Monday, May 27th, 2019

“He Was Free and Brave”: A Garland of Tributes for Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9-32), 2014. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9-32), 2014. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York

David Cohen
Here are two memories of Thomas Nozkowski, picked at random from so many that remain vivid of this larger than life yet eminently down to earth man, epitomizing what exhilarating fun he made it to share for a moment in his aesthetic adventures. In 2003, I curated a retrospective of his drawings at the New York Studio School, the first in New York. I say curated, but as I went off to Europe in the preceding summer, after instigating the project, I returned to find that Tom had, impatiently, made a final selection of his own accord. I was, however, given carte blanche in the installation. Conscious of the age and delicacy of some of these works, I researched just how many lumens we could allow in the gallery. The only direction on the hang, besides a judicious last-minute exclusion, was to turn the lights up full blast. The eager-beaver curator tried to explain what he knew of the science, but Tom insisted the only thing that mattered was that they looked good to those who came to see them. “Let ‘em fry!” he exclaimed.

Years later, when I was selecting a show at a commercial gallery inspired by cinema, Tom enthusiastically – but with a promise of discretion – shared his ongoing catalogue of art in movies. With a reach and perspective that would have impressed any iconologist in its multifacetedness, Tom compiled extensive lists of artists as characters, preexisting artworks by known artists that make screen appearances, artworks made for films, and many other permutations. I begged him to allow me to publish it, but he couldn’t let it go to press so long as the research was ongoing—a lifelong pursuit.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (MH-18), 2014. Colored pencil on paper, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (MH-18), 2014. Colored pencil on paper, 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York

Editing these tributes and reminiscences from a cross-section of artists, scholars and friends – again, a sampling – has the humbling effect of making clear that everyone else privileged to come into his orbit felt uniquely special, a confidant of his avuncular bonhomie and encyclopedic knowledge, and of the candor and curiosity he felt about his own artistic inquiries. His wit was kind and merciless in a single instance. He was democratic in that anyone could be included in the conversation and hierarchical in really caring about what was best, what was dispensable. Indifferent towards established canons of high and low, he was fastidious in the sense of quality.

For me, he was a paramount example of an artist who could go against the grain, but do so without rancor, and indeed be an exemplar of community even with a mainstream he might reject. This is what he was as a person and an artist—a maverick who was also a mensch.

Karen Wilkin
I knew Thomas Nozkowski’s work before I knew Tom. I was fascinated by those mysterious, small but commanding works that seemed to be about something very specific but impossible to pin down. I loved the range of paint applications, the delicacy of the incidents, and the surprising color. I’m still haunted by a work from the first Nozkowski exhibition I saw – at Max Protech Gallery about 1990. A wavy edged white shape, like a saddle made of curly sheepskin, hovered against a pale brushy ground. The image was odd, beautifully constructed, and both exquisitely and roughly painted. It was also ferociously intelligent, funny, and, as it turns out, unforgettable. When I got to know the author of this oddball image, I discovered that he shared many of the painting’s qualities, plus irresistible charm. Like the painting, he could seem deceptively off hand, someone who took his work very seriously indeed but didn’t take himself all that seriously. His comments about art were seasoned with throwaway lines like “Why two, if one will do?” and something about oil paint’s being “the queen” of materials.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (N-27), 2010. ink, gouache, pencil, colored pencil and oil crayon on paper, 8-5/8 x 9-13/16 inches. The Pace Gallery
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (N-27), 2010. ink, gouache, pencil, colored pencil and oil crayon on paper, 8-5/8 x 9-13/16 inches. The Pace Gallery

It was clear that Tom’s elusive works were simultaneously discoveries that emerged from the act of making and distillations of experience. The sense of discovery made repeated motifs seem fresh and newly invented each time. There were loose family resemblances among groups of paintings – shared memories of the grid, repeated structures or background patterns – but color was always arresting and every configuration seemed unprecedented and indescribable: hors catégorie, like the steepest routes in bicycle races. I discovered that the underlying experience that, at some level, provoked the image could range from things glimpsed to things read, and much, much more. Tom made powerful images “about” arcane books on science and walks through the city. No wonder those enigmatic paintings seemed so specific and at the same time, unnameable. They were specific, just unidentifiable by us ordinary mortals. (I recall Tom’s saying that sometimes he found himself unable to remember exactly what had triggered a particular configuration, but if it still seemed resonant, he could use it.)

