Simply titled Thomas Nozkowski, this is the artist’s fourth solo exhibition at Pace Gallery (March 27–April 25, 2015) since 2008, when he first joined the gallery, and this time he has pulled out all the stops. The fifty-seven works in the exhibition can be divided more or less equally into three related groups: eighteen oil paintings done on linen, all measuring 22 x 28 inches; nineteen oils done on paper, all measuring 22 x 30 inches; twenty drawings on paper, most of which measure around 11 x 14 inches, and done in a wide range of materials, including gouache, colored pencil, crayon, ink, and graphite. All but six works are dated 2014. Not one of them seems tossed off. Everything in the show is as solidly put together as a Shaker chair.
The result is exhilarating, proving once and for all that Nozkowski is the most inventive abstract painter currently working, breathtakingly so. In order to achieve this, he had to deliberately jettison all the safety nets we associate with art, including a painterly touch. There are no gestural brushstrokes (as signs of sincerity), paint scarred surfaces (as signs of struggle), no motifs, no signature style, no recurring palette, all of which I suspect the artist would regard as a weakness. Moreover, there is no macho chest thumping, and nothing is done on a grand (or grandly pretentious) scale. Rather, his inventiveness, which is rooted in a fluid synthesis of observation and imagination, all takes place on the surface of the work and originates in drawing. He uses common art materials such as oil paint, gouache and colored pencil. Novelty has no place in his work.
In an interview with Dylan Kerr in the online magazine, Artspace, Nozkowski states that the paintings are related to drawings that the artist did for the magazine Esopus:
I do a lot of walking in the area of the Hudson Valley where I live, on the Shawangunk Ridge, and I’ve worked with a lot of organizations preserving land on the Shawangunks. There’s an area near Kerhonkson where several hundred acres of land have recently been acquired by non-profits, and I’ve spent the last two years hiking around this area, mapping it and so forth. I decided to do drawings from this area for Esopus, and in fact I even drew a map of where the trails were for the magazine, so in theory someone could follow the map and find the locations. Not a chance that anyone will, of course, but that was the idea.
Nozkowski went on to say:
I liked the drawings very much — I did about 45, and 15 were printed in the magazine. I liked them so much that I started doing a lot of paintings related to not only the drawings, but to that area in general. More than most of my shows, this is very much about place — a place where I’ve lived for the last 10,000 years, at least in my mind.
Drawing is Nozkowski’s great love. They can be done in a variety of media, including ballpoint pen. The other drawings he does are the oils on paper, which are about the same size as his paintings. He makes them while he is working on a painting, which may take months or even years. This is what he said to Kerr:
I’ll be working on a painting for many months, and something interesting happens in the painting that I know I’m going to get rid of, that’s not going to stay. It’s just a moment in the life of the painting. I’ll take the paint that’s on my palettes, and I’ll go over and work on an oil on paper. These are almost like snapshots in the evolution of a painting.
From these and other remarks the artist has made, it is apparent that each work is likely to inspire other considerations, that there is a constant, open-ended interchange circulating among the small drawings, the oils on paper and on linen, with no hierarchy separating them, and with drawing as the baseline.
By including all three types of work in this exhibition, Nozkowski shows his relentless desire to keep moving and experimenting, to follow different impulses and reconsider others. You might think he is like a juggler keeping all the balls in the air and moving but that act gets repetitive, while what comes across in this exhibition is a deliciously bewildering clarity that is rare in contemporary art, especially in abstract art. Think of all the exhibitions you have seen in the past few years, and how many of the artists relied on some kind of signature, whether it be style, format, motif or found surface. There is no typical or classic Nozkowski, which I think must drive some collectors and curators crazy. They want something they can hold onto, something they can characterize in language (or art jargon) , which he refuses to do.
In Nozkowski’s work, the exploration often seems to take place across three related works (oil on linen, oil on paper and drawing), and then he moves on. While there are compositional overlaps in the three related pieces, what is more striking is the differences that he makes manifest in each. The one through line in much of Nozkowski’s work is the way he places one kind of visual language next to or over another. The language might consist of a staggered field of a dry brush marks dragged down the surface, a gauzy field of palely colored shapes, interlocking shapes outlined in black, or an irregular grid of white semicircles painted as if they were seen through lace. The placement of a second and even third visual language, such as colored circles, interlocking rectangles of color, or a web of thin lines, gives these paintings their traction. Everything in the world, including the air, has been transformed into paint.
Nozkowski takes evident pleasure in making art, and each small mark or shape filling a grid communicates this. The shapes run the gamut from geometric to simple cartoony protuberances. What comes across is a deep joy, a sense that the world in front of him can be sustaining, that he does not have to find something better or more meaningful. His art is not about looking elsewhere (transcendence) nor is it about expressions of discontent. Being alive is good enough. As Yun Men said: “Every day is a good day,” even when it is not.
You might look at a work and think “skunk cabbage,” “tree bark” or “Matisse,” and know you are right, but that’s just the beginning, because soon the associations fall away and something else begins. For while the blue in the painting “Untitled (9–32)” 2014, is clearly an allusion to Matisse, its curving, arabesque shapes seem to have sprung out of Nozkowski fully formed. I am kidding, of course, and I am not.
The point is that Nozkowski’s work is not about figuring it out, not about knowing the thing that inspired him. It is neither about the verbal or discursive world, nor is it about showing how intelligent, sensitive or sympathetic you are: all those forms of social credit and creditability. It is about seeing. Anyone who has looked at something long enough — a wall full of stains, as Leonardo da Vinci might have suggested — will tell you that eventually everything that is familiar becomes strange, becomes other.
Nozkowski isn’t jaded; he looks without irony or cynicism. He fits Charles Baudelaire’s description of brilliance: “Genius is childhood recovered at will.” I am not talking about child-like primitivism or faux-outsider art here, which we have seen enough of in recent years. Nozkowski makes ferociously intelligent paintings and drawings without ever showing off, trying to elicit our sympathy or claiming to carry the torch for the latest art world cult theorist or neglected master. He isn’t nostalgic, as so many “true” painters are.
There is something antic, odd, sensuous, serious, manic, tender, jarring and wonderfully intoxicating about the work. It makes you want to look and, more importantly, look again.
Thomas Nozkowski continues at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 25.