By 1974, Thomas Nozkowski had made two decisions — he would paint on widely available, 16 x 20-inch, prepared canvas boards, and everything he painted would come from personal experience.
His reference to personal experience, as he stated in an interview I did with him in 2010, was meant in “the broadest possible way. Events, things, ideas — anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems.”
On the face of it, Nozkowski’s decisions didn’t seem radical, but they were, and continue to be. Since at least the 1980s, the art world has repeatedly and predictably equated challenging acts with spectacle and theatricality. Applying oil paint to modest-sized, inexpensive canvas boards didn’t qualify on that account, except to generations of younger artists who took cues from Nozkowski’s fiercely independent stance of making the modest into something ambitious.
Nozkowski’s decisions enabled him to develop the variety of visual conundrums animating his work. His paintings are both representational and abstract. We intuitively know that his paintings are of something, but we usually have no idea of what.
In the Museum of Modern Art’s current show, Inventing Abstraction, 1910–1925: How a Radical Idea Changed Modern Art, the curator Leah Dickerman begins the exhibition with Pablo Picasso’s “Femme à la mandoline” (“Woman With Mandolin”) (1910), where the subject is impossible to detect. As we all know, Picasso backed away from abstraction and even denied its existence. Nozkowski comes at this demarcation from the opposite direction — he pushes toward representation, probing its borders, but never completely crosses the line.
At the same time, the modest scale of his paintings allowed Nozkowski to scrutinize the relationship between the events in the painting and its framing edge. On a literal level, he could always see exactly what he was working on, conscious of the painting’s physical limits. Unlike some of his contemporaries, who were also working on a modest scale, he wasn’t harkening back to early American modernists, such as Albert Pinkham Ryder and Arthur Dove because, frankly, he was not nostalgic nor was he interested in carrying someone else’s torch.
In terms of poetry, Nozkowski brings together two opposing tendencies — William Carlos Williams’ “No ideas but in things” and Stephane Mallarmé’s “l’absente de tous bouquets” (the ideal flower that is absent from all real bouquets). Nozkowski’s innovative synthesis of incommensurables, along with his Heraclitean commitment to honor the continuous variability of experience, is what further distinguishes him from his contemporaries, while linking him to a still potent strain of Abstract Expressionism.
Mark Rothko said that “a painting is not a picture of an experience, it is an experience.
And Robert Motherwell seemed to understand what his postwar generation had to face when he said “every modern painter carries the whole culture of modern painting in his head.” The difference is that Rothko and Motherwell wanted to make a naked painting, to strip it of all the rhetoric encrusting it, whereas Nozkowski understands that purity is an illusion, a necessary fiction for an earlier generation. He makes the act of naming superfluous to the experience of the painting.
Instead of striving for some kind of purity — be it in monochrome, or in reviving Ryder or claiming to be Cezanne’s or Matisse’s true heir — Nozkowski recognizes that the entire mechanics of painting and drawing can be used in any combination that the work requires. The only rules are the ones that you make up and believe in. In this regard, Nozkowski shares something with Mallarmé, who understood that language — from syntax and sound to etymology and individual letters — had to be unraveled and made fresh.
Increasingly in his work, Nozkowski subverts a deeply held and long cherished goal in painting, which is the unity of the pictorial and the material. Clement Greenberg argued that painting reached an apex in the poured paintings that Jackson Pollock started around 1947. He believed that an abstract painting had to embody all-overness and unity if it was to be radical. While Greenberg’s reductive, Formalist paradigm exerted a huge influence, it elided or misread the work of artists who explored a shifting, fluid relationship between figure and ground, solid and void — especially where it is unclear which is which and the work could not be reduced to figure and ground in the conventional sense. Here, Mark Rothko’s glowing ethereal layers, Jasper Johns’ layered compressions of encaustic and collage and, closer to the present, Nicholas Krushenick’s graphic subversions of the picture plane are examples of what I am getting at.
