PRINT May 1981

Pressing On: Thomas Nozkowski’s Paintings

The whole visible universe is just a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value, a sort of fodder which the imagination must digest and transform.
—Charles Baudelaire1

TO BE “PAINTING AGAIN,” in the Talking Heads’ song “Artists Only,” involves “cleaning” your “brain.” That is not equally apparent in all current manifestations. “Pattern and Decoration” offers the anesthetizing “easy list’nin’” of the music piped into dentists’ offices. So-called “New Image” painting, misappropriating a term once applied to Abstract Expressionism,2 conveys the cuteness and bad-boyism of Country and Western of the honkier type. But serious new painting goes on, as ever, for the benefit of those who care for more, not less, than entertainment. It is no secret that my own interests center on, let’s say, high modernity. The painting of Thomas Nozkowski interests me for its internal conviction and because it seems to coincide with other, and easier, current approaches. I find in Nozkowski’s art a sophistication whose struggling, unfacile finesse, curiously, might seem to put it in line with other, perhaps more groping, developments. Having followed this work sympathetically for several years, it is specifically its cultivation that I want to address. Although much painting today is made, let’s face it, by and for people who neither know nor care deeply about painting, let alone general culture, Nozkowski’s is not merely earnest but sophisticated, demanding in its very delights.

Any old sloppy-seeming art—a lot of Beat writing, for instance—confronts us with its motives. Nozkowski’s painting seems, if anything, at an opposite extreme from the affectation of naive or infantile irregularity prevalent in works by certain young Italian, as well as some American, artists. The idea of deliberately messing things up may trace back to the middle-aged Renoir’s impulse, around 1884, to found a “Society of Irregularists,” or “Irregularists’ Company.” Confronted by profound change, in particular the transformation of Impressionism into a new, Post-Impressionist art of objectified feeling, Renoir was unable to keep abreast of younger artists’ responses to high-voltage alienation in social life. Thinking that the trouble was simply one of taste, a “mania of false perfection” that was driving the engineers in industry,3 he set out to contribute to art theory the rather lame-brained principle that what you really had to do was to make things irregular—which is to say, more like nature, in Ruskin’s sense. Obviously, the folly is that the irregularity that may actually be a sign of life is difficult enough to avoid; to have to wish for it is pathetic. Today we see all around us feignings of feeling that are hardly different in this regard, and may be worse.

Now, it seems, certain elegantly sloppy new Italian painters want, like Renoir, to relax from the tiring rigors of the dialectic of tradition, innovation and revision. Often enough these artists actually do draw and paint “beautifully” (perhaps especially Sandro Chia and Enzo Cucchi), though for that very reason they would seem to fall back on a lurid but affected funkiness just to stave off bel pittura. I think that this is to painting what opportunism is to the moral life, so it is not surprising that critical attempts are made even to embrace “opportunismo.” Such a posture (American or Italian)—if that word can apply to something so laid-back, so devoid of aspiration—suggests a kind of classy, CIA-style Marxism that can justify anything (especially anything that perpetuates oligarchy) as long as you are patient enough to wait for one more spin in the argument.

The Italian sources of such painting are obvious enough, particularly in regard to Giorgio De Chirico and Carlo Carrà, from even before the First World War through their Scuola Metafisica (which started during the war), not to mention 16th-century Mannerism. The trouble is that even the more obviously nationalistic modern sources themselves belong to the early 20th-century international scene—just as nationalism itself, at least in its progressive manifestations, is an international phenomenon. There is, after all, much ethnicity in Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall, both acknowledged inspirations for the young Italians, and in others, too (think of the folk art aspect of Joan Mirò), and this is not necessarily any more relevant to latter-day Italian painting than it is to recent painting anywhere else, such as America.

