Don Nice, Painter of Pop Art and River Scenes, Dies at 86

Don Nice, who in a varied career was known for Pop Art, paintings inspired by the Hudson River and works that broke free of the traditional rectangular canvas, died on Monday in Cortlandt, N.Y. He was 86.

His daughter, Leslie Heanue, confirmed the death but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Nice began painting in the 1950s. At first he was enthralled by the Abstract Expressionism of the period, but he eventually found it limiting.

“I’d be doing a painting, and suddenly there’s a big red blob, and people would say, ‘That looks like an apple,’ so I’d paint it out,” he was quoted as saying in a biographical essay by Antonia D. Bryan on his website.

He began painting realistic images, some quite large — grapes, a sneaker, a buffalo. When the buffalo painting, 11 feet wide, was exhibited in 1985 at the since-closed Fine Arts Museum of Long Island, in Hempstead, Phyllis Braff wrote in The New York Times that “normal perceptual range contributes to a sensation of walking into brush-stroke segments belonging to a larger mass.”

After leaving New York City and moving in 1969 to the banks of the Hudson River in Garrison, N.Y., Mr. Nice became increasingly interested in natural landscapes. He also explored paintings that broke free of the traditional painter’s rectangle.

“Don Nice is more than eclectically captivating in his combination of Pop Art, shaped canvases and realism,” David Shirey wrote in The Times, reviewing a 1982 group show on Long Island in which Mr. Nice was represented, “for he ingeniously fuses out of disparate idioms his own unmistakable artistic imprint.”

Donald Harry Nice was born on June 26, 1932, in Visalia, Calif., about 35 miles west of Sequoia National Park. His father, Hubert, was a bookkeeper, and his mother, Violet (Vinding) Nice, worked for a time for the Tulare County district attorney’s office. There were no art classes at his high school, but an aunt and a grandfather, both amateur painters, encouraged his interest in drawing.

He attended the University of Southern California on a football scholarship, taking art classes and earning a teaching certificate. After graduating in 1954, he taught high school and then, in 1955, joined the Army. He spent two years at Fort Ord in California, where, his website’s biography says, he painted a 24-foot mural in the mess hall.

After leaving the Army in 1957, Mr. Nice spent several years in Europe, absorbing the artistic influences of the day. While in Paris he met Sandra Kay Smith, a model and designer from Minnesota. They married in 1959 and returned to the United States, where Mr. Nice taught painting and design at the Minneapolis School of Art. In 1962 he was accepted into the fine arts program at Yale, and he received a master’s degree there in 1964.

In 1968 he was represented in “Realism Now,” an important exhibition at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He also began to receive regular solo exhibitions in New York City and elsewhere.

After 1980, Mr. Nice began looking for alternatives to the traditional shape of a painting, which he called “the Renaissance window.” That led him to create works like “Montana Spinner, 2002,” which had a view of the Montana mountains on a five-sided polygon in the center, with five arms projecting from it bearing images of flora and wildlife.

“We have to move forward in our visions,” Mr. Nice told The Times Union of Albany in 2004. “To simply rely on a window in the Renaissance sense is to close off any investigation into what may be beyond it.”

“Montana Spinner” was painted on anodized aluminum, a material he liked for the way it captured and reflected light.

“I’m convinced that anodized aluminum is the material of the future,” he told The Times in 1999. “Jackson Pollock said that each new age demands a new material.”

Although he explored the new, Mr. Nice was also firmly linked to one tradition: the Hudson River School. After moving to Garrison, he painted river scenes often, taking several lengthy trips along the waterway as part of the process. One was in 1999.

“We traveled 173 miles up the Hudson River from Manhattan to Glens Falls,” he told The Times in 2000, “and every time the landscape spoke to me, I asked the captain, Jeff Cunningham, to stop the boat.”

The viewpoint, he said, enabled him to differentiate himself from his forebears.

“The old, or traditional, approach of the Hudson River School painter would have been to break down the landscape in terms of foreground, middle ground and background,” he said. “Painting from a boat eliminates the foreground, which minimizes the notion of Renaissance space.”

Mr. Nice’s work has been exhibited frequently in galleries and museums, especially in New York State, and is in the collections of dozens of museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art.

His wife died in 2017. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by a son, Brian, and four grandchildren.

Mr. Nice was once asked about the meaning of his Hudson River works.

“I’d rather think of the paintings as being meaningful rather than having meaning,” he said. “Meaning is a specific message, but by ‘meaningful,’ I mean some reference to something beyond definition, something we can’t pin down, nor should we.”

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