Somewhere amid the wooded hills of upstate New York, on the far side of the Shawangunk Ridge and past a shed with an American flag painted on it, stands a modest white farmhouse. It lies less than two hours’ drive across the river from Manhattan, yet it feels an ocean away from the city and from the pulsing center of the art world. So too does the pleasantly burly man who steps out the back door on a late fall day, the damp ground at his feet a collage of yellow, red and brown leaves blown down from the trees by the previous night’s rain. Thomas Nozkowski is at once a vital part of that art world—a painter whose work enraptures an elite clique of critics, curators and peers—and a man whose name draws blank stares from scores more.
That seeming paradox has led to the frequent description of Nozkowski as an “artist’s artist,” a label that makes him wince. “It’s a little bit of a ghetto,” he says, sipping a diet soda inside his cozy, light-drenched kitchen. When gently reminded that the term is meant as one of respect for the underappreciated, he rebukes himself with a laugh: “I feel churlish!”
The truth is, at the not-so-tender age of 63, Nozkowski is finding himself appreciated more and more. Last June his small-scale abstractions were installed in their own room at the Venice Biennale, chosen for one of the world’s most prestigious venues—along with the works of such name-brand luminaries as Gerhard Richter, Ellsworth Kelly and Robert Ryman—because, as eminent curator Robert Storr puts it, “he’s so damned good.” The blue-chip gallery PaceWildenstein recruited Nozkowski from Max Protetch last year, a move that is sure to heighten his profile considerably; his first show at the gallery is slated for April at its West 25th Street space. And in the spring of 2009, Nozkowski will be the subject of a career retrospective at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Even the Museum of Modern Art, which has long had Nozkowski in its collection, has just reinstalled its contemporary galleries with two of his pieces prominently on view. One critic recently declared Nozkowski America’s “poet laureate of abstract painting”; another boldly predicted that his paintings “will still thrive after posterity has had its say”; a third marveled that he is “unable to make an uninteresting painting.”
Nozkowski has been making those paintings for more than 30 years, both in his Chinatown loft and up here in High Falls, where he and his wife of 40 years, sculptor Joyce Robins, now spend the bulk of their time. In a daily practice, he sits at a paint-splattered wooden easel in his newly refurbished studio on the property—he’s especially excited about the floor’s radiant heat, since the space used to get so frigid in winter that he’d have to draw at the kitchen table from January through March—and puts brush to linen panels that Robins makes for him. (Returning the favor, he schleps her sculptures around.)