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Tom Nozkowski and Joyce Robins are married, and I have admired the work of both for years. When I asked them to be the first Beer with a Painter subjects interviewed jointly as a couple, they were completely game. My visit to their upstate New York home began with lunch: tomato and bread soup served with a swirl of pesto, green salad with avocado and blood oranges. This layering and intermingling of textures, flavors, and colors pervades their home and work as well. Even in the midst of crisply renovated rooms for living and working, traces of a life in art are everywhere. In Nozkowski’s studio, cat food cans, long ago repurposed as paint containers, and now dry, were stacked into an impressive pyramid.
Robins’s work has a delicacy and simplicity of means – ceramic paintings glazed and then hand-painted with washes of color. The planes and circular forms, with openings and piercings, bend out from the wall or floor. Light moves through them, evoking constellations and sea creatures stained and weathered over time.
Nozkowski’s paintings also employ an economy of means in their modest size and the vocabulary of abstract forms. Yet each is an intentioned and distinct response to a feeling, source, or mood.
Nozkowski’s work is represented by Pace Gallery, where he had a solo show in April 2015. His first solo show was in 1979, and he has since been the subject of over 70 solo museum and gallery exhibitions. Nozkowski’s work is currently included in River Crossings, an exhibition of contemporary artists at the Thomas Cole National Historic Site in Catskill, New York, and Olana State Historic Site in Hudson, New York, on view through November 1, 2015.
Robins’s work is currently included in a group exhibition, Vernacular, at THEODORE:Art in Brooklyn, on view through July 12, 2015. She had a solo exhibition there in 2014, and previous solo shows at John Davis Gallery in Hudson, New York, and The Schoolhouse Gallery in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Robins is also a landscape designer.
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Jennifer Samet: Joyce, where did you grow up, and what was your exposure to art as a child?
Joyce Robins: I grew up at the beach, in Rockaway. I was born in South Carolina before my father went overseas during the war. My parents had an apartment in Rockaway and later bought a house there. From early on, I was interested in getting into the city, and it was easy to take the train. I had a friend in junior high and high school whose sister had gone to Cooper Union, and become an actress. She let us stay at her apartment on 67th Street, across from the Café Des Artistes.
Jennifer Samet: Tom, did anyone in your family make art?
Thomas Nozkowski: My mother was always making things like quilts, and went to clubs to make crafts, like Christmas ornaments. They loved traveling and looking at things. My father was a mailman, so he didn’t have a lot of money, but he got nice long vacations. My mother discovered that if you wrote a polite letter, you could get a tour of any factory in the United States. We traveled cross-country taking tours of steel mills and pickle factories.
JS: You both ended up at the Cooper Union. Who were your teachers there, and how did you meet?
TN: Most of our teachers were second generation Abstract Expressionists, along with a few ex-Bauhaus or ex-Albers students who ran the two-dimensional design, color, and photography parts of the program. I was at Cooper the second year they offered the degree. It was still very much a school for working. You would go to school five days a week from 9 AM to 5 PM and it was intense. Everybody took the same courses.
JR: It was very rigorous. We studied color theory, typography, lettering and book design. You would have to get into all aspects of art making, which I found exciting.
TN: It made us employable, which is always good. I worked in magazine design for years: at Time Magazine, and as the production director of Mad Magazine. I designed hundreds of books. My specialty was pop trash: UFOs, Movie Tie-Ins, Disco Dancing, Celebrity Biographies and Bermuda Triangle books. I even wrote one of those.
JR: Tom was one year ahead of me at Cooper. I came in 1962, and after that year, he dropped out and I continued on. He spent a year traveling around the country. When I was a junior, he came back. I was taking aesthetics with Paul Zucker, who was a very interesting man. Tom talked to him about some of the new ideas in cinema — auteur theory mostly — and Dr. Zucker invited him to talk to my class.
Tom showed two movies and talked about how to look at them. One was Max Ophuls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman and the other was by Don Siegel, Hell is for Heroes. They are very different kinds of movies. Tom was really articulate, and it was clear that the talk was really about seeing things without preconceptions. We became friends after that afternoon.
JS: Tom, how did you become interested in film in that year off from school?
TN: Well, I dropped out of school and had a lot of time on my hands. I bought a copy of Film Culture magazine, and it was the issue that Andrew Sarris wrote, dedicated to the American cinema. I thought it was nonsense — a practical joke. My Road to Damascus moment took place in the old Loew’s Commodore on 6th Street and Second Avenue at a double bill of two recent Paramount films: Howard Hawk’s Hatari! and John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance. I went in to scoff at the films and Sarris’s text, and I came out a convert. My eyes had been opened, and I was ready to preach the gospel to all of my friends. Intellectuals despised American cinema in the early 1960s. It was a battle that would take a decade to win.
