Meaning in Art
Thomas Nozkowski Recent Work Pace Wildenstein April 4 – May 3, 2008
In recent years, meaning in art is rarely discussed by critics in terms of abstract painting. The implication is that the survival of meaning in art hovers somewhere outside of abstract painting. The alternatives range from illustration on canvas to digital photography, from deconstructive texts to destructive installations, from kitsch assemblages to interactive cyber-pods. Is the concept of meaning in art long-gone, out-of-fashion, overspoiled? In theoretical jargon, it may appear too close to epistemology, as if epistemology—being the study of knowledge—has been inadvertently removed from the aesthetic, conceptual, and productive components of making art. In the wake of this insouciant exhaustion of consciousness, is it possible that substance in art may have reverted back to abstract painting? After two visits to Pace Wildenstein Gallery, the site of the recent Thomas Nozkowski exhibition, I am willing to place my bet that abstract painting is back in the saddle not because of the market, but that it means something.
The fact is that Thomas Nozkowski still considers the coherence of form in abstract painting as meaningful. His epistemology is as present in every mark of the brush as it once was in every alloy plane or cubic module in the seminal years of Minimalism. Although Nozkowski’s paintings emerged in the seventies from an angle of vision unrelated to Minimal art—as shown at the Fisher Landau Gallery in Long Island City last February—there is a mental, physical, and emotional tenacity in his paintings equal to that of Minimal art. Whereas that exhibition contextualized Nozkowski in relation to the 1980s, the Pace exhibition reveals a refinement and an extension of the earlier style in terms of light, finesse, and a conceptual focus on material and form. While he removed his painting from the pragmatism of the cube, the grid, or the hardedge by the late 1970s, Nozkowski evolved in the direction of a more distinct, intuitively plotted, and eccentric form of expressionism. While less reductive in his consideration of subject matter, he retained an equally reductive format in terms of scale.
His view of abstraction as an intimate venture in an easel-size pictorial space is more than a fetish. It is a kind of provocation. It flies in the face of most American expressionist painting of the past half-century. It offers another point of view, namely that significance in painting, including what might be called “masterpieces,” is unrelated to either subject matter or scale. It is more a matter of how thinking concurs through the act of painting, and how this synthesis of thinking and painting emit a preeminent emotional impact.
From a Buddhist point of view, not unrelated to Nozkowski’s legacy, the yin-yang forces in the universe find a balance between sequential blocks of color and the tendril-like drawings of “feminine” contours like rivers from the perspective of 33,000 feet above the surface of the Earth.
In recent decades, abstract painting has been more about the presentation of formal ideas than about the representation of a political or social utopia—a concept that began to change in the late 1940s when representation turned inwards towards the existential self. Early Modernist forms of abstraction were less politically explicit than those of the Constructivists or those seen in the Bauhaus or even in the De Stijl academy of the twenties. By the seventies, Nozkowski was implicitly reviving “politics” in abstract painting less consciously from the position of social utopia than from a more distinct subjective perspective. The early awareness of a social context in Nozkowski’s paintings is neither absent nor truant any more than it was in the paintings of Malevich or the constructions of Tatlin. It’s just that in Nozkowski they are more implicitly discovered or, dare I say, embedded.
To paint abstract form suggests an intuitive process by way of a carefully constructed dexterity. This may or may not add up to being epistemological or even ontological. But is it still about meaning. In abstract painting—in the formalist sense—meaning is closely related to the result obtained from the process, that is, whether the coherence of shape, color, line, and texture hold together. Whether the mediumistic definition of abstract painting is essentially practical is finally the artist’s decision. While meaning may refer deductively to the material, pigment, and process, this does not negate the possibility that whatever appears as form is subsequently about meaning. Meaning is ultimately a linguistic extension of the manner in which the work is painted. This relates to a sense of connoisseurship in art, a pre-Modernist idea that suddenly is beginning to appear again, as if something had been missing for decades, and no one seemed to know exactly what was missing. This may sound like a standard definition of late Modernism—which, perhaps, it is. Yet there are exceptions to this hackneyed paradigm that occasionally come into view. These exceptions subvert the quotidian semiotic nuances, such as the quixotic manner in which palsy-ridden theories and ornery hybrids begin to ascend to the constellation of speculation and investment, relinquishing aesthetics and epistemology along the way.
Thomas Nozkowski’s star has risen in recent years—virtually within a decade – but not for reason of investment or mindless speculation. His paintings have slowly evolved into prominence for other reason. In addition to their aesthetic eloquence, their pronounced intellectual rigor, their sensory irrational resolutions, and unfettered—dare I say, heroic—explorations of surface space, Nozkowski’s paintings serve as the necessary, if not righteous antidote to the seamless corruption of the current market in contemporary art. While prices for lackluster reproductions of car wrecks soar seven times above that of a Rembrandt or a Tintoretto, Nozkowski’s diminutive masterpieces are selling for well under a hundred thousand.
Is this a mistake? I don’t think so. It is more than likely a sign that the market for contemporary art has been corrupted by an overload of synthetic discretionary income, the same kind of income that confirms the “top” ten artists on record at the auctions. My purpose here is not to implicate Nozkowski as some kind of rebel, because he is not—at least, not in the conventional sense of inciting a revolution. Even so, his paintings suggest an implicit opposition to the manner in which much painting is being promoted and sold in recent years. Nozkowski produces a lot of superior work as made evident in his recent exhibition at Pace. Yet his paintings—small as they may be—never fail to raise our sensory cognition and thus resonate with an ultimate clarity and profundity. They are paintings of significance in the sense that they have passed through the historical niche of conceptual art and brought the material concerns of intentionality into the realm of color, imaginative form, and linear blocks of calligraphy. This occurs through a disciplined, yet highly intuitive sense of feeling or, for a better word, the pictorial reality of completeness that becomes the meaning in art.
ContributorRobert C. Morgan
Robert C. Morgan is a writer, international art critic, curator, poet, lecturer, and artist. His most recent book is Clement Greenberg: Late Writings (2003). He holds both an MFA in Sculpture and a Ph.D. in Art History. He is currently Adjunct Professor of Fine Art at Pratt Institute.