A few years ago, I invited Tom and Joyce to be visiting critics at Triangle Artists’ Workshop, an intense program of art making and discussion for international artists, held that summer in upstate New York, within striking distance but still a healthy drive from the Nozkowski-Robins home in High Falls. The pair generously spent the day with 20 or so artists from about half a dozen countries – a high point of the session, the artists said – and joined the gang for a fairly raucous dinner. We had offered Tom and Joyce accommodations after their strenuous day in the studios, but they insisted on returning home that night, as I knew they often did after New York openings. “We like driving,” Tom said. If those long nocturnal trips stimulated paintings, we are all the beneficiaries of his stamina behind the wheel.

Many students have told me how much they admired Tom’s work, but few seem to have responded to it directly. They’re wise not to try. Tom’s astonishing images could only have been made by someone with a mind as well-furnished as his, informed by his particular experience, and open to the possibilities suggested by his apparently limitless ways of putting on paint. Of great mathematics, the mathematician G.H. Hardy wrote: “There is a very high degree of unexpectedness, combined with inevitability and economy.” That’s a perfect description of Thomas Nozkowski’s art.

Marjorie Welish
A rare artisanal talent, Thomas Nozkowski developed an image, an image in the true sense of that word. What emerged in canvas after canvas, time after time, was no mere thing but rather entirely more strenuously inventive, as the object became a lapidary form through metamorphosis, in a practice spanning a half century. Very few artists can match that imaginative embodiment.

Robert Storr
Thomas Nozkowski was a wickedly intelligent man and an unrivaled painterly lyricist. The intelligence was natural and unpretentious. He read a lot and developed an astonishingly broad albeit usually understated frame of reference, which made it a delight to match wits with him when everyone else around seemed bent on showing off their readymade erudition. And in a period when many of his peers – though when it came to art itself he had precious few – favored arcane discourses with all their labored jargon he trusted in the American vernacular, a preference doubtless enriched by his consumption of detective stories and films noirs, passions we shared.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-135), 2010. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. The Pace Gallery
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-135), 2010. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. The Pace Gallery

As a painter he was the ultimate come-from-behind kid, the day-job-wife-and-family man who paid for all his time in the studio by being his own patron. That job, which consisted of being a layout artist for Mad magazine, made him wary lest the art world ascribe his fanciful caprices for an extension of the house aesthetic. Or so I inferred. Nevertheless, I recall walking across town from MoMA to meet him at his office for lunch and it struck me as entirely natural that those two institutions should exist at the same urban latitude – you know, Low and High – with Tom alert and at home in both. In any event, he need not have feared that the discursive arabesques of his own painting and drawing would be explained away as “mere” cartooning, and worse as a stylistic off-shoot of the perpetually smart-aleck Mad manner: they were nothing of the kind.

Slow, steady maturation of an incrementally improvised, manifestly unprogramatic image was their essence. Working on smallish panels of several standard proportions, and frequently starting with nothing more than an ambiguous ground tone and an amorphous shape, Tom followed the organic growth and mutation of his intricate patterns, eccentric configurations and, by turns, exquisitely subtle and surprisingly bold polychromatic palette. The consistency of his method opened out to stunningly various pictorial vistas contained within irresistibly intimate formats. Looking at his paintings slows the clock and sharpens the eye and mind while massaging, tickling and pinching the haptic synapses. In the old days one might have called Nozkowski a “little master” but his scope was wide, his view long and his faith in his own ultimately immodest gifts was that huge: in short that of a master – period. Of how many contemporary artists can it be said that he or she never bored me or took my engagement for granted? Not many, but Tom was certainly one.

Joseph Masheck
As editor-in-chief of Artforum in the late ‘70s, I was pushing for painting, especially abstract painting, despite the political incorrectness of that. I also hated the art-commerce developing as philistine businessmen discovered art as a new continent for unregulated insider trading, so it was great to discover Tom’s work in shows at the artists’ coop 55 Mercer Street. In the ‘80s I wrote articles in three art magazines on Nozkowski, and curated a show of early drawings at Nature Morte (1983).

