“There is no work which does not have its sequel or its debut in other arts” Gilles Deleuse commented in a recent issue of Cahiers du Cinema. “ . . All works become grafted together in a system of relays.” The wide spectrum of Nicola’s activities in art is just such a system. Each stage in the cycle of her diverse intervention shows the intention of pushing her art into the very arms of the public, to rouse the viewer out of his passive role as cultural consumer and voyeur, to make of him an active participant with the artist in completing and fulfilling the work of art. That work has taken many forms: from painting, to street sculpture events, to works which offer an open invitation for use in forms as common as furniture, and today film, the ultimate projection of the art image in our culture. But let us begin at the first relay of Nicola’s art: North Africa..
“My father worked for the French government in Morocco. He also trained horses. Each morning I would watch three thousand horses herded by naked riders going down to bathe in the sea..” In the spring the king of Morocco came with his harem and entourage to camp near their estate. The magic of North Africa’s landscape, which had inspired artists from Delacroix to Matisse, inspired her at an early age to begin to draw and paint. “I was always making drawings. But my father never liked the idea of his daughter becoming an artist. He wanted me to be an architect.” After the end of World War II, he moved his family back to Europe, first to Germany, and then home to France. “It was a jolt, speaking Arabic and living in an enchanted world one day, and suddenly finding oneself in Germany the next. I had never seen snow before. Just after the war, Germany was like a Fassbinder movie: lines of people waiting to buy food. And waiting to see films, too.”
In France at last, Nicola came to know the countryside around Charleville, a town full of memories of Arthur Rimbaud. “At sixteen I was very involved with the landscape, and very caught up in Rimbaud. Finally I decided that I was going to Paris. So I told my father yes, I will be an architect, and I entered my name in the architecture department of the Ecole des beaux arts. I never went to classes. Instead, I took sculpture, painting, life drawing. One of my teachers, Souverbie, was a great friend of Picasso, and he taught me a great deal about the human figure. Only today do I realize the big influence he had on me. When my father realized what I was doing, he was very angry and didn’t want to support me anymore. But I got a scholarship and never looked back.”
It was the end of the Existentialist period in Paris. “I studied like crazy and spent my life dancing in the clubs at the same time. I don’t think I ever slept.” Working in a large studio, the artist threw herself into painting gigantic abstract canvases. “At the same time I went on drawing the human body. Then I made a collage of a huge body constructed from thousands of parking tickets I was getting. After the artist Raymond Hains visited my studio and saw the collage, he took me to meet Pierre Restany at a bar called the Rosebud, in Montparnasse.”
Nouveau Réalisme: Galerie G, Iris Clert, Daniel Spoerri, Hains, Restany, Yves Klein on the terrace of La Coupole. . . “I was fascinated by their intelligence and humor. But, because I was so young, they frightened me at the same time.”
The next stage in the artist’s development came when she left the hothouse atmosphere of Montparnasse for a trip to the more relaxed Spanish beach resort, Ibiza. “At the time I was friends with people like the Argentinian writer and cartoonist Copi, and Martine Barrat, a very good photographer. And I just met for the first time Alberto Greco.” Once in Ibiza, Greco’s intense, full speed Socratic dialogue with the young artist called into question her approach to art; he seemed to draw from within her new perspectives, new vistas. “The encounters you have at that age can create a revolution. Alberto was a phenomenon I’ve never met anyone like him, so intelligent, so funny, always asking me, ‘How can you paint?’ People constantly begged him for work. He’d sign the license plate of car for them instead. he was a life-actor, his life was his art. Once he promised a very chic gallery in Faubourg St. Honoré to show a living sculpture. He arrived at the opening with a glass cage containing mice and a piece of cheese.” In Ibiza, Greco pushed Nicola to talk about her work, something her shyness hampered before.”’Why did you paint that,’ he would ask me. Why, why why. if you have a good friend like that you never need a psychiatrist.”
The outcome of Ibiza was a whole new dynamic which led away from painting– “I want to oblige people to participate” –and it took the form of what the artist terms pénétrables: loosely hanging canvas rectangles from which protruded body parts (head, arms, legs, etc.,) like the improbable encounter of antarctic explorers and officials of the Spanish Inquisition, encouraging the viewer to go inside, try on the form like a new coat, a borrowed skin. To enter the works of art.
“It had all started with Greco. We were Iying on the beach with another friend. It was like a spiritual experience, as if we had the same skin.” The pénétrables often evoke a humorous response in people, a reaction to their playful aspect. Yet one Italian critic thought he saw an elegiac element. “Perhaps there is a tragic aspect, too:” says the artist. If Nicola had fallen in Iove at an early age with Arthur Rimbaud, she had also been reading Franz Kafka.
Pierre Restany, in a 1968 essay on these works, referred to their primal impact as a “penetration of the interior, return to the womb, penis and vulva, finger and glove: we go back to the very source of life. . .” Paint on canvas was a closed case for Nicola. When Ellen Stuart, the American theater Impresario, went to the Paris Biennial and saw the artist’s large plastic cylinders burned by blowtorch, she invited her to show at La Mama Theater in New York.
Nicola arrived in New York at the zenith of Pop, 1966. “I had a great experience at La Mama. New York has never excited me more. Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, the atmosphere of protest and marches. Emmett Williams and Robert Filliou were in town, Carolee Scheeman was making happening parties in her place with artists such as Claes Oldenburg and Robert Rauschenberg . . . I thought that all America was like this.” The artist also discovered a new material, the hallmark of the 60’s: vinyl.
Woodstock, pop music’s apotheosis. had taken place under a downpour of rain. So when the rock festival on the Isle of Wight was announced, Nicola fashioned an enormous coat, large enough to contain several people linked together like a volunteer chaingang. “I’ve always been involved with music. People get lost at every concert, so I said I’d make one coat for all of us.” It never rained on the Wight Festival, but the red communal coat appeared on stage before a crowd of half a million.
During more than a decade of filmmaking, Nicola has directed several films. “Making a movie is an adventure in working with people. I think it began with my coat project,“ which she documented in an early film. Among her moving pictures are a 1979 documentary on Eva Forest, a Spanish woman jailed under the Franco regime, a rock film on the group Bad Brains, filmed in 1980, and a profile on Abbie Hoffman, which was acquired by the Beaubourg Museum in Paris. One of her most ambitious ventures recruited such actors as Terry Thomas, Lola Goas, and Pierral, who appeared in several films by Jean Cocteau.
The work of Nicola is grafted together in just such a system of relays as Deleuse spoke of: paintings, pénétrables, public interventions taking place in sites from museums to city streets, art furniture, and documentary film: every station in her progression announces the desire to involve the art work with the real world.
“Nicola’s imagery borrows nothing from the folklore of modern nature,” wrote Pierre Restany. “She doesn’t build up any imaginary structure. She cuts into the living flesh of our senses. She invites us to live, as she does, to the quick.”
“Invitation Au Voyage: A Profile of Nicola and her Art”
by Alan Jones, NYC 1986