The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

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FEB 2018 Issue

16 x 20

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (6-73), 1969, 16 x 20 inches. © Thomas Nozkowski. Photo: Tom Barratt, courtesy of Pace Gallery

On View
Pace Gallery
January 19 – February 17, 2018
New York

The prolific and consistently inventive Thomas Nozkowski celebrates a favorite format, 16” x 20,” in this retrospective covering thirty-five years. Since John Yau’s book on Nozkowski’s work, the first in the Lund Humphries Contemporary Painters Series edited by Barry Schwabsky, has just appeared, this show serves to launch the handsomely designed volume.

Yau’s book illuminates Nozkowski’s work, at least for me, in two ways. The first is his reverence for the architecture of the Los Angeles architect Rudolph Schindler, whom he thinks may be twentieth century’s “greatest artist.” I wish I could do more than state Nozkowski’s belief, but when I toured Schindler’s house in West Hollywood three years ago I did not know his opinion. Now I wish I had spent more time there, looked closer, and had the opportunity to see Nozkowski’s art through Schindler’s work.

The second way, which opened a new path into Nozkowski’s paintings for me, occurs in Yau’s “Landscape and Abstraction” chapter. There I learned that Nozkowski had his eyes opened in hiking the Shawangunk Mountains near his upstate New York home. Since all his work is untitled but numbered, perhaps for filing purposes, you might guess its relationship to landscape—not that different from Arthur Dove’s or Nozkowski’s contemporary Gregory Amenoff, but now you can connect the dots.

If his art can be seen as a form of mapping, the landscape covered is an inner one, a connection brought home to his studio after his treks during hunting season. This is the opposite of Gorky’s sitting, drawing paper before him, looking into the innards of that Virginia field which so absorbed him. Nozkowski’s forms are rounder, more elastic, more pulled out of the landscape and spilled on to his canvases. The words that come to my mind are splattered, spritzed, puddled—one of the pleasures of Nozkowski’s pictures is the words they call to mind. I see a great many toes and other curvaceous forms, disks, lozenges, wedges, pegged down shapes of cloth, spreading drops that, to these eyes, resemble the forms in certain de Kooning ’30s and ’40s abstractions.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-10), 1992. 16 x 20 inches. © Thomas Nozkowski. Photo: Tom Barratt, courtesy of Pace Gallery

But this sounds more complicated and tentative than the pictures look in person. They have a cheerful and clear engagement with their world. They do not ask to be read or figured out. They belong to that strain of twentieth century American painting that is related to but cannot be defined by landscape. You can see that these pictures have in common a range of forms, but it is, to my eye, their temperament—fluid and dancing like reflections of light on streams or a forest floor that one encounters again and again. Even when the forms are spiky, as if outlining a body of water or mass of glacial rock, they tickle the eye.

This is the scenery Elizabeth Bishop described in her poem “Arrival at Santos” as “impractically shaped” mountains “beneath their frivolous greenery.” The shapes we encounter in landscape are all impractical, since they serve only themselves and are endless in their variety. Nozkowski’s colors might sustain the adjective frivolous because they appear to be chosen from his palette at will—he likes sherbet hues—and attempt no mirror to nature.

There is nothing commonsensical about Nozkowski’s colors, which brings in the great American saunterer Thoreau: “A true account of the actual is the rarest poetry, for common sense always takes a hasty and superficial view.” Nozkowski’s is the rarest poetry and like Thoreau who noted that “I have traveled a good deal in Concord,” he did not have to go far to discover it.


William Corbett

WILLIAM CORBETT is a poet who has written books on the painters Philip Guston, Albert York, and Stuart Williams. He directs the small press Pressed Wafer and lives and works in Brooklyn.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2018

All Issues