Nicosia’s "naked," 2014
Nicosia’s 2190 #2, 2014, formed from bailing wire and paper, contains a 1/6 version of the space’s wall drawing.
In an extravagant but quiet homecoming, Whitney- and Documenta-exhibited Nic Nicosia was invited into a chamber-like room in one of America’s top private collections. Patricia Mora explores the story of the Dallas native’s commission for “Building 2” and the tale of Nicosia’s 30-year friendship with his remarkable patron: Marguerite Hoffman, a regular on ARTnews’ 200 Top Collectors in the world list, as well as a powerful past board chair of the Dallas Museum of Art.
Describing Nicosia’s work installed in the Tower Room of Hoffman’s private gallery — which enjoys a perfectly situated space behind her residence, denoted within the household simply as Building 2 — puts one in danger of resorting to hyperbole. However, superlatives are on occasion warranted. The setting and the art are as akin to perfect pitch as you’ll find anywhere on our spinning blue globe. And, moreover, they do nothing less than confront ultimate considerations, including the multiple aspects of time and the splendidness of perfectly designed space. The exhibition constellates one of those rare occasions when art is so ideally suited for a particular area that the experience becomes nearly operatic in its ability to move viewers emotionally and intellectually.
While Nicosia has known Hoffman for almost three decades, the idea for this exhibition came about in the fall of 2014. Soon thereafter, the artist began planning its meticulous execution. The year-in-the-making exhibition (which will remain in situ through the end of the summer) encompasses 12 sculptures, two framed drawings, a wall drawing, a box containing a small-scale version of the wall drawing, and 13 photographs. Nicosia’s work in its current setting is a glorious collision of the here-and-now and the eternal. A theophany is how poets would describe the experience, had they been present. Literary figures and philosophers too numerous to mention would acquiesce to an understanding that these extraordinary moments are secular events akin to sacred rituals in every era that are meant to enact — how to put it? — consuming the gods. Think of it as eating light, devouring the infinite at the fringes of the finite and treating it with the same graciousness with which it is offered. In other words, being mindful of it as soulful, light-drenched sustenance.
But there’s more. On the slate path that meanders toward the building that houses Nicosia’s work, I was reminded of a simple linguistic insight that splits the world open like an exercise in aesthetic fission. The Greek word eidenai means “to know,” and it is derived from eiden, “to see.” In other words, images educate. And, beauty accomplishes this feat spectacularly well. While this reaches back thousands of years in terms of etymology, it is a realization thoroughly apparent and alive and well in a backyard not far from Dallas’ central corridors. To be candid, I’m still reeling from discovering a space near places I typically go that rivals the world’s most stunning locales in terms of grace and intelligent gorgeousness. For Houstonians, it can perhaps best be understood as a place as impeccably designed as The Menil Collection. It’s smaller, of course, but as brilliant as Dominique de Menil’s masterpiece museum in terms of attention to detail. And can there be any greater accolade?
Nicosia’s work is set up in a room approximately 24 feet square that is punctuated by windows on both sides of the exterior wall. Beneath the windows, stacked-glass installations are recessed into the floor; these architectural elements effectively mediate the room’s space by flashing a chilly blue that signals both a liquid and infinite element. Thus, the proximity of two of Nicosia’s figures adjacent to the dazzling flash of the glass indicates a looming brush with things supra-temporal and incalculable. One plaster figure faces an outdoor pool and concrete wall punctuated with a huge mountain cedar. The glass, water, wall and sky conspire to create a psychic diorama that calls ultimate things to mind. It’s as elegant as a math problem or physics theorem. It’s so cool that it flips over and heats up inside the viewer’s psyche. Once seen, it catches fire and takes flight, and the same is true of its bookend piece: a crafted figure that is tipping backward and about to fall into yet another “pool” of smooth blue.
