Round Table on Thomas Nozkowski, from 2015
A TOPICAL PICK FROM THE ARCHIVES brings up a piece from the vaults of renewed relevance. On the occasion of his recently opened exhibition at Pace Gallery, Thomas Nozkowski 16 x 20, a 19-year survey of works all conforming to the size of the show title, here is our Roundtable discussion from this 2015 exhibition at the same venue. That show was of recent work, but it is in the nature of Nozkowski’s enterprise that discussion of one body of work services another very well. Moderator David Cohen’s guests were Joseph Masheck, David Brody, Alexander Ross, Marjorie Welish, Jennifer Riley and Raphael Rubinstein. The exhibition continues at 510 West 25th Street through February 15.
At his opening, I told Thomas Nozkowski that his latest show at Pace Gallery — almost entirely the work of the last year or two despite its amplitude, with densely hung drawings and paintings of different sizes — had the feel less of a commercial gallery show of new work, and more of a kind of scholarly museum exhibition. His jocular response was something along the lines that if institutions aren’t doing it he needed to himself. This seems a good starting point for a discussion about an abstract painter who breathes new life into that most hackneyed and over-used of phrases, the painter’s painter. Why does his phenomenal following among artists barely register with museums, or make much of a dent in the pocketbooks of collectors even? But I’m imposing already with such a leading question. Let me back up and ask my distinguished guests — artists, curators, critics — the same question more circumspectly: what is Nozkowski’s status, and does that status in your opinion do him justice? How do you view this current show: does a close-knit, almost narrative hang serve the work best? What, in your opinion, is the relationship of painting to drawing in his oeuvre? Where does Nozkowski come from, stylistically and intellectually, and where is he going, in terms of influence and impact upon painting culture?
I asked my participants to choose an image from the show they would like reproduced with their submissions. For the record, Marjorie Welish declined to do so, explaining that “I’d truly prefer not to choose one above the rest but instead allow other respondents’ choices to represent the body of works, so that readers are challenged to engage the ideas across the show as a whole.” Alexander Ross chose as his image the installation shot above. DAVID COHEN
JOSEPH MASHECK: What a beautiful show just to “regard”: it almost seems like self-indulgence to write about it. It was awfully nice of Tom to mention me at his Rob Storr-moderated conversation (with artist James Siena, April 10) because I have to say that it ticks me off when somebody thinks your writing was actually too early for the stage-management of the career. The dealer of the English painter Jeremy Moon [1934-1973] was once doing an exhibit in a vitrine of Moon’s press cuttings but didn’t really want my Studio International article of 1969 because the prematurely dead artist is only now to be rediscovered! Anyway, it’s a matter of disclosure to say that I published on Nozkowski in 1981, 1985, 1988, and 2008, and curated a show at Nature Morte in 1983.
I like the question of this artist’s ambiguity of status: whether we want to elect him a master and kowtow or whether we want him to be like a nice accessible democratic personality in the way John Dewey might have liked, when America aspired to be a leader of democracy (but now that there’s only one game in town …) — which he is. For example: I have a constitutional distaste for “sublimity” as a term of approbation; and confess, by way of illustration, that Serra’s late way of hitting me over the head is distasteful (no wonder “the suits” like it). I think this is a way of saying that, though I would never be prescriptive about scale, the fairly small size of most Nozkowskis is fine with me. In fact, this show — which is better than the last because the drawings don’t seem to be so didactically related to the paintings, as before and after — positively gains by having the drawings be smaller still than the otherwise normal-sized paintings.
As soon as I got acquainted with it, the show made me conscious that I have always had an, I think, interesting problem in my head when it comes to Nozkowski’s sense of “variety,” even though that is also part of a distinct personal style: that is, how like Klee he is in this. I mean, only insofar as we are considering the shape of the overall oeuvre, because Tom isn’t really an expressionist — he is too concerned with what effect the next mark will have on what’s already there. But then again, don’t we all put the Klee slides (if you still have any!) apart until the end of our planned lecture on expressionism, because they have a similar quality? I don’t want to overemphasize this because I don’t want style to be the key thing, but there is a connective strand, I think: (a) a chamber-music scale that is most clearly like one person’s addressing another, or a few (John Russell once said that Schubert would not have understood the idea of a concert in a “hall full of fee-paying strangers”); and (b) a funny way of admitting constructive ideas if they can be sort of “melted” into the DIY orthodox-expressionist mix.
I didn’t mean to use up three paragraphs in generalities, because always I love the “object” of painting, especially when it’s as good as we have here.
