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Saturday, September 15, 2012

What is fair and foul in the art world.Tim Nichols Boston Artist

-->Reprinted on Berkshire Fine Arts with some interesting comments not printed here.
Tim Nichols(work from around 2007)
My friend Addison recently wondered if we both had the tendency to churn the same ideas over and over in our blogs. He chides his readers for not appreciating how to enjoy the freedom they have been bequeathed as artists by spending too much time trying to figure out where they fit into the art scene. The art culture does a good job uniting buyers, critics, galleries and museums to convince us of a status quo and we are hard wired to bow down to authority whatever it may be at any given time. I have tried in my blogs to jump out of the noise of contemporary art as well by imagining an ideal art scene where artists speak to each other from across generations and participate in a kind of cosmic art dance. Its only premise is that the past has a lot to teach and any movement forward has to arise out of a dialogue with the past. I suspect that Addison would find that too much of a constraint. But unlike me he can make the claim that he once had a niche within the scene in the 80’s with shows at blue chip New York galleries. If he says ignore the scene and be free he knows what kind of stranglehold that world can place on one’s creativity, as his novel so passionately stated in its title:” Life and Art, in that order.” For me there was nothing to lose as I had an inordinate talent for always going in the opposite direction of any group that claimed to be the center of the universe, such as going to Paris after my MFA at Yale when the scene was clearly in New York. I have always just plodded along talking to my artistic ghosts.

So some artists are picked out of a hat or so it seems to strut on the scene. Their work is shown regularly, collected and written about. Of life’s unfairness we should be constantly reminded. It is a subject of a few of Addison’s blogs. His answer: get over it. There is one and only one reason we should not dwell on it: it is bad for your health. Nietzsche devoted a great deal of ink to his analysis of “ressentiment”. Dionysian that he was, He too wanted people to be free to create not weighed down by anger at the system. He preached Health.

In a private collection purchased in the 90's

Tim Nichols, Boston painter, legendary teacher at the Museum School and friend, who died several years ago in his late 70’s, comes to mind as someone who struggled for recognition and was never granted it. He was someone who cared deeply about a lot of things. Maybe because he was already a practicing Harvard and Columbia trained corporate lawyer when he decided to pursue painting he knew that art comes from within, and is in conflict with the veneer of the world of commerce. Unlike the contemporary content providers that litter Newbury Street and SOWA he was incapable of giving the galleries what they wanted. Boston has always suffered from a sense of its own history and the current choices in the galleries run the gamut from Boston Expressionist schmaltz to John Singer Sargent wannabees with a good deal of neutered art objects that go well over the divans of Boston’s moneyed class...I gave him a show at the Art Institute of Boston in the early 90’s and to my mind he was the best painter in Boston. It was work informed by abstract expressionism, which was banned by the Boston expressionists as too French, but he didn’t pursue its purely energetic goals. In that sense there was always something indigestible about his work. Each painting seemed to deal with some inner vision tangled in the web of day to day life. The only artist I can think of who resembles him is John Walker. He went off to work each day like someone going into battle. There were wars to be won, wrongs to be righted. I recall an all night bout of drinking that ended with a discourse on the misery of the lives of those in the ghetto that he knew his art could not help. He brought this same kind of proselytizing to his teaching and in turn did attract admirers such as Jim Falck, an artist who abandoned a career as chief landscape architect for the MDC late in life to become an artist.

We first met at the Bromfield Gallery, a coop gallery, in Boston where I was briefly a member in the late 70’s and again in the mid nineties. He was living with the Chicago based still life painter Catherine Maize, whom I had met at Yale / Norfolk in 1970. He remained a committed member of the gallery until he died. Exhibiting in a coop gallery provided him a self-image as outsider, free from the art industry and allied with the community of artists. Since I was out of touch with him in later years I don’t know what kind of success he had there .The last time I heard about him was when we were included in Addison Parks” Severed Ear “show at Crieger Dane. There was some chatter about how he had someone deliver the work for him while he waited outdoors on Newbury St
.He did not want set foot in a commercial gallery. He did not come to the opening.

The only images I have of his work are several that exist on a site” Slow Art”. They are among his last work. They seem serene not tormented and not typical of the work I recall from the 90’s. When I learned belatedly of his death I tried to introduce his work to Chawky Frenn who was writing at the time a two-volume work on Boston Artists for inclusion in the series. I did succeed through the dean at The Museum School in contacting is children by email but nothing came of it. It is unfortunate. I would like to think that future historians will stumble across his work and acknowledge its superiority.

