Cooper Union also served Nozkowski’s main goal: to be in New York. In 1961, the year he matriculated, the faculty was divided between aging Bauhaus stalwarts and younger Abstract Expressionists, and though Nozkowski internalized some of the earlier movement’s doctrine, he gravitated to Ab Ex, which he calls “the greatest moment in American art history, our moment as Florence.” Still, by the Sixties, young artists, himself included, “wanted a way to cool down Abstract Expressionism. It was turning into this overly self-dramatizing nonsense.” Nozkowski embraced a more heavily conceptualized, systematic, or process-oriented, method of making art for the remainder of the decade, during which he also did his share of protesting and marching: “Politics was the water we swam in.”
Then one day around 1970 he remembers walking into a SoHo gallery and seeing a 45-foot painting. “I looked at this thing and thought, This is crazy,” he says. “It was for the institutions that we’d been hating. Where does this go? A lobby, a bank, a museum, a rich person’s house, come on. At the time my paintings were a healthy 90 by 110 inches. Nice wall-filling items. And I said, I don’t want to do this. I want to do paintings that hang in my friends’ apartments.
“As a political idea, it really wasn’t much,” he continues. “But what it did do was put me into a place where I could act much more freely.” With the large canvases, just painting the background could take him a couple of days. “You would start to censor yourself or be much too careful” to avoid having to rework the whole shebang. But a small, 16- by 20-inch canvas—that, he could quickly and entirely reconceive. “If it looked bad, I could take a rag and wipe it off, and I’ve lost, like, a minute.”
The downsizing of his canvases came around the same time Nozkowski was toying with the idea that his youthful rebellion against Abstract Expressionism had been too absolute, that there was something to the notion of making art personal. “When we walk down the street, you look at one thing, and I look at something else,” he says. “That’s interesting.”
And so, rather than basing a painting on some calculatedly cold, theoretical rule, Nozkowski began finding kernels of inspiration in his own experiences, an approach he has carried through to this day. Grabbing a persimmon from a bowl on the kitchen table, Nozkowski explains that it could be the pale orange color that strikes him, or the oval shape or the shriveled green crown. Or, if he wanted to make a painting about this interview, he might think about the three rectangles sitting on the table—two tape recorders and a notebook. Not that the viewer would have the faintest idea what those starting points were, and not that Nozkowski would ever tell. By the time he has turned them over in his mind, painted and repainted, they have become almost beside the point. (Nozkowski also eschews titles, preferring to number his canvases.) “I believe that what I’m doing is actually very close to our normal way of looking at and thinking about the world,” Nozkowski says before getting up to stir the roasted red pepper and white bean soup he’s cooked up for lunch. “We slowly build up a whole web of associations and meanings.”