Thomas Nozkowski on Mysticism, Matisse, and His Dusk-Hued Paintings at Pace

A detail of Thomas Nozkowski's "Untitled (9-2)," 2011
(© Thomas Nozkowski; Courtesy Pace Gallery; Photo by Kerry Ryan McFate)

Thomas Nozkowski is going big — relatively speaking. His last exhibition at Pace, in 2010, included not only the small, abstract canvases for which he’s become known over the last three decades — compositions filled with grids of color abutting more monochrome, organic forms — but also the drawings on which they were based. “Drawing is a very important part of my practice,” Nozkowski says. But given the spatial constraints of the new Pace space under the High Line where his new exhibition is opening, he’ll sacrifice the sketches in favor of revisiting a long-dormant series of bigger works. “About 15 years ago I started a series of larger paintings — for me absolutely gigantic — 30 by 40 inches,” he says. “I have two new ones in that series, and they’ll be in the show.”?

Like all his works, these big canvases tend to evoke specific subjects. “They’re completely abstract paintings, but they come from the landscape of the Hudson Valley: the historical landscape, the physical landscape, the mental landscape,” he says. “And they’re a little more complex than my normal-sized paintings.” He doesn’t expect visitors to only find landscapes in the new pieces, but he has noticed a very particular palette recurring in works from the last two years. “The color is richer and more — for want of a better word — crepuscular,” he says. “Everything seems to be at a twilight moment. You’re not supposed to say these things about your own work, but I’m fairly happy with that part of it, with that overall color sense.”


Nozkowski recently spoke to ARTINFO from his Hudson Valley studio and offered more insight into his new exhibition.

Would you say that the paintings in this series are primarily inspired by landscapes?

Well, two things. One very broad and very general, which is that this is two years’ work; you have a lot of different experiences in two years and a lot of different things you might want to talk about and deal with and think about. So in that sense there are a lot of different places, levels of intensity, pictorial scales, a lot of different things in the first place. But in another sense, in a deeper sense, let’s say you want do a painting about your Aunt Thelma. It starts out with maybe her favorite color, or maybe she was a schoolteacher, so it starts with the space of a school room. But then the more one thinks about these things, about these spaces, these colors, these shapes; the more they evoke other things. So a certain color might evoke a certain painting, and now you’re in the world of art again — say you saw that color in a Matisse — how does that play into this? Because the web of our associations is what makes any thought really interesting. Everything starts connecting in a very profound way. I think that every point in the world, in our consciousness, ultimately can take you to any other point in the world if you’re willing to keep thinking about it, to keep pushing that visual logic as far as you can. But now I sound like a mystic.

So much of your work evokes historical genres of paintings — whether it’s landscapes, still lifes, or portraits; are you conscious of those associations when you’re working?

Absolutely. That’s the gravy for the meal. Every painting I do comes from something very specific in the real world — a thing, a place, a moment, a time. You see something. You and I are walking down the street together and you look at one thing and I look at something else. I think that’s the beginning of it. Why do our gazes go in different places? What is it that we desire? What is it that we want? What is it that we want to find? And for me painting helps clarify that thing. Why am I looking at this thing? What is it? What do I want? Why does this fascinate me and not that? Everything has a kernel of reality that’s very specific and that I try to stay true to through the life of the painting. I don’t expect other people to read it. It’s often something very trivial. Sometimes it’s something important. I mentioned crepuscular light. I’m sitting here in my studio, I’m looking out of a window — I’ve turned away from the paintings — and it’s a sideways winter light, there’s a kind of purple cast on the mountain across the valley, it touches me to my heart. And there’s a question there: What is it? Why? What is it about this light, about this place, about this moment? And in a way painting, for me — like any art for any artist in some other form — is about trying to hone down on that and find it, discover it. I’ve said in the past that for me a painting is finished — and this is going to sound very neat but I really mean it — when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. Like a snap of the fingers: “Oh that’s it! That’s why that was there! That’s the feeling I wanted!” So they all have a thinginess or a placiness to them. It’s intentional, and it’s what I do.

How intuitive or planned-out are your responses to the things that inspire your paintings?

I was taught by abstract expressionists, so in a funny kind of way I’m not allowed to do preliminary work. I go right to the canvas. What’s some quality I can put down? A certain color. Make a mark. A certain place on the canvas. This maybe goes up here. And you just do things and you look at them in the real world. I do know after years of painting that everything is fine in your mind, everything is perfect in your brain — what does T.S. Eliot say? “Between the idea and reality falls the shadow’ — and to have an idea is one thing but to actually put it in the world where you can look at it and examine it critically and see. You know, let’s put this blot of red paint down and OK, it stands for Aunt Thelma, or it stands for Marxist and Leninist theory. It can stand for anything, and that’s great, we all want to play that game. But when we start playing the game, does it work? Can I find a web of associations, can I find something that’s rich, in that? I said before that I don’t expect people to be able to read these things — I’d probably be pretty shocked if they could — but what I do think people see is a sense that there’s nothing arbitrary about the work, that it’s driven by purpose, that it’s trying to do something, trying to find something, and it’s not random. I think that this is why we can appreciate the art of other cultures. I know nothing about Benin, and yet the bronzes from Benin I think are the greatest sculptures ever made. Or Song Dynasty China. What I know about Song Dynasty China is a thimbleful, and yet those are the most wonderful landscape paintings ever, right? And I think it’s because we see the seriousness of purpose. We know that this is some other human being struggling to grasp something.

Thomas Nozkowski's “Recent Work” runs at Pace Gallery's spaces at 508 and 511 West 25th Street from February 22 – March 23.