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Art & Art History

Robert Nickle Retrospective

Monday, January 10, 1994–Saturday, February 05, 1994

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Gallery 400 is privileged to present a selection of Robert Nickle ’s collages from 1957 to 1979. Nickle brought his experience as an artist, educator, and designer to his remarkable artwork. Nickle’s vision was the crystallization, synthesis, and assimilation of a number of twentieth-century artistic principles and movements. His work grew from Cubism and the use of the found object, Dada techniques of collage and the disruption of conventional forms, Bauhausian methodologies of functional design, and the organic and spiritual sensibilities of Abstract Expressionism. He also discovered an affinity with the works of Mondrian and Klee. The resulting interplay of art-historical influences was the foundation on which Nickle created his virtuosic, deeply subtle collages.

Nickle spent many years accumulating and collecting materials for his artwork. He often worked on numerous pieces at the same time, waiting years before he found the solutions. Twenty to thirty works were kept sandwiched between glass in his studio in order to be adjusted at any given moment. Like simultaneous chess games, this method of working allowed him to shift his attention when he reached a temporary obstacle on any given work. The compositions are like jigsaw puzzles: interlocking components only completed when that last missing segment has been found.

Nickle created sublime collages out of the mundane and the found detritus of our culture. He shifted scraps of discarded paper and perishable fragments from the materials of life into the materials of art, aesthetically cleansing them of their former context, helping them to transcend their origins. He left each scrap in the state in which it was found, without alteration. Nickle’s self-imposed discipline eliminated the temptation to cut or paint any of the found materials he had chosen for his collages. While the “found” objects showed use and implied a previous existence, one was not so much aware of the earlier life of the object as of its present function as part of a structured organism. The process of the paper’s decay had been disrupted only temporarily by the artist.

In these collages, “found” papers have connotations that unmarked or unweathered materials lacked; they create a situation where meaning and materials merge. Nickle’s compositions assume a metaphysical and poetic character. When incorporated into the artwork, fragments surrender their former discarded junk status and undergo an aesthetic transformation. Nickle conceived of his work in the tradition of “truth to materials” and his choice of materials dictated the composition of the structures. In a simple, direct manner, the artist created exquisite juxtapositions while responding to the materials ’ innate characteristics.

In the monochromatic work, subtle color values augmented by textural effects and organic matter in the papers create mosaic-like collages. In addition to his usually preferred earth tones, Nickle occasionally showed a willingness to use swatches of primary and secondary colors. The artworks balance straight edges against ragged, tonal sections against tidy patches of color, and texture against smoothness. The abstract compositions are a delicate balance of harmonies and visual counterpoints. There is a rhythmic quality, with pauses and interruptions represented by paperclips, string, or holes. Each wrinkle, speck, hole, or flake in the paper proves to be important. Depending on the particular composition, there is often a shift in works from the simple to the baroque.

Compositionally, the collages adhere to a rectilinear or square grid format. Nickle combined the formal stability of the grid with carefully plotted movement through lines, color, texture, or a change in material that enlivens their geometry. In a number of works he used a bold number, letter, or text as a pictorial element denying conventional meaning. Since Nickle was trained as a graphic designer, his sensitivity allowed him to expand on the formal qualities of typographical elements.

Nickle confronts the viewer with profound and powerful work that (re)awakens our interest in the medium of collage in an artistic language that remains distinct and independent from any category or “ism.” He was a master of collage, achieving a combination of integrity and beauty in his work, which remains powerful and inspirational for present and hopefully future generations of artists. 


Nickle Head ShotRobert Nickle (1919–1990) began working in collage in 1946, the year he first came to Chicago from Michigan, and he continued in that medium over the course of his thirty-four-year professional career. Remarkably consistent in appearance over the years, his works are tidy, carefully balanced compositions made up of layered scraps of paper form Chicago’s streets. They are often untitled or titled only descriptively; Nickle wrote that he preferred his works to speak for themselves and for him.