The whole show is stark. “Take color away, and you’ve taken away fantasy,” Nicosia has noted. Thus, what is so lovely here is an honesty that nearly shrieks with planes and tangents and rings. A good example is the signature drawing 2190 #5, centered between the two aforementioned windows. Drawn directly on the gallery wall, it’s scratchy, frenetic and operates like a vortex that, again, calls to mind metaphysical issues, albeit with a lack of epiphanic relief. It’s a piece that leaves us lassoed rather than cut loose. And that feeling of constricted tension? It’s given full rein in Nicosia’s figure that exhibits a split torso. It’s the sound of no hands clapping. Instead, it’s a bare-chested confrontation with the hot, white light of existential issues.
Said noggin busters may make us ache or weep, but they are also what give our lives its interior configuration and contemporary landscape. The Romantics, such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, had their countryside and abbeys; we have The Psychic Void, and that is precisely what Nicosia shows us. In other words, he’s giving us back to ourselves via the stark lineaments of a beautifully constructed room that resonates with an up-to-the-minute sensibility. Is it fun? Not exactly. Is it excellent? Most decidedly.
Nicosia is known for his photographs of miniature “rooms” that are small worlds intimating psychological torpor. Hiram Butler, Nicosia’s gallery representation in Houston, has more than two dozen of these pieces. One suite of prints, “I See Light,” is an excursion into terrain that captures and cordons us off in a dreamy world that is sometimes messy and sometimes soothingly symmetrical. One piece seems to emulate a great place to interrogate police suspects, while another gives us wiry rectangles that move us downward into a psychic floor made of a layered moiré pattern. It suggests that questions, quite literally, never stop. Interestingly, there is a host of similar works in the Hoffman Tower Room. Nine such photographs — collectively titled “may-august 2014” — are installed opposite the exterior wall and display hovering houses, a violin, a tangle of wrecked wire that ineffably conveys psychological overload and more. This is a cryptic world of pulse-quickening moments and a voyage into the underbelly of the place of which Jungians are fond.
Additionally, the Hoffman Gallery was designed by Dallas architect Bill Booziotis and completed in 2003, with interiors designed by the late legendary French designer Andrée Putman. She was known for her “radical simplicity,” which is the hallmark of her work at the original boutique hotel, Ian Schrager’s Morgans in New York. Like everything else about this exhibition, her interiors are perfection.
Nicosia’s work is represented in Dallas by Lisa Brown Projects + Editions. Brown sums things up nicely: “Nic is back in Dallas and we’re delighted he’s home.” Nicosia and his wife, Becky, have spent the last 11 years in Santa Fe. He concurs, “I feel as if it’s been a long vacation. I’m ready to get back to Dallas.” Regarding his intent and the meaning behind the installation, however, he reveals little. “I work intuitively — my ideas come from personal emotions, states of mind and life experience,” he says. “This emotion, psychological or intellectual motive has a connection to the work when it’s conceived and then again when it’s realized … I prefer to simply present a piece and allow the audience to complete the story or decipher meaning based on their own life experiences.”
His patron is more forthcoming. “This installation feels like a homecoming of sorts,” says Hoffman. “I have had the pleasure of knowing and working with Nic since the mid-‘80s and feel immensely satisfied to be working with him again at this time in both our lives. The project in the gallery feels like the perfect evolution of Nic’s decades-long exploration of cinematic photography that always carries within it hints of his own life and those of others that he is close to.” Hoffman singles out one special part of Nicosia’s installation: “In the case of the wall drawing that dominates the room, Nic literally made the work over a number of days with the efforts of his own body and a long piece of graphite. It was an incredibly physical and personal process. Watching Nic create the piece added for me another dimension of respect for his commitment to making art that is provocative, beautiful, humorous and poignant.”
As many people know, Nicosia recently finished a battle with cancer and emerged healthy and enthusiastic. I don’t want that experience to define his work. Nor does he. After all, art is not exclusively a form of memoir, although many treat it as such. But, then, they aren’t in Nicosia’s league (for the record, precious few are). For instance, how often do you get to consume light? However, that is what defines great art — and I can’t wait to see more.
Architecture Bill Booziotis. Interior design Andrée Putman.