New York

Thomas Nozkowski

Max Protetch

In a 1998 interview, the novelist and critic Francine Prose told Thomas Nozkowski that she’d never been able to comprehend a single word that had been written about his work. Prose is nobody’s fool, and I have to admit that the words that follow may be no more coherent than anyone else’s. But it’s not my fault! Art is often said to put language to the test, and rarely is that quite as true as in the case of Nozkowski’s paintings. Their structures are so finely articulated, their organization so fluent, that they give the strong impression of being underpinned by a most precise yet somehow ungraspable discourse. So one naturally—dangerously—feels compelled to bring one’s own cruder idiom into dialogue with theirs.

The result, often enough, is a kind of lyrical yet involuted free association. It may be impossible to describe a painting like Nozkowski’s Untitled (7-126), 1999, but it’s still tempting to compare what it shows, crazily enough, to something like an egg that continually pours itself from one whole shell into another. The imagination seizes on dubious resemblances. Take Untitled (7-123), 1999, with its sprinkle of little white quadrilaterals against a midnight-blue form that encloses several other shapes—pale orange, pink, and yellow—like a sort of mantel. One wants to think of it as an urban nightscape (inhabited by a few unseen insomniacs) cradling the emergent colors of dawn.

And yet, finally, one thinks no such thing. The paintings are insistently abstract. The often juxtaposed grids and biomorphs of these curious and intricate compositions refer more distinctly to other paintings than to anything else. What other artist working today seems so close in spirit to the serious playfulness, the interpenetration of system and spontaneity, of Klee or Miró? There is an instantly recognizable style here, but one that relies on no signature motifs, no patented colors, no emotive or conceptual overlay. Nozkowski’s color can be atmospheric or opaque, his edges hard or blurry, his textures crisp or humid.

Instead, the hallmark of Nozkowski’s work may be its consistent modesty, most obviously in terms of scale (the paintings range from sixteen by twenty inches to thirty by forty), but more generally in the sense of unpretentiousness. A rather rash faith in the viewer’s capacity for scrupulous and sensitive attention enables the artist to allow nuances to take on unusual weight. But his wit protects the work from over-refinement or self-indulgence. There can be an air of cartoonish exaggeration to some of the shapes that turn up. A kind of roughness in the way they are rendered evokes the original drawings for newspaper comics, which are larger and appear less polished than their printed versions. An examination of Nozkowski’s surfaces reveals them to have been much worked, much revised—and yet they no more dramatize such processes than dissemble them. The work tends not toward purification, but toward clarification.

Barry Schwabsky