Don Nice 1932–2019
Don Nice was born in 1932 in Vasalia, California. He grew up on a ranch in Woodlake, California, near Sequoia National Park. Enamored with the outdoors and the rugged landscape, he loved to draw animals and his rural surroundings. Nice was a star athlete in high school and went attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship to study art and teaching. After graduation, he taught art at various high schools and colleges around Los Angeles and he worked as an illustrator while enlisted in the army. Upon his discharge from the army in 1957, Nice traveled throughout Europe and focused on painting. He spent most of his time in Florence and during a trip to Salzburg, he studied with Oskar Kokoschka. After seeing the exhibition The New American Painting in Paris, which included the work of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, Nice decided that the most vital art was being created in New York and he moved back to the United States in 1959 with his new wife, an American he had met in Paris. He taught at the Minneapolis School of Art and in 1962 he entered Yale’s graduate program in painting.
After Yale, Nice settled in New York but was having a difficult time finding his own voice among the prevailing tide of Abstract Expressionism. He was drawn to figuration and wanted to approach realism in a contemporary mode. In 1963, he began working in the style he is most recognized for—oversized still lifes of American cultural motifs, rendered flat against a white background. Ads and food labels initially filled his canvases, but Nice eventually expanded his visual language to include fruit, vegetables, animals and other markers of the natural world, depicted with an utter clarity that elevated the objects to a near-hallowed presence, making the specific universal.
In 1969, Nice and his family moved to the Hudson Valley, where the bountiful natural resources further inspired the trajectory of his work. Animals and bucolic landscapes became mixed with icons of popular American culture, creating altar-like paintings in tribute to the American experience that never went so-far as to be nostalgic or preening. Nice’s paintings inspire in the viewer a reverential act of observation, as that is the spirit with which he creates them.
Nice was an artist-in-residence at Dartmouth University beginning in 1982, a longtime professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York and in 2018 he received The Lee Krasner Award recognizing his life’s achievements in the arts. His work is represented in prestigious collections including the Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art and the Walker Art Center. He lived and worked in Garrison, New York up until his death in 2019. Nice leaves behind a precise and expressive body of work that blends the devotional American spirit of James Audubon and the Hudson River School with the prosaic levity of Pop Art. In his paintings, the creations of human and nature are inextricably connected, both in the spiritual and physical plane—a sentiment that continues to grow in urgency.