Until May 3
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When Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings were first reviewed by the New York Sun in November 2003, this critic wrote: “The tight, awkward style of Mr. Nozkowski … excites a fanatical following in the New York art world, but there hasn’t been a corresponding commercial or institutional take-up as yet.”
Things have changed. While this painter’s painter continues to enjoy near-cult status among fellow practioners, his international career is now on a rapid ascent. He was included at the Venice Biennale last summer, and was given a retrospective by the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany at the same time. The 63 year old painter is now preparing museum shows in Dublin and Montreal. And since joining the PaceWildenstein gallery last year, his prices have tripled. You could say he is taking off like a Harrier Jump Jet, except after a gentle cruise along a very long runway.
His debut show with PaceWildenstein overlaps with a display of earlier works, mostly from the 1980s, at the Fisher Landau Center for Art in Long Island City, making it a good time to take stock of his achievement. What is striking are two seemingly contradictory impressions. First, that a Nozkowski of 1979 has all the same painterly DNA as a work of this year, just as the show as a whole maintains a consistency of values, an unmistakable personal touch. Second, that this artist never repeats himself.
Each work is highly distinct in character and formal invention. Even an astute connoisseur would be hard pressed to locate specific Nozkowskian tropes. There are some recurring motifs, but internal scale, texture, and mood present themselves in different coordinates. This is the more remarkable because Mr. Nozkowski’s modus operandi is so prescribed in terms of scale, medium, taste, and authentic touch.
Mr. Nozkowski is a protean tunester: He has a capacity redolent of Schubert or the Beatles to produce one compelling, distinct, original composition after another, within tight formal confines. Opting for a small support has been a defining feature of this artist since the outset of his career in the 1970s, in a deliberate revolt against the insistence of minimal art and color field painters on a correlation between seriousness and scale. The pictures at the Fisher Landau are all 16 x 20 inches. At PaceWildenstein, they follow the marginally larger format of 22 x 28 inches first introduced in his last show at Max Protetch in 2006. (The present show also includes paintings on paper of similar dimensions.) But there is still an overriding sense of reined-in forces, of reticence and containment.
There is no sign of success going to this artist’s head or, worse still, his heart: He is ever the maverick, delighting in quirks and conceits, in jolie-laide color contrasts and self-mocking awkwardness. A Nozkowski painting typically looks to be slow in the making. They are defiantly ungestural yet always handmade, with lines and shapes that are deliberative yet rarely hard-edged.
There is always a sense of crafted deliberation. He prefers pictorial intelligence over painterly flourish.
One of the things that set Mr. Nozkowski’s work apart from the high modernism that dominated the painting scene when he launched his career was a pronounced figure ground relationship, and this remains a constant in his aesthetic, although there is a new attitude towards the ground. While his grounds have always been animated, even when largely monochromatic, or a dripped field, as is the case with many pieces at the Fisher Landau, in his mature work at PaceWildenstein there is a sense, sometimes, of the ground edging out the figure to be, as it were, the hero of this pictorial drama.
“Untitled (8-101)” (2008), for instance, presents irregular, wavy vertical bands of light pastel colors each demarcated by what look like rows of little triangular beads, each putting you in mind, perhaps, of Brancusi’s Endless Column. Left like this, there would be no sense of whether the serial arrangement constitutes the figure or the ground — that dichotomy, so central to Mr. Nozkowski’s formal syntax, would seem finally to have dissolved. But then, linking the chains between pink, sand, and blue stripes are slight X forms — one of two lines crossing, the other of two cups abutting that assert themselves, tentatively, as the figures of this composition.
Similarly, in “Untitled (8-103)” (2008) there are two proliferating patterns: one resembling wood grain in washy red against a lighter stain of the same hue, the other made up of trim, evenly executed squares and rectangles of varying size. It is the geometric structure of this second pattern that sets it up as the figure, and its appearing over the other pattern that makes the latter the ground.
Around the time he set out to paint small, Mr. Nozkowski also determined that his work would always remain rooted in things he had observed or experienced, even though these would be disguised from the viewer in resulting abstractions. This has given his work its defining character, and is what makes it awkward, fidgety, individualistic. While it is rarely possible to say what, with any specificity, his lines, shapes, or textures actually describe, they nonetheless convey the energy of depiction.
You sense of the brush thinking aloud. Even where there is random drip or a distressed surface, every gesture seems thought-through. And yet the results feel intuited, not calculated. This odd mix of caring and nonchalance, of observation and doodle, of craft and eccentricity gives his work its gentle tension. A tunester he maybe, but he is not light on his feet. On the contrary — and this is the joy of his act — he plods towards lyricism.
A version of this article first appeared in the New York Sun, April 10, 2008 under the heading “The Painter’s Painter”