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled, 1981-82. Oil on canvas board, 15 7/8 x 20 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled, 1981-82. Oil on canvas board, 15 7/8 x 20 inches. Museum of Modern Art, New York

The essays were agonizing to write because, I now see, they reflect the kind of freewheeling conversations we had that depended on analogy: how one topic turned by analogy into another. That was all the more exciting because our respective analogies came from different stocks of experience as well as reading. There could be hearty disagreement, too, though Tom was not a dialectical kind of guy. His wide reading is legendary; but politically, his shockingly normal, art-world liberal line might have come out of The Whig Interpretation of History. Once he said that the greatest philosopher was Thomas Paine. Come on, Tom! No wonder why in one of my articles he reminded me of Santayana on Emerson: “There was a great catholicity in his reading . . . But he read transcendentally, not historically, to find what he himself felt, not what others might have felt before him” (Artforum, May 1981).

Now I have to think: maybe being so undialectical—stubborn!—kept the big bear calm and jolly. (Tom, I knew you would like a little roast, like an Irish wake. Oh, Tom . . .)

Jonathan Lasker
I don’t know what brought me to 55 Mercer Street Gallery in the Fall of 1979, but upon entering the gallery I felt that I had stumbled upon a wonderland of everything which I was hoping to see in painting, at that time. I remember increasing delight as I went from one picture to another. Upon leaving the gallery, I muttered to the guy sitting at the front desk that I thought this was a really great show. Of course, I was speaking to none other than Tom himself, who took my compliment for his exhibition with boyish delight. After that Tom and I traded studio visits and a long friendship began. Nonetheless, with each ensuing show by Tom, that feeling of being in a painting wonderland was always there. The feeling of “how did he think this up” and what will the next picture be like. It is very sad that Tom can no longer provide us with this expectation of wonder. Rest well Tom.

Dinner at Tom and Joyce's, August 25, 2006. Friday. (c) Harry Roseman
Dinner at Tom and Joyce’s, August 25, 2006. Friday. L-R: Susanna Coffey, Peter Saul, David Cohen, Nozkowski, Catherine Murphy, Benjamin Busch, Sally Saul, Joyce Robins. Photo (c) Harry Roseman

Merlin James
I tracked Tom down as soon as I got to New York. He’d stood for something, in my mind, since I was a student in London in the early ‘80s. A British painter, Garth Lewis, had introduced me to the work, via thin catalogues, a few slides and black and white reproductions. Somehow I ‘got it’, perhaps all the more intensely because of the sparseness of information. I got how this apparent modesty – of scale, productivity, pictorial proposition – was a Trojan horse for the greatest possible artistic ambition. I loved visiting Tom and Joyce at the ex-synagogue on Hester Street, eating and talking, listening to music, always aware of Tom’s easel standing a few yards away. Sometimes he’d take me over to look at the current painting. For me, Tom was among a very select band who at any one time keep painting alive.

James Hyde
I first met Tom at the artist cooperative gallery 55 Mercer. It was in the early eighties—the time of big heavy abstract work by the likes of Brice Marden and Richard Serra, as well as the bombast of Neo-Expressionism. While I really enjoyed meeting Tom and Joyce Robins, his paintings merely intrigued. Tom has made a point about the size of his paintings being a political choice. Small paintings, he argued, allowed people to have them in their homes and didn’t require support from big collectors and institutions. There’s an additional, subtle ethical point as well: Since small works don’t force, they at first must interest, then persuade.  Patience and observation are their essential values. Over the subsequent years Tom’s paintings persuaded and rewarded whenever I had the opportunity to see them.  So much so that when a painting from the year of the 55 Mercer show came up at auction, I stretched the budget and now have the pleasure of seeing it daily. Its cryptic shapes provide a Rubik’s Cube of associations, and with the colors alternating between murk and glow, the painting keeps surprising.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-129), 2010. Oil on linen on panel, 22 1/8 x 28 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (8-129), 2010. Oil on linen on panel, 22 1/8 x 28 1/8 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Pace Gallery.

