Thomas Nozkowski wasn’t thinking about Philip Guston’s “Untitled” (1980) while he was working on “Untitled (9-21)” (2012), but the number of formal attributes they share — from size to composition and imagery — has proven hard for me to ignore. It was while I was looking at Nozkowski’s “Untitled (9-21)” at his exhibition at Russell Bowman Art Advisory (April 12 – June 15, 2013) in Chicago that a specific Guston work came to mind. Shortly after I got back to New York, I checked to see whether or not my memory had been playing tricks on me. It hadn’t.
“Untitled” (1980) was included in Philip Guston: 1980 / The Last Works, which was organized by the Philips Collection, Washington DC (March 21 – May 24, 1981), where I saw it, and later traveled to the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, in Pittsburgh. The exhibition catalogue, Philip Guston: 1980 / The Last Works (The Philips Collection, 1981), with an essay by Morton Feldman, reproduces “Untitled” (1980) on page 12.
The works are nearly identical in size and orientation — Nozkowski’s “Untitled (9-21)” is 22 x 28 inches, while Guston’s “Untitled” measures 23 x 29 inches. In both works, the artist has tilted the horizon line up, until it forms a slope ascending from the lower left to upper right – the direction in which we read sentences. In each case, the slanting of the horizon line is major because it is something they have seldom done in their work before. In Guston’s case, a tilted horizon started appearing in his last works, after he had had a heart attack.
Guston’s slope is steeper than Nozkowski’s. It starts about one-eighth of the way up the left side and rises to the halfway mark on the right. Nozkowski’s slope starts at the bottom of the panel, about an eighth of the way in from the painting’s left edge, and rises at a slower rate until it intersects the painting’s right edge, about one quarter of the way up.
In each painting the artist has depicted two circular shapes, one in front of the other. In Guston’s painting, a large gray ball — dirty snow — largely blocks out the smaller circle, the sun, threatening to obliterate it. An upside-down, scrawny leg is outlined in black on the dirty gray muck of the ball, the sole of its shoe kicking outward. The overall gray coloring of the ball and the short black paint strokes indicating its texture initially obscure the presence of the upended leg. It might take the viewer a moment or two to discern it.
All we see of the sun is a pie-shaped slice peeking over the lower end of the horizon from behind the round gray mass. The sun feels further squeezed because the gray ball is closer to the painting’s left edge than to the right, where there is more space. The placement of the dominant gray form and the small sector of sun convey gravity’s downward pull; everything is descending.
The inspiration for Guston’s gray ball is most likely the stock cartoon image of a giant snowball rolling pell-mell down a hill, until it collides with, and absorbs, a poor hapless figure, leaving only one of his limbs visible, as it continues on its merry way. Guston’s dirty gray snowball is huge and mindless — an example of the universe’s indifference to mankind’s plight.
I think Guston would have both recognized and appreciated the kinship between his painting and Nozkowski’s. After he abandoned abstraction in the late 1960s, Guston engaged in dialogues with all kinds of art, from Quattrocento frescos to cartoons to early 20th century Italian metaphysical painters. Carlo Carra’s “The Drunken Gentleman” (1916) was surely the inspiration for Guston’s “Head and Bottle” (1975), in which he goes so far as to change the pencil in Carra’s painting to a paintbrush in his.
In Nozkowski’s painting, the roles are reversed. A smaller round shape — or what Marjorie Welish has called a “vexed silhouette” — is in front of a larger round shape, partially obscuring it. The section we can see of the larger circular form resembles a scimitar-like crescent moon, so that the large form simultaneously abuts the smaller form and embraces it, almost protectively. Through his use of color and pattern alignment within the overlapping shapes, Nozkowski underscores that they are both joined and distinct – they can be read as figures in a relationship.
The figure-ground interaction in Nozkowski’s painting is central to my experience of it. With this painting, it’s as if he’s made a ground out of variously hued geometric shapes, later covering much of it with a layer of translucent, thinly painted, violet-black paint. This blackish ground — or night — through which a submerged layer of geometric shapes is discernible, comes right up to the edge of the two brightly colored silhouettes.
The ground links up with the larger of the two round shapes in the area where they intersect on the left, just above the violet-pink section of the smaller one’s perimeter, and just below the scimitar’s endpoint, suggesting that the larger shape is completely circular.
The bond between a submerged shape and the larger of the two positive forms undermines the smaller form’s sovereignty. Nothing, the painting suggests, can withstand the night.
Both Nozkowski’s and Guston’s paintings reveal themselves slowly. Their visual impact is not as immediate as it is in similar works. It takes close looking to see the figure-ground interaction in Nozkowski painting and the gray leg sticking out of the gray ball in Guston’s acrylic on paper. The pace of seeing is synonymous with — at least in this viewer’s mind — the act of waking up, as shapes and forms slowly become crystalline.
In a conversation with the poet Bill Berkson, cited by Dore Ashton in her book, Yes, But (1976), Guston, speaking “about Piero’s “Flagellation of Christ, a reproduction of which was pinned to his kitchen wall,” said:
It continues to provoke infinite questions about what is being seen. You can spend your life puzzling out what the actual intentions of a picture like that are. We are always at the beginning of seeing.
In a conversation with Harold Rosenberg, Guston stated:
My quarrel with much modern painting is that it needs too much sympathy. The fascination of certain great paintings of the past is that they don’t care about the sympathy you have for them. All the art lovers in the world could march off a cliff, and they would still be there.
Both Nozkowski and Guston share a love for the material world, for things underfoot, and for art of the past. In turning away from abstraction, Guston embraced the impure world. Near the outset of his career, Nozkowski made a crucial decision; he would always base his work on something he experienced. This is from our November 2010 interview in the Brooklyn Rail:
Yau: Along with working on 16 by 20 inch prepared canvas board that one could buy in any art supply store, the other rule you had was that everything would come from personal experience.
Nozkowski: Yes, but taking that idea 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.
Like Guston, Nozkowski, who doesn’t title his paintings and almost never mentions the sources of his work, wants to always be “at the beginning of seeing.” This is one of the goals of his painting — to be true to the original experience and to reach that moment of seeing when all the names begin falling away.
I don’t know the source of Nozkowski’s “Untitled (9-21)” and I don’t think I need to. Guston’s “Untitled” is more visually familiar, but I don’t think knowing the source is that important for that one, either.
As he worked his way toward his painting’s resolution, which took the shape of two joined but distinct forms, and their relationship with each other as well as the ground (consuming night), Nozkowski combined hard-edged forms, a mottled field, translucent black, and interlocking forms that seem to be bleeding into each other. A feeling of solitude (the separateness of the abutted forms), tenderness (the one shape partially embracing the other), peril and determination (the slant of the horizon), and vulnerability (the black devouring ground) are there to be unpacked through looking. For all the cheerfulness of the colors, I sense that the painting is a rejection of the viewer’s sympathy. The condition of isolation and helplessness Nozkowski describes are states that we all share. And it is this statement of helplessness that Guston gets to so clearly in “Untitled” and in its victim, whose face we never see.
Thomas Nozkowski was on view at Russell Bowman Art Advisory (311 West Superior, suite 115, Chicago) from April 12 through June 15.