Arts & Design

Thomas Nozkowski’s Final Statement

With a farmer’s diligence and a detective’s ingenuity, the painter Thomas Nozkowski marked out and cultivated a deceptively modest territory for nearly five decades. His harvest was inexhaustibly bountiful. “What I most respect about Nozkowski’s work is its endless inventiveness,” the sculptor Martin Puryear, who was his upstate New York neighbor and close friend, said in a phone interview. “Each of his paintings is its own story, and the story of the painting is in the painting.”

When he died at 75 in 2019, Nozkowski was at the top of his game. A selection of 15 works, “Thomas Nozkowski: The Last Paintings,” which opens at Pace Gallery in Chelsea on Sept. 10, demonstrates how in a compact format — all but one are on linen on panels of 22 by 28 inches — he was able to conjure up surprising and beautiful combinations of abstract forms. Dating from 2016 to 2019, each painting is strikingly different from the next but unmistakably by the same artist. “He was always an extremely methodical person,” Puryear observed. “He really at the end wanted to tie things together for himself. His extremely disciplined focus closed in even more.”

Nozkowski rejected the grandiosity of the Abstract Expressionists of the previous generation, whose magisterial effusions demanded the vast wall space that only museums or rich collectors’ residences could provide. “For political reasons, I found the kind of large scale, macho-man abstractions of early SoHo beneath contempt,” he said in a 2015 Artspace interview.

Instead, he chose to “paint at a size that was scaled to my friends’ apartments, that could hang in a three-room walk-up tenement on Seventh Street.” From 1972 to 1992, he relied almost exclusively on prepared canvas board that measured 16 by 20 inches, a material typically used by amateurs. Besides satisfying his democratic impulses, the small size allowed him to obliterate and rework an entire painting over and over again without heroic sacrifice.

“He’s not in a group, he’s not in a category,” said Sid Sachs, director of exhibitions at University of the Arts in Philadelphia. “You have to understand the whole history of 20th-century art to know what these pictures are about. They’re ultimately not knowable 100 percent. They’re mysterious. They give you energy when you look at them.”

Nozkowski was married for 52 years to Joyce Robins, a ceramic sculptor and painter, whom he met at Cooper Union, where they both studied. For 45 years, until they were forced to give it up, a converted synagogue on Hester Street on the Lower East Side was their primary residence, but Nozkowski’s heart was lodged in the home and connecting studios in High Falls, N.Y., below the Shawangunk Mountains, that they acquired in 1977. The studios have been largely untouched since his death. The tin cans from tuna and cat food in which he mixed his oil paints are still by his easel. The many bookcases testify to his deep and broad intellectual passions for architecture, film, art history, R&B and country music, and much more; his rigorous categorizing systems of every book, music CD and film DVD remain in place. “He was asking for new bookcases right till he left,” Robins said. He played music while he painted, especially gospel, R&B and country. The CDs he last listened to are still on top of a bookcase.

“There are thousands of drawings,” said their son, Casimir Nozkowski, a filmmaker. “He derived some pleasure from organizing them.”

Nozkowski’s drawings were not preparatory sketches for the paintings. Brush in hand, he would begin a painting as an exploration, without any particular composition in mind. He wasn’t a formalist guided by a process. The abstract paintings were always about something in the real world. He might be inspired by a landscape he had seen on one of his frequent hikes on the many mountain trails he knew intimately. It could be a film or a book that excited his interest, or a friend or family member he was thinking about. The source material was typically invisible to a viewer. “He would always talk about these Chinese painters who would go out in the landscape and then back to the studio,” Robins explained. “It had to go through the strainer of their consciousness.” Rubbing out, scraping away, scumbling, glazing, trickling, thinning, he altered the picture according to his idiosyncratic logic. At times, liking some features of a painting he was about to obliterate, he made a drawing as a record.

At the end of 2016, he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Major surgery in 2018 removed much of the pancreas, but the doctors informed Robins that some cancer cells remained. She did not tell her husband. He continued working — and living fully — right up until his death. “All of his friends were shocked when he died, because he was writing to his friends as if he was going on, asking them to send books and discussing movies,” Casimir said. “He wanted to be going full steam to the very end.”

Robins thinks there are hidden references to his illness in the last paintings. “I don’t think it’s something you could see,” she said. “It’s something I see sometimes. I have his diaries. I know where he wrote down that this particular painting is ‘hospital.’” Like her husband, who titled most of his paintings only with numbers, she prefers to keep those subjects secret. “Some are memorials to friends that passed,” she said. “I know what he was saying in the diaries for the last few days about how he was feeling. Some of it he ascribed to allergies. He was allergic to tree pollen and it was spring. But I think in retrospect it was that his immune system was trying to fight it.”

Three weeks before his death, Susan Dunne, who was then a director at Pace and is now at David Zwirner, visited him to select paintings for this exhibition. “He talked about being sick but he did not articulate that,” she recalled. “He was in wonderful spirits and had wonderful energy. For lunch he made the most delicious salade niçoise I’ve ever had. And he did it in a methodical way.”

Nozkowski had hung all the paintings in the studio before she arrived. Rejecting a few, which may have been unfinished, they agreed easily on which to include. One painting, of an orb glowing with modulated tones of lemon yellow and ringed by a black-dotted and tessellated ring, and a thin outer band of brightly colored shapes, draws you in like a portal to the great beyond. (It is also reminiscent of the paintings of acid-colored concentric circles made by Edvard Munch in his mid-60s when he was suffering from a hemorrhaged eye.) The feeling of the infinite is enhanced by the way three of the four edges of the painting cut off the circular form. Dunne liked it so much that she hung it in her office.

The oil painting that Robins identifies as Nozkowski’s last delivers a very different impact. This is arguably one of the toughest pictures he ever made. Three figures — or are they tailors’ ragged-edged cutouts of harlequin costumes? — in faded incandescent pastels stand as guards before a lime-green background that has been brushed with vertical strokes and descends like a sheet of water running down a wall. Perhaps they are sinister creatures, looming threateningly in front of a dubious Eden. The long-necked one on the right bears a family resemblance to Francis Bacon’s terrifying “Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.”

Viewed another way, in a characteristic trick of this masterly artist, the green plane could be a tattered curtain, with a parti-colored world — unknowable, seductive, beautiful, malignant — visible through its holes. Like so much of Nozkowski’s work, the painting poses riddles that can’t be expressed in words. Balanced in a vibrant state of pictorial tension, these riddles will only deepen on prolonged scrutiny. They are ultimately unanswerable.

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