Coming out of concrete abstraction I‘ve considered the painting panel to be as evocative as what gets painted of the surface. Some years ago, I was explaining to a group of people that my paintings weren’t sculptural so much as “panel intensive”. Tom, who was there, didn’t miss a beat—“does that mean the paintings are surface-challenged?” It was classic Nozkowski – perfect timing, off kilter and a brilliant turn of phrase. And it was damn funny—funny enough to stick. I took Tom’s offhand remark as an imperative to up my surface game.

I have plenty of company in my enthusiasm for Tom’s paintings. He is legend in art schools and a touchstone for painters. Abstract paintings look different today than in the early eighties. While some are larger, splashier and flashier than Tom’s, it’s hard to find an abstract painting today that doesn’t bear some trace of Thomas Nozkowski’s painting DNA.

Installation shot of Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Gallery, March 27 – April 25, 2015. Courtesy of Pace Gallery
Installation shot of Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Gallery, March 27 – April 25, 2015. Courtesy of Pace Gallery

Raphael Rubinstein
That a painting is modest in size does not mean that it is modest in ambition—this is one of the many valuable things that Thomas Nozkowski had to tell us. In fact, Tom’s decision at the end of the 1970s to scale down his paintings may count as the most radical and influential aspect of his work, which offered a quiet but firm reproach to ego-driven or market-driven gigantism, and asserted intimacy as a supreme virtue. His downsizing was fundamentally ethical: he wanted to make paintings, as he said, that could never end up in bank lobbies.

"This is from last year when he is ill, but his optimism and his pleasure to be talking with friends overwhelms his physical state." Photo, with comment, by James Hyde
“This is from last year when he is ill, but his optimism and his pleasure to be talking with friends overwhelms his physical state.” Photo, with comment, by James Hyde

The importance of scale in Tom’s work became clear to me in 2013 when I was curating an exhibition for Cheim & Read Gallery (“Reinventing Abstraction: New York Painting in the 1980s”). Tom was among the 15 artists I included in the show, each of whom would be represented by a single painting. I was happy to find that Tom’s New York gallery had several great 1980s paintings that could be borrowed for the show. Two in particular interested me. In my discussions with the gallery, the director encouraged me to take both paintings, and for a while that was my plan. After all, I thought, having two paintings instead of one would convey a fuller sense of Tom’s work, and since they were the smallest works in the show—which included a number of very large canvases—it seemed only fair to give the artist a little more wall space.  It was only late in the process, as I was planning out the installation, that it came to me: there must be only one Nozkowski painting in the show! It was crucial that I treat Tom exactly the way I was approaching the other artists; one work per artist, regardless of size. I understood that to include two of his paintings would be a betrayal of his work, an insult to his decades of insistence that a 16-by-20-inch painting could be just as great, just as important, as one measuring 16 by 20 feet.  In an era when the cost of over-consumption is becoming tragically clear, when spectacle continues its prolonged, asphyxiating stranglehold on our culture, we need to listen more than ever Tom Nozkowski’s plea for the beauty and power of small things.

Valerie Jaudon
Thomas Nozkowski was a key artist in the Conceptual Abstraction exhibition at the Sidney Janis Gallery in 1991, and a prescient figure for today’s abstract painting. Tom’s insistence on working at an easel painting scale created a deliberative arena for his extraordinary art making process. With his uncommonly prolific visual vocabulary and acute historical memory he was able to work freely and consciously, with a sense of contemplative and well-ordered spontaneity. Although his drawing and painting method had much in common with surrealist automatic writing, he was able to direct that spontaneity with considered invention, and to work instinctively and surely without the burden of the abstract expressionists’ often heavy-handed autographic gesture. Tom was a model for contemporary abstraction, but paradoxically one who could not really be imitated.

Catherine Murphy
I’m always puzzled when Thomas Nozskowski is referred to as a modest painter. From my first introduction to his work, his ambition and radical aspirations made me pay the utmost attention. The paintings are intentionally not huge. I’ve always thought that they were brain size, taken directly into the brain. His argument, was, for one thing, that the size was political: They are to be contemplated, put in a house, lived with. Early on, Tom put his neck on the block and when few dared, said paintings should be about the experience of living: Looking, thinking, remembering, learning. plans and games, things we love and things we hate. His work is a joyful complication, a life examined and translated into beautiful painting, food for my aching psyche.