Nozkowski was never interested in the unities that Greenberg praised and others have sought. Painting was a vehicle for acknowledging difference, rather than a means of seeking harmony. His exploration of the mechanics and materiality of painting and drawing has led him to resist developing a style or what could be called a signature form of unity. He repeatedly undoes conventions in order to heighten the viewers’ consciousness of the very act of looking, in part because he is intensely self-aware of the various roadblocks, booby traps and detours anyone making a painting must negotiate. Even though each painting arises from an original experience, it seems that the question Nozkowski keeps in mind when working is: How do you keep the painting open so that anything can happen, while staying true to the initial experience? How do you resist the formulaic and mechanical? Nozkowski doesn’t try to move away from reality in his work, but to go towards it.
This is Nozkowski’s third exhibition at Pace since 2008. In his last exhibition he paired nineteen oil paintings with the same number of smaller, corresponding drawings, which were done in gouache, pencil and ink. These were not preparatory drawings, but works on paper that the artist made after he finished a painting. According to some critics, most notably David Cohen, Nozkowski’s sin was to pair the painting and drawing, compelling viewers to look at each and both. I wasn’t as bugged because I thought Nozkowski was trying to make us conscious of looking — that disentangling differences beneath similarities could become a high form of pleasure.
In the current exhibition, in addition to around two dozen paintings done on panels measuring 22 x 28 inches, he has included two paintings on 30 x 40-inch panels from a series that he started fifteen years ago. Nozkowski is also exhibiting nearly fifty works on paper across the street in a temporary space that was the former location of the CUE Foundation. The four large works on paper (22 ¼ x 30-inches) were done in oil, while the more than forty smaller ones (8 ½ x 11-inches) were done in a combination of materials, including ink, colored pencil, and crayon.
Nozkowski’s work runs the gamut from strange and mysterious to the cartoony and downright funny. I am thinking of “Untitled (L – 5)” (2011), an oil on paper that looks like two horses (or anteaters) cut lengthwise and stacked one on top of the other against a green ground. And yet, even as the viewer sees the ‘horses,” the overlaying of six circles, each a different color, on the uppermost “animal” confounds any straightforward reading. Nozkowski keeps tripping viewers up, making them aware of their expectations even as he effectively derails them.
About “Untitled (9 – 25) (Sam’s Point)” (2012), one of the large paintings in the exhibition, Jennifer Gross, in her catalog essay, astutely points out:
In this work, we observe Nozkowski’s admiration for the work of the pop abstractionist Nicholas Krushenick and pop-influenced materialism in contemporary art. The flat, primary-colored, hard-edged pattern at the top of the composition abuts the ethereal, Renaissance-style sfumato of the central field of the painting. The composition is grounded in a surge of transparent Venetian Red which courses from the left to the right edge of the canvas. The three strata convey a landscape.
By sandwiching the sfumato between hard-edged pattern and the blue-outlined surge of red along the bottom, Nozkowski spans five centuries of painterly approaches, as Gross perceptively points out.
By using a stacked, three-part composition to evoke a landscape — perhaps it’s a cropped view of a branch full of autumn leaves above red canoes — Nozkowski thoroughly and precisely undermines the unity we associate with paintings done since the early Renaissance. He has made the pictorial and the disparate inseparable without resorting to devices such as collage.
At the same time, Nozkowski’s understanding of the conventions of cartoons and of Krushenick’s purposes in abstracting them is beyond dispute. In “Untitled (9 – 7)” (2012), which is mounted on a wall flanking the entrance to the inner room of the main gallery, he articulates a rounded yellow shape segmented by blue lines, which, for this viewer, stirred up comparisons to a beneficent Buddha as well as the distressing dolls of Hans Bellmer.
That Nozkowski can evoke such diametrical opposites with a single shape is indicative of his consummate mastery. On the other side of the wall flanking the entrance, the artist placed “Untitled (9 – 17)” (2012), which looks like a bulbous sea creature with tentacles topped by googly eyes. The two paintings are siblings in a family whose other members remain unimaginable — at least until Nozkowski reveals them to us.
By bringing disparate and seemingly incommensurable ways of painting together, Nozkowski dislodges postmodernism from the orthodoxies advanced by such academicians as Benjamin H. D. Buchloh and Hal Foster, shifting it from a narrow focus on the death of the author and craft to an expansive use of pastiche and the imagination. This is one reason why Nozkowski is an important and influential artist.
In his poem, “Not Ideas about the Thing but the Thing Itself,” which references William Carlos Williams’ above-cited quote from Book I of Paterson, Wallace Stevens ends with these lines:
It was like
A new knowledge of reality.
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