A Truly Subversive Artist Is Not Necessarily Someone Who Is Theatrical or Gimmicky

Installation view of "Thomas Nozkowski: New Editions and Related Drawings" at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery (all images courtesy Senior & Shopmaker)

If there is one constant about Thomas Nozkowski that I would single out, it is his lifelong insistence on subverting conventions. In 1974 he began painting on canvas board measuring 16 by 20 inches. (Let’s be clear here — Bill Jensen never painted on this small a surface because it had no historical precedence).

He used an inexpensive, mass-produced product, the same kind that comes in “paint by number” kits and carries associations with “Sunday painters.” No wonder his defiance went largely unnoticed, particularly when the 1980s rolled around.

In that hothouse decade of overstatement, his paintings weren’t big enough to fill three galleries at once; didn’t incorporate piles of broken dishes; had no nudes in soft-porn poses overlaid with nasty, stream-of-consciousness imagery; had no one masturbating. Unlike many of his peers, he made no claims on behalf of his work.

For more than half a century — at least since Hans Namuth’s photographs and film of Jackson Pollock painting — the art world has equated subversion with theatricality, which increasingly plays into mainstream society’s desire for spectacle and distraction. (No wonder there are reasonably intelligent people who think Jeff Koons is radical and even avant-garde.)

Going to The Pace Gallery didn’t change Nozkowski, which you can’t say for every artist who gets picked up by a blue chip venue. In his second exhibition at Pace (October 22 to December 4, 2010), he paired twenty paintings, all of which measured 22 by 28 inches, with the same number of drawings, all of them around 8 by 10 inches.  (Only eighteen pairings were actually shown, with the other two pairs in the office. All twenty pairs were reproduced in the catalog.) The reason for the pairing was simple enough; Nozkowski had done a small drawing in colored pencil after every painting.

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (P-90)"
Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (P-90)" (2010), oil on paper (click to enlarge)

By hanging the painting and drawing next to each other, Nozkowski challenged the viewer to see the works as separate, but related — a further working out of a motif. However, instead of the drawing being a preliminary work for the painting, which is the usual sequence of things, it came after the painting. The point wasn’t to see similarities, but to make more and more distinctions, and to trace the decisions the artist made after leaving one and going to the other.

Even among his most ardent supporters, the consternation was immediate. David Cohen titled his review: “Ground Control to Major Tom: Please re-hang your show.” And yet, what Nozkowski did wasn’t theatrical or, worse, gimmicky. Given that he wanted to show the paintings and their related drawings, he had two choices: to hang the paintings and drawings far apart from each other, or close together. The conventional wisdom is to sequester them in separate quarters. Nozkowski defied that wisdom.

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While the show was up, Nozkowski used the catalogue as the basis for a second series of twenty drawings after the paintings, this time done in black-and-white. (Another constant is his tenacity — he’s got a memory like a steel trap and he never lets go of anything). The twenty black-and-white drawings are now mounted in a grid on one wall of his current show, New Editions and Related Drawings, at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery.  It makes me wish for a show including the twenty paintings and both sets of drawings. A show like that would be a revelation.

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (M-28)"
Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (M-28)" (2011), gouache and colored pencil on print

Drawing is one of the things that holds Nozkowski’s work together. He has done drawings in ballpoint pen — among other materials — in response to books he’s read; recalling movies he’s watched; while remembering art works he’s made or studied; or jotting down, on a moment’s inspiration, things he’s seen — almost none of which we can figure out from looking at the work. At the same time, if he likes a motif in a painting that he’s working on, but knows it has to go, he will move it onto a work on paper. One work leads to another, eventually forming a maze of motifs. One could say this maze is a fairly accurate reflection of Nozkowski’s view of life.

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At the heart of Nozkowski’s practice is improvisation, a willingness to take something (anything) and do something else to it. He seems to have been one of the few of his generation to understand Jasper Johns’s declaration: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it, etc.”

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The other binder in Nozkowski’s work is reflected in a remark he made to me in an interview, where he said that he always “go[es] to the opposite of what the logical move would be.” In other words, he begins by undermining his own immediate assumptions and responses to a particular experience.