Jennifer Riley
I teach visual studies to graduate students in architecture. Introducing them to abstraction, I guide them through some of the usual suspects of early modernism, up to Ellsworth Kelly, where it’s possible to show one way to arrive at an abstracted reality. Then I expose them to Tom’s work, among others. To my mind, Thomas Nozkowski represents one of the most approachable examples of a contemporary artist working from found forms, shapes or patterns, culled from myriad sources of nature and culture alike, which he morphed and transformed into images with his deft use of color, light, line, and atmosphere. These evocative paintings are at once deliberate and effortless, joyful and serious, specific and open-ended.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9–28), 2014. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9–28), 2014. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York

In my own practice when I’m chewing on a problem, I look at artworks to tune into a mindset of possibility. I will miss seeing Tom’s new works, as it had become routine to look at Tom’s work that reminds me not to be too serious, but to be deeply serious. To pay attention to the world, but to keep things utterly personal and yet avoid sentimentality. To unquestionably use the richness of any painterly approach or convention and then perhaps when necessary- simply subvert them.

I am not alone in feeling the gravity of this loss to our painting culture. Thankfully, there is John Yau’s very fine, recent monograph from Lund Humphries. With typical generosity, Tom inscribed my copy with words of ‘painterly’ solidarity and optimism along with a witty line drawing. A gesture, I’m sure, to which many fellow painters and friends were treated.


Sally Saul
The first time Peter [Saul] and I visited Tom and Joyce’s home in High Falls, there was a sumptuous Indian meal spread buffet style on the dining table, and a lively grouping of artists and writers clustered around the table and adjoining rooms, as well as art new to us that demanded the viewer’s attention, books and interesting objects. We were so surprised and grateful to realize our life on the other side of the river was not so isolated and remote as we thought. Tom’s openness, generosity, curiosity, and easy sharing of his knowledge and interests always generated conversation, a give and take. He recommended books, and art shows, movies and music. One time he gave Peter a disc of Jim Leonard playing the Super Saw which is still one of his favorites, the whistling sound floats through the studio. We will miss him greatly.\

Suzanne Joelson
Tom counted. His book of daily expenses and conversations was a record James Comey might admire. He knew the names of things, and their histories. One day the artist Mike Metz stopped by after a meeting at Chess records and repeated one of Marshall Chess’ stories about the early days in Chicago. Tom disputed it and found documentation to justify his version.

Tom played favorites. An evening could be spent debating a list of favorite visual artists, or filmmakers, Howard Hawk/John Ford, musicians, architects. He wondered “why Plecnik wasn’t in Moma’s “Toward a Concrete Utopia?” and then showed me favorite details from their four Plecnik monographs. His information seemed endless. What he did not know, Joyce did. And we – that is Gary Stephan and I—would invariably leave their house with a book and a list of new things to buy, research, remember.

When we hiked Tom knew the history, the legal disputes and former uses of the land. He could find the remnants of berry shacks and stone cellars, where discarded vehicles interrupted the reclaimed territory. He went on to map many of the lesser known trails which were published in the “Friends of the Shawangunks” newsletter.

At the end of one of our first day long hikes, Tom stunned me by asking, “What was your favorite part?” I had imagined the experience as a narrative, a layering of sensations and ideas, and had no answer.

Tom devoured information. In his paintings, those ways of knowing rubbed up against each other until the friction ignited an aberration. Maybe his paintings were a respite from counting and naming.  With brush or pencil in hand he could loosen his grip on how he knew the world. In the studio, he suspended judgment. Edges tangled, categories lapped, and a different discernment entered.

Then we gather at a Nozkowski opening. Each rectangle is a different subjective map and instead of my usual ways of considering art, I ask friends, “Which is your favorite?”

