Thursday, November 2nd, 2017

Going His Own Way: A new monograph on Thomas Nozkowski by John Yau

The new monograph on Thomas Nozkowski, reviewed here by David Carrier, is the artist’s first. Along with a title on Lois Dodd by Faye Hirsch, it launches a new international series on contemporary painters, edited by Barry Schwabsky, from British publishers Lund Humphries

Thomas Nozkowski by John Yau

In the late 1970s, when Thomas Nozkowski entered the New York art world, painting (especially abstract painting) was in a difficult position. Many critics thought that art’s history had ended. There seemed to be no place for Nozkowski’s modest sized abstractions. And in the 1980s, when Neo-Expressionist painting became fashionable, the situation was no better: postmodern theorizing had nothing whatsoever to do with his art. What we can see, now, is that he has proved to be a great artist because he creates very varied, never clichéd paintings. With totally admirable persistence he has produced a consistently first-rate body of works, which are unlike those of any other artist. Nozkowski’s career thus shows the importance of going your own way, without paying attention to fashions. John Yau is the ideal writer for Nozkowski: Visually sensitive, lyrical, not given to hyperbole, he offers closely detailed, nicely sympathetic commentary. I especially admired the account of how early on Nozkowski learned to compose by repeating “a pre-existing, eccentric shape until it established the edge” (23). Presenting excellent close accounts of several pictures, Yau rightly concludes that Nozkowski’s great strength is his refusal to settle into a signature style. The discussion of what Nozkowski learnt from film is revelatory.

Cover of the book under review
Cover of the book under review

Since Nozkowski is accessible, it’s regrettable at some points that Yau didn’t press him harder. I would love to know why Nozkowski thinks that Rudolf Schindler is the greatest modern architect. Because Yau’s account of Nozkowski’s admiration for Pisanello’s The Vision of St Eustace (1438-42) is fascinating, indeed the book comes back to it five times, discussion of other art historical sources would be welcome. And it would be good to know if the artist’s long-time employment at Mad magazine had some effect on his art. Sometimes, also, it is not entirely clear whether Yau is presenting his own thoughts or Nozkowski’s. After narrating Nozkowski’s entry point into the art world by contrasting the hostile reception, in 1970, of Philip Guston’s figurative works with the euphoria that greeted Frank Stella’s first MoMA retrospective, Yau allows: “instead of being directly influenced by Guston, the more likely case is that Nozkowski based his decisions on his own experience” (15). Fair enough, but what then was the purpose of describing Guston’s situation? Similarly, when Yau suggests that Nozkowski’s ways of working owes something to William Wordsworth, it’s not clear how that can help explain the artist’s announced desire to “make anything and everything into a painting” (36), if only because the activities of 19th-century poets and contemporary painters are so obviously different. And, finally, the politics of Nozkowski’s art deserve more critical discussion. He was originally inspired to make small pictures, Yau reports, because he saw “large-scale work…as an extension of imperialism…it occupied whatever space it wanted to without regard for others” (16). But as Nozkowski’s paintings now appear in the same grand galleries and public collections as the large works of his contemporaries, surely this attachment to small-scale has become something of a (productive) myth.

These are minor quibbles about a first rate book. Nozkowski, an accessible painter, is oddly difficult to write about. Very well read, widely traveled, he does not make it easy to understand how his varied visual experiences are the sources for his art. That he almost always refuses to title his works reinforces this elusiveness. Although Yau identifies a few exceptions, Nozkowski generally doesn’t work in the manner familiar from early abstractionists like Kandinsky and Mondrian, of gradually abstracting from nature As Yau rightly says: “The point was to get to the bottom of the experience without representing it in some received or familiar way” (53). But in what way then, exactly, is experience of art, nature and the city the starting point for Nozkowski’s abstractions? That question is hard to answer except perhaps in a negative way: his paintings refuse figurative allusion.

John Yau, Thomas Nozkowski (London: Lund Humphries, 2017). $44.99. 113 color illustrations. 152 pages. Hardback. ISBN 978-1-84822-238-0

Read other artcritical writers on Thomas Nozkowski:

Roundtable: Joseph Masheck, David Brody, Alexander Ross, Marjorie Welish, Jennifer Riley and Raphael Rubinstein, 2015
Nora Griffin, 2013
David Brody, 2010
David Cohen, 2010
David Cohen, 2008
David Cohen, 2006
David Cohen, 2003
Sherman Sam, 2003
Joe Fyfe, 2003