Tim Nichols(around 2007)
Nichols stayed committed to being an artist in Boston. He stayed loyal to his coop and taught vigorously until his retirement. As far as being continuously out of sync with Boston’s artistic seasons I suspect that he didn’t heed Parks’ advice: He didn’t get over it. Unlike current artists who favor antidepressants he was more in the style of Bukowski when it came to self-medication.

Tim was always on the ramparts, trying to overcome what he saw as the inherent unfairness of a system where people go about their roles in the art establishment like somnambulists. Art has become corporate and the artists are just content providers. Art had saved him from a life as a corporate lawyer and he spent the rest of his life spreading the word of art’s sacred content, that a painting is a poem where as Wallace Stevens said we perceive “ghostlier demarcations keener sounds”.

follow up blog


  1. Dear Martin,
    I love the writing, really speaks strongly.
    Good to Boston as well.

    Aithan Shapira, PhD


  2. Jeffrey Hull 10:16pm Sep 15
    I too was at the Bromfield and fondly remember Tim mentoring the younger members .If interested, I have the history of the gallery with lots of pictures as written Paul Laffoley.

  3. These words from Addison Parks could apply to Tim:

    I recently watched Roman Polanski's version of Dicken's Oliver Twist. It is a very dark but subtle story of becoming. The greatest force at work shaping the life of Oliver Twist would seem to be fortune. Most often misfortune. In our own lives it is difficult for us to see this aspect of our becoming at work. It is a matter of inclination, perhaps, to see the trajectory of our becoming in terms of fortune. Good or bad. Some of us prefer to ignore it or at least look the other way. It is too painful and out of our control. Certainly this is the way Oliver behaved. He may have been a sad little boy, but he never the less he kept going, and ultimately found the strength to walk the 70 miles to London to escape his tormentors.

  4. An excerpt from a reply from Addison on his blog:

    My great friend Martin Mugar just wrote a blog post about not letting the fickle and begrudging art world get to artists. He gave me a little shout out for suggesting that it is about keeping one's good health. A healthy attitude about what is important, about what you can and cannot control. I would agree, but I would add that it is not just about health, but about love: remembering the love that brought you to art in the first place, remembering that art is an act of appreciation, love, that it is the result of what we care about, love. When you have art, the love of art, you are never alone.

  5. I was one time a student of his. I remember him as a cantankerous very ill mannered and demanding man who yelled a lot. Especially at me. I only attended his class because I knew he was different than the other painters. But, my fondness for drawing pictures and the classics were absolutely not tolerated by him, later he shook my hand. I remember him chewing me out for not making my roommate go to his class, as if it were my job. I couldnt even make him do anything! I remember when another teacher there i talked to named david told me he was dying and often angry. and how the school dean of students told me that they often had to deal with him. Well, they all often had to deal with me, because tim had met his match as an outsider. I never fit in in the boston art world and now i look and im not surprised. I dont follow rules, and I found their rules even at the time not digestible. There was a time when i would have years ago appreciated an abstract painting class like his much more, only now do i really think of it. I was kind of just taking his class because i wasnt interested in abstract art, as a floater. But he still shook my hand and congratulated me and he indeed knew that I was still using archaic greco-egyptian themes like today. i actually didnt like his class or any other class there but still i sympathized with him, and to this day i sometimes work in a style I would have also have used in that class. only now do i realize his insistance upon not using an image had much parallel with hofmann's not refusal to criticize something unless the subject was there, and etc. I still work from photos though, mostly also my mind. I painted a verson of the doryphoros by polyclitus with overalls on, and i remember he liked it and while my partner in crime roommate dan was painting a large blue hippopotamus attacking a city, with a ufo and he just looked and laughed in disapproval and said "what is it with you and the ufos." to me art was everything, not this thing that only abstract and conceptual artists could do, and its subjects werent limited. oh well....more's the pitty, I wish they had made me important, that school. but, no. I was told by their dean "we hold a very low opinion of the 'formal qualities of painting.'" and....thats all i have to say about it now.

