The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

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APR 2016 Issue


On View
Pace Gallery (57th Street)
February 25 – March 26, 2016
New York

When speaking of his canonical painting Carnival of Harlequin (1924 – 25), Joan Miró once explained its anthropomorphized objects and hybrid creatures by saying: “I tried to deepen the magical side of things.”1 It is easy to imagine Tom Nozkowski describing his own approach to art making in much the same way, particularly in regard to the unresolved shapes, unmeasured grids, buoyant orbs, and variegated cubes that populate his works on paper. The tidy assortment of more than fifty such artworks on view at Pace’s uptown gallery are as sharp and whimsical as any Miró, and boast a comparable palette to that of Harlequin, with smart primaries and off-dry pastels rubbing elbows with dusky, muddy neutrals or raw graphite. Nozkowski looks to the commonplace and the things he loves2 but thankfully gives the viewer no clues as to what those sources are, choosing instead to leave the works untitled—he simply leads us into the frame and lets us go. As a collection and as individual works, Nozkowski’s images represent the mundane matter of “real life” drawn through the filter of an exquisite imagination, coded into a marvelous abstracted language of texture and tone.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (P-52), 2009. Oil on paper. 22 x 30 inches. ©2016 Thomas Nozkowski. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate & Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery.
Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (M-36), 2011. Ink and gouache on inkjet print. 11 x 14 inches. ©2016 Thomas Nozkowski. Courtesy Pace Gallery. Photo: Kerry Ryan McFate & Tom Barratt / Pace Gallery.

At the core of this vocabulary is the amplified pixel: tiny boxes and bubbles linked to form strands that ascend and descend like floating staircases, often arranged into a figural X shape, misshapen mountain, or marquise. With works such as Untitled (CP-10) (2013) or Untitled (O-26) (2004), it becomes undeniably fun to ask (and try to answer) that uncouth question: “What are we looking at?” The mind drifts toward chromosomes, or some other conceptual map of the human interior, a place that both does and does not exist. According to the artist, many of these drawings were made as he hiked over several hundred acres of the Hudson Valley, and their connection to topography holds up in translation. The miniature, multicolored trail of squares in Untitled (P-52) (2011) is strung together as steps on a path or words in a conversation, disparate ideas pilfered out of the mind’s garbage bin and assembled over the scribbled clamor of consciousness to form some kind of meaning. Each element of the composition is puzzle-pieced with incredible dexterity and charm, revealing a formal intelligence as rare as it is elevating.

Nozkowski works in a variety of media, wielding oil, ink, and colored pencil with equal jouissance. The nine works on inkjet print, for example, read like exercises in interference, and incorporate numerous tactics from gouache to collage. The print acts as a ground which Nozkowski then overlays or accessorizes with a new pattern or form, forcing the digital and analogue to face one another and dance. The results carry a wink of John Baldessari. In Untitled (M-40) (2011), two rainbow rings hover in a sea of pixelated grey like the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckelburg, while the colorless bars that creep in from the margins of Untitled (M-36) (2011) feel like a straight-faced play on the term “profit margin.” Each piece on the wall is different, yet they all point back to a hand that is present only precisely when and where it needs to be. Works done in oil, such as Untitled (L-31) (2013) and Untitled (P-65) (2009), are equally rich and evocative, but mostly are just an absolute pleasure to look at.

In this critic’s experience, Nozkowski is one of very few contemporary painters who, show after show, never fails to deliver. He has been working within the same cozy dimensions and aesthetic veins for years, and yet one never knows quite what to expect from him. Even if we did, it wouldn’t matter, as it’s not freshness or novelty that gives his work its oomph. Rather, it’s that he is able to articulate something that can be said in no other language, but can be felt by anyone who sees it. It’s connective and phenomenal and, weirdly, not abstract at all. Nozkowski dives into the subjective self and surfaces on the other side with the most universal, and universally pleasing, pictures. More solid than dreams yet more forgiving than the physical world, his are images that take us somewhere. The artist himself articulated it best:

Where is a painting supposed to take you? For me, it’s something of a circular route. The world is full of things you can make paintings of: abstract things, real things, ideas, bowls of fruit, you and I sitting in this room. If you look around and see a hundred things you can make a painting of, I’ll see a different hundred. Why do I choose to do one thing and not something else? To me that’s the mystery of art, of all art in all cultures in all times. Why did somebody want to do this? Why were they attracted to that? Why did their eye go there, and why did they need to make something? That’s a great mystery, and it’s not an arbitrary question—it’s the basic question of art. It speaks to our personalities, to who we are.3


  2. Dylan Kerr, “The Art of Failing Upwards: Thomas Nozkowski on How to Succeed in Abstraction.” (April 1, 2015)
  3. Ibid.

The Brooklyn Rail

APR 2016

All Issues