Major Tom

Now, At 63, his masterly abstract paintings are attracting big-time attention.

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Major Tom
Thomas Nozkowski outside his studio in High Falls, New York

Major Tom

Now, At 63, his masterly abstract paintings are attracting big-time attention.

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!”

Untitled (U-15)

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.)

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.”

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.”

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.

“The work never fit an ‘ism,’ an attitude that was hot in a given moment,” says the celebrated artist Chuck Close, who has long admired Nozkowski’s work. “There’s not a lot of bravura paint handling, but they’re still painterly. They’re not decorative—they don’t just hang on the wall for background for cocktail chitchat. They’re serious works of art.”

Particularly when he began showing in the Eighties, the age of overblown Schnabels and Salles, Nozkowski’s paintings, small enough to carry home on the subway, seemed to be coming out of nowhere. “He represented this antithesis to the highly mannered, bombastic aesthetic that was in vogue,” says Siena, who took a lesson from the elder artist and began making small paintings. “It’s about inviting contemplation rather than forcing confrontation.”

Ironically, Nozkowski’s paintings are powerful in part because of, not despite, their intimate size. Storr, now dean of the Yale School of Art and himself a painter, first became aware of him about 15 years ago and was impressed right away because Nozkowski had succeeded at “things I had struggled with in my own work—how to make a picture that had real impact, that had imposing presence, without making a big picture and without pyrotechnics.”

A modest sort by nature, Nozkowski for years quietly endured his paintings getting short shrift in group shows—hanging behind the receptionist’s desk, for example, because they fit there. Now he demands the same amount of wall space as the largest piece in the show. “And this isn’t to claim turf,” he says, “but so they can be looked at more seriously.”

Notes Storr, “He’s a very good definition of a hugely ambitious artist who has never in his life swaggered. He intends to make pictures that count, but he has not put on a show about it. He has just done it.”

There’s also a general consensus that Nozkowski is an unusually likable guy. Both Storr and Schjeldahl cite his expert taste in detective novels and old movies. “There are lots of artists whose art I’m crazy about but I couldn’t stand to have dinner with,” says Schjeldahl. “He is a mensch of the first water.”

An abstractionist in the studio, Nozkowski is nothing if not a realist in life. He is philosophical about being on the verge of art stardom at a time when the term is being applied to many artists of his son’s generation. “You don’t have to be in the art world 15 minutes,” he says, “to realize there is no God.”

  • Untitled (U-15): photo by Ellen Labenski; artwork © Thomas Nozkowski, Courtesy of PaceWildenstein, New York