In Conversation

THOMAS NOZKOWSKI with John Yau

Shortly before his exhibition at The Pace Gallery, Thomas Nozkowski and Rail Art Editor John Yau met at the gallery’s warehouse to discuss his new paintings and drawings.

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

John Yau (Rail): I want to begin with the parameters of your painting project, which you had defined by the mid-1970s. By then you had moved from sculpture to painting.

Thomas Nozkowski: By 1974 I was painting 16 by 20 inch canvas boards that would be recognizable today as my work.

Rail: Along with working on 16 by 20 inch prepared canvas board, which one could buy in any art supply store, the other rule you had was that everything would come from personal experience.

Nozkowski: Yes, but taking that idea in the broadest possible way. Events, things, ideas—anything. Objects and places in the visual continuum, sure, but also from other arts and abstract systems.

Rail: Yes, there is that early painting in which you tested your memory of Uccello’s “Saint George and the Dragon.” You said that you really wanted to get the green shape separating the knight on his horse from the dragon, but that it was done from memory. You also deliberately changed the shape from green to red. So that’s what you mean by personal experience in the broadest sense.

Nozkowski: Consciousness is complicated. What’s interesting? What do you want to think about and how do you want to think about it? How hard do you want to think about it?

Rail: This raises an obvious question: Did you keep a diary?

Nozkowski: Yes. Nowadays I keep an extensive diary. In the early ’70s, it was terse and abbreviated.

Rail: Did you use the diary?

Nozkowski: Never—it’s a separate thing, a different kind of memory.

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (8-130)" (2010). Oil on linen on panel. 22 × 28 in. (55.9 cm x 71.1 cm).
Photo by: G.R. Christmas / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.

Rail: Okay—you had a diary and you made an abbreviated note. Like, I’m going to do a painting based on this thing that struck my attention, or whatever, right?

Nozkowski: I’m more likely to do that today. But the original function of the diary was strictly factual, as a tax record. It’s a good idea for any artist to keep a narrative that can help identify what was part of the art-making process. Trips taken, materials bought, and so on. Once I developed the habit of keeping a diary, it just grew. Today my diary has a little of everything, from art stuff to anecdotes, business matters to an occasional observation. So it hasn’t been a tool in the life of my paintings. On the other hand, it would probably be very interesting for someone further down the line to track when paintings were done with what was going on in the diary. Do you know Rosemary Mayer’s great translation of Pontormo’s Diary? Written while he was painting some of his most profound and beautiful work and it is completely mundane—his diet, his friends, even his constipation! A wonderful book. 

But why not use a diary if you are drawing on your experience? Well, I wasn’t aware of this at first, but now it’s very clear to me that I am as interested in my failures of memory, the lapses, mistakes, and self-delusions, as I am in any kind of putative accuracy. A diary like mine—a string of facts and opinions—is pretty useless for my paintings. The reality my paintings draw upon is as complex, varied, and self-examining as I can make it. What’s interesting is my desire to want to do something—and I tell this to my students. If you don’t want something from your work, you can’t have anything. Purpose makes things come into focus. How come this feels right? Why do I love this and hate that? There’s a lot to be said for doing something as well as you can and not striving for some idea of perfection. Ideas of perfection are usually based on what we have seen in the past, on what we already know. You can give anything a shot, any idea—no matter how odd or impossible seeming. Here: let’s try to make a picture of, say, how I feel about John Yau. And I’m going to try to do this with as much intelligence and depth as I can muster. I now have a place to begin, an area to work in, and I can put forth some propositions: what is the color of this and what is the shape of that? What is the light in this place? All artistic propositions, excluding only the most trivial, look ridiculous upon close examination. I don’t believe success in a project like this can be measured by how easily readable my image is to other people—it is instead measured by how visually rich and complex the painting is. The picture will be of John, but it is really about what I can find in trying to see him.

Rail: You have also talked about your teachers. You’ve said that many of them were Abstract Expressionists, but there’s also this other side that you haven’t really talked about that much, which is that there were Bauhaus teachers at the Cooper Union when you were a student. So you had two very different groups of teachers and both influenced you. The Abstract Expressionists would be about improvisation to some degree, about not knowing where you’re going or where you’re going to end up. And the Bauhaus would be about geometry and figure-ground.

Nozkowski: Yes, and color.

Rail: Do you think of yourself as having synthesized them? By this, I mean that you asked yourself: What do I do with these two conceptions of painting that I possess—geometry and improvisation?

