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Over the last ten years, I have built a collection of over 200 paintings, drawings and sculptures by most of the abstract artists active in America during the 1930s and 1940s. It gives me great pleasure to exhibit this collection for the first time at my alma mater, Wake Forest University.
After attending Wake Forest on an athletic scholarship in the 1960s, I had a mostly undistinguished career as a professional baseball player with the Baltimore Orioles organization. During the baseball off-season, I worked for a New York Stock Exchange firm, eventually becoming manager of their Atlanta office. It soon became apparent that I would have more success in business than in baseball. I entered the real estate business and eventually began building shopping centers. It was during this time that I decided to buy one painting as my personal reward for every shopping center I built.
I first began collecting American Impressionist paintings, but after ten years and some very good paintings, I realized that I had entered that collecting field late. It was an area that had already been heavily collected, a period that had too many artists, and the best paintings were too expensive. As I started to look for a new area in which to collect, I found that the most appealing art to my eye was modern art, and particularly the paintings of the Russian-born Wassily Kandinsky and the early American modernist Marsden Hartley.
Through my involvement with American art, I knew the early American modernists of the teens and twenties -- Georgia O'Keeffe, John Marin, Arthur Dove, Hartley -- and I knew the Abstract Expressionists of the late 1940s and 1950s -- Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell and others. I was curious about what happened in the 1930s, and came to realize that there was a huge hole in the history of American modernism.
My research led me to some of the abstract painters active in the WPA, the American Abstract Artists group in New York, and to the group of artists surrounding what is now the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, but what was in the late 1930s the Museum of Non-Objective Painting. These artists embraced abstraction at a time when there was virtually no support for American abstraction. Modern art was considered something that the European artists did -- American artists were expected to paint American Scene or Social Realist paintings.
When I was looking into this period, I read the biography of the eccentric director of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, Hilla Rebay, who had steered Solomon R. Guggenheim away from old master paintings and into the radically modern art of Kandinsky and others. I came across a quote by Rebay, "Genius does not wait for consensus." I think that quote helped give me the will-power to plunge into this collecting field.
Part of the excitement in building this collection was the recognition that this area was under-appreciated and deserving of greater recognition. In the beginning years of my collecting American abstraction, many of the art dealers from whom I bought Impressionists paintings thought I was crazy. But I was drawn to these bold and innovative abstract paintings, and interested in this more direct experience of space, order, form, symmetry and color. I was also excited about being a pioneer in a new field of collecting.
It has been particularly rewarding for me to move into areas of American abstraction that have been under-recognized, such as the Transcendental Painting Group in New Mexico, the Chicago Bauhaus school, and the many Regional Modernist artists scattered around the country. It has also been rewarding to watch this field gain recognition, with many fine museum and gallery exhibitions further illuminating the importance of these avant-garde artists.
In collecting, I have tried to combine business principles with my love of art. I set some simple rules -- have a plan and execute the plan, stay focused (I try not to buy outside my collecting area), try to buy the best examples of each artist, and be prepared to go with your instinct -- there is nothing wrong with living with what you love.
I have always been private about my collecting, and have not had a desire to put myself and my collection in the public eye. But when Dr. Hearn asked if I would exhibit my collection at Wake Forest, I told him I would. I wanted to show my love for this fine university and my deep gratitude. I not only received a free education, but I also received a great education. My grounding in liberal arts at Wake Forest paved the way for my greater appreciation of the arts and humanities, and I have found this to be a great complement to my business and personal life.
--J. Donald Nichols