Movies in Rosendale, July 10, 2000, Saturday. L-R: Joyce Robins, Casimir Nozkowski, Catherine Murphy, Judy Linn, Suzanne Joelson (plaid blouse), Lesley Dill, Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan. Photo (c) Harry Roseman
Movies in Rosendale, July 10, 2000, Saturday. L-R: Joyce Robins, Casimir Nozkowski, Catherine Murphy, Judy Linn, Suzanne Joelson (plaid blouse), Lesley Dill, Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan. Photo (c) Harry Roseman

Harry Roseman
Thomas Nozkowski was a painter, a wonderful painter. My relationship with Tom spanned decades. It was during the last two and a half years, that, to me, something had shifted. I felt he was letting us all know that he wanted to live his life when possible, as usual, and that he wanted to be as productive as he could. If he referred to how he felt it was mentioned almost as a slight inconvenience. It was somewhere between a stiff upper lip and a particular pleasure in situations and in the people he was sharing this time with. I also know it became difficult for him to work as much as he would have liked. It was a privilege to see such courage as well as heartbreaking to see such a love of living. One thing I wasn’t expecting was seeing some of the paintings he did during this time. They are spectacular. Tom squeezed every last bit of life that was possible to have as it became available in smaller and smaller portions. Shorter, I should say, not smaller.

John Yau
All during the time that I was writing my monograph on him, Tom never complained about what he was going through. A few days before he died, he sent me an email telling me there had been a “glitch in his treatment,” and that he had spent the weekend in the hospital getting blood transfusions, but that there was nothing to worry about, and then thanked me for the DVD of Kaili Blues (2016), directed by Bi Gan, that I had sent to him and Joyce. The rest of the email was about where I could download the films of Mikio Naruse for free, and other related stuff. Tom wore his enthusiasm on his sleeve right up to the end. He spent part of one dinner recounting to John Ashbery, who was no slouch when it came to film, the plots of little-known movies directed by Gregory La Cava and later sent John DVDs of La Cava films that he had not seen. Tom seemed to have seen every film he ever talked about at least twice.  I have piles of books, DVDs, and lists of films he sent me. He was always excitedly pointing me towards something to read or see. I cannot imagine that I will ever go a day without remembering something he said to me.

David Goerk
In 2015, Thomas Nozkowski and I visited Ruth Root’s exhibition of new paintings at Andrew Kreps gallery. Tom was familiar with the artist’s work and obviously intrigued by the new paintings. He signed the guest book as he always did and picked up a catalogue of her artist-in-residence exhibition from the previous year. Tom flipped through the publication, studying each page, and as we were leaving the gallery he mentioned that he liked the new work. After a pause, he asked me if I had ever seen her smoking paintings. I hadn’t. Tom took a certain delight in explaining how Root’s smoking paintings appeared to be taking a much-needed cigarette break, as if being a painting was a difficult job and hanging on a gallery wall all day required some downtime. Tom was truly amused by this notion, he related and really loved the idea.

Whenever Tom visited the city to see exhibitions, he had a checklist in his pocket of exhibitions he wanted to see. He studied the list and proceeded to see as many of the shows as the day allowed. When I had time, I joined him on these gallery outings, appreciating his company and insights – every chance I had to look at art with Tom was special. Sometimes he pointed out a particular moment within an artwork or walked over to see what I was drawn to, other times he slowly circumnavigated the gallery on his own. As we finished up at one gallery and moved on to our next destination, we always discussed a story or observation connected to what we had just seen.

When Tom and I spoke, which was often, he never failed to ask me how I was doing before we discussed the business of the day. The sound of his voice, familiar and reassuring, was that of a teacher. His excitement and enthusiasm inspired, no matter the subject. I had the tremendous pleasure and honor of working with Tom for many years and have never known anyone as generous, genuine or knowledgeable.
[Editor’s Note: Mr. Goerk, a painter, was a director at Pace Gallery assigned to look after Thomas Nozkowski.

Michael Attias and Mary Halvorson 2011 concert at White street, with work by Thomas Nozkowski. Photo: Ariane Lopez-Huici
Michael Attias and Mary Halvorson 2011
concert at White street, with work by Thomas Nozkowski. Photo: Ariane Lopez-Huici

Alain Kirili
Tom was a dear friend to me and Ariane, and we were able to see many of his shows, including one of his last, at Art Omi in Gent, NY, last year. Despite his great and encyclopedic love of music, including jazz, Tom was not especially familiar with Free Improvisation, the genre of jazz that for many years my wife and I have featured in presentations in our Tribeca loft. But when I ask him to lend a painting to dialogue with a musical duo, he immediately accepted and had his gallery, Pace, deliver and install the piece. I knew that it would work beautifully. The duo was Michael Attias, saxophone and Mary Halvorson, guitar, and the whole thing was superb! What worked so well was the size of the painting with the two musicians: Tom was such a master at working small and creating dissonances within that restricted size, a combination of skills he shared with the duo. Chamber music, a duo, was a perfect fit with the aesthetic of Thomas Nozkowski! I will never forget that night: He was enchanted and so was our audience. There was a standing ovation. The music and the painting will stay with all of us forever. Merci, Tom.

