Though I have known Joe Nicoletti for more than 30 years now and have admired his paintings even longer, I had forgotten, if I ever knew, that he was born in Italy. The occasion of his upcoming retrospective exhibition at the Bates College Museum of Art in Lewiston, Maine, where he has taught since 1981, prompted me to consider more carefully what it that is so beautiful about his art, and the fact that he was born in Italy somehow seems relevant.
Joseph Nicoletti: A Retrospective (June 12 to September 25) features some 60 paintings and drawings, ranging from his most ambitious figurative works to his signature still-life paintings and lovely landscapes of Italy and Maine. All possess a stylish finesse and an embrace of classical beauty that is not always valued in contemporary art.
Nicoletti moved to the United States as a young boy, did his undergraduate work at Queens College and earned his MFA at Yale, where he served as studio assistant to William Bailey, himself a consummate realist who owes a great aesthetic debt to Italy. That debt is the refined manner and sense of order that has also come to define Joe Nicoletti’s work.
At the risk of making too much of Nicoletti’s Italian heritage, I would note that he has directed the summer program at the International School of Painting, Drawing, and Sculpture in Umbria and has painted that ancient, manicured landscape repeatedly. He possesses a Mediterranean soul, one that honors sensual beauty even in an age of fashionable ugliness.
Nicoletti’s paintings are clean and deft and infused with a sense of color that is all his own. You know a Joe Nicoletti painting by his brilliant blues. Sometimes that blue dominates a painting, as in his 1983 “Blue Table,” a serene studio still-life that also showcases his penchant for creating a tension between fully resolved realism and sketchy, unfinished passages. At other times, such as in his powerful 1978 “Studio Self-Portrait,” that blue becomes the picture’s aura, the quality of light casting an unnatural blue-gray hue across the artist, his model, and the spartan interior of the studio.
That Nicoletti blue also pervades the 2004 “Backyard Landscape,” the painting I chose to write about when Joe asked several people to provide wall texts for some of the paintings in the retrospective.
“While Joe’s Italian landscapes have a classical, cultivated, mannered beauty appropriate to the subject and his Italian heritage,” I wrote, “‘Backyard Landscape’ is a much simpler and less mediated evocation of place. It is the view from an upstairs window of his home in the Willard Square neighborhood of South Portland. It is a frank assessment of the suburban reality of his life, looking out across backyards and rooftops to the main shipping channel at the entrance to Portland Harbor and to Little Diamond Island beyond.”
The sky in “Backyard Landscape” is bleached and milky blue, the harbor a deeper shade, but the entire painting, from the shadows falling upon the houses to the dimness of the thickets, is permeated by that cool blueness that lets you know that you are in the presence of Joseph Nicoletti, Maine’s Italian master.
[Bates College Museum of Art, 75 Russell St., Lewiston ME, 207-786-6158]