For miraculous proof of how the old can be new again, art lovers, but especially painters, should make it their business to visit what I think is one of the secret best gallery shows in town by one of the secret best painters of the late-19th–early-20th century: William Nicholson (1872–1949), who is the English Chardin by way of Manet and Whistler. It makes sense that this show, the first of this almost forgotten artist in a New York gallery since 1926, was curated by one of the secret best art critics around, Sanford Schwartz. (Matters are only made more cosmic by gallerist Paul Kasmin being Nicholson’s great-grandson.)
Nicholson’s paintings of landscapes, still lifes, and portraits are all small, yet each is deeply material, intensely structured, saturnine, and spiritual—a journey to a paint-based universe where perception turns palpable and oil paint takes on a gravity of its own. Nicholson’s touch is succulent yet circumspect, his paint handling savory but discriminating, his colors rich, his surfaces sensuous. Everything quivers in a Nicholson: light shifts, reality and hallucination vie for dominance; stillness, solidity, and physicality transmute into something vaguely transcendental. French poet Francis Ponge, writing of Chardin, might have had Nicholson in mind: “Least pretentious still life is a metaphysical landscape. Time flows, and yet nothing ever happens.”
Because of the unexpressionistic, semi-photographic, quasi-banality of the imagery and space in his work, many of Nicholson’s paintings feel as if they could have been painted yesterday. A swash of streaky white in the center of Moorland Pond is on the surface of the painting and in it at the same time. In the Goya-like Cattle and a White Horse at Pasture, paint is laid down in angular strokes and flirts with exquisiteness. Tall Pewter Jug is a physical vision; Napoleon, a painting of a bulldog, is Richter meets Manet and Velázquez. You can feel the weight and muscularity of the dog, sense the sun’s warmth in its fur, the coolness of the slate fireplace against its stubby tail. This show is a trip to the quieter but wilder shores of painting.