Thomas Nozkowski at The New York Studio School

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (Q-20) (1977), gouache and acrylic on paper, 29-3/8″ x 22-1/2″; courtesy The New York Studio School

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In its own quietly determined way, the New York Studio School has become among the city’s most significant venues for contemporary art. When I say “contemporary art,” I don’t mean the kind of soulless folderol in the go-go galleries of West 24th Street. I mean art that thrives on its own autonomous merits, that locates its reason for being in tradition and the possibilities inherent within tradition’s strictures. Despite the prevailing temper of today’s scene, that kind of art is alive and well, defiantly unfashionable and here to stay.

The gallery at the New York Studio School has proven itself invaluable by mounting shows devoted to the work of significant artists otherwise neglected by our cultural institutions. It has exhibited the sculptures of Willard Boepple, the drawings of Eugene Leroy and Ruth Miller, and the paintings of George McNeil. And last fall, David Cohen, the current director of the gallery, put together a survey of present-day watercolor painting that was, in its scope and scale, of museum quality–not bad for a venue whose dimensions are considerably less than a stone’s throw in either direction.

Now comes Thomas Nozkowski: Drawings, the school’s current exhibition, also organized by Mr. Cohen–or rather, he’s let the artist organize it himself, marshaling a 25-year retrospective of works on paper. Mr. Nozkowski always struck me as being one of the art world’s best-kept secrets, until I realized just how many people were in on the secret. Over the years, through informal conversation with artists, curators and critics, I’ve discovered that his small-scale abstractions are widely admired for their rigor, wit and integrity. Mr. Nozkowski is not, in other words, an unknown quantity. Nevertheless, he remains, as one observer put it, “a stealth artist”–off the art world’s radar screen.

So why isn’t Mr. Nozkowski better known than he is? There are ready answers to this question–that he’s a visual artist working in an age of conceptualism; that his small pictures run counter to the bigger-is-better tendency of art-world reputation; that he’s a self-effacing artist in a scene dominated by showoffs and celebrities. All of which is true, and only part of which explains his understated success. The chief reason Mr. Nozkowski isn’t as well-known as other, less talented artists is that his paintings–while immediately recognizable as accomplished–are obdurate and withholding, almost forbiddingly dense. They recognize the viewer, certainly, and tip their hat to him; after which, they make their demands. Mr. Nozkowski’s art isn’t user-friendly: It asks too much to go down easy.

Which is another way of saying that the pleasures Mr. Nozkowski’s wobbly geometries and tautly configured biomorphs afford depend on how willing one is to accept their terms. The New Yorker ‘s Peter Schjeldahl used the phrase “hard bliss” when writing about Mr. Nozkowski’s art, and that conceit hasn’t been bettered. Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings put such a high priority on engagement–on the viewer’s ability to grapple with the image before him–that one can’t help but respond with an invigorated sense of responsibility. Once that responsibility has been met–through bouts of thorough and appreciative looking–the paintings surrender a diversity of associations, emotions and complications.

One of the virtues of Mr. Nozkowski’s work is that it reminds us of art’s ability to transform and encapsulate a variety of impulses. Basing each of his abstractions on a specific memory or “real world objects,” he then follows its often circuitous and contradictory logic–refining the image, losing it, denying it and, ultimately, discovering it anew, albeit in a radically different form. In a handful of drawings at the Studio School, we recognize concrete images even if we can’t quite place the source: Their identifiability is, as it were, on the tip of one’s mind.

Mr. Nozkowski’s work is both consistent and elastic, intimate, with an Arpian gift for shape. What has deepened is his skill as a draftsman and, especially, as a paint handler. The artist we see at the Studio School recognizes that confounding one’s skill can be a way of strengthening vision, making it increasingly resilient, vital and surprising. The drawings aren’t the best place to get to know Mr. Nozkowski; they often feel like memos to himself rather than full-fledged works of art. Having said that, I’ll confess to a niggling feeling in my gut, a sense that I’ll regret that last sentence when I take another look at the drawings: Gems may appear. Still, if Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings are his gift to history, then the Studio School show is an exemplary aid in the understanding of that gift.

© 2003 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 2, 2003 edition of The New York Observer.

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