New York

Thomas Nozkowski

Diane Brown Gallery

Over the past decade, the figures in Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings have grown more definite, until they now rest within active grounds of color like heraldic shields or the uncials of illuminated manuscripts. The almost Arabic quality of some of these figures is emphasized by the relatively small size of the paintings, all done on his usual 16-by-20-inch canvasboard panels. This consistency of size makes the paintings seem somewhat provisional, as if they were studies for other works, either larger or smaller. At the same time, they lend the figures the quality of written characters, whose meaning exists more or less independent of their size.

The ornamental quality of Nozkowski’s figures is further emphasized by the simple geometric figures he uses—small circles and rectangles, and especially swooping curvy shapes that, in works such as Untitled (6–55), 1988, flow from fat lines to sharp points in wide blunt curves. In many ways these works take on the flavor of Tantric art: in their shapes, the theatrical isolation of the figure, and their sour colors. The paint quality alternates between thin washes and saturated flat sections; for example, in Untitled (6–47), 1988, a rich-golden-yellow-and-black figure surrounded by thin purple wash is set against a twig-green ground. Both the figures and the colors seem to be decipherable elements in a language of form, one based not on representation but on allusion, which here takes on an almost mystical quality.

Nozkowski’s style has been linked to the flat cartoonish qualities of Philip Guston’s late work; when Guston died in 1980, Nozkowski even painted a kind of homage to him. But the comparison between the two artists is more stylistic than pictorial; Nozkowski’s isolated figures lack the stagey narrative of Guston’s dramas. They more closely.resemble Joan Miró’s surrealist polliwogs, but where those creatures wriggled through the depths of the canvas, Nozkowski’s figures are transfixed, isolated, pinned to the canvas like butterflies.

Nozkowski’s just-off colors, his use of an elegant, calligraphic geometry that is halfway between a rough form of organic abstraction and a constructivist use of angles, the balance of surfaces and textures he sets up within each painting, all reflect a considered but unprogrammatic approach to painting. These attitudes suggest certain comparisons with recent work of Philip Taaffe. Both painters accept the potential significance of invented figures; both explore the language of color and texture even while they reject immediate, intuitive gestures. In different proportions, each attempts to balance control and invention, gesture and craft, to produce a kind of painting that is profoundly cultured while remaining surprising.

Charles Hagen