Patricia Nix is a dedicated and independent artist, a fourth generation Texan whose family moved to Texas from Charleston after the Civil War. In 1983, Nix settled in New York. Already an established painter in her home state, she was primarily involved with creating painted box constructions which belonged to the Surrealist tradition.
Paradoxical and personal, these poetic constructions had a slow evolution.' Nix was an only
child whose precocity was recognized early.
She grew up in El Paso, Texas, in an isolated milieu dominated by her mother and grandparents. Instinctively, she began to build her own world. “I was making box constructions when I was two or three years old. When I was three, my mother said I made a doll house from pieces of cardboard. I used bits of cloth and broken sticks to make pieces of furniture." This early object is echoed in the 1982 construction, Magico.
“I continued to make these things, although at that time I didn't think of them as art."
Lamesa, a farming and ranching town in northern Texas near Midland, became her home when she moved there as a newly-wed upon graduating from high school. She began painting at the age of eleven. Her art was clearly an outlet as she raised three children, the eldest of whom, her only daughter, was, prophetically, named Pandora. Nix's artistic course was one of self-education. She attended art classes in New Mexico and visited the artist's colony in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, where she met the teacher, Fred Samuleson. As she later would with other artists, Nix invited Samuleson to lead an informal class in Lamesa.
In 1972, she enrolled at the Art Students League in New York City and later completed the requirements for graduation University in one year. For more than a decade she commuted at irregular intervals between Lamesa and New York. An avid reader from childhood , she also turned to books about art. Reading Creative Painting and Drawing by Anthony Toney proved especially important to Nix.Conversations with the author led her,in 1976, to enroll in the New School for Social Research in Manhattan. In addition to Toney, Dord, Fitz, Vaclav Vytlacil and Elaine de Kooning were especially influential teachers.
A 1976 course with Toney was crucial to Nix’s artistic development. While working with him produced a series of paintings on circus themes, most notable of which was Fat Lady. Her interest in this Boteroesque theme would later result in an important construction, Fat Girl (plate 1). Thirty two of her expressionistic, painterly canvases, many with collaged elements, together with two boxes, were exhibited the following year in a solo show at the Kolodny Gallery in New York City. "Coming to New York was a revelation," she notes. At Rizzoli's on Fifth Avenue, a copy of the Guggenheim Museum's Joseph Cornell catalogue shocked her into discovering that "what I was doing naturally was art. ... Quickly the boxes took over everything."
The boxes, as Nix explained to a Lamesa reporter in 1981, are “just like painting except that you use real objects instead of recreating them in oil. They're harder to do than paintings. You keep looking at them and they evolve over longer periods, even years. I've been known to change them on gallery walls.”
In the same interview, Nix identified herself as a compulsive junk collector, with studio racks, drawers and bins crammed with baby blocks, marbles, dolls, fabrics, cut-outs, and beads. Today, in her studio in New York, these objects, now carefully classified, are similarly stockpiled.
By 1981 Nix was beginning to identify certain objects and symbols that appeared and reappeared in her work. At times, she thought, the boxes almost created themselves without conscious effort on her part.
In fact, although the gathering of components was gradual and often governed by availability or whim, the boxes were occasionally assembled deliberately, with the artist well aware of the compositional and metaphorical relationships. Although the words Surrealism and Dadaism are often used when describing her boxes, Nix's work is not strictly Dada - for that avant-garde movement that arose during World War I aimed to produce works "arranged according to the laws of chance."
Some Nix pieces, like Nativity, relate to works such as Dada Object, a gilt-edged wooden box containing silk and wool forms, c. 1918-19, by Jean Arp and Sophie Tauber-Arp, which are characteristic of this revolutionary movement that flourished in Europe following the outbreak of World War I.
Surrealism, which had supplanted Dada by 1924, continues to provide many clues to the genesis of Nix's constructions. As defined by poet Andre Breton, leader of the movement, Surrealism was "pure psychoautomatism, by which one intends to express... the real functioning of the mind."
It is not surprising that one of the late collages by Joseph Cornell, who was Nix's spiritual mentor, derives from Man Ray's noted photograph of Breton. Nix's own use of the noted heroic images can be seen for example, in the series entitled Times and Places.
Just as Nix can be seen as an heir to Cornell, she belongs, too, among the list of women of Surrealism who included, in the founding generation, Jacquline Lamba Breton, Remedios Varo, Leonore Fini, and Meret Oppenheim. Nix is well aware that “a lot of the boxes have very female things in them.
Cynthia Jaffe McCabe was the Curator of Exhibitions at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C. through 1986.
All quotations are from an interview between Patricia Nix and the author on December 3, 1985.