In Praise of George Nick

John Updike

(written for the George Nick Retrospective catalog at Massachusetts College of Art 1993)


Portrait of John Updike

In a letter to his wife (October 13,1907), Rilke wrote of Cézanne's work, which he had just seen in the memorial exhibition at the Salon d'Automne, "The good conscience of these reds, these blues, their simple truthfulness, it educates you; and if you stand beneath them as acceptingly as possible, it's as if they were doing something for you. You also notice, a little more clearly each time, how necessary it was to go beyond love, too; it's natural, after all, to love each of these things as one makes it: but if one shows this, one makes it less well; one judges it instead of saying it. Lesser, more sentimental painters, he goes on to say, "paint: I love this here; instead of painting: here it is."


One thinks naturally of George Nick's paintings in terms of good conscience and simple truthfulness, of saying instead of judging. The occasions of some of the loveliest of his paintings are homely ones: plain houses in Chelsea and Charlestown, rusting old locomotives, the shadow-striped undersides of overpasses. Yet, as if not wishing to type-cast himself as a celebrant of the run-down and the raffishly urban, Nick has in recent years turned to more up-scale subjects — the sandstone fronts of Newbury Street and Commonwealth Avenue, and pleasant enough bucolic glimpses in Vermont and North Carolina.


Any subject will do, as long as the subject is not exploited for its anecdotal or picturesque qualities but is taken in good conscience as an occasion for pure painting. The bleak industrial forms of the power plant at Bellingham are invited, quite without condecension or muralistic socialism, to yield up their visual pleasures. Have any self-portraits been more devoid of vanity, or egotistic showmanship, than Nick's - his mouth ajar in concentration, his hair neither combed nor deliberately left uncombed? When, as in some of the venerable European vistas, the architecture is theatrical, theatricality is underplayed, as if we were examining a stage set between the acts. His exceptional fidelity to visual appearance is itself left unemphasized, rather than, in the manner of the photo-realists and meticulous literalists like Philip Pearlstein and William Bailey, presented as something to marvel at.


Nick's refusal to develop a manner, even to the extent that Neil Welliver and Alec Katz have manners, has cost him ready identification in the art annals, perhaps, but it has also left him free to keep searching for ever more pristine contact with the scenes before him. Since the Seventies, when his renditions of suburban houses reached a crisp and luminous peak, he paints more expressively, on larger canvases, with wetter pigments; he had abandoned the pleasures of a dry precision and seems to have moved closer to his subjects, accepting the bulging perspective of a camera eye. Whatever direction he takes, however, he remains armed in innocence and an energy that emanates not from a set interior angle but from a vast exterior world almost uniformly endowed with visual excitement.


His response to this excitement - his counterattack, as it were - over time has broadened so that die viewer needs a step or two farther back to appreciate his truthfulness. The bliss of resolution - of fragments, stabs, and smears of paint resolving, back from the moonscape of the dabbled canvas, into a simulacrum of what daylight displays to us in three dimensions - is not the only pleasure painting affords, but it is the pleasure we experience first, in our first infantile recognitions of the image, and one for which even the most resolute abstraction suppresses a certain nostalgia. It was the Impressionists who in their broadening, loosening brushwork not only reaffirmed this primal bliss but revealed it in older artists (Vermeer, Velasquez) whose details could now be seen to be impressionistic.


A certain speed, as distinguished from haste, has more and more characterized George Nick's attempt to capture the shimmering world. Yet though his brushwork is more agitated his color and composition remain calm. An integrity of drawing (his translucent outlines in blue wash are paintings in themselves, which it seems a pity to cover) underlies the solid justice of his colors, and an integrity of faith beneath that - a faith that a painting does not have to be forced upon reality, through some trick or exaggeration or other, but can be drawn forth by a simple attentiveness, a patient scanning of what lies beyond the edge of the canvas. He omits without giving an effect of omission. His attention, like a quietly singing shuttle, collects harmonious patches of surprisingly true color – color with a clear conscience.


The aesthetic and the ethical are no great distance apart, as Rilke's tenderly phrased adoration of Cezanne suggests. Those of us lucky enough to know George in the flesh must sometimes shield our eyes against his core of blazing dedication, and smile at the elaborate apparatus of his sainthood - the famous picture-window truck, almost a Magritte fantasy in its placement of a miniature studio on wheels, once painted bright orange and now a more camouflaging green, ornamented with a martyr's wreath of parking tickets. Cezanne and Monet, trudging out into the heat and rain with their three-legged easels, have nothing on this daily pilgrim. Rising at dawn to arrive miles distant as a certain slant of morning light befalls a chosen railroad bridge or storefront, he is nature's acolyte; no mere coincidence has brought him to dwell in Emerson and Thoreau's town of Concord. Dedicating himself to representation ·in the heyday of abstract expressionism, he had Fairfield Porter's stubbornness without Porter's family fortune. Both the serenity and harshness of the independent spirit speak in his canvases, in a mood of morning light, with most of the day still to come. The "here it is" of his paintings does not need to advertise love; love exists here not as a sentiment but as a basic condition of being.