"Selected Paintings 1980-1990" Brochure with essay by Charles Hagen
Born in Teaneck, New Jersey, 1944
Cooper Union Art School, New York City, B.F.A., 1967
"Significant forms: Thomas Nozkowski’s Paintings" by Charles Hagen
The achievements of abstraction in art, the recognition that a work of art can have emotional and intellectual significance apart from any reference it may make to the world outside, is generally considered to be the central accomplishment of modernism. Just what constitutes abstraction, though, has been the subject of debate, with some defining it as the process of shaping and simplifying the forms of the visible world, while others reserve the term for the construction of a picture composed of lines, shapes, and colors that make little or no reference beyond the work itself. But no matter how it is defined, the enthusiasm with which abstraction was greeted in the early decades of the century has long since given way to querulous mistrust. The sense of discovery and technological process that provided the central drive of modernism has been replaced by a warier doubt about the future, and the various claims made for abstraction – that it could depict a world of spiritual meaning beyond the physical, or provide a more profound form of perception, or reflect the tangled workings of the psyche – have also been called into question.
Untitled, 1989 (6-72) 16 x 20 inches, oil on canvasboard
Like many other painters today who work within its broad tradition, Thomas Nozkowski regards abstraction as a capacious visual language with its own distinctive and fluid vocabulary. The metaphor is an inexact one; painting does not offer the systematic transformation that a grammar does. But it can provide a way of producing a remarkably broad range of expressions, each subtly differentiated from the next. For Nozkowski, the connection between abstraction and language is more than an easy analogy. The flat, hard-edged shapes that appear one in front of another in his paintings have a consistent, richly evocative quality. They suggest the letterforms of an intuitively derived alphabet, or arcane proofs in a geometry in which emotional and compositional elements are connected. Stacked as they are, they recall contour maps, with the forms like cross sections of oddly sheared mountains.
Despite the reduced, geometrical quality of these forms, they are based on Nozkowski's attempts to paint images that capture the emotional resonance of events in his everyday life. Typically, he starts with a particular physical detail from an experience: the shape of a patch of sunlight, a leaf, or a cloud; an image suggested by a book he is reading; a passage in an earlier work of art seen in a museum. He then extracts a simplified, distilled form from the detail, in the process shaping and inflecting it according to his emotional reaction to the event of which it is part.
This method is closely related to the process by which a picture becomes a pictograph, with one element of the visual representation of a thing being isolated and transformed into an independent formal element with its own meanings. It can then be used to suggest a range of other qualities associated with the thing represented, and can be further abstracted to the point where it is far removed from the original depiction.
Nozkowski's use of secondary, but emotionally charged, details to recall an object or an event also recalls Roland Barthe's idea of the punctum. Barthes noted that in looking at photographs, he found himself drawn to seemingly insignificant details that were capable of piercing the official, societally approved interpretation offered by the picture (which Barthes labeled the studium). These details, Barthes suggested, could produce a sense of emotional surprise, open up unexpected and undefined meanings in the picture. Nozkowski, in effect, isolates and distills the visual forms of details that for him serve a similar purpose. The painting thus becomes a kind of emotional memento, bearing with it the savor of a moment in the past.
At a certain point, the forms begin to take on their own identity, claming an existence independent of, but necessarily linked to, the experiences on which they are based. As he paints the details, Nozkowski translates and transmutes them, bringing to bear his formal intelligence and the exigencies of the act of painting. Although the shapes begin as emotional talismans, Nozkowski finally judges them not as aids to memory but as art. Although some paintings succeed at evoking specific memories, they fail as artworks, and he doesn't exhibit them.
Nozkowski has pursued variations on this same process for many years. For a series of mobiles shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in the early seventies, he cut shapes – all more or less the same size, all similarly hard-edged but irregular geometric figures – out of sheets of pastel-colored clay, rolled thin like cookie dough. After firing the shapes to harden them, he would thread together groups of them on pieces of string, like beads on an abacus or plastic letters on a child's crib toy. Arranged in specific sequences in this manner, the objects assumed the quality of letters from an idiosyncratic visual alphabet, whose meaning was conveyed by allusion and formal suggestion rather than societal convention or pictographic resemblance.
In the late sixties and early seventies, before he began producing ceramic mobiles, Nozkowski produced streams of drawings in which figures of the same sort appeared. He often sat down in the evening and made as many drawings as he could - sometimes as many as fifty or more in a single session - based on books, earlier art, or whatever. One set of these drawings, drawn in white ink on blue paper, was based on a book on medieval architecture he happened to be reading at the time. Each drawing consists of a single flat, solid-white form centered on the page. Some obviously refer to architectural layouts of castles, and are based on illustrations in the book; others present simplified, almost iconic images of typical motifs of medieval architecture – barred gates, for instance, or turreted walls. The art historian Joseph Masheck once remarked that Nozkowski depicted simultaneously both in plan and in elevation – an idea that Nozkowski quotes approvingly.
Much of the power of Nozkowski's distinctive shapes comes from the tension between the intuitive way in which they are made and the starkness of their physical appearance. He began to produce them at the height of minimalism, and it is not difficult to relate them to Carl Andre's featureless metal squares or the simple forms of Ellsworth Kelly's paintings. Even though the shapes are based on Nozkowski's immediate, gestural response to complex situations, they have the definitive, object-like sureness of advertising logos or mass-produced goods. Their flat, geometric shapes and rich color link them with the art of Tantric Buddhism and other non-Western traditions as well.
