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“Thomas Nozkowski: 16 x 20” at Pace Gallery, installation view: left, “Untitled (6-69)” (1989); right, “Untitled (6-56)” (1988) (all images courtesy of Pace Gallery)

One of the many things that struck me about his work while I was writing my book on Thomas Nozkowski (Lund Humphries, 2017) was that he kept putting the paint on differently. Each painting seemed to have been made from a different set of movements and applications of paint. He used a loaded brush, or applied a thin wash of color, or wiped down a wet surface with turpentine, turning it into a field of tiny rivulets. In some works, you could see the grainy surface of the canvas board. In others, the surface was distressed, or atmospheric, or modulated, or as creamy as a skim coat of plaster. It is possible to imagine an essay devoted solely to the myriad ways Nozkowski uses paint.

None of these moves became habits. He was not trying to be indexical; he was consciously refusing to put together a painting the way he had done it previously. Eschewing the goal of developing an overall, consistent surface, he fitted disparate forms and paint applications together as he went along. The modestly scaled paintings didn’t suffer for these sudden shifts, though they could come across as awkward, like a house made of tar paper, marble, brick, and plywood, and none of it cosmetically covered over. Nozkowski seemed to delight in each process generating its own materiality.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (6-73)” (1989), oil on canvas board, 16 x 20 inches, © Thomas Nozkowski, photography by Tom Barratt

This is what he said to me in an interview that appeared in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2010):

Improvisation […] is essential to my work. I want my ideas to be located at the tip of my brush. I want my materials to talk back to me. I want to be surprised.

In order to keep improvisation and surprise central to his practice, in the early 1970s Nozkowski began painting on prepared canvas boards that measured 16 by 20 inches. By working on an inexpensive, commercially available, modestly scaled, durable surface, he didn’t get bogged down in one work, as did many of the Abstract Expressionists he admired, particularly Willem de Kooning. Nor did he develop an efficient, streamlined process, as did two other, older abstract artists, Mary Heilmann in her red, yellow, and blue paintings (1974-1979) and Jack Whitten in his “Light Years” paintings (1971-73). Nozkowski conceived of a different way to go.

Nozkowski’s choice of scale and surface helped with this, though it hurt him in other ways. Instead of working large on canvas or linen mounted on stretchers, he chose a prefabricated surface associated with “Sunday painters,” a decision that put him on the margins of critical discourse. And while the mainstream establishment eventually acknowledged that Heilmann and Whitten had for many years been adventuresome, innovative artists, I think that Nozkowski has still to be recognized for being equally courageous and cutting-edge. Younger painters, such as James Siena and Chris Martin, recognized this years ago, but artists are often first in seeing what is there.

“Thomas Nozkowski: 16 x 20” at Pace Gallery, installation view: left, “Untitled (8-37)” (2003); right, “Untitled (8-44)” (2003)

What many people miss is the unconventional and counterintuitive way Nozkowski keeps improvisation essential to his process. He never overlooks the fact that the surfaces of our everyday life are constantly changing, and that there is nothing uniform about the physical world. In this sense he is not an image-maker, but a painter of things. Nozkowski, who lives in upstate New York and is known among his friends as an inveterate hiker, once showed me a map of all the different routes he took from his home on the Lower East Side to his job in midtown Manhattan: it seemed as if he never wanted to walk the same way twice, even if this meant taking a subway past his destination and walking back. He was interested in the activity of walking rather than the goal of getting there, and he kept a record of the routes he took so that he wouldn’t repeat himself.

In his essay, “Walking in the City,” which was translated into English in 1984, the French writer Michel de Certeau offers “a preliminary definition of walking as a space of enunciation.” Certeau goes on to say: “Walking affirms, suspects, tries out, transgresses, respects, etc., the trajectories it ‘speaks’” There is no way to predict the trajectories that Nozkowski will take in his paintings.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (7-127)” (1999), 16 x 20 inches, © Thomas Nozkowski, photography by Kerry Ryan McFate

This is something to keep in mind when looking at his work: each piece is a route he took, which he is not interested in repeating. Maintaining consistent and regular production, and developing a particular look — the hallmarks of capitalism — hold no interest for Nozkowski. In fact, I would say he consciously rejects these options. He may paint every day, but that doesn’t mean the work rolls off the production line.

I was recently reminded of how subtly but adamantly resistant Nozkowski is to consistency when I went to his exhibition Thomas Nozkowski: 16 X 20 at Pace Gallery (January 19 – February 15, 2018). It is one thing to make work that doesn’t look like anyone else’s — and that has been clear about Nozkowski’s work from early-1970s on — but it is far more difficult to make work that doesn’t look others that you have made. It is very hard to stay fresh in that way. It is what he and his friend, the painter Catherine Murphy, share: they refuse to become dependable producers, which is why I admire them and have written about them at length.

Working within the size constraint of 16 by 20 inches, Nozkowski doesn’t use the same palette twice in the 26 paintings dated between 1974 and 2003 — a span of nearly 30 years — included in the exhibition. And while it is clear that the same person made all these works, and that none of their juxtapositions of color, shape, or materiality are arbitrary, the shifts within a work remain fresh and surprising, even after — as in my case — seeing some of these works many times.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (7-10)” (1992), 16 x 20 inches, © Thomas Nozkowski, photography by Tom Barratt

What are the red-striped forms we are looking at in “Untitled (8-44)” (2003)? They look like balloons, pennants, hot dogs, and none of what I just wrote. At the same time, I think it is important to point out that the shapes are not eccentric; they look like something we have seen. What is the structure holding these shapes aloft? Am I the only one who is reminded of ribbons?

What about the internal pressure of the central form rising from the bottom edge in “Untitled (2-22)” (1982)? Made of four different shapes, each painted somewhat differently, the overall configuration comes off as awkward and blunt. There are four forms nestled in the melting raspberry-colored ground of “Untitled (6 – 73)” (1989). Three of them are porous and tonally related to the ground. However, Nozkowski overlays both the forms and the ground with a vertically aligned, solid green ellipse, as if he wanted to ensure that the painting wouldn’t melt away.

Throughout his career, Nozkowski has repeatedly found ways to do something unlikely and unexpected. He has coaxed a graphic, cartoony form out of a scumbled, outlined surface, and nestled a thinly painted shape between two solidly painted forms, undoing the stability of the figure-ground relationship. His paintings have pentimenti, clouds, and cascades. Shapes extend inward from all four sides or sit awkwardly near the center.

The work’s resistance to language — from description to theory — is remarkable. If Nozkowski were a musician, it is likely that he would never want to play the same solo twice. This is what happens in his paintings and it is miraculous.

Thomas Nozkowski: 16 X 20 continues at Pace Gallery (510 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 15.

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John Yau

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the...

One reply on “Thomas Nozkowski, a Master Improviser”

  1. John Yau, Thank you for a wonderful review of Tom Nozkowski’s work. I’ve admired the magical presence and versatility of expression for a long time. The diversity and surprise of each painting is so vital in this world of ‘followers’. Is is easy to recognize a Nozkowski painting without indentifying any particular subject. Once again you have echoed my thoughts and made me think again about the importance of what paint can do. B. Grad.

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