Saturday, March 1st, 2003

Thomas Nozkowski Drawings

January 23 to March 1, 2003
New York Studio School
8 West 8 Street, New York NY 10011

Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (Z-6) 1987  oil on paper, 11 x 15 inches
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (Z-6) 1987 oil on paper, 11 x 15 inches. Images, courtesy of the artist and Max Protetch Gallery, New York

The key drawings in Thomas Nozkowski’s exhibition were hung just inside the entrance to the gallery. S68, dated 1984, is a semi-abstract pictogram made from short brushstrokes. The image is centered on a large empty field of white paper with what appears to be diluted ink. It consists of an outline of indeterminate shape, like that of a Midwestern state on a map. A thick line in a zigzag pattern runs across the top half of this shape, a fragment of a decorative motif. The drawing is reminiscent of the hesitant line drawings that are common in archeology books, illustrating a found pottery shard.

Nozkowski’s conception of what a painting or drawing is remains fairly steady after 1984: an island of abstract invention, most typically an arabesque, on a sea of accumulated paint. Looking to the right, Z6 from 1987 might be illustrating a bowl being formed on a wheel. Two thumb like shapes seem to pull the background color forward, into the hollowed out curved shape that dominates the foreground area, and the shape functions like decorative detail flung onto an indeterminate space.

Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (S-68) 1984  ink on paper, 11 x 14 inches
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (S-68) 1984 ink on paper, 11 x 14 inches

In the Jasper Johns’ painting from 1962, Fools House, the title of the painting is spelled out in part on the upper right side of the painting and breaks off, only to continue coming in from the top left side of the canvas. Critical writing on this painting suggests that Johns meant to indicate a cylindrical, not a flat space. I tend to see Nozkowski’s space as spherical, or, more precisely a fragment of a sphere, like a detail on the surface of pottery, magnified inside of a rectangle. This is one of many odd ways this artist has developed.

Nozkowski also seems to have managed to disregard the edges of the rectangle. His format and compositional proportions come close to arbitrarily framed fragments of decorative mosaic or fresco we sometimes see in ethnographic museum installations. He seems to like the way things are unthinkingly stuck inside frames.

Nozkowski’s forbears are painters who ignore the boundaries between what defines painting and drawing and use an abundance of art materials. Giacometti is one example and de Kooning another: artists so preoccupied with figure-ground that they let their paintings uncertainly approach the edge of the rectangle. Similarly, in Nozkowski’s work the background painting is mostly an ambiguous space, but his space seems to tuck itself under the edge of the rectangle and then continue a bit further.

There is something thrilling in the cranky insularity of what this artist refuses to spend time considering. He pessimistically disregards compositional airiness and breadth, two of the niceties of late modernism. There are other moments here that are slyly savage. Z-83 can be interpreted as a cynical rendition of Bill Jensen’s early visionary style. No other drawings here approach the uncharacteristic rhetoric of this shield-like shape, done in ink and crayon, which barely contains an explosion of white lines.

Thomas Nozkowski Untitled (Z-83) 1990 ink and crayon on paper, 13 7/8 x 16 13/16 inches
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (Z-83) 1990 ink and crayon on paper, 13 7/8 x 16 13/16 inches

Nozkowski is admired by painters though the work is of a fundamentally disagreeable nature. In some cases perhaps the adamant infantilism of his project is misread as affirmative sensuality. Nozkowski’s sheer perversity reveals a deep criticality, a refusal of belief. There’s none of the violent negations that spurred minimalism, but a kind of aesthetic pack-ratism, anarchistic in its exultant regressiveness. His working methodology is additive, brooding.

It is too bad there was not more of an overlap of this exhibition with the Jean Fautrier show at Columbia, a dialogue between the spleen that Nozkowski displays could have begun with an earlier French version. Both artists are major painters with obscure reputations. They both made relatively diminutive paintings marked by painting cuisine and by their culpable negativity. Suffice to say that Nozkowski betrays the American trait of ultimately distrusting materiality. Where Faurtrier’s work succeeds or fails on the contrasts between the build up of paint and transparent linear washes and impasto, Nozkowski falls back on the elegant line. In the end, his paint quality is harnessed by linear structure. Still, Nozkowski’s contribution is of a stature which prevents any serious discussion of contemporary American painting from excluding him.