DAVID BRODY: I’m going to reach a little here and say, about Tom Nozkowski’s consistently excellent body of work, that there’s something distinctively American about it: the matter-of-factness, the nakedness of the process, the humble sources of ecstatic revelation — I’m thinking of the lineage of Arthur Dove, Charles Burchfield and Mitlon Avery, and also more broadly of Stuart Davis, Charles Demuth, Agnes Martin, Agnes Pelton and Al Held. All these visionary modernists share a quasi-religious drive for simplicity, which seeks the small in the large and the large in the small. What makes them especially American is their skepticism about systems of belief, their rejection of received rules, their yeoman/DIY empiricism, and the courage to entertain naïveté.
Nozkowski embodies this tradition for me in abstract paintings that are far too smart to get caught up in nostalgia about any of that. If he lets “nature” into the work, it’s just another sign along a country road crowded with billboards. Or the billboards might be crumbling relics, their diagrams and ideology overtaken by kudzu. On top of this caricatural grip on semiology, in which all signs are equal, Nozkowski’s practice lays on a second nostalgia-proof coating: an anti-masterpiece stance — beginning in a ‘60s ideological context, as he has explained, of modest paintings suitable for his friends’ tenement apartments and continuing with a scorn for laboriousness, in favor of daily production. Add to that the way he interbreeds motifs and techniques from work to work, and from year to year almost serialistically — painterly abstraction absorbing the spirit, while expunging the letter, of Sol Lewitt.
The sheer profusion of Nozkowski’s enormous output of paintings, drawings, and prints (the prints should ideally be shown alongside!) can even put one in mind of the neutrality of Richard Tuttle or John Baldessari: one thing next to another. The distance between the good, the bad, and the ugly of Nozkowski is a hair’s breadth — ironically, as a result of his nearly perfect pitch and his superb craftsmanship, but also by the design of his disdain for the great, the anxious, the impossible work.
Sometimes this bothers me. Does one ever NOT like a Nozkowski? Is his color ever less than completely digestible? (All painters should have this problem.) Take two of my least favorite paintings in the show, Untitled (9-32) and Untitled (L-38). The first is a little too delightfully Mattissian, and the second feels like bubble gum that Nozkowski could chew in his sleep. They are both still really beautiful and interesting paintings. They might be the best in the show, just for the way they irritate me. The painting I’d pick as my favorite, though, is Untitled (L-37) which seems to combine Turner, Klee and Burchfield — talk about nostalgia. How did we get here?
When I think about Nozkowski’s long employment at Mad Magazine, and the crucial disruption of generations of young minds accomplished by that lonely bastion of unhinged cartooning — it’s as if the universe, out of curiosity, placed a perfectly equipped painter-philosopher at ground zero of a cultural explosion. Did “being a spy in the house of Mad,” as I asked in my artcritical review of Nozkowski’s 2010 show at Pace, allow him to resist the widespread awe of cartoonists, “as cultural magicians rather than versatile deadline professionals?” Did his workaday knowledge inoculate Nozkowski from the cascading effects of Zap Comix and of Philip Guston’s return to his own cartoon sources, after which the dam of imagistic American painterliness had burst? Similarly, perhaps, Burchfield’s day job as a wallpaper designer made him, if anything, cannily resistant to the seductions of pure patterned abstraction, favored by Theosophically inclined modernists since Mondrian.
ALEXANDER ROSS: Here we are once again engaging with words to further grasp something about what an artist has already shown us directly. There are at least two kinds of knowing; the naming, hashing verbal kind, and the picturing way. So, using the former method I will champion the latter! Nozkowski is an excellent example of the visually intuitive, brain-training kind of artist. By that I mean if you do something over and over again for many decades, even if what you do is leaping this way and that with full faith in intuitive moves and a responsive eye to visual inventiveness, you will establish your own beautifully stubborn neuronal pathways that will lead, perforce, to more of the same. In his case, it is often remarked that there seems to be no end of novelty in his works, and yet they somehow always look like Nozkowskis. And here’s why: there is a naturally occurring restraint located at the edge of what Noskowski would never think of doing, but within which Nozkowski has endless freedom of invention. These paintings and drawings are boundary markers of his uniquely habitual brain ruts. The man simply has the healthy habit of trying to break habits that he will in a larger way always be bound to, and we enjoy his tireless attempts, yet unconsciously sense his natural limits. His awesome contribution is to have achieved a distinguished visual persona solely via the trust placed in the brain’s natural tendency to show itself pictorially when given the means. It is that unashamed directness of showing that gives his works such inherent high quality, and it’s the high quality of the works that, like a least-expected miracle, make a sudden parting of the (mostly) dreadful contemporary art waters and allow for the firm establishment of island Nozkowski. Anachronistic work? Yes, perhaps, in the grand sweep of the buzzing “now”, but no less than other great, out-of-synch actors like Bonnard or Balthus. Strong and solid things do tend to last, I’ve noticed.