Nozkowski: I have never thought of myself as a geometric painter, but I have always thought of myself as an improviser. The geometry in my work has increased over the years and I’m not completely sure why this is so. It isn’t by conscious intent, I can assure you. Improvisation, however, is essential to my work. I want my ideas to be located at the tip of my brush. I want my materials to talk back to me. I want to be surprised.

Rail: Looking at these recent paintings, the other thing that I thought about—and this is because of the painting on the far right, “Untitled (8–136)”—is that there are some structures that you return to in paintings. I say this because of the affinities this painting has with a 1975 painting of yours based on a birch tree and the constellations, “Untitled (3–27).” I feel like this painting reimagines that one.

Nozkowski: Very good, you’re on the money. The idea of a night sky in the Adirondacks and a birch tree—you know, a really simple piece of nature abstraction, perhaps conflated with a close-up of an art book, the plate on the left and some text on the right. That’s exactly the source of that painting. About a year ago, for really no good reason, I started rethinking a couple of older paintings and that the one that paid off. There are a number of works that came out of the canvas board you’re talking about: over the last few years a handful of prints and drawings and at least one other painting that’s hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery right now. So what are they about now? Well, they’re about that old painting, but they’re also about all the things that I’ve learned since then. From the way things are charted and mapped, to the way things are spatially put on a canvas.

Rail: This is how I imagine it: you looked up into the sky while hiking in the Adirondacks and you see a sky full of constellations, configurations whose names and stories have been handed down from the Ancient Greeks or Chinese. With this painting and the ones that preceded it, the recurring question is, how do you make it fresh and not simply just repeat something? How do you bring what you have learned to that situation?

Thomas Nozkowski, "Untitled (8-122)" (2009). Oil on linen on panel. 22-1/8 × 28-1/8 in. (56.2 cm x 71.4 cm). Photo by: Kerry Ryan McFate / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.

Nozkowski: It’s boring to repeat something. I try not to do it, but here, anyway, there was something that still seemed wide open to me. I get a feeling from the new paintings that I am looking sideways at something—I like that! But to the question of how, well I think you just do it. If you think you can do something, you should try to do it. Why not? You might see something new and learn something.

I spent a lot of time in 2009 working on drawings and etchings for a book of poetry by Cole Swensen. The poems had a kind of scientific or systematic feeling and the drawings were more pattern-like overall than anything I have done in many years. I mean, my God, isn’t the grid totally played out by now? Well, no, nothing is ever played out; things just lay dormant waiting for another chance to frame the world. So I got infected with a light case of the overall—and there are three or four paintings in this show that have regular patterns supporting the images, and another group that plays with the idea of patterns, makes fun of them. But it’s visual candy: putting things on grids or in systems (broken and otherwise), connecting them, pulling them together.

Rail: And breaking them apart.

Nozkowski: And breaking them apart.

Rail: You didn’t want to take the grid as the authority. You’re taking it and undermining it to make it into something else.

Nozkowski: I’d like to do that to all the elements of a painting.

Rail: I think it’s important to understand that about your work, that you’ve taken these givens but then you’re always undermining them to find your own place.

Nozkowski: Every artist has little rules or devices that enables them to move a painting forward. I’m not thinking of great and meaningful exercises of desire, but simple, quotidian, almost mechanical procedures. I mean, one of the strategies that I’ve always used in different permutations is to, as a first step, go to the opposite of what the logical move would be. So if a painting would seem to have a source that is anthropomorphic or organic, you know, start geometrically. If a painting has a source in a city and architecture in the urban, let’s do it with curves and juicy paint running all over the place. And this is not out of perversity, but out of a desire to challenge any kind of received wisdom. In other words, if a city has to be geometric, well, okay, let it prove itself, let it become geometric in the process, in the procedure of thinking about these things. This interests me—looking for the core of things. What is essential? What is at the bottom of it?

Rail: Well, if you go back to those two paintings, and you say that it starts with an overall pattern, what seems to me is that you then find your way through it literally by breaking it down, so that your paintings have a physical side—you have to find your own way across the painting. You can see it as a pattern or a band of colors, but they don’t suddenly coalesce into an image.