Untitled, 1990 (6-100) 16 x 20 inches, oil on canvasboard
Another distinctive characteristic of Nozkowski's work is its small size. He forgoes the monumental scale that was common in painting of the fifties and eighties where it was often intended to evoke the spiritual or the architectural. He also avoids the human, psychological scale of painting used in the forties in favor of a small format, usually sixteen-by-twenty inch horizontal, that demands quiet attention. The diminutive size of the works also strengthens their suggestion of devotional objects. With their rich, glistening color, the paintings take on the focused, carefully crafted quality of early Renaissance panel paintings or Russian icons. These are not landscapes of emotion or form that invite the viewer to enter the work's pictorial space, nor are they theatrical narratives, with the forms suggesting life-size characters; instead, they remain pictures, images of something else rather than objects in themselves or stages for existential confrontations between viewer and painting. They are postcards rather than monuments.
But the sense of intimacy and preciousness given the paintings by their small size is contradicted by their uniformity. In fact, Nozkowski paints on standard canvas-covered panels of the sort mass-produced for hobbyists. He notes that working in such a small format allows him to repaint a work quickly, and to change his image in any way he likes without having to consider how much effort it would take to do so. Equally important, though, is the fact that he simply works best in a smaller format. From time to time, he has tried to paint on a larger scale, but invariably the intensity of his figures is dissipated; moreover, the painting itself loses its sense of conviction, its certainty.
The tension between expressive handwork and smoothed-out stylization is central to Nozkowski’s paintings. He often contrasts one formal element with another, playing off thickly painted, highly textured areas against smooth, thinly covered passages, or angular figures against curvy ones. He employs color in a similar, almost schematic way, typically using only three or four unmodulated colors in a given work. Despite the rich intensity and emotional suggestiveness of many of the colors he uses, Nozkowski claims that color is important to him chiefly as a way of clarifying the definition of his forms and their connections to other forms. Because of this, he often uses hues that are almost complementary, to set up the strongest possible contrasts between two shapes, or that are closely related, to establish links between areas. In doing so, he strengthens the maplike qualities of his paintings, with the structure of an image articulated through a carefully defined system of more or less arbitrary chosen colors.
Thus in Untitled (6-55), 1988, five ovals, two olive green and three orange red, sit on top of, or in the middle of, a flowing patch of white that itself is superimposed on a brushy, slate-blue background. The opposition between the red and green ovals is complicated by the thin edge of green that seems to have slipped out from behind the red forms. Nozkowski adds still another layer to the already intricate relationships in the painting by enclosing a patch of blue background within the white area, creating a negative space that threatens to become a separate foreground shape in its own right. Moreover, a lobe seems about to pull away from the left edge of the white form, threatening to become yet one more independent oval shape.
This relatively simple image suggests a great deal of movement and potential change. With its layered structure of similar but separate shapes in opposing colors, the painting appears to be halfway between a map and a diagram – a flowchart for a computer program, or an organizational chart. But the sprawling red, green, and white shape teeters on the bottom edge of the picture, counteracting the sense that it is simply a free-floating graphic element or a schematic shape seen from above.
Virtually all the figures in Nozkowski’s paintings rest more solidly on the bottom of the picture. Subjected to gravity in this way, they seem to come from, and refer back to, the physical world. With its carved curves, the white columnar form in Untitled (6-42), 1987, might be a marble futurist sculpture, while the orange and black figure in Untitled (6-43), 1988, suggest either a cartoon version of a double-lunged bagpipe or a stylized rendering of a bird taken from the art of some prehistoric culture.
The cartoonlike quality of this image can be found in many other paintings as well. Nozkowski has worked for many years as the production director of Mad magazine, and it is tempting to try to relate the two facts. But to do so would run the risk of oversimplifying his art. Nozkowski’s central achievement has been to come up with these complexes of forms, each of which embodies a wealth of allusions and references, either to things in the world, styles from art or popular culture, or formal qualities. Perhaps it is this richness of reference that most clearly distinguishes the work of contemporary abstract painters from that of their predecessors. For Nozkowski, as for many of his peers, among them Gary Stephan, David Reed, and Elizabeth Murray, a painted mark or form is simply not an existential gesture, the formal embodiment of an emotion, or a structural element within a self-referential pictorial system; instead the shapes in his paintings are resolutely figural, deeply imbued with hints of the world beyond the picture as well as of a host of stylistic sources. His work, moreover, is marked by a postpop eclecticism in its references to visual styles from outside the world of art.
"Abstraction is a very broad language," Nozkowski says. "All the formal discoveries have been made, it would seem. But there’s still an immense amount of discovery to be made about content and the use of abstraction in presenting content."1 In the strikingly simplified forms of his paintings, Nozkowski offers a host of references and allusions, holding them in a delicate yet charged balance. He thus partakes in the current process of questioning and redefinition of the nature of subject in art, joining the long tradition of painters who have engaged in similar efforts.
In a famous exchange, from 1904, Cezanne told his friend Emile Bernard that he conceived of art as a "personal apperception. I situate this apperception in sensation, and I ask the intelligence to organize it into a work." When Bernard asked whether by sensations her meant those of his feelings or those of his retina, Cezanne replied: "I think that there cannot be a separation between them; besides, being a painter I attach myself first of all to visual sensation."2 The question Cezanne confronts here is one that Nozkowski and other painters, whether working in abstraction or representation, continue to face: how to achieve a meaningful balance between sensation and intelligence, perception and emotion, in the process of making a painting. It is a question that must continually be asked anew, and one that can only be answered provisionally, again and again, through the problematic and profound act of painting itself.