To my mind much recent American punky, quasi-imagistic work shows up a whole strain of freaked pictorialism in painting, including Italian painting beginning in the years before World War I, that is non-Cubist, and possibly even anti-Cubist, in attitude. Needless to say, this begins to be apparent now because this new art is upon us. Take, for example, Mikhail Larionov’s Autumn, 1912, a canvas divided by an asymmetrical grid into unequal rectangular zones with a “crudely” rendered, Russian peasantlike motif in each: the nationalism here is surely as internationally significant as that of De Chirico and Carrà. One might in the same cosmopolitan spirit want now to juxtapose the De Chirico drawing Apparition of a Horse, ca. 1913, with practically any horse painting of the last few years by Susan Rothenberg. If such comparisons imply critical choice, what certainly cannot be overlooked is the pertinence of whole bodies of work by Max Ernst, Francis Picabia and Man Ray, all distinctly transatlantic, to the more promiscuously Surrealist features of painting related to punk and New Wave. A Self-Portrait drawn by Man Ray in 1914 for A Book of Diverse Writings (1915), in a Milan private collection, is one example that strikingly anticipates a preferred drawing style in current art, Italian as well as American—except for the fresh, optimistic sweep of Man Ray’s ink line. As for Picabia, his charming Three Graces, ca. 1924–27, in a Turin collection4 has its own affinities with an Oskar Kokoschka lithograph called Dreaming Youths: Three Boys in a Fish, 1908, as well as with Picasso’s The Dance, 1925, in the Tate Gallery. All this potential historicism is even more obvious now that we can see in the New Wave fashion such sources warmed over again, as in David Hockney’s stylish new sets for Parade. And, speaking of Picasso, is it any wonder that last year’s great exhibition should have seemed so exciting, revealing as it did the astounding gorgeousness of all those paintings from about the summer of 1925 which had before looked clunky in reproduction?

More urgently, the considerably closer legacy of American Funk Art has yet to be elaborated. Any comprehensive analysis will have to refer to Art Brut in Europe, but it will have to deal principally with Bay Area and Chicago Funk, not to mention relevant aspects of Pop. Among the milestones of Funk are Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s The Illustrated Wilfred Funk (1971), published at the City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco, and still available, and also the uproariously “crummy” drawings and photo-copied editions of William Anthony, in New York, especially from around 1970 on,5 including his charming book Bible Stories (1978). Anthony draws like an intelligent but bored kid in the back row who is not paying attention.

So much for the broad terrain. Nozkowski’s paintings are almost all on 16-by-20-inch canvas boards, which may seem small in the context of the vast, white, former sweatshop of the latter-day loft or gallery, but not small enough to be a matter of contemporary “small art.” In fact, this is approximately the size of the traditional middle-class, domestic picture. For Nozkowski’s purposes this format is peculiarly effective, scaling as it does a richly worked but single and continuous experience, as with novellas long enough to allow for elaboration yet short enough to be read in a single sitting. In the paintings the relation of touch to format points this up. The brushwork has a chance to unfold itself lyrically even as it advances the cause of the whole; which is, indeed, the true scale of the lyric. Moreover, each painting carries the sense of being an intense, intact, self-contained unit of work that has required a reasonable amount of application and endurance. Charles Baudelaire, in a section of his “Salon of 1859” called “The Government of the Imagination,” discusses the rich layering of imagination that is possible in painting, and contrasts this with painting that amounts to nothing more than manual labor, describing the latter as covering “so much space in a certain amount of time.”6 That is not what one finds here; nor is this “Bad Painting,” insulated by irony. The work rewards close apprehension; deep in, one recognizes something like the friction of intentions and possibilities familiar to each person from his or her own negotiations with others in the world.