Peter Saul
I first met Thomas Nozkowski ten years ago when we were both inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was a famous artist with a reputation for stubbornly refusing to let any of his pictures be larger than a certain small size. Then, we both served on a jury charged with giving money to young artists and I got to know Tom better. He was so logical and unprejudiced in wanting to reward artists of different styles. Tom stands as an example of how to behave on an art jury: To be fair, give money to the one whose pictures are best, forget the career stuff. I regret very much not getting to know Tom better.

Elizabeth Hazan
For painters who find imagery as we work, Thomas Nozkowski was a master. His forms sing with reminders of pleasure and possibility. Tom had an endless ability to resolve his paintings in new ways. Yet he told me once he had some he put away for as long as ten years until he could figure out how to make them work. At times that’s been an enormous help to keep in mind. Like de Kooning, Nozkowski had a high batting average for words that resonate in artists’ studios.

It might be surprising to know that Tom felt a strong affinity with the late still life paintings of my mother, Jane Freilicher, and he wrote perceptively about her.  Once you see the connections it gives new insight into both artists’ work: her shapes in front of a cityscape evoke how he saw his own figure/ground relationships. Much of what he wrote about her integrity as an artist applies to his own life and work. Tom was asked to give the tribute for her at the American Academy when she died.  He noted that she apparently never wrote an artist’s statement, which he’d been searching for while writing his remarks.  At the dinner afterwards, he leaned over and said, “I think it’s terrific that Jane got as far she did without writing one of those fucking things.”

Brooke and Peter's 4th of July Party 2009. Nozkowski with Hannah Boz and Casimir Nozkowski. © Harry Roseman
Brooke and Peter’s 4th of July Party 2009. Nozkowski with Hannah Boz and Casimir Nozkowski. Photo © Harry Roseman

Peter Schjeldahl
Tom got along more than well with just about everybody, even me. Our tastes differed, as did our politics and, really, whole worldviews. I revered, and still do, his art; but he amiably shrugged off compliments. Our friendship could seem a sort of dance, amazingly pleasurable, through a minefield. Only once that I recall, at the tail end of a tired and emotional summer evening, was there a blowup; and it was over in what, 30 seconds? Less than a minute, capped by one of Tom’s wry little philosophical smiles that as much as said, “The way things are includes wishes that they were otherwise. But hey, we’re alive.” You don’t hear much these days about strength of character, but Tom had that, with kindness backed by confidence. As well, he was free and brave: a dissenting but platonic American. Maybe because I couldn’t make it to the funeral, he isn’t gone for me yet but as if withdrawn for a spell in the studio, actualizing surprises. I won’t say I “loved” him, because I love him still.

Richard Kalina
I, like many others, knew Tom Nozkowski for many years and liked him immensely. How could you not? He was good company, sure of himself but properly modest, low-keyed, generous, kind, smart, hardworking, and of course talented and endlessly inventive. He was also a very droll fellow and, in many ways, that was key to his art. Tom was bemused rather than ironic – intuitively aware of the inherent skew of the world, a master of mining the inherent, subtle, and inevitable discontinuities of form and intent that present themselves to those attuned to them.  As we know, he preferred to work on an intimate scale – the better I believe to inhabit his paintings rather than address them. His drollness enabled him to keep a quizzical distance from the visual pleasures that he was so adept at providing. He worked through a painting rather than at it, on the continual lookout for the animating and sudden loss of traction that sends a work of art skidding to a desired but completely unexpected place. Looking at a Thomas Nozkowski painting elicits an almost neural jolt of surprise and recognition, and I am sure that will be as true 50 years from now as it is today.