JS: What kinds of things did you discuss when you were speaking to the class?
JR: He could articulate what was interesting about particular shots, how they worked with the premise of the movie, and how the director was the architect of the film. Most people then would go to a movie and think in terms of the subject matter, rather than about a creative individual with a vision.
JS: You also started showing films in your home with friends.
TN: Yes, when we got married, we had to find a place to live together. We were very lucky. The first day we went out looking, we walked past an old synagogue on Hester Street. It had a little cardboard sign saying, “For rent; inquire within.” We took it and cleaned it up and lived there for 45 years. To have a nice place to live in the city, with enough space to work, made a lot possible. It was an island from which to work.
JR: Initially the rent was one hundred dollars a month. It was a beautiful two-story space. On the second floor, there was a balcony. You could situate the projector there and project the film onto the white wall where the ark had been. The acoustics were great, because it was designed as the space where the cantor would sing. It had visual and acoustic qualities that were perfect for showing films. The late 1960s after Cooper was a very intense, political time. We were making art, and looking at everything. This new paradigm of the art form of American movies was as important and meaningful to us as experiencing Abstract Expressionism.
TN: In my last year at Cooper I had a real crisis of what and how to paint. The crisis was related to what Joyce said, about the politics of the moment. Dominant at that time were reductive ideas about painting: systemic painting and conceptual strategies for object making. It got narrower and narrower, and I couldn’t see how to work. I had political beliefs and these ways of working were antithetical to them. I feel somewhat differently now, but then I saw them as strategies of alienation — not humane or connected.
I had to stop, so I made sculptures — little objects and things. And of course, to my horror, everybody liked them. I had a job working at the Betty Parsons Gallery, and she was very supportive. She put me in a New Talent exhibition and a few other group shows with these odd sculptures of rocks and sticks and gravel. In retrospect I see that they were mostly trivial and often painting by other means, concerned largely with color and texture.
I’ll tell you a story. I was designing a book by a minor celebrity who one day came to the studio to work. Not an art person at all but he spotted a group of my floor sculptures, asked some questions and made polite comments. These pieces were very flat and composed of cloth and aquarium gravel, aluminum foil and vinyl. “Wonderful! I love them,” he said, “the color, all of it! But I have one question: When you hang them on the wall, doesn’t everything fall off?” So, to everyone except maybe me, they were wannabe paintings. They were paintings with an alibi — “Don’t take me too seriously; I’m just a sculpture.”
JR: In those early years we also met the sculptor and collector Ruth Vollmer. We used to go to gatherings she held at her place. She had a great collection of art that included Ad Reinhardt and Alberto Giacometti, and Bauhaus furniture. It was very exciting to see, after our Cooper background.
TN: Yes, and you would get to put your own work up in this context. Ruth was very generous. She befriended a lot of young artists; she was very close to Richard Tuttle, Eva Hesse, Sylvia and Robert Mangold, and Sol LeWitt, as well as Joyce and me. We would see Ruth once or two evenings a week in the early ’70s. That was partly just her kindness, making sure we had a good meal, at least once in a while.
JS: In the early 1970s you started going upstate. Did the landscape also play a part in moving away from a systemic way of working?
JR: My early works were field paintings; they were about looking out the window at the forest, and seeing dappled light coming through the trees, hitting the forest floor. They were a translation of that.
TN: When we started going to the Adirondacks, I was at this degree zero way of working, so I had no art materials there. I can’t tell you how many sculptures I made out of piles of sticks, piles of stones, stones on a string, sticks on a string.
JS: You have said that the two of you switched places: Tom moved from sculpture to painting, and Joyce moved from painting to sculpture.
JR: Yes, but we didn’t just wake up one day and switch. It was an evolution.
TN: It had as much to do with stealing each other’s materials as anything. That is much better than going to the art store!
JR: It is unavoidable that there would be an interchange over the years. We are here together. We were always working part-time, or on our own terms. That is why it was easy to have a child. One of us could go off to make some money while the other watched him. It was the same with going to the country. One or both of us would work intensely for months, save the money, and then go to the country until the money ran out. Then we would go back to the city and get more work.
JS: Tom, before you made small format paintings you made large paintings. Why did this shift?
TN: I saw a Ray Parker exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery, and it included a 40-foot long painting. I’ve since learned it was a commission for a bank.
JR: It wasn’t that long.
