Thomas Nozkowski: The Last Paintings
On ViewPace Gallery
September 10 – October 23, 2021
It’s always a bittersweet occasion when a longtime colleague in the arts, and an amiable light in the larger world, is celebrated with a show of final works. One gets used to dialoguing with one’s approximate contemporary’s work in medias res, as it happens, a living and ever evolving discussion, and one that can yet be held with the artist themselves. I knew Tom Nozkowski as a teaching colleague in the early 2000’s at The Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University, and subsequently followed his development closely, primarily after he came to be represented by Pace by the middle of that decade. Prior to then it was James Siena who brought my attention to his work. What initially impressed me was Tom’s specific attitude toward the history of abstract painting of which he saw himself an extension. He de-fogged the mystique of the Abstract Master into a series of pragmatic encounters with the world. He translated these into his working process as a progression of local decisions in image, texture, and composition. Each of his paintings wind up as amalgams of geometric and biomorphic abstraction of varying scale, color, and pattern that appear to me to be an invented pictographic language analogous to one thing leading to the next. He eschewed a priori formalisms, in other words, in favor of a personalized formal language in which he could speak freely, in his native tongue, back to the history of abstraction. I always found it a bit troubling that this attitude seemed to gain for Tom a reputation as an easily accessible popularizer of (formerly aloof) abstract painting, as that tended to reduce his stance to a reactionary one. His inventions mostly remain deeply personal and wittily abstruse and so fortunately elude such a broad generalization.
I’ve used the term “lapidary” in the past to describe the artist’s approach to composition. An excellent example of this can be seen in Untitled (9-69) (2019) in which a bright yellow central field is rounded by a granularly-scaled series of black circles, squares, and triangles, which is then encircled by a multicolored band of rectangles and triangles in a veritable cloisonné embeddedness. The painting leaves wide room for the viewer’s contemplation in its relatively blank center while the artist’s machinations roam the periphery. It’s a classic Nozkowski move that sets in radical question the artist’s equivocal investment in symbolic content of the iconic strain. Untitled (9-70) (2017) reverses the compositional equation by centering what appear to be an array of hieroglyphic puzzle pieces in a variety of closely-valued hues of yellow, orange, violet and blue in a rectangle bordered by an undersaturated yellow. These pressurized glyphs seem to be scrambling in their desire to make up a decipherable meaning in an almost slapstick slippage of ever gaining such. Again, the artist leaves the summary argument as to what an abstract painting might mean up to the viewer, as this brand of built-in unresolvedness does in so much of Nozkowki’s life’s work. Or to quote a student of mine on a recent visit to the show, “It’s like he’s intentionally unintentional.”
Navigating the successive rooms of this show one notices how the artist’s fairly consistent choice of proportion in canvases—22 × 28 inches—contributes to Nozkowski’s reputation as a no-nonsense, anti-hyperbolic practitioner of abstract painting. It’s a very intimate proportion and formally equivocal in itself as it reads spatially somewhere between a landscape and a portrait. This seems to have offered the artist a non-aligned zone of possible combinations of associative form so that one is constantly made to find one’s “grounding” in these abstract “mirrors.” At times this rather sideways reading of space gets a formal rhetorical boost from the artist, a prime example being two paintings in which what look like bands of tidal-shaped striations of sand lay across activated fields of counterpoised shapes. Untitled (9-66) (2019) does this, as does, to a lesser extent, Untitled (9-44) (2015). A similar “flow” or streaming of imagery across one’s optical “window” characterizes much of the work in this show yet in differing degrees of complexity. In one of the artist’s most dense compositions here, and of larger proportion (30 × 40 inches), a central disc of loopily quartered green, red, blue, and yellow teeters amidst a clamorous cadre of secondary abstract arrays that channel Kandinsky, Klee, and perhaps even a touch of O’Keefe. Yet all seems to sway in an amniotic pool the artist sets in motion with his shape and color juxtapositions. One doesn’t really interpret such paintings so much as immediately respond to the artist’s impulse toward a simply sympathetic liquidity. The element of fundamental play in such an encounter is undeniable, as an infant might happily interact with a crib mobile, or as an adult might momentarily muse at the aleatory jumble of a junk drawer.
The very last painting Nozkowski finished was Untitled (9-68) (2019). It stands out relative to the artist’s more complex compositions in the show in its seemingly more direct process. A field of densely brushed emerald green surrounds three rainbow-stained personnages trudging across the bottom of the picture, reminiscent of William Kentridge’s trundling refugees and abject pilgrims, or Max Ernst’s biomorphic irruptions in his decalcomania paintings. The painting is incredibly evocative of where Nozkowski was potentially headed in its broad, painterly appeal to a primary gestalt. In Martin Puryear’s moving remembrance of his longtime friend in the show’s catalogue, he makes a very apt correlation between how Aboriginal peoples in Australia1 feel their present way through an ancestral landscape and Tom’s predilection for “walking out” his aesthetics rather than overpacking any artistic baggage in advance. Something of that pragmatic approach to quotidian epiphany strongly infuses the rooms of this, his final ramble.
- Puryear’s own point of reference was Bruce Chatwin’s 1987 book, The Songlines.