A Show of Shows: Nozkowski’s Masterful Conundrums Protetch

Over the past 25 years, Thomas Nozkowski has established a sturdy career as an abstract painter. Sturdy, one might note, and unsensational. While his paintings are exhibited regularly, written about in art journals, and included in the collections of major museums, it can’t be said that Mr. Nozkowski is a “name” artist–and for good reason. His pictures stymie the passive glance, elude glib interpretations and are impervious to hype. As understated and enigmatic as they are curious and crystalline, Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings don’t lend themselves to theory, politics, endgame scenarios or other offshoots of art-world fashion. We aren’t likely, in short, to see him touted as transgressor of the month in the pages of The New York Times Magazine .

In the catalogue for Twenty-Four Paintings –a 1997 exhibition of Mr. Nozkowski’s work that was seen at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.–Peter Schjeldahl, the art critic for The New Yorker , wrote that the artist’s paintings “inhabit art history of the last two decades like half-submerged rocks in a stream … they are right in the flow, but they hardly go with it.” This is a right-on appraisal of Mr. Nozkowski’s nudgy standing in the New York art scene. Notwithstanding the fact that his paintings are much admired, they remain something of a fugitive quantity. One suspects that Mr. Nozkowski, whose recent paintings are on view at the Max Protetch Gallery, likes it that way.

One of the reasons Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings flit under the radar screen of established taste is their size. In an art world where significance and reputation are often measured by acreage of canvas, Mr. Nozkowski’s preferred format–a horizontal canvas measuring 16 by 20 inches or thereabouts–can seem trifling. Yet the work’s astonishing fullness exposes the bigger-is-better fallacy as just that. Given their dimensions, proximate inspection of Mr. Nozkowski’s pictures is compulsory and pleasurable–intensely so, in fact. With their layered surfaces and sharp colors, the images are snuggled within their jewel-box format with a keen, though not complacent, mastery. The pictures are profoundly inquisitive and somewhat secretive. Looking at one of Mr. Nozkowski’s paintings can be likened to reading a book or looking into a microscope: an intimate, solitary activity that brings a world into focus.

Mr. Nozkowski’s images have a droll, puzzle-like fascination. The paintings collude, fracture and harmonize geometry and nature. The artist melds shapes and spaces, often contradictory in character, into mysterious arrangements of form–realities, really. Unlike the proverbial puzzle, however, the paintings don’t add up logically or, rather, they locate a logic peculiar to their own circuitous and slippery genesis. (The best paintings always seem to be in a state of transmutation.) We intuit, if not deduce, how Mr. Nozkowski has arrived at each image and are absorbed by the work’s befuddling complexity. The paintings bring to mind a multiplicity of associations–from topographical charts to insects to architecture–but they do so without reining in their dreamlike specificity. His images are precisely punctuated, but also reverberant and a little nutty. Not for nothing has the artist referred to the pictures as “conundrums.”

One would be hard pressed to state that Mr. Nozkowski has a “style.” Certainly, aspects of his pictorial vocabulary and his way of shaping them are distinctive; we can also make linkages between the artist’s paintings and the primordial naturalism of Arthur Dove or the deadpan biomorphism of Hans Arp. Yet each of Mr. Nozkowski’s canvases is stubbornly singular, not to say isolated, in its definition. No two canvases are alike even though they are all of a piece. This isn’t to say that the artist is all over the place or that each picture is a cul-de-sac. The pictures are as tuned and open as we would want a painter’s work to be. Mr. Nozkowski’s oeuvre could best be considered a family whose roots go deep but whose members demand to be engaged with one-on-one and nose-to-nose.

Mr. Nozkowski begins each painting with a subject in mind–a place or a memory–which is then stated, questioned, pinched, pulled and plumbed over the course of months and, at times, years. This approach isn’t born of fetishism or a misguided sense of artistic integrity. It’s an attempt to uncover and pinpoint the painting’s core, its reason for being. What is remarkable is how the paintings amplify and recapture the “Let’s see what happens if …” spark that served as their impetus. Mr. Nozkowski’s scarred, scrabbled pictures aren’t strained or self- congratulatory; they’re earned and inevitable. Every form, space, color and relationship is freighted with history, humor and surprise.

In 1947, the critic Clement Greenberg wrote that the art of Jackson Pollock “lacks breadth.” That observation could serve as an epitaph for the art of our own time. Fatigued by innovation, distillation and deconstruction, the contemporary scene can do little more than contemplate its own navel or reinvent the Duchampian wheel. Narrowness is the norm. Yet there are painters and sculptors attempting to reinvest art with experience, sensuality, possibility and scope. Mr. Nozkowski isn’t attempting such an art; he’s achieved it. The beautiful conundrums currently at the Max Protetch Gallery not only display a painter working at the top of his form. They confirm that Mr. Nozkowski is one of the finest painters we have. Thomas Nozkowski: New Paintings at the Max Protetch Gallery, 511 West 22nd Street, until March 18.