Nozkowski has many rules for painting. Some are superstitions, such as using just one brush on a canvas from start to finish (though he says he also likes the challenge presented by doing small spaces with big brushes and large areas with tiny ones). Other rules have to do with enforcing a work ethic: “When I’m in the studio my hand has to be moving,” he says. “I do not allow myself to sit there and read the newspaper and think deep thoughts.” A wandering mind, on the other hand, is to be expected—and welcomed. His forever mutating shapes and spectacularly varied color palette are what Nozkowski describes as the natural by-products of the thousands of hours an artist spends alone in the studio free-associating. In other words, when it comes to the nitty-gritty, there are no rules: Nozkowski is all for experimenting. “A lot of people are afraid to be bad. I’ve never had the slightest compunction. I’m not proud,” he says.
If the canvas isn’t right, Nozkowski simply reworks it. “I don’t like tinkering. Whenever I go back to a painting, I try to open up the entire surface—you know, run a wash of color over it, or I’ll scrape it down, or I’ll rub it off with a rag—so that everything is back in play,” he says. “They can change pretty radically. I’ve always felt that probably the good stuff will keep coming back.” (To avoid that “Oh s---” sinking feeling that can arise from erasing something good, Nozkowski keeps paper handy to quickly re-create images worth saving before they fade from memory.) Traces of what came before are often left visible, like haunting memories or jumbled-up dreams. “It’s like character in somebody’s face,” Nozkowski says.
Painter James Siena, who cites Nozkowski as an important influence in his own career for the past 25 years, finds his intuitive method not just intellectual but downright magical. Siena, who adheres to a radically different, rule-based method, recalls once admiring a particular drawing: “I said, ‘How did you do that?’ He said, ‘Hell if I know.’”
Nozkowski’s fearless improvisation has led to another rule: He refuses to give up on a painting. Which means some canvases have taken as long as 15 years to complete. “I’m not proud of this,” Nozkowski emphasizes. “I don’t fetishize working. I come from the working class. I know that working is a pain. Believe me, if I could do these things in five minutes, I would.”
Nozkowski’s father, a Polish immigrant, defied his family by marrying a Protestant, a woman descended from 17th-century Dutch immigrants. The couple—she grew up 10 miles north of here, he 20 miles south—met at Bear Mountain’s roller-skating rink. They moved to northern New Jersey, where they supported Nozkowski and his younger sister with a string of working-class jobs, from factory labor to the postal service. Two “spinster aunts,” as he affectionately calls them, helped care for Nozkowski and were supportive of his artistic leanings. He gives primary credit, however, to a high school art teacher who was coy about his own work but bragged about a youthful affair with Pop pioneer Larry Rivers and encouraged Nozkowski to apply to Cooper Union. “Very few people went on to college from this town,” he says, “and even fewer to art schools. That was just ridiculous. But he really pushed this. Economically, there was no way I could have gone to a good school that wasn’t free.”