The arrival of modern art in the United States has a precise date: 17 February 1913. The Armory Show, which opened on that day in New York, introduced the public to European modernism and the art of Marcel Duchamp, Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, Edvard Munch and Pablo Picasso. Visitors may have been shocked by what confronted them but within 30 years the US had embraced the avant-garde and, in the period following the Second World War, New York superseded Paris as the epicentre of modern art.
The Armory Show divided American artists as well as the public: for some it was a revelation, for others it called for rejection. The unnerving abstraction and intellectual and psychological complexity of European painting also led to a discussion of what constituted a distinctively American art. It was a question given added pertinence by the national soul-searching prompted by the First World War and the Great Depression. One group in particular sought the answer with a return to first principles. For the rural regionalists, the soul of the nation’s art lay in the soul of the nation – in the agricultural heartlands in the Midwest.
The most notable artists of the movement were Grant Wood, whose American Gothic, 1930, would sum up the fustian and weatherboard grift of the American way, and Thomas Hart Benton. For a period in the 1930s, Dale Nichols, an artist now largely forgotten, was numbered alongside them.
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Nichols (1904-95) was born on a grain and livestock farm near David City, Nebraska – Wizard of Oz territory – and the buildings and landscapes of his early years would remain central to his art for the rest of his life. “I feel that an artist paints best what he has been exposed to during his youth,” he said. “I think my memory paintings of my home state may be my only creations that I sign with full confidence.”
His red barn Americana pictures – lucidly composed, simplified, crisply lit – appealed with an unapologetic nostalgia. They showed an antediluvian America where farm work was wholesome not onerous, where harvests were forever bountiful, and where even the snowdrifts that were his speciality are as billowy as duvets. Hardship and want are nowhere to be seen, even in the midst of the Depression. Nichols was the antithesis of John Steinbeck and the photographer Dorothea Lange. In his paintings, God is in his American heaven and all’s well with the world; small wonder they were reproduced on playing cards, jigsaw puzzles, cake tins, calendars and magazine covers.
Nichols developed and refined his style when at 20 he moved to Chicago and briefly attended the Chicago Academy of Art and then the Art Institute of Chicago. He followed this with a stint in Vienna, but in total his student training amounted to little more than seven months. In 1930 he returned to Chicago and spent the next 15 years there pursuing a double career as an advertising artist and a fine art painter – although he saw no distinction between the two.
In 1935 Nichols published a book of his theories, A Philosophy of Esthetics, in which he expounded on his belief that good art was founded on natural rules not high falutin ones. It helped him attain the position of professor of art at the University of Illinois and in 1942 he succeeded Grant Wood as art editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. As an artist, this successful phase of his career was crowned when his work was shown at the New York World’s Fair in 1939 and when, in 1941, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York bought his painting The End of the Hunt and hung it next to a Picasso.
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Nevertheless, the pull of the past remained. As he explained: “The old swimming hole; the warm dusty road we trod barefoot; the thrills of Halloween; snow battles and kid parties. It is perhaps as a subconscious yearning for a return to these happy days that I, after ten years of fighting for a place among the designers of Chicago, have turned to painting farms and the countryside.” The act of painting works such as this, Morning Chore (1972), from the Bone Creek Museum of Agrarian Art in St David City, was a form of transformation and retrieval. Through them, he said, “I felt again the vastness of endless skies, experienced again the penetrating cold of Nebraska winters, lived again as farmers live… in spirit, I am very much a farmer.” In this, there is an echo of DH Lawrence’s “The Piano”: “The glamour/Of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast/Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past.” Nichols found the flood of remembrance never abated.
Whatever his buyers thought, for Nichols these evocative farmsteads were not simple subjects. He was deeply invested in a personal form of mysticism involving symbols, numerology and Freudian psychology, and seemed to believe he had special insights into the workings of the universe. He would claim that “I’ve never painted a realistic painting in my life”. Instead he composed using geometric forms that, when harmoniously shuffled and turned into farm buildings – and with the addition of “colours which relate to preconceived mood” and a light source, usually a low sun (the galaxy, he said, “forms the cosmic ocean of radiant energy on Earth”) – would connect directly with the unconscious.
By the 1940s, regionalism was waning and with it Nichols’s eminence. He began a peripatetic existence, moving first to Arizona where, in 1948, he bought up half the town of Tubac, renovated its adobe buildings and turned the place into an artists’ colony. Georgia O’Keeffe, another artist born in the Midwest, was working in the neighbouring state of New Mexico at the same time. In Tubac, Nichols adopted cowboy dress, and photographs show a figure of Roy Rogers dapperness – an upturned brim on his hat, neckerchief immaculately arranged. However, the project ate up his finances and he moved on after a year, to Texas, New Orleans, Michigan and in 1960 to Guatemala.
There, he married a local woman and supported himself by making rubbings of Mayan sculpture that he sold to both tourists and museums. The pictograms rekindled his mystical side and his studies, which he called Psycho Symbolic Investigation Archaeology, led him to believe he had unlocked a secret Mayan code. He didn’t, however, unlock the secret to a lasting marriage (he wed five times in all) and he separated from his wife and resumed his wanderings.
Even as an older artist Nichols continued to paint red barn pictures indistinguishable from his work of the 1930s. And, for all his philosophising, he had a defined practical method. He painted in oil using watercolour brushes to give added translucence and his notebooks contain aphoristic jottings: “There are only three types of Realist painting: 1: the Silhouette. 2: the Silhouette with a Shadow. 3: the Silhouette with a Shadow and Highlight. These can be combined in one painting but each is a painting in itself,” or, “It is not the detail or realism of a thing that makes it attractive – it is the dramatic lighting.”
His clarity of thought left him at the end with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease. And although he died of prostate cancer in Sedona, Arizona, he remained, defiantly, a Midwesterner: “Dale Nichols did not put Nebraska on the map,” he pronounced. “Nebraska put Dale Nichols on the map.”
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This article appears in the 09 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special