Nozkowski: Yes. Maybe this comes from the years I was working as a sculptor. I was very conscious of the physicality of my first canvas board paintings. I thought about them as objects as much as paintings. In the ’70s painting was semi-officially dead—turning into architecture and sculpture—and it was almost essential to think of it in terms of object-making. There’s a funny corollary here to Trecento Sienese painting. The very first panel paintings in Western art are nothing if not physical. They have physically raised elements, they have things incised into them. They have, you know, faces that were kissed away, devils that were scratched off with fingernails. I mean they have a real palpable, physical being. You can almost see ideas and feelings being constructed. Jesus is on the cross and the cross is on a hill and the hill is on the curve of the earth. Massive stuff—on small panels.

Rail: And you’re influenced by that because certainly in the painting, at the end, it feels like the black part is raised against the blue. You don’t see it until you move up close to it.

Nozkowski: Yeah. Paint really doesn’t like to get too thick. It loses some of its most beautiful qualities when it gets piled up and much of its physical stability, as well. I have always tried to keep the final paint layer as thin as I can, and I do that by rubbing down and by scraping off. I have a great Japanese tool and I have no idea what it was originally made for, but it’s the greatest scraper of paint! Spade-shaped, about an inch-and-a-half long with a heavy wood handle and razor sharp edges: wow! I can shave the paint off of anything, no matter how dry and old. I paint on linen glued to a cradled panel and one of the nice things about working on a hard surface—more physicality!—is that I can really just take things off, almost erase them with that tool so I’m not fighting a lot of old paint, watching it suck the life out of the new paint layer. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the occasional skirmish with old paint, thick slabs of color and the scarifications of work—but there are really a lot more possibilities for paint surfaces than we commonly see.

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (8-134)” (2010). Oil on linen on panel. 22” x 28” (55.9 cm x 71.1 cm). Photo by: G.R. Christmas / Courtesy The Pace Gallery.

Rail: It interests me that these paintings go through a lot of changes, and that a lot of work goes into them, but you don’t want to show that.

Nozkowski: Well, I come from a working class background and I know too much about work to think that there is anything inherently good about it. I no longer have to prove to my parents that I’m doing real, honest work. I don’t think it’s essential to show the signs of work, to demonstrate the effort involved in making something. I mean, making something physically is not the most interesting part of making art. A letterpress book isn’t smarter than a Xeroxed one. Oil painting always shows its history anyway. You can’t ever erase something; you can’t get rid of it. It will affect everything that’s put on top of it, whether you’ve peeled most of the paint away or rubbed it down into a fine veil of color.

Rail: I feel like it’s part of what happened, but you don’t fetishize process.

Nozkowski: That’s definitely true. However, if you look at the surfaces of my paintings, you’ll see that the “signs of work” aren’t only shown by the facture. More often you can see that in the color. Oil paint is translucent, often transparent, and seldom completely opaque. You mix it, beat it, and layer it. It is never pure and—a commonplace—it is always seen in context, changed and charged by its size, position, and relationships with other colors. It is slippery stuff, the most elusive part of painting. I like it best in excess, when it feels like it is about to go out of control. I don’t want to create the idea that I have some singular idea of specific colors from the start of a painting. These come out of the process, trying to correct things and make it all add up. You know, you put something down and it’s not right, you do the next thing and you try again to fix it. I’ve talked about how I like painting best when it turns a little homely, turns away from the grandiose and opts for simple desire. To really want to possess something and to be willing to do anything to get it will take you pretty far. That’s the reason so much outsider painting looks so great.

Rail: So the other thing, you try to make every painting different than anything you’ve done, even though you’re always stuck in your own life, as they say. You don’t want a signature style.

Nozkowski: I have nothing against a signature style. I just can’t have it.

Rail: Why do you think that is?

Nozkowski: I suppose I put the integrity of things first. Style is like opinion: interesting when pointed and tedious when generalized. I really don’t have much of an overarching philosophical position.

Rail: So you don’t have a unified philosophical position?

Nozkowski: No, I don’t think so.

Rail: There’s this other remark you once made about the Pisanello painting of Saint Eustace. You said that it made you realize you could put anything into a painting.

Nozkowski: What a great painting! Some works of art just open up and seem to stretch out in all directions. They go on forever. Sure, you can put anything into a painting and it is great fun to try to find impossible things to paint. I’ve always liked that Henry James quote, “We paint because there are things we cannot say.” I don’t think I’d like it though if you inverted it: “We speak because there are things we cannot paint!” You can certainly paint anything—although there is no guarantee that anyone else will be able to see and understand it. There’s something else though. This is the golden age for art-making. Not only do we have permission to paint anything in any way we like, but we also have audiences who are interested in playing the game along with us, willing to try to follow our ideas. In our studio life we are not only free—we are meaningfully free. Make a mark on the canvas. This mark can be said to represent anything I want—no problem. The success or failure of the painting has now shifted over from the subject to the strength and intelligence of the painter’s work. This was always true, of course, but now it is self-evident. Keeping honest is the hardest part: If a mark can be anything, why bother grounding it at all?