TN: Okay. It was a 32-foot long painting. It took up the entire wall. Parker was a fine painter, but this was an 800-pound gorilla. There was no room for the rest of us. I thought, “It is just late monopoly capitalism in action.” It really made me sick. So, walking back from Soho that day, I thought, “Whatever I do, whether it’s a painting or a sculpture, will only be scaled for my friends apartments. I am not going to play this game. I am not going to do paintings for lobbies, and museums, and rich people.”
JS: Joyce, can you tell me about your transition from painting to sculpture?
JR: I had a job teaching ceramics and I was painting. I was segueing away from the field paintings and I thought it would be interesting if I made a clay pieces that looked like elements in the paintings. Once I had those there was no reason to be restrained by the painting format — the rectangle. I wanted to expand, and this set the imagery free.
With only a small kiln, and whatever self-taught skills I had as a ceramicist I managed to avoid the trap of a tour-de-force performance. I use glazes as I would paint, directly and to specific areas. After they are fired I go back with acrylic ink and watercolor and paint both the glazed and unglazed areas. Using a crackle glaze, the paint can infiltrate and make a veil of color below the surface. Other glazes function as pure resist. I work and rework the surfaces: wash it off, scrub it, and keep layering the color until I get what I need.
JS: When did you start working with the circles and negative spaces?
JR: In the mid 1980s piercing and opening up the clay was a logical step, bringing light in as an element in the work. The play of natural light interests me and so does the structured lighting you can create in an installation. Maybe there is something cinematic about this. A piece can bend up off the wall and the shadows behind it can add the effect of transparency. Air and light moves through them.
JS: You both do a lot of drawing. Tom, how would you describe the relationship between your drawings and your paintings?
TN: I do two different kinds of drawings. The mixed media works on paper (ink, crayon, pencil, and collage) are stand-alone pieces. But the oils on paper are different. They are loosely related to my paintings. With those, I am working on a painting until I get kind of stuck – until something has to change. There is something interesting, but something must be sacrificed.
So, I take out a piece of Stonehenge, a medium-weight printing paper, and using whatever paint was on the palette, try to capture the thing that will be lost. It might be a color, or a shape, or something else. If you look at my oils on paper, you can see them as snapshots in the life of a painting.
JS: Joyce, how would you describe the relationship to the real world of perception in your work?
JR: It is not preliminary. I make references to the natural world, but usually after the fact. For instance, we hike this particular environment where we live. This mountain ridge looks like it was made for Cézanne. It feels unstable — a cap of limestone on top of a layer of shale. You see breaks, crevices, boulders and shadows, a natural geometry. Tom might layer all kinds of references into this natural framework. I might simplify them.
You get tired of doing things the same way. Every day is different. The weather is different. Our mood is different. The black drawings I did recently are responses to being trapped in the studio this winter, because it was freezing.
But, if you look at the snow, it is really beautiful. The surface, as it melts, has this bubbly, lacy quality. I don’t think, beforehand, “I’m going to make one of these.” But we are absorbing all that phenomena, which is very rich. We are filtering through these things every day. It is a really interesting way to live.
JS: Tom, you have mentioned the idea that in your work, everything either comes to a certain image resolution, or comes from an image. Can you explain what you mean by this?
TN: Everything I do has a source in reality. But, I am talking about reality in the largest sense: not only in terms of what we can touch or see, but what we can think about, what we can imagine. We can draw upon a whole visual continuum that includes other works of art, landscape, things in print, films. Each of my paintings has that as a beginning, and I try to keep true to it through the life of the work. When I’m finished, I want to feel satisfied that I found why I wanted to make it in the first place.
If one of us said, “Let’s come up with some ideas for paintings,” surely we could each come up with thousands of possibilities. Why do we choose one over another? What is it about one particular thing that leaves you willing to spend a couple of years with it? I find it fascinating.
I’m old enough that I can say that the most important thing is being happy in the studio. Hopefully the work will be good for other people too. But if it makes me happy I will have the strength to stay in the studio and make more of these things. To make something because you think the world wants it, some imaginary audience wants it, is deadly. Don’t do it! However, to learn what you really want takes a long time.
What young artists don’t want is to wear their heart on their sleeve. They are afraid to be exposed, that someone might think they are naïve or foolish. Honesty is hard — maybe that’s why some artists turn to abstraction. You can put any kind of mark down and assign it any value, any meaning — and there is certainly no need to share that information with anyone else.
I want these paintings to go as far as they can go. How much can you find in them? The art of the press release is a real problem, this desire to explain everything. It usually leads to everything being dumbed down. It’s understandable what people want: a hook, a handle, a way to enter into a work of art — and there is nothing wrong with that. But the good stuff is both bigger and more diffuse. It aspires to be as large as it can be.