Kenneth Baker clarified the workings of our responses of this sort a few years ago in a lovely essay on Philip Guston’s drawing style—to mention a painter of the older generation whose work is most relevant to Nozkowski’s. Discussing one of Guston’s drawings, Study for “Sheriff,” 1970, Baker reflected on the ambiguity whereby the same image can be read as a door or as a head. The ambiguity seems to be more meaningful than a simple ambivalence: “The conviction that everything you see must have its ultimate, unequivocal aspect, apart from all human judgment or agreement, is a way of keeping at bay painful feelings of responsibility for the world you see, a way of not seeing the world in terms of human action.”7 Praising Guston for his “refusal to pretend that he knows what belongs on the canvas or the page in advance of putting something there,” Baker observed that “. . . when Guston draws a tangible thing, its tangibility is definite, but its identity is not. Nearly everything he draws looks like several things at once.” The paintings of Nozkowski evidence this character more profoundly than can any of the merely stylistic evocations of Guston now seen around. They even tend, as though following through with Guston’s inspiration rather than mimicking it, to produce the further ambiguity between any “thing” (at all) and “non-thing” (or form). Thus a 1979 Nozkowski painting (all the artist’s paintings are untitled), one that is particularly suggestive of Guston’s sheriff’s head/ door drawing, can be said to show a “head or . . .” (something), with emphasis on the or. As with similar forms in other works by Nozkowski, the form in question cuts in from the bottom of the canvas like a head seen from behind. If one started to read it as, say, straw-colored strands of some kind baled together by a white band and set on a platform or tabletop, he or she would be left with the utter irreducibility of the “strawlike” item or items, which cannot be pinned down even as being singular or plural. Likewise, while a 1968 Guston drawing of an open book seems to have boiled down representation to a negligible depictiveness, another of Nozkowski’s 1979 paintings takes it, as it were, from there, and can only be described as an “open-book-like” entity of some altogether invented kind.

On the day Guston died, June 7, 1980, Nozkowski painted an homage to that wonderful artist. In the painting a volcano form is interrupted by a slablike row of rectangles intruding from the right edge, into what in old painting would have been the fore- or middle-ground. Actually, the painting was inspired not by any Guston image, though its color and handling are consonant with his, but by musings on Titian’s Sacred and Profane Love, ca. 1513 (Rome, Borghese Gallery). Typically, what concerned Nozkowski in Titian’s painting, and hence what constituted his, if anything, understated tribute to Guston, was Titian’s superficially incongruous (but practically Surreal) use of a sarcophagus as a wellhead—the water of life bubbling up into the vessel of death. I think of John Donne, in “The Computation”:

Yet call not this long life; but think that I
Am, by being dead, Immortal; can ghosts die?

Most of Nozkowski’s works have no specific historical evocations, but those that do show something of his sophistication and of his work’s means of articulation. He has turned to Albrecht Dürer several times, which is all the more interesting as he (understandably) doesn’t “like” Dürer. Such inspirations can be thoroughly non-objective, as when a railing in a Dürer woodcut of the Annunciation, 1502, lends a hinged, angular form, like a flopped-open carpenter’s rule, to several paintings of the last few years. In one of Nozkowski’s drawings, “hard” in style (others, also beautiful, are more tentative and exploratory), the derivation from Dürer of a fascinating linear construction (related to configurations already present in Nozkowski works) carries with it distinct poetic over-tones. Here the formal connection is to Dürer’s etching St. Eustace, 1501, which provides Nozkowski with a network of swelling, irregular bands that, in the Dürer, belong to the bridle of St. Eustace’s horse. Yet there is for Nozkowski also a connection of meaning—with the (probably fictitious) legend of St. Eustace, whose conversion from paganism was supposed to have been inspired, while hunting, by the sight of a stag with a crucifix between his antlers. As the medieval Golden Legend (translated by the Symbolist art critic Teodor de Wyzewa) tells the story, the saint had before this been a general in Trajan’s army; he was “good and merciful, but abandoned to the cult of idols.”9 Heinrich Wölfflin thought that Dürer seemed more interested in the hunter’s horse than in the miraculous stag.10 Nozkowski gets in even closer in his drawing, concentrating almost exclusively on the horse’s bridle.

Such inspirations have to do, I think, with a privacy of significance that goes hand in glove with a highly generalized affectiveness in Nozkowski’s work. Thus the painter is also especially fond of one of Gustave Flaubert’s Three Tales (1877), “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator,” itself partly inspired by a stained-glass window in Rouen Cathedral.11 In Flaubert’s tale another miraculous stag appears, again intervening in the life of a man who, like St. Eustace before his conversion, is basically good but a bloodthirsty hunter. It seems impertinent to pursue such matters in much detail. It is enough to know that Nozkowski has made several drawings provoked by the upstate hunters’ world of pickup trucks with gun racks in their rear windows. And it is more important, anyway, to consider the veritably Symbolist compaction of rich imagery into something extremely condensed, whether in Flaubert’s strange and beautifully artificial story, or, for that matter, in Dürer’s etching.