Rail: I think it’s interesting because your marks never seem arbitrary, and one thing that is never said about you is that you are an eccentric abstractionist, because eccentricity is an elaboration of a position.

Nozkowski: One of the nice things about grounding works in the real world is that you don’t need a position—you have a place. Willful eccentricity can be a real problem. It’s not a high art crime, but certainly a misdemeanor—tiring stuff.

Finding a point in the perceptual world gives me a place I can work from. There are two practical benefits from this. First, when inspiration is flagging on the canvas, I can always go back to that source and “look” at it in a different way: in plan or elevation, shade or light, change position, move to the side, and so on and on and on. Every point in the world connects to every other point, and following the linkages can lead to some interesting painting. When is a cabbage like a king? The second benefit is in the quality of the marks on the canvas. There is a demonstrable difference between a mark that means something and a mark that doesn’t mean anything. It’s in our DNA, left over from the millennia before words, when we “read” the world. We recognize marks that have meaning, shapes speak; we recognize a friend when he’s a tiny black mark on the horizon.

Rail: The other thing about your work is that it always goes beyond the edge. You always feel like whatever you’re seeing, you’re seeing it both complete and incomplete. That’s a philosophical position.

Nozkowski: Okay.

Rail: That adds a notion that if you conceive this whole thing and believe in it, what’s in front of you, you must also recognize that it goes beyond your viewpoint. You’re admitting that you only get a partial sense of anything that you see.

Nozkowski: Sure. But I really like having it both ways. There are several paintings in this show where one or more edges are presented illusionistically, as you suggest, and another edge is treated as a formal wall, flat and diagrammatic, something to bounce off of. Sophisticated viewers don’t need my help with this—they know how to see a painting in the double vision of illusion and artifice—but it amuses me to do it, and I think it can create a confounding kind of space in between.

Rail: You want to put the viewer into a quandary—a quandary about seeing, you know: What can you see, what can’t you see? I would say the paintings are also, as much as they are about things, they’re always rooted in perceptual issues having to do with painting. In that way, you’re very formal.

Nozkowski: I don’t think there is any contradiction. Formal understanding doesn’t trump content or vice versa. You go to art school and then you look at a million paintings—it would be pretty sad if you didn’t have a strong understanding of formal values, the mechanics of painting. We all are sophisticated New York artists and intellectuals. We all know a lot. Whatever we choose to do, it will reflect our intelligence and sophistication. Jean-Luc Godard said that every young artist feels they have to choose between ethics and aesthetics—but whichever they choose, they will quickly discover it leads to the other. After I had been painting this way for some years, someone asked me about my sources. I wasn’t going to be specific, but tried to answer in a general way. He wanted more information and asked me, what were some of the things I look at in the world? I made a list of some things that had caught my eye in the last couple of days, and I was more than a little surprised to see that almost every single one of them involved something misplaced in terms of scale. A child’s toy on the lawn, a half-carved millstone in a quarry, a photograph in a book and so forth. Maybe this doesn’t mean anything, only that the anomalous jumps out at us—but it is a quality I like in art works, including my own.

Rail: Well, the other thing that strikes me about your paintings is that you can’t really tell how big the thing or event is. You can’t tell if you’re standing close to something or if you are far away. I think one thing about your paintings that I’m attracted to is that they’re not afraid to be awkward, and they don’t make awkwardness a virtue.

Nozkowski: It’s the best I can do. [Laughs.]

Rail: Okay, but I think people want to cover up their awkwardness. In that painting: the shape in relation to the brown—there are contradictions to it. And the painting next to it, “Untitled (8–135),” if you read the first thing on the lower left as a figure, the other two say, “Well, yeah if that’s a figure, what are we?” Even though it’s all the “same language,” the “language” doesn’t suddenly reveal itself. Does that make sense?

Nozkowski: It does. I like paintings that balance contradictions. I like paintings that look clear and simple at first glance and then sort of crumble under your gaze. And it’s even better if further looking enables you to put it together again, understand it in a new way.

A really good painting is something that you can keep going back to—it’s a big day for truisms, Tom—this is why paintings survive over time. You can keep looking at them, keep looking at them all for different readings, different ways of understanding them.

