New York

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9-58), 2017, oil on linen, 22 × 28".

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9-58), 2017, oil on linen, 22 × 28".

Thomas Nozkowski

The English polymath John Dee—mystic, renowned mathematician, and trusted adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, among other things—talked to the angels. Dee claimed they introduced him to an ancient tongue spoken by divinities . . . even God himself. The letterforms of this language, Enochian, are voluptuous, like a more sensuous version of the uppercase Greek alphabet. Occult scholars have for centuries failed to completely crack the code behind the celestial messages Dee recorded in his journals. I regard abstract painter Thomas Nozkowski (1944–2019) as a breed of seer similar to Dee. The artist was a devout believer in the unknown, and his luminous, numinous works read like bulletins delivered by the strangest, chicest spirits.

I imagine, however, that Nozkowski would have scoffed at this comparison. As he said in a 2009 interview with curator Kathy Goncharov, “Every painting I do comes from something in the real world.” Yet what his lambent, luxurious vistas were based on within our shared reality is anyone’s guess. His works, as many critics before me have noted, capture the eye and confuse the senses. One doesn’t gloss over a Nozkowski in a museum or gallery; one tumbles into it, Alice-like, deep into its myriad byzantine depths. The trip is dizzying, marvelous, and available to anyone willing to open their eyes wide and plunge in.

The fifteen oil-on-linen-on-panel paintings included in Nozkowski’s exhibition at Pace are considered his final works. He started the majority of them after he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015. Yet, as writer and curator Marc Mayer stated in the beautiful introduction he penned for the show’s catalogue, “Not even slightly do these paintings feel last; there is none of Titian’s relaxed acquiescence . . . or de Kooning’s expiring attenuation. I get no sense of a change in tone, no darkened palette, no resignation, no final reflections or dour self-assessments, and certainly no morbidity.” Indeed, the ostensibly mud-and-crud colored Untitled (9-44), 2015, manages to evince gaiety and goofiness, even though its numerous polka dots are rendered in shades of dirty green, pale dung, liver red, and greasy ocher. A brownish ghostlike wedge of a figure, delineated by a chain of white orbs, hovers in the picture’s shallow foreground. If this creature is meant to function as a portent of doom, he’s failed spectacularly at the task. His chubby chocolaty body is all wonky french curves, recalling a fancy birthday-cake topper that has gently dissipated during a long and lively party.

Mysterious lexicons, à la Dee, seem to invade a number of the works in this presentation. One terrific example is Untitled (9-58), 2017, a rhapsodically hued painting full of candy-store reds, blues, yellows, lavenders, tangerines, and greens; overlapping a variegated teal lattice and ringed by a series of luminous bands is an army of small tawny glyphs floating in a golden soup. Some of the forms resemble letters—I can make out more than one s, a backward e, a fanciful f, and a cursive, uppercase L. Yet the most palpable thing being communicated by Nozkowski’s battalion of squiggles and shapes—and, of course, by every painting in this show—is unadulterated joy. The sensation, however, is never empty or frivolous, since it is girded by a kind of thinking and seeing that is careful, calculating, rigorous—a stripe of arduous play where the results are measured and miraculous. Even in death, the angelic Nozkowski continues to give us life.