Much has been written on the subject of art collecting. A quick look at the latest news in the art world invariably includes gossipy reports of who bought what on whose behalf at the latest auctions, museums flaunting their biggest and best gifts, and longform “thinkpieces” about the myriad ways investment collecting is ruining the art market, the art fairs, our lives. It’s easy to understand this persistent coverage; art collecting and all the attendant psychological afflictions--both those that bring it on and those it brings on--have existed for what we may as well call forever. Chief among these afflictions is desire.
Desire is not the primitive instinct for mere possession. What keeps the primitiveness at bay is discernment, the “eye,” the ability to determine what it is that one must possess. It is no wonder then, that the practice of art collecting (at least as the collectors tell it) is fraught not just with the frenzy of the bidding floor at auction or the anxiety produced by not being invited to the exhibition preview, but with a quiet unease all its own.The relationship between Richard Nickel, a photographer born and raised on Chicago’s West Side, and Miyoko Ito, an American-born Japanese painter still seems, years after their respective deaths, fraught with this unease. The life of the work that survived it, perhaps even more so.
Richard and Miyoko met in the last days of 1970, introduced by a close mutual friend, the architect John Vinci. Richard’s primary vocation was as an architectural photographer, retained by firms throughout Chicago to document works-in-progress and prospective buildings sites, while on his own time documenting the steady demise of the work of famed American architect Louis Sullivan. Miyoko, meanwhile, was a painter whose life had taken her from Berkeley to Yokohama to Chicago, with a stint in an internment camp and a hasty marriage in between. She met Vinci when she was invited to hang a small series of her abstractions in the conference rooms of the architecture firm at which he was then employed, Brenner Danforth Rockwell. The photographer, artist, and architect ran in separate but heavily intersecting social circles, consorting with a number of the same clients, colleagues, and friends.
The majority of the surviving correspondence between Richard and Miyoko dates from the Spring of 1971. A topic of frequent discussion was the literary works of French author Marguerite Duras. This dialogue begins with a letter from Miyoko which says:
“I picked up a Marguerite Duras, about a murderess who is so united as one with her garden. I cannot get over how the passages are--they turned me to my own aloneness as a child in my grandmother’s kitchen garden in Japan. How I used to lay flat and still on the ground, feeling my cheek pressing against the comforting earth as if it was my only protection.”
In response, Richard made Xerox copies of pages 26 and 27 of Duras’ The Square, which contain a thorough description of a public garden containing a zoo by the sea, and an encounter both intimate and existential that takes place therein at dusk. He sent them to Miyoko, who in turn responded:
“Thanks, Rich, for the marvelous pages. I am rereading the story of The Square. As for my affinity with the other Duras garden, I cannot alas recall the title(1). Had passed on the Penguin paperback, wish I had it back, now that 1 you have taken once again into feeling the Duras way.”
It is this affinity for Duras’ beloved seaside gardens which lead to an invitation on Richard’s part to accompany him sailing, written on the back of a photograph of his boat moored in Burnham Harbor. He was an amateur sailor, and at the time of the invitation, had recently acquired his second sailboat.
The first had been a small wooden craft known alternately as Vato (the name it bore when Richard purchased it) and--though it was never officially rechristened--as Adrienne, in honor of his ex-wife. The new boat was a larger fiberglass vessel called Garden City. Richard was notorious among friends for his stringent policies on board, which began with the issuance of a set of “boat rules” which included a dress code, by mail, in the days following an invitation to come sailing. He was equally notorious for his guileless bewilderment at the fact he was often unable to find sailing companions. Even Miyoko initially declined, writing, “To the portrait of John’s house I add the portrait of your boat in the dusk. I don’t suppose I could come sailing...all boats make me think of miserable Celine--his dreams embodied in sailing ships.”
In the end Richard prevailed upon her, and shortly thereafter Miyoko enclosed a note with a loaned copy of yet another Duras novel which reads:
“I have not ever sailed to witness a dusk and dawn in a boat such as yours. To me minimal art more often remains of minimal interest. Such is not the case with the more recent Duras. I pass it on to your possible interest. Afraid to ask my clumsiness could repeat the grace of Garden City? Yours in the season of sailing, Miyo.”
The intensity of their shared interests and increasingly frequent jaunts as sailing companions led to a rumoured romantic dalliance, despite Miyoko still being otherwise married.
