Ground Control to Major Tom: Please re-hang your show
Thomas Nozkowski at The Pace Gallery
October 22 to December 4, 2010
510 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th avenues
New York City, 212 255 4044
First, the good news. Thomas Nozkowski’s latest show includes some of his best work to date. There is gorgeous play with scale in these assured, richly colored and diversely textured paintings and drawings. As usual with Nozkowski, the formal elements are neither gratuitous nor an end in themselves. One doesn’t have to read his eloquent interviews to get the back story on the 66 year old artist’s anti-formalism, his conviction that art can embrace one’s life and interests and that modesty of size has political as well as stylistic implications. The energy coming off these works imparts a sense that, in speed of execution and intentionality of composition, they are depictive before they are expressive. Resolutely non-objective in the way they elude analogical description, they nonetheless feel more like pictures than paintings.
Compare him for a moment with Brice Marden, showing a few blocks south at Matthew Marks. I’m not looking for a Manichean opposition between these contemporary masters of lyrical abstraction. There is composition in Marden and gesture in Nozkowski, but in Nozkowski you sense that composition occasions various gestures; in Marden it is the other way around. Again, another caveat: it is not that Nozkowski has an a priori image that the picture merely records. Clearly, the image evolves in the process of execution. But an “as if” hangs over every local decision, every stroke and shape, every weight and density, as if Nozkowski were a genre painter or portraitist whose subject has been lost in the process of making, like the wax original in traditional bronze casting.
A Nozkowski has an unmistakable look. There are motifs and procedures that recur across the decades of his tenacious output. And yet, each picture is absolutely distinct. And each new body of work has a quirk that betokens a restless spirit. He told the British painter Garth Lewis in an interview in the journal Turps Banana, reprinted in Pace’s catalog for his present show, “I actually know how to make a Nozkowski now, and that can be a real trap.” A trap, that is, in his endeavor to avoid a signature style.
A significant departure in his new work is that he appears to have changed the way he goes about making a drawing. Hitherto, Nozkowski’s drawings were pretty much Nozkowski at his exercise but on paper rather than board-mounted linen, and with graphic rather than painterly mediums. There is indeed a group of 18 oil paintings on paper in the back gallery, salon hung in a dense grid to sumptuous effect, that are intermediate alike in scale and in medium-to-support relationship between the paintings and drawings that form the bulk of this exhibition’s display.
The shocker in this show is that Nozkowski has taken to making drawings of his own completed paintings. He explains the new modus operandi to his old friend and collaborator John Yau in an insightful interview in the November issue of the Brooklyn Rail. The new drawing size, just under nine inches by 10, are left over sheets cut down from pages of an artist’s book he had made. “The paper is called Magnani Pescia and it takes color like a kiss,” he explains. “I thought doing a little drawing when the painting was finished might give me a little aesthetic distance, help me understand what I had just done. I quickly discovered it was a great way to cool things down and get the painting out of my head.” He proceeded to do these drawings for every painting in his new show.
Let me state categorically that, as a besotted consumer of his work, I have absolutely no objection to this. They are as gorgeous as any other Nozkowskis. They deliciously raise questions in just the way you’d expect from this mercurial, provocative artist about the nature of his practice, the status of mediums, the ontology of image formation.
Making a graphic work after a painted work is by no means unprecedented. Most prints, traditionally, come after paintings: Alex Katz has called his prints “the final synthesis” of the painted images they are resolved from. William Tucker draws his own sculptures as a means to get to know their intuited formal structure.
But making is one thing, how you show is another. Adding butter to your sauces is lovely; smearing it all over the silverware, not so much. Nozkowski has forcefully paired each painting with its “anima,” its after-the-effort drawing. Even merely as interior décor, the result sucks. As your gaze circumnavigates the gallery the analogy that springs to mind is of dinner and salad plates, as each after-drawing repeats the motive-structure of its parent painting. A very unfortunate association for what is, once we turn to the aesthetic implication of presenting the work this way, a dog’s dinner.
What you simply can’t help doing as you work your way through this show is playing “Spot Waldo.” Ah, he has a stained field in the painting and cross-hatching in the drawing. That blue shape is a gray shape now. The checkerboard has been turned into plaid. The figure is resolute when small, diffuse big. Etc. Ad nauseum.
When you get used to the hardly revolutionary fact that the drawings are not preparatory for the paintings but a commentary upon them, you are still left with a relentless paragone debate: which worked best on this occasion, drawing or painting? It is art exhibition as boxing match, another fixture in the series of which MoMA’s 2003 Picasso-Matisse exhibition will always remain the nail-biting finale where you could not enjoy each artist’s achievements without measuring them up against his rival’s from one turn to the next.
Nozkowski has inadvertently turned himself into a sophomore conceptualist. What is so fabulous about him as an artist is that he always makes you think by feeling and feel by thinking. But this hang clobbers us over the head with a one-dimensional premise. It frustrates the marvel of his output, its diversity, by eliminating the kind of free rhythms that build up in an intuitive rather than programatic installation of the work. In the fulsome survey organized at the National Gallery of Canada last year by Marc Mayer, sixty-two works dating back to 1987 flowed like a waltz from room to room; you constantly moved back and forth looking for, and discovering, unexpected relationships. Here, with this constant der-dum, der-dum, we don’t even get a bolero.
This exhibition – inaugurating Pace’s fiftieth birthday gift to itself, the top-lit old Bartolomi space on West 25th Street – has been given a generous six-week run. Let me therefore make a proposal to the artist: You’ve done your Halloween trick, now give your loyal fans a Thanksgiving treat. Re-hang over the holidays the good old-fashioned way, with drawings grouped apart from the paintings, so we can really savor these works as the great images that they are.