MARJORIE WELISH: The informality of the display is the perfect rhetorical complement to certain aspects of Nozkowski’s signature style: not scholarly because more intuitively grouped than would be desired in an explanatory retrospective led through an argument of some kind, this hang found a way to make a commercial gallery into a studio with a sense of process fresh on the walls.
Process here, however, enters in the sense of image always uppermost in Tom’s work for as long as I have known it. If anything, the painterliness of his early images is much less here as than in recent shows: much less impasto and pigmental wet-in-wet stuff on the canvas and rather more in evidence is the drawing — that is to say, design, and with design, a willful undermining or exaggerating error or swagger. The concetto puts good design on notice. Meanwhile, the layering of ground and relation of figure to ground is consistently contrastive, however apparently diverse appear the devices and the color. One of Tom’s strengths has always been that he does indeed understand the nature of an image to be, not an object seen in actuality, but a metamorphosis. He understands that only insofar as metamorphosis of the data has occurred does an image come about.
So knowing something of his generation is quite informative since this knowledge supplies something of an answer concerning Nozkowski’s culture and style. Joseph Masheck really should say something about that, given that as Editor-in-Chief he was instrumental in selecting Tom’s art for the pages of Artforum yet also in selecting some others who are still even now quite compatible stylistically.
As against the art constructs of Minimal or even Postminimal kinds, and certainly as a defense against Conceptual procedures, some artists adhered to a vernacular rendering, at times focusing on image driven through a folkloric or outsider stance, primitivist in nature. Decidedly not bijou, Nozkowski’s canvases early on expressed — can one say espoused? — this sensibility. In any event, this characterization provides some sense of orientation to his personal style and culture.
Other narratives of our contemporary moment would persuade us that art is not personal but impersonal, insofar as aesthetic ideology and/or an ahistorical thesis necessitates art’s coming into being. Further discussion could engage this argument.
JENNIFER RILEY: I have a large capacity for viewing and taking in works made by others, but this show was too big in a great way. I often visit shows I like sometimes two, three, four times, but seldom simply to finish seeing the whole show, as was the case here.
The story of Tom being an insider’s artist who slowly became visible is so well known that the notion of his ambiguous status worries me. I believe its a matter of minutes not decades before we will see or learn of major museum retrospectives. Tom simply occupies a sizable plot in the hearts and minds of the city’s artistic cognoscenti. Everyone wins when the good guy wins.
Tom is highly regarded by many artists because his work sits outside of fashion trends but always feels smart and of the moment. He is a studio worker who sustains a practice that clearly engages and activates his own imagination at full tilt.
I love the inclusion of both types of drawings in this exhibit, suggesting a nonhierarchical regard towards the artist’s output. I find it extremely satisfying to see drawings that inform paintings and vice versa. This offers opportunity to consider an image-group and discover the alternate attitudes of the various approaches.
I’d wager that few of us enjoy reading wall texts and looking at inkjet printouts on a wall yet thankfully from time to time we have an intensely rich, delightfully overhung, complicated show of a fierce and independently-minded individual who happens to be a master colorist, humorist and aesthete all in one.
To consider the question of where Nozkowski comes from, stylistically and intellectually, and where is he going, I immediately go to the beginning of Modern art: Picasso, Matisse, Gris, Leger, Braque, Villon, Klee, Mondrian and on over to America to artists still current and working when Tom was coming up, such as Albert Stadler, Walter Darby Bannard, Paul Feeley but also Nicholas Krushenick among many others. I am not sure of those influences- that is to say, whether or not they were his influences — but I make my own connections and nothing would surprise me more than to find out from Tom who he’s looking at or thinking about now. Recently it was Watteau!
He knows painting culture and art history, and he knows how to engage with it fruitfully. And then there are the comic books, cartoons, Mad Magazine, and graphic design. The variety of imagery that Tom presents only seems rarer today because there has been a narrowing influence — either from the academies (the professionalism of art) or from the marketplace (the speculation on art and artists careers) or both — in gallery exhibitions.
