The Democracy of Abstraction

Thomas Nozkowski (1944–2019) never hedged his bets. One bet was that abstract painting did not have to be elitist; it could be as open to subject matter as Andy Warhol supposedly was. The difference is that Nozkowski was not interested in the second-hand experiences we all supposedly share. He believed that each person’s experience of the everyday was fundamentally unique and set out to honor that in his work.

By 1974, when making large-scale paintings had become commonplace, and subject matter had largely been banished from abstraction in favor of paint-as-paint, he had formulated an alternative approach based on two conclusions. First, he decided to work on a 16-by-20-inch format using prepared canvas boards, which are available in any art supply store, implicitly rejecting the masterpiece tradition and the belief in the artist as a heroic figure. Second, every painting he did would come from a personal experience, which he defined in the broadest possible terms. This is how he defined it in an interview we did in The Brooklyn Rail (November 2010): 

Events, things, ideas — anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems. 

In this merging of intimate scale and personal experience, Nozkowski established links between art and life that challenged a number of presumptions regarding abstract painting and its relationship to the viewer. Are you making art for the wealthy class or for ordinary individuals when you work on a monumental scale? Can you make a painting that honors the basic enigmatic nature of being human without aligning yourself with any philosophical, religious, or aesthetic doctrine? Can you see things in abstraction without those things becoming symbolic?

Installation view of Thomas Nozkowski: The Last Paintings at Pace Gallery, New York

As I see it, these questions lead to further inquiry, including whether or not you could stay in touch with the material nature of your existence and not take refuge in the idea of transcendence. Finally, can you make a painting that is subtle, nuanced, and complex while also being visually immediate? Can you proceed with painting while rejecting gesture and accepted solutions such as the grid and hard-edged forms? Could you make a painting that did not rely on a formula? That Nozkowski attained what he set out to do is one of the great and inspiring achievements in postwar art.  

These were some of the thoughts I had when I went to see Thomas Nozkowski: The Last Paintings at Pace Gallery (September 10–October 23, 2021). I was also apprehensive, as I remembered Nozkowski talking to me about these paintings shortly before Susan Dunne, who was then working for Pace Gallery, came to see them at his studio, and I saw them for the first time on the day of his funeral. I was concerned because I knew I had seen them but not really looked at them and I wondered if I could actually ponder what was there.

The exhibition includes 19 paintings dated between 2015 and 2019. All but one measure 22 by 28 inches, a scale he began working with after more than 20 years of using the 16-by-20-inch format. Nozkowski also switched to painting on linen on panels, which gave him the resilient surface he wanted, as he often scraped down his paintings and started over.

The exhibition’s outlier is “Untitled (9-27) (Pulpit Rock)” (oil on linen, 30 by 40 inches, 2018), which I believe is the last painting in a series of 10 done on this scale. Conceived of in the late 1990s, each painting in the series was inspired by a specific place in the Shawangunk Mountains, which Nozkowski began hiking as a teenager, and to which he and his wife, the artist Joyce Robins, and their son, Casimir, moved near in 1994, when they left Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Pulpit Rock is named for a unique rock formation in Jefferson County (on the northern border of New York state) that once served as an outdoor podium from which itinerant clergy preached to the local residents, all of which Nozkowski knew, but the viewer need not know when looking at the painting.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (9-27) (Pulpit Rock)” (2018), oil on linen on panel, 30 × 40 inches

Nozkowski’s paintings openly invite you to contemplate a complex visual configuration that is brimming with color, myriad shapes and lines, and unexpected shifts in vocabulary and color, with neither painterly flourishes nor signature gestures; this is what I find powerful and compelling about them. It takes a supremely confident and ambitious artist to work this way. The only comparison that I can think of is the great Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter, who could sight read and play a complex piece that he had never played before, and who never showed off while playing. 

I was struck by the fact that there is never a hurried moment in these paintings, which were done when Nozkowski was well aware that he had a fatal disease. At no point does he call overt attention to his personal circumstances in these last works. Knowing that he was dying did not make him change his patient and devoted approach to making a beautiful and mysterious painting that he felt was true to a specific experience. If anything, he seemed intent on slowing time down and making paintings that are full of different kinds of lines, from delicate to sturdy, and unique shapes that never become eccentric or private signs. Is it possible to celebrate the innate wild beauty of the indifferent universe while acknowledging one’s inevitable disappearance? Nozkowski’s paintings convince me that it can be done. 

Completed in 2019 — Nozkowski died on May 9 of that year — “Untitled (9-63)” and “Untitled (9-69)” convey the way he faced his impending mortality. In both paintings, there is a sense of tension between what is contained within the painting’s physical boundaries and what extends beyond. This tension speaks to so many things about living in the world that I don’t think the artist’s mortality is the sole subject. At a point when one’s focus could understandably be narrowing, Nozkowski directs the viewer’s attention to that which is beyond the individual’s sight. 

In “Untitled (9-69)” Nozkowski surrounds a large, irregular, egg-yolk-yellow circle with two distinct bands composed of various shapes, against a gray ground. Parts of both bands are cut off by the painting’s physical edges. For the inner band, Nozkowski painted different black shapes (rectangles, circles, trapezoids, triangles), against the yellow ground but forming a separate entity. As he worked his way around the inside of the circle, he would develop a particular pattern of related black shapes before changing from small, solidly colored black rectangles to a group of larger black circles to a group of yellow circles with thick black circumferences.

The incrementally painted black shapes reminded me of mosaics, each one unique. The changes from one kind of shape to another underscore the passage of time. An outer band is made of interlocking, softly colored forms. At different points, the density of the colors shift from muted to solid, though these shifts follow no distinct pattern. 

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (9-63)” (2019), oil on linen on panel
22 × 28 inches

In “Untitled (9-63),” a turquoise, jigsaw-puzzle-like shape outlined in black occupies a large part of the painting’s upper left-hand corner, while a three-colored, irregular triangular shape with a black edge extends in diagonally from the painting’s right side, from below the upper right edge to the bottom edge. These two distinct flat shapes are joined together by a thin, multi-sectioned band that traverses the painting below the middle. The sections of the joining band change color from turquoise to green without recalling the spectrum or any other logical shift, while, at the same time, not appearing arbitrary. 

Between these two shapes, the black line defining their edges and separating the one on the right into three different-colored sections divides the off-white plane into interlocking sections with round and slightly curved edges. The solidly colored shapes extend beyond the painting’s physical edges, while a uniform black line defines shapes that fit together, but are not standardized. 

As in “Untitled (9-69),” Nozkowski establishes a tension between what is within the painting’s rectangle and what extends beyond its physical edges. At no point does anything he makes come across as short hand for something else; line, shape, and color are always what they are, even as their juxtapositions and shifts stir up associations by the viewer. 

Employing the basic elements of painting, from drawing in paint to planar shapes ranging from the solid to the semi-transparent, to different palettes of color, to scumbled and watery surfaces, Nozkowski never became formulaic. If, earlier in his career, he made what the poet and critic Marjorie Welish called a “vexed shape” in an abstract field, he moved beyond that to acknowledging the painting’s edges. Knowing the end was fast approaching, he opened up the focus of his paintings and extended the forms beyond what he could see, recognizing that there was a continuum between the individual and infinity — which he not only accepted, but praised. He realized that everything he saw and experienced, whether while hiking or visiting a museum, possessed a complexity that he wanted to, and did, honor. The art world has yet to grasp the depth of his greatness and grace. 

Thomas Nozkowski: The Last Paintings continues at Pace Gallery (540 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 23.

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