There are many historical pairings and group shows in the art world in recent years that have felt contrived. This is why I had reservations about going to the exhibition Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: True Fictions at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (November 5, 2021–February 26, 2022), curated by Eric Brown. Since Eric Brown is an advisor to the Freilicher estate, and a painter who has been influenced by Nozkowski, I even wondered about the motivations behind the exhibition. However, once I read Brown’s thoughtful essay, “True Fictions,” and particularly the paragraph below, my hesitations and doubts began to vanish: 

This show is not about mutual influence. It is not about personal connection or friendship. It isn’t an intergenerational show, the older painter influencing the younger. Nor does it encourage the divide between abstraction and representation. Rather, it collapses the distinction. The show isn’t tendentious but expansive and open-ended. My hope is that the viewer will come to see these bodies of work anew, each through the lens of the other. 

As Brown states, Freilicher and Nozkowski “met just once.”  I knew from Nozkowski that he liked Freilicher’s paintings and had written a catalogue essay for a show of hers at Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which Brown co-directed for more than two decades. Nozkowski also wrote a tribute for the Academy of Arts and Letters after she died in 2014. 

I am not surprised to learn that he never missed one of her exhibitions, as he possessed a voracious appetite for looking at art and was encyclopedic in his knowledge of a wide range of subjects, from film to detective novels to all kinds of music. Having exchanged emails with him every day, particularly while I was working on his first monograph (2017), and through to his death in 2019, I knew something about his interests and passions. 

Installation view of Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: True Fictions at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. From left: Jane Freilicher, “My Cubism” (2004), oil on linen, 25 x 25 inches, Collection of Jeff Forster and Sandy Deacon – Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York; Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (8-67)” (2005), oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches, Collection of Mark Pollack, New York; Jane Freilicher, “Light Blue Above” (2003), oil on linen, 24 x 24 inches, Private Collection, New York; Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (6-69)” (1988), oil on canvasboard, 16 x 20 inches, Collection of Victoria Munroe, New York

I knew Freilicher, and she invited me to contribute an essay to her first monograph (1986), but we never went beyond the collegial state. And while we know that Nozkowski admired Freilicher’s painting, I have no sense of what she thought of his work, not that it necessarily matters. She liked him enough to reprint his essay in her second monograph (2004). 

Of the 15 paintings in the exhibition, eight are by Freilicher and seven by Nozkowski, all dated between 1997 and 2012. Freilicher’s “At Night” (oil on linen, 32 by 32 inches, 1997) is the largest piece. Nozkowski worked in three sizes, 16 by 20 inches, 22 by 28 inches, and 30 by 40 inches (I believe he made less than a dozen in this last size). While all of Freilicher’s depict flowers set against a cityscape or, in “Light Blue Above” (oil on linen, 24 by 24 inches, 2003), against a field and a body of water, with grass visible on the other side, Nozkowski is an abstract artist whose paintings were always about a personal experience in the broadest sense. An inveterate hiker, many were likely inspired by something he saw while walking in the Shawangunk Mountains, which he began doing as a teenager.

I like that Brown did not include too many paintings. Otherwise, I think the juxtaposition of similarly sized works by two artists from different generations, one well known for her paintings of flowers placed before a city view, the other for his abstract paintings that seldom reveal their inspiration, would not work. What I also found beneficial is that Brown picked none of Nozkowski’s works that referred to the night sky. I think if viewers searched for a shared interest in this subject the show would have been a disaster (Freilicher was not interested in the night sky as a part of what Nozkowski called a “nature abstraction”).

Instead, what comes through is how engaged each artist is with formal issues regarding near and far, figure and ground, and how to keep both in play. The other preoccupation that becomes clear is in making compositions consisting of distinct parts, be they a group of colored flowers set against a different-colored ground or solid-colored shapes against a scumbled or watery ground. In both artists’ work, the tensions and bonds between figure and ground hold our interest, as neither dominates. 

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (8-40)” (2003), oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Private Collection, New York

In Freilicher’s best works in the exhibition, unlikely things happen. Flowers sit on the cusp between recognizable forms and a variety of brushy bursts of color. In “Harmonic Convergence,” the bursts are set against a cityscape that has drifted into a patchwork of tonally related colors, a geometric abstraction. Because Frelicher is most recognized for painting flowers, it is good to be reminded of her formal astuteness as well as her grounding in abstraction, as she studied with Hans Hofmann. Over time, she became a brilliant and subtle colorist.

One of the qualities that I love about Nozkowski’s work is that he did not subscribe to a world governed by Isaac Newton’s belief in cause and effect — he believed that a painting did not have to reveal its source, even if it was in some sense autobiographical. Another aspect is that whatever the source — and some were certainly mundane — he always transformed his experience into a self-contained abstract painting. In the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting embodied the longing to escape the repetitive everyday world. This desire to go beyond the ordinary without forgetting its existence seems to be one motivation that Freilicher and Nozkowski shared. Although they belonged to different generations and found ways to respond to different genres — Abstract Expressionism in Freilicher’s case and Minimalism in Nozkowski’s — as well as the post-easel picture, both refused to become part of the dominant trends. 

By reminding us that it is possible to remain independent and that you don’t have to fit in or do the “right” thing, each artist gave us a great gift. In their different ways, Freilicher and Nozkowski show us, as Barry Schwabsky writes of Nozkowski in his catalogue essay, that “painting [can become] a way of entering the terrain of the nameless.” We might get there faster with Nozkowski’s paintings, but look long enough at one of Freilicher’s paintings and words will begin to fall away. We enter a world of palpable color sensations, as mysterious and nourishing as sunlight.

Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: True Fictions continues at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (87 Eldridge Street, Manhattan) through February 26, 2022. The exhibition was curated by Eric Brown.

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 chapbook, Egyptian...