Around this time, Miyoko had a solo exhibition open at the Hyde Park Art Center on Chicago’s South Side. A surviving checklist from the exhibition shows it was a survey of thirty works in total, a retrospective selection of paintings spanning her career up to that point. Richard took an interest in purchasing one of the newer pieces on view, Tabled Landscape, though some degree of confusion concerning pricing and availability of the work ensued. To this initial error Miyoko responded, “Fortunate for me that you have/had kept the souvenir sheet from the show. This time I made a copy on cardboard as that it will not again slip under in the stormy seas of my desktop.” The note implies their relationship was still on at least friendly terms, ending with a rather gossipy reference to their friend John Vinci and notorious Art Institute curator James Speyer, saying, “It seems to me that John left for Europe with a small note of discord--excessive Speyer-ism, perhaps? Yours, Miyo.”
Richard finalized his purchase in the last days of the exhibition. He thereafter wrote to Dan Wells, then the art critic for the Chicago Tribune, with a request for a copy of the photograph which had run alongside a review of the exhibition in the newspaper. Richard noted, “I always have admired Miyo’s work, and at this time succumbed and bought one. I would like the photo as a memento of the exhibit and my first purchase of her art.”
When Richard made arrangements to pick up the work, a conflict arose regarding the amount due and to whom it needed to be paid. A carbon copy of a check made out to the Hyde Park Art Center shows Richard remitted a deposit of $150 on what was quoted as being a $750 purchase on March 13, 1970. A purchaser’s receipt from a cashier’s check written on the same day, however, shows he directly paid Miyoko an additional $270.00. A postscript to a note she wrote him on March 15th ends, “Thank you for the peculiar amount of $270.00” followed by a note on March 18th that reads, “As I explained on the telephone, please still give the Art Center it’s due payment...I shall then be obliged to make it less $100.00 on the remainder.” This cold tone softens once again at the end of the note, which reads, “Thinking of you again and once more thanking you for your encouragement.” This is the last letter on record between the two.
Richard received Tabled Landscape at close of show. It hung in a partially renovated bakery at 1810 Cortland Street, a building which Richard had purchased the previous year, and was at work converting to an apartment and photography studio. It remained there until his sudden death the following year, in April of 1972 at the age of 43, when a partially demolished building collapsed while he was at work inside. A month passed, filled with search parties, false reports, and legal actions before his body was recovered, and his affairs put in order.
Though Richard and Miyoko had, by all accounts, lost touch, and whatever romance there may have been between them had ended long before his life, something of their relationship was inevitably preserved by the painting Richard had purchased. Its power lies not in its content (though it radiates the energy one associates with Miyoko’s best work), or its context in the artist’s oeuvre, but by the circumstances of its acquisition. Its sale marked the relational transition from artist and artist to artist and collector. A shift in dynamic significant enough, by all outward appearances, to signal an end to all other facets of the relationship that preceded it.
Miyoko remained in Chicago until 1983, when at the age of 65 she suffered a cardiac event, the complications of which claimed her life. Though her life ended abruptly, her notoriety only rose. A long and contentious legal battle ensued between her widower, Harry Ichiyasu, and the art dealer Ken Walker (née Kenneth Hodorowski), another rumoured lover of Miyoko’s. The lawsuit was over the alleged gifts the artist had made to Walker prior to her death, of several significant works of art from her personal collection; these included etchings by Pablo Picasso and Giorgio Morandi, and an African fetish sculpture of a dog. The incident captivated the attention of the art world and the general press alike in the Summer of 1986. Though the courts ruled in favor of Walker, later that year he committed an act of self-immolation on the shore of Lake Michigan.
That this drastic and gruesome gesture was precipitated by the acquisition of art works--legal or otherwise--is cause enough to examine what gravity there is in the act of collecting. The desire to own these works seemed to eclipse the mere monetary value of them as objects, eclipsed the sentimental value of the gift of the artist or lover. Yet the works themselves retained the power to cause ruination by mere virtue of possession.
What became of these works is unknown. There is no record to indicate their sale, no heir apparent who might have inherited them. For all the trouble, both personal and legal, that these works of art brought into the lives of those who owned them, those who stole or made gifts of them, they cannot now, as a matter of record, be so much as located.
The same cannot be said of Tabled Landscape. In the years after Richard’s death, the painting changed hands several times. Though many of Richard’s possessions, both personal and professional, were dispersed to family, museums, and institutional archives, the painting by Miyoko was inherited by Carol Sutter, to whom Richard had been engaged to marry at the time of his death. When Sutter herself was killed just a few years later in a car accident, the painting was again inherited, this time by Sutter’s cousin, who had been a colleague of Richard’s, and, incidentally, a tenant in an apartment building owned by John Vinci. There the work was hung in the interstitial space of a stairwell. The painting remains, to this day, property of a private collection. It has never again been exhibited.
1 Author’s note: the book in question is L'Amante Anglaise.