A Tribute to Thomas Nozkowski
I first met Tom Nozkowski in the late 1970s at his show at 55 Mercer Street.
The paintings were so great. He was so great—a lovely open generous funny brilliant man. His work opened a path for many painters.
I remember one summer day in the 1980s Peter Acheson and I set out to climb a mountain in the Catskills. It was a blazing hot clear day and we sought shelter in a small stream under hemlocks—and began talking about Tom’s work. As the mushrooms kicked in—we continued talking about Tom’s work. We talked about the small size and the big scale, we talked about the way he scraped and destroyed images to find new images, we talked about the freedom in limitations, we talked about the color and the endlessly different color light inside the paintings, we talked about his allusions to so many things in the world without ever being specific landscapes or interiors, we talked about shapes, we talked about how every painting was different and yet every painting was a Nozkowski, we talked about smudges and ghosts and edges and lines and dots, we talked a lot about dots…
Anyway we never left that little stream and we never stopped talking about his paintings and finally six hours later made our way back down the vallery still talking about Nozkowski. I never told him that.
I miss him.
I knew about Tom Nozkowski’s paintings before I ever met the man. It was the mid ’90s and I was an undergraduate art student at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. My friend, the artist and professor Stephen Katrosits, gathered a few of us into a room to show us some slides of artwork he had seen while visiting NYC a few years before. He switched on the slide projector and an image of a strange little painting illuminated the darkness, Nozkowski’s Untitled (7-16), 1993. Then another, Untitled (7-39), 1994. They were oil paintings on 16 × 20 inch canvas board. I didn’t know you could do that in painting. Something conceited and supercilious had been scrapped away in the process of their making. There was nothing Pop Art about them, no snide references to consumer culture. They weren’t academically trained either; they were odd, funny, personal, sensuous and serious all at the same time. There was something lived and experienced in their modest eccentricity. They had true character. We all wanted to know more.
A few years passed but we still kept searching out Nozkowski. Some rare precious catalogues were tracked down, only fueling the mystery. Then we saw the advertisement in an art magazine: Thomas Nozkowski: New Paintings, Max Protetch Gallery, New York, February 19 – March 18, 2000. We knew what we had to do. We printed out images of Tom’s paintings onto t-shirts, climbed onto a bus in the chilly Wisconsin night and drove the 1,106 miles from Eau Claire to New York City for Tom’s opening, uninvited. We arrived giddy, nervous, and strung out from the road. We made our way into the busy opening and dispersed ourselves into the crowd. Slowly, one by one, each of us stripped off our outer layers revealing the t-shirts we made. Side glances and murmurs, confusion among the gallery staff as we milled about. And suddenly there he was. He stepped through the crowd right up to us, a broad grin from ear to ear. “Who the hell are you guys?” he said. Then he pointed at me, “That painting on your t-shirt is upside down.” Man, we laughed. Tom hung with us for a while, listened to our story, told us his, bummed a few smokes outside, and thanked us for coming. We were dizzy. Someone working at the gallery took our picture standing arm and arm with Tom that night. He didn’t even know who we were.
Another year passed, maybe two. Katrosits called asking if I had a cheap tie and coat. We were getting everyone together for another bus trip to NYC. Nozkowski was showing at the American Academy of Arts and Letters. It was a ticketed event, very serious, but we were going to crash the opening anyway. I grabbed a cheap tie and coat, climbed on the bus and we were back on the road barreling east across that I-80 corridor. We looked like salesmen from Milwaukee when we arrived at the American Academy on West 155th, but we walked in anyway like we were supposed to be there. It worked; no one stopped us. We were standing in the courtyard as Tom walked out. Recognition hit him, “Hey, it’s you guys again! How the hell did you get in here?” He laughed out loud and shook his head. We asked if he would come to Wisconsin, have a show in our university gallery, maybe talk with some students. Tom didn’t hesitate, “absolutely” he said. He hung around with us for a long time until someone finally pulled him away.
Later, another call from Katrosits: the American Academy stunt worked, Nozkowski is coming to Eau Claire for certain. Someone needs to drive to Philadelphia, retrieve an entire exhibition of Tom’s artwork from a gallery there, and drive it back to Eau Claire. My cohort at the time and I didn’t hesitate, we hit the road. We rolled up to the gallery in my ’92 Corolla station wagon, a real beauty. As the late night Philadelphia traffic blasted by, the gallery owner stared at us in disbelief. No, he wasn’t about to give up Nozkowski’s entire exhibition of works on paper from 1984–2000 to a couple of guys from Wisconsin driving a station wagon. We didn’t look remotely like salesmen from Milwaukee, let alone art shippers. For our part, we weren’t leaving without the exhibition. We suggested he call Tom directly. He wasn’t happy when he got off the phone with Tom, but he begrudgingly helped us load all the works into my station wagon nonetheless.
On the way back we stopped for the night at a cheap motel somewhere between Ohio and Indiana. Truckers and prostitutes milled about in the darkness of the parking lot. We hauled all of Tom’s works on paper up into our room, paranoid as hell. We unpacked one of them, a random one we picked from the stacks of boxes now lining the walls, and leaned it up in front of the TV. I sat in the darkness of that room long into the night staring at Tom’s painting, knowing I would never have this chance again. Headlights from late night traffic beamed through the window raking the painting with moving light that continued across the walls until it receded to a spec and disappeared. Intermittently, the blues and viridians streaking the painting’s surface would suddenly illuminate then fade. A large red orb, a bent grid barely containing the space it claimed to segment. And in the midnight darkness, when the headlights stopped flashing, I was swallowed into the deepest shade of blue I had ever experienced in my life.
