The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues
APR 2013 Issue


On View
February 22 – March 23, 2013
New York

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s 1938 book Homo Ludens argued that play is antecedent to and a key element of culture and is therefore a defining term of our species. Among his stipulations for what constitutes play was that it’s fun. You might have noticed, visiting Nozkowski’s latest exhibition at Pace’s Chelsea gallery that these modestly sized oils on linen (and works on paper across the street in the CUE Foundation’s former space) seem more products of play than of work. Another reaction might have been finding what fun it is to go from painting to painting, getting zapped by and responding to their rich assortment of visual pranks. Struck by one of his paintings or drawings, you may ask yourself, “What makes this offbeat image so disarmingly convincing? How did he get there, to such unpredictable conclusions?”

Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (9-26) (The Katy Kill),” 2012. Oil on linen on panel, 30 x 40”. (c) Thomas Nozkowski, courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo courtesy Pace Gallery.

But if the paintings do result from play, what are the rules? You can find a rich range of techniques and allusions but not a consistent sequence of operations. Nozkowski’s open-ended game involves layering flat or glossy applications of paint, wiping down, overpainting, scraping and sanding, slight impastos, pentimenti, precisely drawn linear elements, doodling, even. Such techniques may appear in any combination and may have been done quickly or over a studio life lasting weeks or years. What ought, therefore, to be incompatible surfaces nevertheless come together, sometimes casually, with the disorder we take for granted in daily life or with the éclat of an ah ha!

If it was once considered bad form to “read in” a dog, person, or whatever when looking at an abstraction, Nozkowski, in effect, invites you to find what correspondences to your own experienced world you care to. Before his small—now mostly 22 by 28 inch-linen clad panels I’ve conjured a still life, a moment remembered from childhood, a detail of a quattrocento painting, deep-sea creatures, a dream. The resolutely abstract works also harbor intimations of figures, landscapes, architectural constructions, maps, floor plans, balloons, diagrams, flat patterns, and translucent atmospheric depths, all in any combination and as abruptly discontinuous as a collage. And yet the light emitted by each work is particular, with its own temperature, time of day, moment in time. (Many of the characteristics mentioned here are present in the largest piece in the exhibition, Untitled (9-26) (The Katy Kill). At 30 by 40 inches it may presage a new extravagance to come.)

Nozkowski has stated in interviews that every painting comes out of some particular experience in his life. You might try to ferret it out or to identify the various sources, but, in fact, you’d do better making your own connections. Whether we read his art as high art or low, private or political, the address to the viewer exemplifies a radically democratic ideal: each viewer in charge of his or her experience of the work’s impact.

The inevitable discrepancy between Nozkowski’s starting point and what you get is not an instance of failed communication. Rather, this is a matter of the vagaries of consciousness that characterize unfettered minds, his and yours. Even so, the particular impulse behind each painting must account for its particularity for the viewer.  In a 2009 interview with Garth Lewis for Turps banana, Nozkowski said, “Belief is everything. A mark that means something looks different from a mark that just does something.”

The combination of so many diverse forms, surfaces, and allusions within a painting and, conversely, the paired down vocabulary in others counter academic rules with insouciance. The question a little reflection brings you to is, given such informality, why they “work.” Against all odds, each painting not only hangs together but also projects a coherent, if offbeat, personality. (The particularity of each makes for conversations between adjacent pieces or separated pieces that wink across the room.) Why are these more than charming pastiches? A lesser painter would, with this approach, produce ironic “modernist” sendups or archly clever designs.

In 1960 when he was painting without discernable references, Guston wrote for the magazine It Is about the presumed, and for him, vexed distinction between representation and abstraction:

Someone once said, speaking about the public, that if a violinist came on a concert stage and played his violin as if to imitate the sound of a train coming into the station, everyone would applaud. But if he played a sonata, only the initiated would applaud. What a miserable alternative. The implication is that in the first case the medium is used to imitate something else and in the latter, as they say, is pure and abstract. But isn’t it so that the sonata is above all an image? An image of what? We don’t know, which is why we continue to listen to it. But painting is “impure.” It is the adjustment of impurities which forces painting’s continuity. We are image-makers and image-ridden.*

    *Excerpted from quotation cited by Ross Feld in his essay for Guston’s traveling 1980-81 retrospective, George Braziller, Inc., New York.


The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2013

All Issues