Rail: Matisse’s turtle painting.

Nozkowski: Yeah, jeez. [Laughs.]

Rail: It’s interesting to me that you use stuff from art, but you don’t parody. The Uccello, for example.

Nozkowski: I wouldn’t steal something unless I really loved it. Parody should be a little wicked. Pastiche might be loving, a meditation, and an homage.

Rail: Well, I think pastiche is a form of praise, too. There are paintings of yours where I really feel like it’s a thing, and it’s familiar, but I don’t know what it is. And you go, “Well, how can that be? It’s familiar. It’s this, it’s that.”

Nozkowski: Or to take something familiar and make it unfamiliar.

Rail: But unfamiliar in a way not in the kind of classic Surrealist strategy of de-familiarizing it.

So you’ve done about four of what I call “birch tree and night sky” paintings, that I know of.

Nozkowski: It’s odd for me to play with one motif—this is not typical at all. I really did love nights in the Adirondacks—no electricity, no phone, and our nearest neighbor a mile-and-a-half away. I’ve also done two related oils-on-paper that I like a lot. I want to make one of them into a rug.

Rail: Let’s talk about the drawings in this show. Each drawing is done after a particular painting.

Nozkowski: Yes.

Rail: And they seem like they’re about 8 by 10 inches?

Nozkowski: Around that. They vary a bit since they were just eyeballed by my assistant when he tore down the paper. The paper is the bottom of the sheets from making Flair—the artist’s book I did with Cole Swensen.

Rail: Really?

Nozkowski: Yeah. Ripped in half. The paper is called Magnani Pescia and it takes color like a kiss.

Rail: Well, you can’t waste anything, can you?

Nozkowski: No. Mom would be proud of me. [Laughs.]

Rail: I love that drawing. Can you say that in an interview? I love that drawing. Again, it’s slightly perverse: you did the drawing after the painting.

Nozkowski: I love drawing more than anything and I really like working on this paper. I hadn’t been drawing for a few months. I thought doing a little drawing when the painting was finished might give me a little aesthetic distance, help me understand what I had just done. I quickly discovered it was a great way to cool things down and get the painting out of my head.

Rail: So you decided to do it for every single painting.

Nozkowski: Yeah. It’s such a bad idea. [Laughs.] No, it really gave me a lot of pleasure.

Rail: So the other thing that always strikes me, in relation with your paintings, is that I know you’re a voracious looker. And you’re a voracious reader, but I think of you as a voracious looker.

Nozkowski: I like lookers.

Rail: At all different kinds of art. You seem to not have any hierarchies about art. You seem pretty much willing to look at all different kinds of art and figure out how to use it, or respond to it, or talk to it. And yet I don’t feel like your art is about art in that kind of insular way.

Nozkowski: I love being part of a community in time, you know? Before I decided to become an artist, I really thought about becoming a historian. I thought that would be a really interesting thing to do. One of the reasons I love painting, this singular thing, is the communal part of it, all sorts of people in different times and places, all trying to catch and hold some part of the visual continuum, all of them doing the same thing, no matter the context. It all gets most interesting when you free the artists’ essential work from their cultural context. It all becomes grist for the mill and then the next artist and on and on. And there’s the big question of why you look at this and I look at that, you know—are we really seeing the same thing? Or do we both really see colors the same way? Do we see shapes the same way? Do we understand scale in the same way? And painting is a way to battle that out, to try to work out the possibilities, the meaning of visual knowledge.

Rail: But it’s also about autonomy. It’s about: How do you gain autonomy in a world that tries basically to deny you all autonomy?

Nozkowski: Well, you know, there are people who want to understand visual language as something akin to advertising images, stop signs, and stick figures—the most banal graphic communication. This sense of communication is pretty bad, ridiculous conventions that shut off the possibility of really seeing and understanding something. At the best it’s common denominator stuff—at worst it’s authoritarian.

Rail: The last question I think I would ask you is: If you were to name four painters who—or four artists who influenced you while working on this show——

Nozkowski: There are a lot more than four artists who influence me every time I sit at the easel. In this show there are a few special homages, where the artist is actually used as one of the sources of the image. There’s Carpaccio, Thomas Chambers, DeHooch, and Bonnard—in all four cases I had seen things in their work that I wanted to think about and use. I have been obsessed for a while now with Watteau, but I would be hard pressed to find something specific from him in my work. Maybe that’s in the future, a coming attraction.

Contributor

John Yau