“Howard Hodgkin” at Gagosian Gallery, until December 20 (555 W.24th Street at Eleventh Avenue, 212 741 1111).
“Thomas Nozkowski: New Paintings” at Max Protetch until December 20 (511 W.22nd Street between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, 212 633 6999).
For most of its history, non-representational painting favored the universal over the particular. The very word “abstraction” implies idealism, generalization, the metaphysical. Laying bare material and semiotic components alike, abstraction vigorously challenged conventions of scale and format associated with easel painting.
Howard Hodgkin and Thomas Nozkowski are artists of very different appeal who have in common a rare but timely characteristic: their abstraction is animated with the personal and the particular. These artists manage to tap the energies of perceptual painting without engaging in depiction per se, and to connect their practice with lived experience without resorting to explicit narrative.
While Sir Howard enjoys international renown with his sumptuous, expressive, painterly lyricism, Mr. Nozkowski, who is a decade younger than the Englishman, for once justifies the over-used epithet, “painter’s painter.” His tight, awkward, oddball style excites a fanatical following in the New York art world, but there hasn’t been a corresponding commercial or institutional take-up as yet. Temperament and reputation aside, however, the alignment of solo exhibitions by these two painters in Chelsea (Sir Howard at Gagosian, Mr. Nozkowski at Max Protetch) is all the more remarkable because each painter is revealed at the height of his game.
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.
These characterizations 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 values.
Diminutive scale 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.
Recently, however, 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 urgency.
Thomas Nozkowski 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.
Compositionally, 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.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, November 20, 2003print