Sir Howard Hodgkin tempts an oxymoron: Intimism with bravura. The painting
in his show entitled "After Vuillard" signals an allegiance
with the works of the French symbolist renowned for his fusion of interiority
and decoration. But a Hodgkin tends to feel like Vuillard repainted
by Franz Kline, the Abstract Expressionist, with the latter's butch,
boisterous, and emphatic brushstrokes. Another analogy would be of an
impatient giant trying to paint Persian miniatures.
suggest an element of buffoonery, yet his work is marked by subtlety
and emotional range. He is an incredible colorist, not just because
of his penchant for high octane hues and daring juxtapositions, but
equally because of the balancing act he achieves between big strokes
and delicate modulations.
Sir Howard literally
and metaphorically works upon the conventional easel picture, choosing
as his support ready-framed wooden boards. His brushstrokes violate
distinctions between frame and pictorial window -self-consciously, of
course - so that by doing so the boundaries are actually accentuated.
This personalized convention is bolstered by a further Hodgkinesque
painting device: a brushy, open rectangular form that pictorially frames
interior painterly incident.
In the hands of
a lesser artist, all this would soon become formulaic, but Sir Howard
seems, instead, to have invented a painting form with the expressive
potential of the sonnet: the Hodgkin frame-within-the-frame actually
operates as a starting point, the very opposite of a frame with its
connotations of closure.
He goes way beyond
the modern convention of decorated frames stretching through Seurat
and Klimt to the Pre-Raphaelites. He is insisting on the dual nature
of painting as thing and depiction, defined at the outset of the modern
movement by Vuillard's colleague Maurice Denis with his famous assertion
that a painting is "essentially a flat surface covered with colors
assembled in a certain order."
The Gagosian Gallery
rather feels like an old master collection where each image has been
painted over by a vandal, albeit one with exquisite taste. There is
often a sense of another picture lurking beneath the surface, that the
bold strokes on top obscure more delicate ones beneath. There is also
the feeling that these thick, fast, somewhat oafish marks are personally
encoded commentaries on paintings of the past, with weird compressions
of nuance and precision, or perhaps the opposite, the blow-up of these
used to be a hallmark of this artist, corresponding to a contemplative
mood, and there are several small works in this show that suggest no
let-up in this direction. "Mud," 2002, a sparse image of 15
x 18 inches, consists of a murky green rectangle cropping a smattering
of black and the exposed, battered, grainy wood of the support: It is
an essay in preciousness and poise.
Sir Howard has cranked upped his size, modifying his touch in proportion.
An agitated scribbliness that relates to early work by his peer David
Hockney is new in his handling, and there's also a more voluptuous,
wet looseness that recalls de Kooning's example as well as the latter's
remark that "flesh was the reason oil paint was invented."
The speed, daring, and fluency of Sir Howard's recent paintings suggest
an artist self-consciously entering his "old age" style. This
bolsters the connection with old masters painting. It also links the
expansion in his painterly range with a sense of mortality, of existential
oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches
November 27 cover shows Untitled (8-44), 16 x 20 inches
Courtesy Max Protetch Gallery
could be described as an abstract un-expressionist: his works ooze reticence.
His intense quirky compositions with their tight drawing and contained
painterly effects are in marked contrast with the passionate, gushing
romanticism of Howard Hodgkin.
At the outset of
his career in the 1970s Mr. Nozkowski headed off the dominant trend
towards reductive, open field painting with a determination to work
small, at an easel, drawing a distinctive form vocabulary from things
personally observed. In interviews he has identified some of his sources:
a history of the Crusades, old architectural journals picked up in a
library sale, fabrics, cartoons.
Motifs are heavily
filtered through the artist's very particular sensibility, arriving
at the canvas or page abstracted in the sense that any legible specifics
from their earlier incarnation are heavily disguised.. It is not even
that they are puzzles asking to be decoded.
he is something of a traditionalist in that he insists on figure-ground
relationships. This gives his paintings the energy of still-lives or
portraits but without the anecdotal incident that comes with actual
depiction. And while his paintings bring to mind artists like Miró
and Klee, they are free of overt psychological content. Nozkowski "figures"
are types but not archetypes
The artist has a
peculiar dead-pan touch, again to be defined in negatives. He is not
a minimalist: on the contrary, there is enormous variety in the quality
of marks he puts down; but nor is he an expressionist who invests textures
or strokes with "personality." His colors are odd and interesting
but never terribly pleasant. The ultimate irony of his diffident yet
involved touch and his insignificant but insistent signs is that he
is not an ironist, either. So what is Thomas Nozkowski?
The answer, I think,
is that he is a truly radical abstract artist. There is an incredible
sensation in a Nozkowski exhibition that although each painting is unmistakably
his from a mile away, no two paintings are really alike. The enigma
is always self-contained: The eye is detained and engaged within the
picture. Taking to heart Kant's definition of beauty as "purposiveness
without purpose," Mr. Nozkowski has found a great means by which
to keep himself-and us-busy.