Corners in Arlington. There an Armenian gang had it in for who knows, an Irish gang, an Italian gang, or maybe it was just Arlington vs. Watertown. As we exit another political silly season, I can see that these fellows were driven to set themselves up as the go-to guys, ersatz politicians.
I always admired Charles Giuliano’s sense of Boston as an art-hood. He put himself out there like the guys at the drugstore with his column “Perspectives” in “Art New England”. He went to the openings and knew, because of his clout as a critic, there were many good bashes and meals to be proffered by those who courted his opinion. Although he pissed off a lot of people by not writing about them or offering only grudging praise, by being there in the trenches on the scene, like a good reporter or politician, he helped create the warp and the woof of an art community.
The Boston art scene is a hard neighborhood to define and a minefield of potentially wounded allegiances. There was a lot of homegrown stuff coming out of competing schools and the history of the Boston Expressionists and Boston Realism to accommodate. But hovering beyond all that was New York and Europe. Major movements that would come and go that gained footholds at MIT or the Krakow gallery. You could have enormous success in Boston but never be considered hip enough to be talked about by the cognoscenti who read “artforum”.

There were even subcultures of realists like Robert Douglas Hunter, married to the daughter of Ives Gammell who sold his pictures for enormous amounts to the Suburban rich, that I am sure most of my art buddies had never heard about. Artists, who taught in the Boston art schools tended to achieve some notoriety within one scene or another, which often lead to their being hired in the first place. But as the tide ebbed on their scene, they found themselves stranded without much relevance to the current scenes. Too often they proved to be amazingly ignorant and disdainful of the younger artist who came along. If they had tenure they could remain employed and ignorant. But the younger generation would have their chance at irrelevancy. Their time would come to be ignored.
So we have worlds within worlds, parallel universes, constellations appearing and disappearing with the seasons: All coming under the same tent of Boston art. John Singer Sargent probably embodied that ambiguity as much as any contemporary Boston artist of what it meant to be a Boston artist. Born in Gloucester MA, he grew up abroad and created a reputation as one of the great European Portraitists of his time. He came back in the end to Boston to reclaim his reputation as Boston’s premier artist in the '20s when he created the Boston Public Library Murals. But he was nothing without an international imprimatur.
I had a conversation recently with Addison Parks in which he related his unpleasant dealings with Bernard Chaet in the '80s when Parks applied to Yale from RISD. It started me thinking about Bernie in terms of insider/outsider, and art allegiances. I first met him in 1970 when I took his drawing seminar along with several students including Gary Trudeau. In regards to the hierarchy of the art scene, the Yale MFA program was way up there. It cut a pretty impressive figure. First lead by the epigone of modernism, Josef Albers, Al Held came in the '70s to anchor the program and stayed into the eighties. He put the school on the map as the place to go for young ambitious artists. Under Albers Yale produced Richard Serra, Chuck Close and Eva Hesse. Chaet had taken over from Albers as department head, a moment related to me by a student at the time, Don Lent, who chaired the art department at Bates College.
Bernie was never a Modernist. Born in Boston he initially painted with the Boston Expressionists. I recall seeing early paintings in his home of Talmud’s and menorahs. He told me, when I was a finalist for a position at BU, where many of those Boston Expressionist artists ended up teaching, that he broke away from that group and was considered an apostate by them for his interest in French art. According to some of the literature surrounding the Boston school they detested the abstraction of the NY school. For them it was an offshoot of Paris in the early 20th century.Abstraction was somehow sinful for not embracing the human condition in the raw and direct manner of the German expressionists.

I related this story to a professor at Tufts who is Jewish. He thought it ironic that the Jewish Artists of the New York School, such as Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman, were probably more in keeping with the Jewish religious taboo on creating graven images of God than the Boston school of Jewish artists.

So here was Chaet, rejected by his Dorchester shtetl for being too French, in the period of High Modernism at Yale. This guy was painting in the style of the artist despised by Picasso as a “piddler”. Of course Held was the cock of the walk. He despised everybody and anybody who did not embrace his aesthetic. You didn’t have to be a grad student to be the recipient of his wrath. He walked by my undergrad friend, Bob Sabin, who was doing a landscape on the roof of the Yale A&A and made a “feigning to throw up” gesture. He put himself at the center of the art universe and marginalize everybody else.
Therefore, by any account, Chaet stylistically was twice over an outsider: Apostate Boston Expressionist, and misguided follower of Bonnard at Yale. I was grateful for his presence at Yale as my work came out of an infatuation with the stylistic variations of realism. I would have finally left Yale if he had not been there to recognize the validity of my endeavor. He understood the subtleties of looking at a Matisse or Corot. Those artists never made it into the conversation of your typical Yale student, bent on scaling the wall of New York Art. But to head the Yale art department made him an insider politically. He could get you into the school and recommend jobs  after graduation. He knew it. He could turn the faucet on and off at will. Although no longer living in Boston, he never lacked for representation either there, or in New York. When a recent book on Boston artists (100 Boston Painters) came out he was included. To spend an afternoon with him in Rockport was to inevitably reminisce about your classmates from Yale. If you didn’t know what they were up to he was sure to fill in the blanks.
Parks sees him as the consummate gatekeeper. If Addison wanted to get within the orbit of the New York Power grid Chaet made sure it didn’t happen at least via the Yale conduit. Getting to the point in the acceptance process where he was being interviewed directly by a committee including Chaet, he was astounded that Chaet kept his back to him during the whole interview.  Only later did he learn that his mentor at RISD, a Yale grad, was Chaet’s mortal enemy.
As an artist trying over a lifetime to incorporate a little of the universe‘s infinite into my work, I think back with gratitude to whomever kept me focused on understanding the language of paint. It didn't matter whether that meant Bonnard or Albers without reference to the hierarchies and powers of the current scene. To separate out the love of art from the talk of who had more centrality and power within the art world, was at times really hard. My ten years at Art Institute of Boston was spent constantly trying to assert my relevance within the shifting balances of who was a rising star within the Boston Community.

Colleagues who were nullities themselves would invite the latest art hero of the week to the department and try to expand on their reputations by association. On the one hand there was the large group within the department who took pride in their tangential affiliation with the Boston Expressionists. It provided an historical fact, well engraved in the Boston psyche. On other hand, there were older artists who loved to tout their connection with some avant-garde movement of the sixties long in desuetude.

One faculty member imagined himself the protégé of Michael Mazur. A new faculty member pumped herself up by playing the new game in town, Installation. Another made a smart move with a “none of the above” decision to pursue a graduate degree at Harvard in Critical Studies. I remember my last semester there my always well subscribed class in painting with color was scheduled next to a course on art and gender which the dean of students felt compelled to run. No one took my class. The language I was struggling to give birth to in my shows at Crieger-Dane over four years on Newbury st did not fit into the allowable niches of Boston Art and never sold. My colleagues never showed up at the openings.
There must be a strong political instinct in me as I take pleasure in sorting out who controls what territory.  My naïveté, however, shows in how long it took to realize that a lot of the decisions that were made about whether I got tenure or not were all about political power, not absolute notions of being a good artist.
This brings us to another topic: Is the world we perceive out there the result of an endless proliferation of errors. To be continued…

Previous article on Tim Nichols posted to Berkshire Fine Arts