Even big-name critics, like The New Yorker’s Peter Schjeldahl, a fan and friend since the early Nineties, don’t pretend to detect actual representation in Nozkowski’s images. “I don’t get it at all. I don’t get the slightest external reference,” says Schjeldahl. “That’s what he has to do to make the picture, but it’s no help to me. I’m just guided by pleasure.”
Still, it’s fun to try to decipher Nozkowski’s quirky shapes, dazzling colors and tantalizing, often mottled surfaces. (And the artist, rather charmingly, says he takes some delight in hearing viewers’ guesses, as off the mark as they may be.) Hanging on one wall of his studio are 40 paintings he’s made over the years, possibilities for the upcoming retrospective, one of which looks distinctly like an eyeball, another like the silhouette of a woman’s head. There’s also a tacked-up etching in progress that bears a striking resemblance to a turkey. “Turkey?!” he cries in mock consternation. “My wife says the same thing. I gotta de-turkefy that thing.”
Joking aside, Nozkowski thinks it nearly impossible to get an accurate read on any artist’s intentions. “It’s always a bit of a folly, even when someone tells you what a painting’s about,” he says.
From early on, most sophisticated viewers became fast supporters. Shortly after finishing art school, Nozkowski took a job sweeping up at the storied Betty Parsons Gallery (he was Richard Tuttle’s successor). Parsons helped out by keeping a piece or two of his around the gallery and by putting some of his sculptures—a medium he abandoned in the Eighties—in group shows. She also encouraged art-world denizens to visit his studio, though one museum director, Nozkowski recalls with a chuckle, assumed his paintings were some sort of psychotherapy rather than actual stabs at art. To get his canvases more exposure, Nozkowski joined a cooperative gallery, 55 Mercer Street, in 1979. One day a man walked in and, before leaving, signed the guest book. Nozkowski glanced at the name and thought, No way. Just then, the man popped his head back in and said, “No, I’m really him.” It was Joseph Masheck, then the editor of Artforum, who would become an important advocate.
Masheck, now a fellow at the Edinburgh College of Art, calls Nozkowski one of his favorite painters of the past 30 years. “He takes the risk of making a move upon which other moves will depend,” Masheck says, lauding his daring to make a mistake. “You can see that in the painting.”
In 1980 Nozkowski became the production director of Mad magazine, agreeing to take the job only if he could have a three-day workweek. He stayed 20 years. During his off hours, Nozkowski painted in the Chinatown loft (in a former synagogue) he still shares with his wife. (Their 31-year-old son, Casimir, is a budding filmmaker who has posted a couple of amusing videos about his father on YouTube.) Beginning in 1981, he showed regularly with a commercial gallery, even selling a painting from his very first show to MoMA. Still, he developed into something of a connoisseur’s snobby little secret.