This is what subversive artists working in our postmodern epoch share. They don’t have a style, which is, in the end, both a brand and a judgment. How can you produce a brand and be subversive? (It’s like selling torn jeans made by Armani!) Subversive artists always try to undermine conventions, including those that might influence their practice.

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How far does a subversive artist go? Why all the way, of course. In Nozkowski’s case, this means that he does something in his prints that seems counterintuitive. Rather than deriving them from his paintings, as most artists do, he generated a number of his recent ones from drawings. “Untitled #1” (2012) is a 7-plate/8 color aquatint, with a 2-block woodcut comprising thirteen colors. It improvises off of his “Untitled (P-90),” an oil on paper done in 2010. While the print has more than twenty colors, it seems to operate on the principle of bright (light) and muted (dark).

Thomas Kozlowski, "Untitled #1"
Thomas Kozlowski, "Untitled #1" (2012), 7-plate aquatint with 8 colors, 2-block woodcut with 13 colors

Nozkowski joined two shapes — one long and narrow and the other bulky and squarish — along a horizontal border near the top. A thin band, pressing against the  top edge, spans almost its entire width, like an I-beam with angled edges at each end; this has been divided into nearly three dozen different triangles, trapezoids, rectangles, and parallelograms.

Nozkowski further divided the geometric shapes into two groups: the black, gray, and white irregular ones that extend from the top edge; and a band of slightly different-sized rectangles, each done in a different color. The band of rectangles — which lie end to end like a row of children’s blocks — forms a brightly colored zone between the black, gray, and white shapes above and the bulky conglomeration of mutely-colored rectangles below.

A large squarish-form, which is made up of many small, mostly vertical rectangles, hangs down from the I-beam like a beehive surrounded by a cream-colored atmosphere.  It is a mishmash of vertical and horizontal rectangles that are all extremely muted in color. The highly varied but barely visible color seems to have been the result of overlaying the creamy, atmospheric color over the shape’s already muted colors. It looks like the sun reflecting off a wall of colors, making it impossible to see. They have literally been whited-out.

The cumulative effect of these three contrasting elements — the black, gray, and white band, the row of brightly colored rectangles, and the conglomeration of rectangles in which the creamy white has diluted all the colors — is the vertiginous feeling that one is looking at something as well as through something.  Our eyes keep refocusing.

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled #5"
Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled #5" (2012), 4-plate aquatint with 22 colors (click to enlarge)

He achieves similar jarring shifts in a very different way in his etching, “Untitled #5” (2012), a 22-color aquatint, in which variously-sized cream colored hexagons perforate a black field, and the only color is found in the hexagons lined up along the edges.

It’s as if Nozkowski wants to discover how far he can go before something falls apart and becomes chaotic and arbitrary. What an unlikely thing he has done. In “Untitled #1,” he has made most of the print appear as if it is behind a muted white scrim. It is nearly impossible to tell whether the ground is separate from the form or covers it. I cannot think of any other prints that remotely resemble the two I have discussed.

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In the generative oil on paper, “Untitled (P-90)” (2010), which Nozkowski used for “Untitled #1,” the I-beam spanning the top goes from mostly from maroons, reds, and pinks on the left to blues and greens on the right. However, the colors between them don’t seem to follow any logic. Nozkowski undermines viewers’ expectations in different ways throughout a work, encouraging them to take the composition apart and, more importantly, put it back together.

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Nozkowski has been celebrated for being “mercurial” and “provocative”  and making “sumptuous” works (Cohen’s terms). I am reminded of Wallace Stevens who wrote in his poem, “It Must Give Pleasure”:

But the difficultest rigor is forthwith,
On the image of what we see, to catch from that

Irrational moment its unreasoning,
As when the sun comes rising, when the sea
Clears deeply, when the moon hangs on the wall

Of heaven-haven. These are not things transformed.
Yet we are shaken by them as if they were.
We reason about them with a later reason.

We have yet to consider Nozkowski’s work, and all its formal compressions, in a broader context, preferring instead to isolate him. The reasons for this withholding seem obvious—a deeper analysis of his work would go a long way toward subverting the art world’s elevation of all those other artists who possess an abundance of style and opinions, but, in the end, have very little else to offer us.

Thomas Nozkowski: New Editions and Related Drawings is on view at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery (210 Eleventh Avenue, Suite 804, Chelsea, Manhattan) through June 16.

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