  6. Thanks for your comments.
    I am copying an exchange that took place on Berkshire Fine Arts where this article was published.I have gotten so many different takes on Nichols.The Museum School is a place I would not have liked teaching at.What about Lou Gippetti my classmate from Yale.He was different from the usual hipster.
    From "Martin Mugar"
    09-18-2012, 10:41 am
    It is surely my take on him based on what knowledge I had of his background.He did have connections.He told me a classmate at Harvard who became the president of some midwestern u made Tim head of the art department although he was only a recent Indiana U grad.I heard from C.Maize in response to this article,who lived with him and she was surprised by my take on Tim.Private vs public persona were very different. My article is really in the end just a meditation on the notion of a scene and how we play our role in it.He did construct a public persona within the Boston scene.It is easier to talk about than his private one.
    From "Mark Favermann"
    09-18-2012, 09:45 am
    This is a very personal account, Martin. Here was someone who made money as a corporate lawyer who had the wherewithall to do what he wanted, to paint. And he had the connections to get a long-term job and be paid to teach painting. His outsiderness was part of his focused personality and character. There are literally hundreds if not thousands of us who create art in personal obscurity and don't get as far as Tim got. Sometimes it is just better to be lucky (connected) than good. For good or bad, that is the way of the art world.

  7. Here is a great comment from one of his students:JIm Falck:

    "was nichols and insider..........never ........... he was a disruptive man not pandering to anyone who
    he felt could not take his being.....the pathetic person who thought he was an insider did not have
    a clue what is inside and out...........nichols ,in his spirit, must have felt so ignored even in his very
    proud state of being not to have been exhibited at the nielson gallery or others on newbury street
    when far less complex and courageous artists as tim were having the song of the day.....tim was never
    bought;.........always thought his art was before him......stood by it.......was not wanting to be praised.....
    and i hope in this world of artful shame he will see the day when some one finds his being an art
    as a representation of his frustration and beauty so splendidly presented in his painting........."

    1. Jim passed away last October. He is sorely missed.

  8. I just read a review on the "Painter's Table" of a protege of Guston , who has been showing at a one of several Newbury st Gallery since the 80's. Like many people who studied with Guston he picked up on his late narrative work, which Guston was doing during his stint at BU. So much of Guston's late work benefitted from the understanding of paint that he acquired while he did his so-called abstract impressionism.This artist, who showed for years at Nielsen before moving to the the Alpha gallery,when Nielsen closed, abandoned his story telling and is now floundering around with student- quality explorations of paint to no purpose.To think of Nichols, who always kept paint and narrative close together, never had a gallery, is still shocking to me as it is for JIm Falck.

  9. I'm very happy to own two of his works both are hanging in our home and I still find the work inspiring.

  10. Great to hear that his work is out there and still inspiring!!

  11. I met Tim at the evening school at SMFA in 1976. He was my introduction to what the process of making art could be, and I have never forgotten what he taught by personal example, in the seriousness and almost anxious concern he brought to all of the values and lessons he tried to share. I worked with him for a couple of years at the Museum School and in a summer program he put together, drawing and critique. No one teacher to this day has given me more than he did, in the most important lesson, that the value of art is in the process of making.

    1. Your comments recall those of Jim Falck who was equally inspired by his teaching.Glad you stumbled across this blog.

  12. Martin thank you for a beautiful tribute to Tim.
    When I was in the MFA program in painting at Mass Art 1998-2000, I contacted Tim whose work I had seen at the Bromfield Gallery and he invited me to hang out in his class anytime and I did a few times and I just wanted to breathe the vibe of this guy. His work was so huge for me. he was like Socrates in the class letting students work on the floor on a long roll of paper and they could paint draw paint over add subtract to this huge abstract floor work maybe 20 or 30 feet long and I had never seen anything like it and a radio was playing maybe jazz. I am amazed Tim has no internet presence and his work is not online. I wonder where his work is and would someone photograph it and put it online. I would post his work on my fb or instagram accounts or make one and its not difficult these days. He invited me to get in there and go to work with the others on the paper on the floor but thanked him just wanted to watch.
    People were doing their own work and they could jump in or not on the floor piece so it was like an optional experiment going on to test the waters, like pitchers warming up in the bull pen.
    I never saw him again but he has stayed with me for decades the vibe, the jazz of this guy, the freedom. I was lucky to have that experience. Let's get his work online. thank you, Jay Clifford