Thomas Nozkowski at PaceWildenstein

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled P-38 (2008), oil on paper, 22″ x 30″; courtesy Pace Wildenstein

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In the past 30 years Thomas Nozkowski’s allusive yet enigmatically abstract paintings have gradually acquired a cultlike devotion. This patient, quietly determined artist is the anti-hype–his paintings are slow.

Lately, however, Mr. Nozkowski has been getting a lot of attention. His paintings were featured at the Venice Biennale last summer; a mini-retrospective at Long Island City’s Emily Fisher Landau Center just closed; and two of his paintings from MoMA’s permanent collection are currently on display. Now he’s been picked up by blue-chip powerhouse PaceWildenstein–a sure indicator that an artist has arrived.

Mr. Nozkowski, 64, is one of those rare figures upon whom people of different aesthetic sensibilities can agree. “He’s so damned good,” opines former MoMA curator Robert Storr. Is there anyone out there who disagrees?

I imagine Mr. Nozkowski would raise his hand. He’s a harsh critic of his own work—it’s there to see in the paintings. Each is marked by skepticism: Mr. Nozkowski’s accumulations of nudging biomorphs and fractured geometry are brought to fruition through a process of questioning.

Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings are riddled with their history. The work’s distressed surfaces, dense with incarnations come-and-gone, evince the byzantine complications of discovery and doubt. Mr. Nozkowski is heir to the improvisatory techniques of the New York School, but he paints with the wrist, not the arm. His pictures are meticulously delineated and wholly organic in resolution. The artist doesn’t impose himself on his art. The painting is the thing.

The work is modest in scale. For many years, Mr. Nozkowski didn’t stray from a conventional 16-by-20-inch format; the paintings at PaceWildenstein measure only 22 by 28 inches. The decision to go small was a reaction to the bigger-is-better school of art-making. But it was predicated, too, on necessity: Mr. Nozkowski wanted to make paintings that would fit in his friends’ New York apartments. There’s a heartening practicality to that choice.

Mr. Nozkowski’s unlikely combinations of shape, space, color and incident–Untitled (8-109) (2008), for instance, features a clunky topographical form nestled within a seemingly unrelated, irregular grid–are, in a roundabout way, representational. Each painting is predicated on some thing–an Old Master painting, say, or a novel. (Certainly, Hans Arp’s bulbous shapes have wiggled their way into his art.) Mr. Nozkowski told The Brooklyn Rail that his Aunt Thelma once served as inspiration. He may have been facetious, but probably not. The paintings are intensely specific.

Mr. Nozkowski follows the logic of his brush. Reference points go off on unexpected tangents, wander down blind alleys and undergo countless transformations. But the final image retains the character, if not necessarily the structure, of its initial impulse. Mr. Nozkowski once placed a group of paintings under the rubric “An Autobiography.” Good luck finding their source, and good luck denying their intimations of lived experience.

A Nozkowski is recognizable, not least for its integrity–but that’s not to say the artist cruises on received pictorial tropes. No two pictures are the same. The images are stubbornly independent. In one, patterns and flitting juxtapositions of space and cobbled shapes are pursued with singular intensity. In another, a halo surrounds a jittering tower of blocky shapes.

But these paintings do share a few signature characteristics–a tightly configured tension between figure and ground, for example, and objects that suggest heraldry. In each painting there is one thing, one relationship, all-encompassing yet radically condensed: Here, it insists, is everything this picture can possibly contain.

Mr. Nozkowski has never titled his paintings. You can guess why from his antipathy toward the American modernist painter Arthur Dove, who named one of his ostensibly abstract paintings Foghorns, with a single word collapsing suggestive bursts of red into crudely rendered objects–prompting Mr. Nozkowski to complain “we almost don’t have to look at the damn paintings.” Not titling his own paintings, then, is a matter of principle. Presumably, Mr. Nozkowski doesn’t want to constrain the evocative potential of his art.

Well, O.K., but Mr. Nozkowski would undoubtedly agree that Ingres’ La Comtesse d’Haussonville (1845)–a painting whose bundled, serpentine forms are likely to elicit his admiration–or Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1942-43) aren’t hampered by our recognizing their who, what and where. The refusal to title is the lone Nozkowski tic that feels programmatic. We don’t let our children out of the house without a name, right?

But the absorbing intimacy of Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings preempts such quibbles. There’s not a false note struck at PaceWildenstein–not in the bad paintings nor in the peculiarly slack works-on-paper. Mr. Nozkowski stumbles here and there, but so what? The best artists court failure in hopes of overcoming it. Several of the new paintings are miracles of grit, elegance and wit. They are reason to feel good about the art of our time.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the April 22, 2008 edition of The New York Observer.

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