Nicki Marx: Remembering an Influential Counter-Culture Artist

By Katie Nartonis

Cover photo Marx Models: Joseph + Heike 1975

Nicki Marx (October 3,1943 – June 20, 2023) was an important mid-20th Century counter-culture artist and maker. Marx’s feather works are included in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) as well as other important public and private collections. Nicki passed away early this Summer, after a short bout with cancer, surrounded by loved ones in her adopted home of Taos, New Mexico.

Marx was raised in Los Angeles and Palm Springs, where her family had date farms in the desert. She grew up with her brother Gary and a large extended Jewish family. The Marx family were art collectors, including the luminous landscape paintings of the now famous 20th Century low-desert (Cathedral City) painter, Agnes Pelton. The Marx/Pelton paintings were eventually donated to the Palm Springs Art Museum and were included in the knockout traveling exhibit in 2020: “Agnes Pelton: Desert Transcendentalist.”

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Nicki Marx first arrived in Taos in the 1970s. Soon after, she stumbled on a display of fishing lures in a local sporting goods store, all tied with colorful feathers. At that moment, it was an epiphany – a complete vision of feathers as adornment and even feather wall art and sculpture. “I literally had a vision,” she recalled in American Craft Magazine in 2015. “I could see whole walls with feathers, and people wearing feathers. I bought two dollars’ worth and stuck them on this thing I was making. I wore it down to the (Taos) plaza, and it sold immediately for $15. I thought, ‘Wow – far out!’” (1) This revelatory experience started a life-long artistic journey working with feathers as medium and muse.

By 1976, Nicki was splitting her time between studios in Santa Cruz, California and Taos, New Mexico. In that year she was included in the nationally important “California Design” exhibit. A publication from that exhibit, The Craftsman Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution, documented Marx’s artistic life where she shared,

Nicki Marx 1975

Marx Feather Collar 1973

“I know there is an incredible magic in life. In the process of making art and in the tapping of the collective unconscious. It’s like a meditation when I’m really working on it…. My work is a celebration of life and a confrontation with death.” (2)

She was absorbed fully in the work of creating her beautiful feather “wearables” and vibrant feather “wall works,” and was part of the counterculture generation and arts community whose influence still reverberates in parts of Northern California and Northern New Mexico.

The artist’s early historical wearable works reside in the rare intersection of art and fashion and has an evocative vibe. The work was born out of the tumult of the 1960s and it is essentially about protest, and justice. Marx’s work “is a plea against forces, such as war and the destruction of the environment, that have damaged the ties that bind us humans to each other and to the Earth. It’s a celebration of our connection to nature, and a reminder of our need to memorialize that in a ritualistic, beautiful way.” (3) She was a fierce environmentalist and often called herself with a smile, “the only hippie that didn’t do drugs.”

Photo by Phillip Dixon for The Nartonis Project. Model: Fanny

Marx’s Taos studio walls and shelves were covered with collections of rocks, skulls, feathers, and seeds. The stunning feather wall works, both vintage and newly made, hung on the walls. The space spoke of an inspired shamanistic and reverential connection to nature. Her finished works have a ceremonial feel, exploring how ritual and bodywear can strengthen spiritual connections to the earth. Marx assured me that all of her feathers came from creatures that were farm-raised, and they were all humanely gathered. I bought a dramatic vintage feather collar of white chicken and pheasant feathers dated from 1973 (see vintage photo). When I started to wear it out in LA to art openings or parties, I couldn’t cross a room without being stopped and asked, “What are you wearing?” The buzz had started to build.

In 2014, design and art specialist Gerard O’Brien of Reform Gallery (The Landing Gallery) and I co-curated Marx Rising, a one-woman show of Marx’s vintage and newly made pieces held in Los Angeles. We had beautiful models, nude from the waist up, modeling Marx’s wearable “collars” The show produced a flurry of press that spurred a late-career blossoming of interest in Marx’s work. By 2015, a dozen magazines had featured articles on her story. Famed fashion photographer Philip Dixon hired a model from Paris and captured Marx’s work through his lens (see photo) for the Nartonis Project. Collectors from Dallas, New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles acquired Marx feather wearables at auctions and from a handful of high-end galleries. You can still spot someone wearing “a Marx” from across a very big room.

Photo by Phillip Dixon for The Nartonis Project. Model: Fanny

In the twilight of her life, thinking that her work had permanently fallen out of the public eye, Marx was delighted with the new attention and acknowledgment. In the last few years, she connected with museum curators, writers, and new rabid collectors of her work. Since her passing, a documentary film, and an exhibit in its nascent stages. Marx was a deeply loving and committed artist. She was a true original, and she will be remembered as an authentic voice of the American 20th Century art and modern design movements.

(1)(3)(4) Quotes from January 20, 2015, article “Aloft Again” for American Craft Magazine, by Joyce Lovelace.
(2) “Craftsman Lifestyle: The Gentle Revolution” 1977, page 96.
Small portions of this text were originally published in Intelligent Collector Magazine and reprinted with permission.
All photos courtesy of Nicki Marx + The Nartonis Project

Katie Nartonis is a writer, curator and film maker. Her most recent documentary film “Jack Rogers Hopkins: California Design Maverick,” about the San Diego based Midcentury designer-craftsman, premiered during Palm Springs Modernism Week at the Palm Springs Museum Annenberg Threatre in 2023. She is currently writing a life-style photo book on the way we live in the high desert, “Glimpses of the Joshua Tree Dream” which will be published in early 2024.

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