Nickle came to Chicago to study with László Moholy-Nagy at the Institute of Design (ID). As he trained in graphic design, he began to make collages; his artwork was shown publicly as early as 1947, when one of his collages was included in the New Realities show in Paris. After he finished his studies at ID, Nickle accepted a teaching position in design there from 1949 to 1952. He subsequently took a job at UIC, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Nickle devoted painstaking attention to the subtle adjustments required to achieve balance in his art, sometimes taking years to complete a single work. Nickle would spread up to fifty collages at a time on the work tables of his studio, each one sandwiched in glass to preserve its arrangement. Moving from one work to another, he would scrutinize and make adjustments in a process he described as being akin to playing simultaneous chess games. A finished work would be signed on the back next to a photograph of the artist (he did not want his signature to disturb the collage), and placed between two pieces of glass in a stainless-steel frame of his own construction.

Nickle exhibited extensively during his career. He had one-person shows at AIX (1978); Cranbrook Academy Museum in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan (1979); and UIC’s Gallery 400 (1994); and numerous solo shows at his long-time gallery, Richard Gray, Chicago, and at the Acquavella Contemporary Art Gallery in New York. He participated in the Museum of Modern Art’s Assemblage (1961) and the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago’s Abstract Art in Chicago (1976). His works are in the collections of several museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the David and Alfred Smart Museum in Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo.


Artner, Alan G. “Nothing Wooden in Nickle Collages at UIC.” Chicago Tribune, Jan. 21, 1994, p. 55.


Robert Nickle

#12, 1962
Collage, 10 x 10 in.

Collage #1, 1957
Collage, 9 3/4 x 9 1/4 in.

Collage #164, 1976
Collage, 12 x 10 in. and 12 x 8 in.

Collage 4284, 1976
Collage, 12 1/2 x 12 1/2 in.

Untitled #2, 1962
Collage, 12 x 11 in.

Untitled Collage, 1959
Collage, 14 x 17 in.

Untitled Collage, 1961
Collage, 9 x 13 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1962
Collage, 12 1/2 x 13 in.

Untitled Collage, 1963
Collage, 12 x 12 in.

Untitled Collage, 1963
Collage, 10 x 11 in.

Untitled Collage, 1964
Collage, 21 x 24 in.

Untitled Collage, 1964
Collage, 13 1/2 x 14 in.

Untitled Collage, 1965
Collage, 10 x 11 in.

Untitled Collage, 1967
Collage, 13 x 18 in.

Untitled Collage, 1968
Collage, 13 x 13 in.

Untitled Collage, 1968-70
Collage, 14 x 16 in.

Untitled Collage, 1968-73
Collage, 8 x 9 in.

Untitled Collage, 1968-73
Collage, 9 1/2 x 10 in.

Untitled Collage, 1968-79
Collage, 12 x 12 in.

Untitled Collage, 1969
Collage, 10 x 10 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1969-73
Collage, 6 1/2 x 6 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1969-73
Collage, 10 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1970-76
Collage, 14 1/2 x 22 in.

Untitled Collage, 1972-76
Collage, 9 x 11 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1973-76
Collage, 10 1/2 x 14 in.

Untitled Collage, 1976
Collage, 13 1/2 x 17 in.

Untitled Collage, 1976-79
Collage, 11 1/2 x 12 in.

Untitled Collage, 1976-79
Collage, 8 1/2 x 11 in.

Untitled Collage, 1977
Collage, 13 x 12 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1977
Collage, 15 1/2 x 18 1/2 in.

Untitled Collage, 1978
Collage, 7 x 10 in.

Untitled Collage, 1978
Collage, 9 x 11 in.

Untitled Collage, 1978-79
Collage, 10 1/2 x 12 in.


Postcard: Robert Nickle Retrospective – Opening Reception


Robert Nickle Retrospective is supported by the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design’s College of Architecture, Art, and Urban Planning.

This exhibition is also partly supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.