Leaving Traces Behind: Bob Nickas’s Collected Writings
Department of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007-2015 by Bob Nickas
Last year, I attended a touring talk given by critic and curator Bob Nickas in which he showed slides of a hundred paintings, one from each year in the past century. A colleague of mine complained, “This guy is too cocky. What the hell does he know anyway?” I laughed: He was right, but only kind of. Nickas was a little arrogant as he blazed through a century of art in just over an hour. But an off-the-cuff, disaffected manner of talking and writing about art is energizing— it keeps you looking. He’s often called a misfit, and his work is seen as an antidote to stuffy art history and unintelligible critical theory. To me, having seen him draw large crowds of young artists and art history students, he’s not really a misfit. He does, though, seem keen on maintaining that conception: “The art world is such a haven for misfits … because it can be very forgiving of its talent.”
In Nickas’s latest book, The Department of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007-2015 (Karma), he does little to dispute his reputation as an art world maverick: After all, he wrote that “in art, if you’re allowed or encouraged to do something, I always opt out.” Covering his writings from a period of eight years in over 400 pages, he doesn’t drone on about what’s aesthetically worthy of attention or what’s fashionable at the moment. Neither is this book a sampling of his favorite artists: Nickas is just telling the reader about art ad hoc because it’s in our midst and it occurred to him to do it that way. Throughout his oeuvre, Nickas considers art just as we consider other things in life, without hierarchical assumptions of quality that get in the way of curiosity.
The book is organized into four theme-driven sections: Lost & Found; NYC; Repetition and the Politics of Time; Out of the Blue and into the Black; and Supply & Demand. The lattermost section is my favorite: It has a poem composed by Nickas, made up of phrases and lines from a piece of art criticism published in Artforum that engaged in what Nickas calls the old “See How Pretty, See How Smart,” or what he describes as “a foxy, linguistic blurting.” It’s a pretty good reminder to keep it simple. “Why are there prizes in art?” he asks in “Closing the Gap Between Art and Life,” adding “it doesn’t get more medieval than that.” Nickas often deals with the practical implications of producing art today, and he’s recommending that we pay attention right now — meaning that we ought to forget what we’ve been told, do things “the wrong way,” or piss some people off if that’s what it comes to. But at the same time, he’s not calling for some kind of idiotic, random art for the sake of itself, created just to produce more material waste. He can be deprecating and appreciative at the same time: “We really have to stop blaming Andy for the numbing commercialization of art. From the very beginning of his career, Warhol implicated himself within a system where not only is art for sale, but so too is the artist. And so he became the CEO.” I find his analyses of the art world to be necessary (and funny) in such a complex political and social period; they pull no punches about its problems. “Branding wasn’t just for cattle” he writes, “apparently it’s also for sheep,” complaining that the blasé look,of much contemporary art exhausts us all.
Nickas is critically aware of the flaws in collecting and art historicism, and writes that “history usually ends up being written by those who came into the world around the very same time that is subject to examination,” indicating that a close look at the infuriating circumstances of our time might be a good idea; although his comment that “the future is a thing of the past,” hints that maybe the past wasn’t exactly ideal either. That said, there’s an entire section dedicated to New York, a place where “art has always left traces behind, but like everything else in the city, those traces vanish a little more every passing day, until they are completely erased.” With the exception of the appearances of the ‘80s and a dedication to New York, there’s not too much sentimental nostalgia here.
Corrections rings true to free-association, but only in part. One thing of note here is a critical sense of what’s been given too much publicity (such as Jeff Koons) and who’s been left out of the conversation. In “Basquiat and the Collecting of History,” Nickas takes a popular Frank Stella line for a spin, changing it to “what you don’t see isn’t there,” adding that, despite Basquiat’s popularity in contemporary eyes, the MOMA has not yet acquired any of his paintings. He makes it a point to write about other important black artists like Kara Walker and David Hammons — with a notable sense of curiosity, making an example of how to approach contemporary art and culture with imagination and a critical mind. As Nickas has said, “it’s what’s in front of you that’s important.” His interest is in stories and in seeing things, and nothing is prescribed or necessary. Rather, for Nickas, art is about experience on a continuum.
Bob Nickas: The Dept. of Corrections: Collected Writings 2007-2015. (New York: Karma, 2016. 416 pp. ISBN 9781942607199. $25.00)