New York

Thomas Nozkowski

Max Protetch

It’s a considerably more delicate problem than usual to articulate the unity of viewpoint or sensibility that is nonetheless everywhere palpable in Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings. These small abstract paintings, and only slightly smaller drawings, combine rectilinear geometry with biomorphic wobbliness as easily as their facture ranges from the most feinschmecking scumbling to correctly Modern hard-edged directness. Each painting is the result of many pentimenti, visible as traces within the surface, though the results show no evidence of vacillation; every image feels decisive, precise, as immediately but surprisingly “right” as a good punchline.

Though never weighed down by piety toward art history, the paintings are full of graceful allusions to precursors. In a yellow and black painting of 1992, the flowing, overlapping winglike forms recall Georges Braque’s birds; in the nearly all-white one with three small black patches, 1993, the surface seems to contain a submerged memory of Suprematist architecture. What makes it never less than obvious that what you’re seeing is by Nozkowski is the visual punning of the work: the eye must rigorously measure the diverse means required to realize the mind’s contradictory whims. Imagine, for instance, Giorgio Morandi, but with something of Winsor McCay’s sense of fantasy and surprise; imagine Piet Mondrian, but with his affection for Disney cartoons veering out of control; imagine Jean-Baptiste-Simeon Chardin, but on a serious hallucinogen trying to paint the soap bubble from the inside out. Illustrious names are to be invoked cautiously, but which contemporaries could I adduce for comparable conviction, concentration, refinement, or strangeness?

Apparently, the shapes and other elements in Nozkowski’s work are distilled and elaborated from memories of particular, concrete perceptual experiences in daily life, but you’d never know that from looking at them any more than you’d know that about Ellsworth Kelly’s work. The more complex the imagery of abstract painting becomes, the greater its tendency to explicit reference outside itself, but these paintings maintain an imperturbable air of nonobjectivity. In a recent interview, Nozkowski explained that his paintings are always untitled because “if you gave people honest titles, they would turn the pictures into conundrums that could be solved.” He needn’t worry, though; his conundrums will never be solved, because the quandaries they explore can only be experienced through first-hand perception: how can the use of a certain texture make one form nest inside another? Under what conditions can the same color be experienced as both opaque and translucent? These are the kinds of questions I associate with Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Remarks on Color, 1950–51. As with Wittgenstein’s late work in general, Nozkowski’s paintings convey the intuition that if you focus, with sufficient relentlessness, on homely, irritatingly empirical details of usage then you’re likely to come to conclusions bearing on the questions you used to think were metaphysical.

Barry Schwabsky