There is something markedly American in Nozkowski’s working with such a personally selected cluster of inspirations. The condensation around the artist’s own particular thoughts and feelings of personally selected, otherwise disparate, inspirations is American; specifically, Emersonian. George Santayana said of Emerson, “There was a great catholicity in his reading; and he showed a fine tact in his comments, and in his way of appropriating what he read. But he read transcendentally, not historically, to learn what he himself felt, not what others might have felt before him.”12 Here and now such a stance may also be a means of affirming art’s expressive possibilities when the artist’s will, in the service of the imagination, retakes territories long governed by doubt. Then entire ranges of affects acquire scope: the contemplative and even melancholic, the clever or witty, even sometimes (Nietzsche’s favorite) the hilarious. This is where Nozkowski’s abstractions can be seen to take a more than neutral part in living. His is a painting of rich, non-exploitative, imaginative fullness that replenishes itself naturally after each act generosity.

Joseph Masheck teaches art history at Barnard College.



1. Charles Baudelaire, “Salon de 1859,” in his Critiques d’art, ed. Claude Picots, Paris: Librarie Armand Colin, 1965, vol. II, pp. 295–378, here p. 316.

2. John W. McCoubrey, American Tradition in Painting, New York: George Braziller, 1963. ch. v, “The New Image,” pp. 113–24. At the same time, Linda Nochlin had precocious pre-punk insight into the specifically Northern and unlovely beauties of Grünewald, describing the loincloth in the Isenheim Altarpiece, ca. 1512–16, simply as “A rag, exquisitely painted” (plus many other instances); Nochlin, Mathis at Colmar: A Visual Confrontation, New York: Red Dust. Inc., 1963, p. 11. One might want to consider this passionate essay in light of Huysmans’ descriptions of Grünewald painting in Là-Bas (1891) and Trois Primitifs (1905).

3. Pierre Auguste Renoir, “La Société des Irrégularistes,” in Lionello Venturini, ed., Les Archives de l’impressionnisme, Paris and New York: Durand-Ruel, 1939, vol. I, pp. 127_29.

4. Illus., William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1979, color pl. xv.

5. Some years ago I gave an illustrated lecture on these precise matters, at the inebriated meeting of a certain “cultural” society at Columbia University; no notes survive.

6. Baudelaire, Critiques d’art, p. 316.

7. Kenneth Baker, “Philip Guston’s Drawing: Delirious Figuration,” Arts Magazine, June 1977, pp. 88–89. The drawing, considered then by Baker as untitled but informally called a “sheriff’s head,” Guston apparently came to title Study for “Sheriff,” in reference to a (less ambiguous) painting called Sheriff, also of 1970.

8. John Donne’s Poems, ed. Hugh l’Anson Fausset (Everyman’s Library), London and New York, 1958, p. 48.

9. Jacobus da Varagine, La Légende dorée, trans. Teodor de Wyzewa, Paris: Perrin et Cie., 1923, p. 524.

10. Heinrich Wölfflin, Die Kunst Albrecht Dürers (1905), 6th ed., ed. K. Gerstenberg, Munich, 1943, p. 130; cited in The Complete Engravings, Etchings and Drypoints of Albrecht Dürer, ed. Walter L. Strauss, 2nd ed., New York, 1973, p. 70, with plate on facing page. (Reference from Nozkowski).

11. Gustave Flaubert, “The Legend of St. Julian Hospitator,” in his Three Tales, trans. Robert Baldick Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1961, pp. 57–87, with introduction.

12. George Santayana, “The Genteel Tradition in American Philosophy” (1911), in his Selected Critical Writings, ed. Norman Henfrey, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1968, vol. II, pp. 85–107, here p. 89.