Profile June 2010
by Carl Little
Photography Irvin Serrano
A retrospective at Bates College reveals a remarkable aesthetic journey
A visitor to Joseph Nicoletti’s studio in South Portland in early April would have found paintings by the artist spread around the large, well-lit, and otherwise tidy room: a self-portrait propped on a shelf, a still life leaning against a table, a landscape of Umbria situated on a sofa. All of these works were headed for the Bates College Museum of Art for Nicoletti’s forty-year retrospective.
Holding court amid this impromptu display, the artist likened his preparations for the upcoming show to moving. “You have to go through all your stuff,” he explained. “It forces you to think about your past.” The process had been emotional and a little frightening, yet exciting, too. He was revisiting paintings he hadn’t seen in years and finding, to his satisfaction, that some of them stood up to the test of time nicely. “I think the show will be very liberating when it’s up and over,” he mused. “It’ll wrap up something.”
What the roughly sixty-piece exhibition won’t resolve is Nicoletti’s ever-evolving artistic life. Since his training at Queens College in New York City during the late 1960s, the artist has traced a remarkable aesthetic journey that has earned him an enthusiastic following. A master of still life, self-portrait, narrative, and landscape (and combinations thereof), he has consistently wrought changes on this core repertoire while adding to the range of his vision.
Take the portrait of Ava Gardner—“one of the great, great sex symbols of America,” Nicoletti called her—that sits on an easel in his studio. This study in shades of black and gray is from a recent series of paintings based on images from classic film noir—a whole new body of work.
Also of recent vintage are studies of the Italian landscape that Nicoletti made while serving as director of the summer program at the International School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture in Montecastello di Vibio, Italy. The countryside along the Tiber River, the features of local architecture, the allées and glowing fields—he paints them all with a loving eye and perhaps with memories of another, earlier life.
The artist was born in southern Italy, in Puglia province, in 1947. When he was seven, his family immigrated to North America to join relatives who lived in New York City. They spent several years in Toronto before eventually making their way to their intended destination.
Nicoletti attended public schools and then enrolled at Queens College, which turned out to be “the greatest change” he had yet faced in his young life—exposure to a vast new world of knowledge and art. Although he had been drawing since he was a child, he had had no formal training. The outstanding arts faculty at Queens helped confirm his inclinations.
The critic Robert Pincus-Witten and painter Louis Finkelstein taught art history, and a host of seasoned artists presided over the studios, from the classicist Gabriel Laderman to the abstract painter John Ferren (who regaled his students with stories of life in Paris before the war, hobnobbing with Giacometti and “living on tobacco and prunes”). Nicoletti was particularly drawn to Robert Birmelin, a painter known for dynamic figurative studies of urban street scenes. Birmelin often invited his students to his studio and shared his art world experiences. “Painting is a way of scratching an itch,” he once told Nicoletti, who became more and more determined to scratch.
At Yale University, where he earned his MFA degree, Nicoletti studied under William Bailey, a master still-life painter, and served as his teaching assistant. The intense program, which included public critiques, pushed him to new levels. He took part in the popular artistic sport of the time—the ongoing philosophical arguments over whether abstract or representational expression was the higher art form—always siding with the latter while recognizing the essentiality of the former to his aesthetic.
When he graduated in 1972, Nicoletti moved to Maine to take a position as lecturer in art at Bowdoin College. He first lived in the tiny mill town of Pejepscot, learning the ways of rural life, and then moved to Brunswick and later to Portland. He stayed at Bowdoin for eight years before taking a similar position at Bates College, where he still teaches today. He has commuted to Lewiston from his home in South Portland since 1987.
Nicoletti tries to instill in his students the necessity of investing themselves in their work. “How can anyone get anything out of a painting,” he tells them, “if you don’t put something into it?” He is a firm believer in the benefits of a liberal arts education, especially for artists. “In the last analysis, art is about ideas, and ideas for art come from anywhere—science, religion, history. It’s all food for artists.”
In his studio courses, Nicoletti includes an abundance of slides to provide historical and thematic context. As an aficionado of the European masters, he has made pilgrimages to see a particular Piero della Francesca mural in an out-of-the-way Italian monastery and Matthias Grünewald’s Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France.
These encounters energize the artist, sending him back to the studio with new ideas…and old: on Nicoletti’s easel this past April was a painting inspired by that time-honored subject, the Temptation of Saint Anthony. In his signature fashion, the painter will employ personal and art-historical iconography to create something that is at once inventive and hauntingly familiar.
The proof of this painter’s prowess lies in the work on display in Lewiston, from a sensual study of a nude in sanguine pencil to a surreal self-portrait with figs done in oil on panel. “I became an artist to be free,” Nicoletti has stated, and that freedom has kept him fresh and moving forward.
Joseph Nicoletti: A Retrospective opens at the Bates College Museum of Art on June 12 and runs through September 25. He is also featured in Objects of Wonder at the Portland Museum of Art through June 6. Nicoletti is represented by Greenhut Galleries in Portland.