STORY OF NICKI MARX ONE OF MANY WAITING TO BE TOLD
By Katie Nartonis
I CAN DESCRIBE many unique experiences over the years which have occurred while searching out those living artists and designers who have defined the West Coast art scene. One of the most interesting is the marvelous story of the rediscovery of Nicki Marx.
It was spring 2014, and I was hiking Mount Tamalpais in Northern California. I had stopped for a break on a beautiful wooded ridgeline. From my perch, I could see the hills of Marin County, the Golden Gate Bridge and even the city of San Francisco. Hiking alone, I had tucked one of my favorite books into my backpack for company.
The book was The Craftsmen Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution. This out-of-print work, published in 1976, details the wave of California artists and craftsmen who were living up and down the coast during the 1970s. This publication (and the ongoing curated art show that inspired it, “California Design”) was produced under the direction of Pasadena Art Museum curator Eudorah Moore (1918-2013).
This unique reference book has in some ways become my self-designed “California Design” course study book. Over the last decade or so, I’ve tried my best to meet as many of the artists featured in its pages as possible. On that sunny day, sitting on the peak of Mount Tamalpais, I just happened to flip open the book to the chapter on West Coast feather artist Nicki Marx.
By the 1970s, when Marx was featured in The Craftsmen Lifestyle, Nicki was splitting her time between studios in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Taos. Marx was raised in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, but moved to New Mexico full time in 1985 after spending 15 years living in the Southwest part-time. I was immediately struck by an overwhelming desire to meet Nicki and to see her feather works in person. How, I asked myself, had I not yet connected with her work before?
I have spent a lot of time in Northern New Mexico over the years, and yet I was unaware that there was a respected feather artist from the 1960s still living and working in the Taos area. Marx’s work is deeply connected to Northern New Mexico and is rooted in that spiritual place. She told Arizona Living Magazine that “the colors, the visuals, the total sensual experience that is New Mexico is inseparable from my work. It is my life force, and is constantly exerting influence in one form or another.”
Her work resides in that rare intersection of art and fashion, and has a wonderfully evocative counter-culture vibe. I was hooked. As I closed the book, I thought I’d like to meet this woman. This is where the story gets a little bit weird.
Back in Los Angeles, just a few weeks later, I received a call out of the blue. It was Nicki Marx on the line.
A mutual friend, Los Angeles artist Larry Bell, had suggested that Nicki give me a call. Larry and I had become friendly when we had done a lecture event together in Los Angeles during the 2010 Pacific Standard Time Getty initiative. Since the 1960s, Larry has split his time between Venice Beach and Taos, where he has a large, airy studio. Larry understands that I have a passion for the work of the West Coast scene and he realized that Nicki and I may be a good fit. After this first phone call, and at my first opportunity, I headed out to visit Nicki in her New Mexico studio.
Nicki Marx’s vintage chicken and pheasant feathers wearable, circa 1973, purchased by the author directly from the artist. Photo courtesy Nicki Marx.
Nicki and I connected immediately. We talked at length about the goose-bump moment when we both realized that we had sought each other out, at virtually the same time. I continue to be amazed by the synergy that drew us together. Then we got down to work.
Her studio walls were covered with stunning feather wall works, both vintage and newly made. But it was not until she started pulling out her vintage feather wearable pieces that I started to really get excited. As an auction specialist with a desire to introduce her work to auction, I knew I had to get inspired. It takes passion, as well as academic rigor, to make an airtight historical case. I realized that these evocative early pieces were the anchor from which we could construct a case for her larger career and, indeed, importance.
Nicki and I agreed to work together towards an auction presentation and before I left, I purchased a magnificent vintage piece from 1973 (see photo on opposite page). A feather wearable made of chicken and pheasant feathers, I brought it back to Los Angeles and started wearing it out to art openings and galleries. I found that everywhere I went, the piece attracted attention. I could not take a step into an art event without being stopped and asked what I was wearing. I loved sharing Nicki’s work and her story, and the circle started to grow.
The full story of her career needed to be told before the work was ready to present at auction. Back in Los Angeles, I brought Nicki to the attention of gallerist Gerard O’Brien of Reform Gallery. O’Brien has a great understanding of the West Coast art scene and he was immediately receptive. He was intrigued by Nicki’s work and her fascinating story. But it was the mountain of gallery and museum shows and early press clippings from her early career that sealed the deal. The result was “Marx Rising,” a one-woman show of Marx’s vintage and new pieces held in late 2014. The show and her work were subsequently covered by national magazines. The gallery experienced strong and steady sales of Marx’s work. Curators at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art then purchased a vintage Marx for the museum’s permanent collection. I knew we were on to something.
It was another twist of fate that connected Nicki’s work with fashion photographer Phillip Dixon. Dixon is a well-known fashion photographer who has shot campaigns for brands such as Leon Max and Yves Saint Laurent. A mutual friend and fellow photographer Faria Raji was generous enough to share Nicki’s work with Dixon. Dixon was intrigued and asked to see the work in person. A photo session soon followed. On a cool, foggy November day, we spent an afternoon shooting at Dixon’s stunning Venice Beach, Calif., compound. The resulting photos have been published nationally in both The LA Fashion Magazine and Ornament Magazine.
As consignment director for 20th and 21st Century Design at Heritage Auctions, I was thrilled to place the last unpublished image from that shoot on the cover of Heritage’s fall auction catalog (see accompanying photo). At that October auction, savvy bidders from around the globe scooped up Nicki’s wearable feather art.
Heritage specialists are indeed a part of building the art record. There is more fun and adventure to bringing auction property to auction than you might imagine. There is nothing more interesting to me than the challenge of framing the unique stories that the surround the living and breathing 20th and 21st century. We are out in the field, with our ears to the ground, and if we are lucky, we are able to discover more buried treasure that enriches the historical record.
The story of Nicki Marx is just one of the many stories out there waiting to be told.
KATIE NARTONIS is consignment director for 20th and 21st Century Design at Heritage Auctions. She is founder of the Nartonis Project, which is dedicated to telling the stories of the West Coast art scene.