Graham Nickson, "Italian Skies," May 6-June 5, 2009, at Jill Newhouse Gallery, 4 East 81st Street, New York, N.Y. 10028
Barnett Newman once wrote: "the impulse of modern art was [the] desire to destroy beauty," more specifically, "to discard Renaissance notions of beauty. Modern art is abstract, intellectual. . . Modernism. . . taught that art is an expression of thought, of important truths, not of a sentimental and artificial ‘beauty’." Well, if Graham Nickson’s beautiful "Italian Skies" are any clue -- and why shouldn’t they be, for they’ve got much good company? -- then modernism is over.
And who believes that beauty is "sentimental and artificial" except someone who is purblind to beauty? Who believes that "Renaissance notions of beauty" were mere notions rather than sophisticated knowledge? Did Duchamp’s mind -- he who wanted to enlist art in the service of the mind -- really have any "important truths" to express, or even know what truths are important and which are petty, like his false truth that any dumb thing can be a work of art if a clever pseudo-artist convinces the gullible that it is?
Does conceptual or idea art, as it pretentiously calls itself, have any significant concepts or ideas? All one has to do is to read -- there’s nothing to see -- Lucy Lippard’s Six Years of the Dematerialization of Art, a catalogue of conceptual "projects," to see that its so-called concepts are trivial jokes. The pseudo-artists who made them would to be embarrassed if they weren’t such mindless, skill-less exhibitionists. Or read Sol LeWitt’s "Sentences on Conceptual Art," where he says the concept really doesn’t matter. So much for the so-called mind of the so-called conceptual artist. Modernism has clearly let art down, certainly as an "intellectual" endeavor.
And whoever said that what Barnett Newman wrote is the gospel truth? Certainly he’s recklessly ignorant about Renaissance art, and recklessly destructive of the artist’s responsibility to beauty. As the poet-philosopher William Gass eloquently put it, the artist’s basic obligation is to "provide beauty for its own sake." "Neither the world’s truth nor a god’s goodness will win you beauty’s prize," Gass writes. "Putting on a saving scientific, religious, political mask disguise[s] your failure as an artist." That is, unable to create beauty in a world that badly needs it -- especially because the beauty of nature, the "loveliness of landscapes, trees, and sky, are adventitious and accidental" -- you pretend to be a thinker, politician and true believer (certainly in yourself). The artist, Gass argues, should "make things whose end is contemplation and appreciation," works of art which cast "spells," which "reward even the most casual notice, and which therefore deserve to become the focus of a truly disinterested affection."
I have as deep and contemplative affection for Nickson’s "Italian Skies" -- some seen at dawn, others at dusk, always at the moment when the relationship between darkness and light is at its most complex and indeterminate, when they mingle even as they divide, when the sky is streaked with colors, as in Nickson’s watercolors, or in solemn suspense, as in his oils, where we sometimes get a glimpse of a detail of the Roman skyline -- as he has for them. The beautiful sky of the Roman Campagna -- a Southern sky at once grand and subtle, almost completely filling Nickson’s canvas, to the extent of leaving only a sliver of land to counterbalance its vastness (in contrast to Dutch landscapes, typically one third earth and two thirds sky; Graham’s dramatic change of proportions indicates his observational acumen as well as technical inventiveness) -- has absorbed artists since Poussin, suggesting the grand tradition in which Graham knowingly works, and the grandness of his achievement.
Beauty always affords an esthetic experience, and to have an esthetic experience "we must first expose ourselves to ravishment by the external formal qualities of the object," as the Kleinean psychoanalyst Donald Meltzer writes. Nickson’s skies -- and his exquisite handling of them -- ravish the eye, which surrenders itself to their colors and forms instantly. "Then," says Meltzer, "we must grapple with our doubts and suspicions about its internal qualities." External beauty raises doubts about whether it is accompanied by and is the expression of internal beauty: Does the beauty of nature bespeak and embody the beauty of the soul, which seems somewhat rarer? Beautiful sunrises and colorful sunsets are after all daily events, at least if one bothers to look at the atmospheric sky.
I suggest that what makes Nickson’s "Italian Skies" particularly poignant is that they leave us waiting with baited breath for the answer, which they refuse to give. That is, they embody the conflict between the beauty of matter at its subtlest and the beauty of the soul at its subtlest, suggesting their irreconcilability yet also suggesting that they can be reconciled if one is seriously sensitive to beauty, which means being attuned to nature and one’s own inner nature, realizing that they somehow mirror each other, each being the unexpected essence of the other.
DONALD KUSPIT is distinguished professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.