My concern is more for young artists entering the field who have not had time to deepen their initial projects and yet are vacuumed up into the machinery of art. I see a return to very handmade things in some groups of younger artists but I also hear and see a disconnect due to recent decades of de-skilling. Several younger artists have turned away from using technology altogether in their practices and have begun to teach themselves how to draw, paint and sculpt. I find this to be a good thing. Those who work with their hands, not machines or who do not rely on the labor of others to make their work, who don’t care to merely illustrate ideas or curator’s objectives may find Nozkowski to be a perfect role model. Tom’s work however is so much his own that I put him in a category with Cézanne: it is a branch few can walk out on.
RAPHAEL RUBINSTEIN: Yes, Thomas Nozkowski should be getting serious attention from U.S. museums, and should have gotten it long ago, as should many other New York abstract painters of his generation. I suspect that most of them have all but given up on the hope of full-scale retrospectives (at least in their hometown) and probably would echo Nozkowski’s DIY sentiment. Alas, they are probably right. Despite the market’s seemingly boundless enthusiasm for painting (especially, of late, for abstract modes), and despite the expansion of museums in number and size, there has been almost no interest in examining the recent history of New York painting. The only two exceptions that come to mind are “High Times Hard Times,” Katy Siegel’s 2006 exhibition at the National Academy, and my own “Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s,” at Cheim and Read in 2013, which included a work by Nozkowski. Significantly, neither of these historically-themed shows happened in the mainstream museum world.
Putting aside for the moment the question of why Nozkowski and others have been subject to official neglect, let’s turn to the show at hand. The quantity, and the quality of this quantity and, perhaps most importantly, its diversity, come across as a major statement, which is rather surprising for this artist who, as our compère rightly notes, seems to fit nicely into the category of the “painter’s painter.” One of the requirements for being a “painter’s painter” is reticence, developing a style that seems, at least superficially, modest, declining all bombast, and any hint of wanting to make a big art-historical statement. It also helps to paint small. Nozkowski has met these superficial requirements, working at a consistently small scale (which has grown in nearly imperceptible increments over the decades), issuing no explicit challenges in technique or content to the legacy of modernist abstraction, exhibiting no hunger for iconoclasm or transgression. Of course, if one looks at the work more closely, there are all kinds of innovations and transgressions in Nozkowski’s work but they are always subtle and never announce themselves as such.
Nozkowski’s avoidance of high drama can lead viewers to discount his work. I have to confess that, for many years, this was my attitude. I never doubted that he was a “good” painter, one whose paint-handling and ability to create spatially complex compositions were impressive, but I mistakenly equated the small scale and the absence of attitude with lack of art-historical ambition; I was also confused by his unprogrammatic diversity, his sheer self-permissiveness. I believed (again, mistakenly) that an important contemporary painter was one who grappled with difficult contemporary themes, set out to demolish some cherished aspect of the medium, engaged in some Oepidal struggle or otherwise emulated historic avant-gardes.
Eventually, I saw the error of my ways and became, like nearly every artist I know in New York, a Nozkowski fan. As for the scale of his ambition—the current show is dizzyingly audacious. Each painting or work on paper in it could plausibly be the foundation of another artist’s entire career. Every few steps one discovers that the artist has yet again shattered the components of his art and reassembled them in an entirely new configuration. A dark ground gridded with pinhole points of jewel-like colors might give way to a neo-Cubist design of pastel hues and black lines while nearby Matisse’s Blue Nudes join a troupe of daredevil acrobats. Every few steps the kaleidoscope shakes and turns and there’s a new tangle of bifurcating rhizomes, Byzantine mosaics rearranged by some mescaline logic, gossamer textiles, baroque doodles, coral reefs, fractal enlay, star maps, fractured puzzles, Suprematist patches, flowering ornaments of every possible variety. If this show can be said to be about any one thing, it’s the necessity of growth. This has been a long winter, but now, the artist is reminding us, it’s the turn of spring.
cover image, 2018: Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (7-10),” 1992. Oil on canvas, 16 x 20 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery
Joseph Masheck, editor in chief of Artforum from 1977-80 and longstanding contributing editor of Art in America, is the author, most recently, of Texts on (Texts on) Art, 2011. David Brody is a painter and filmmaker who exhibits at Pierogi Gallery as well as a longstanding contributor to artcritical.com. Alexander Ross is an internationally-exhibited painter who shows at David Nolan Gallery, New York. Marjorie Welish, a poet, painter and art critic, is the author of Signifying Art: Essays on Art After 1960 (1999), among other works. Jennifer Riley is a painter and writer and a longstanding contributor to artcritical.com. Poet and art critic Raphael Rubinstein teaches critical studies at the University of Houston. His numerous publications include, recently, The Miraculous (2014) and a monograph on Shirley Jaffe (2015).