I had the unique privilege of studying painting with Tom at Rutgers University from 2004–2006. MFA programs are similar to summer camps: structured activities and a lot of silly drama. However, things would get real, real quick, when Tom came by the studio. He could laser focus his attention on a minuscule nearly forgotten passage of a painting, making you realize its inherent potential. Or, he would pick out one painting and say that you needed to make 25 more just like it, call it a show. When I had my MFA thesis exhibition Tom walked in and looked long and hard at what I had done. We talked at length about my paintings. As we were leaving he walked up to a small cactus in a strange pot that I had placed atop a pedestal in the center of the gallery. He pointed at it and said, “Olson, I didn’t know you were so insecure.” We looked at each other dead in the eye. “Well, now you know.” I replied.
I still have that cactus. Its stubborn, tenacious, prickly, and completely self-possessed reality always reminds me of Tom. When I finally left NYC in 2014 to return to the Midwest Tom kept in contact. Catalogues from his Pace exhibitions would show up in my mailbox. There’s a lot of mountains and rivers, trails and passes between Giotto, Andrei Rublev and, say, Stanley Mouse—a lot of dimensions, but Tom walked them all without being a member of any school. His paintings remain endlessly inventive, moody, sophisticated, funny, and subtle. They remain spaces of radical freedom. A lesson not lost on me. Tom was a friend and mentor. There’s no way to convey the loss.
It was once said that I had the best job in the world. I had the great privilege of knowing and working with Thomas Nozkowski.
Nozkowski was once asked what he’d like to be if he wasn’t an artist. His reply: a soul singer. My introduction to the world of Thomas Nozkowski’s painting was a 1983 exhibition organized by Sid Sachs at the Matthews Hamilton Gallery in Philadelphia. A few years later, Paul Cava showed new paintings by Thomas Nozkowski at his gallery in Old City. The refreshingly honest shows made a lasting impression on me, inspiring me to get to the core of things in my own work and achieve the visceral and intellectual clarity that oozed from his paintings. His were intimate and generous paintings filled with invention and purpose. They weren’t just paintings, they were painting.
This first time I met Nozkowski was at the opening of another Sachs-curated show, this time of Herbert Waide Hemphill Jr’s folk art collection at the Noyes Museum in New Jersey. At the time, I was working at the Philadelphia Museum of Art as an art handler, and we had just finished installing an Anselm Kiefer show. A few of us from the museum made the trip to the Noyes opening. When we arrived, standing in the middle of the gallery was Thomas Nozkowski, the man responsible for all of those wonderful paintings. As we approached, he was welcoming and openly curious about us. He asked us if we were artists, what we did, inquired about the current exhibition at the museum, and our thoughts on Kiefer. A few moments later, he was telling us a joke.
A group show in Brooklyn at 55 Ferris Street curated by Frederieke Taylor included Thomas Nozkowski, Joyce Robins, Nancy Haynes, Cristos Gianakos, Lisa Hoke, Eve Andree Laramee, Alastair Noble, Andrew Topolski, and Joe Zito. The exhibition space was rough, but the art looked at home. There was a general indifference between the works of art, except for the installations by Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins, who both contributed floor sculptures. Unexpected from Nozkowski and unfamiliar with Robins, the two installations shared some fundamental and familiar attitudes. Nozkowski’s floor sculpture was a reconstruction of an earlier work from 1973 and wasn’t that far removed from his paintings in hindsight. At the time it seemed more like the work of a downtown Shaman while Robins’s sculpture conjured notions of some J. G. Ballard landscape or frozen memory.
Phong Bui and Linnea Kniaz curated Joyce Robins and Thomas Nozkowski “Mutual Regards:” at Columbia University in 2011. The exhibition echoed Ferris Street, no longer unexpected or unfamiliar. An intimate and thoughtful show, it looked back at four decades of dialogue and studio investigations by these two artists who shared life and work. Nozkowski has said, “Artists who live together will always affect each other’s work–hard for us to imagine anything else. To have another consciousness, one that you trust, at close hand is always to be desired: a check on self-delusion for sure, and maybe even a goad forward.”
Grateful for my relationship with Thomas Nozkowski and Joyce Robins over the years, their voices often sounded as one.
Walking down the street this week, I was startled by the sad realization that I would not ever again have the privilege to run into Tom Nozkowski along my way. No longer is it possible to have my soul generously uploaded with whatever marvel of the world had captured Tom’s regard in the last ten minutes, let alone twenty-four hours, or seven days. While his beautiful paintings and drawings are imbued with that wonderment, and will continue to be the astonishing gift he intended them to be to us, they are not him.
Tom was voraciously interested in the world and equipped with an intellect and heart that had the innate capacity to multiply exponentially the value and relevance of any bit of beauty, in nature or art, or roust for consideration any political, social, or philosophical nugget that had come to rest in his craw. One always came away from an encounter with him astonished by the sweet and powerful regard he had for all things.
My life, our lives, the valuing of art and intellectual truth, have been irreconcilably diminished by his death. And yet it is the world, the whole of it, for which I feel the greater loss. I have not encountered another set of knowing eyes that have loved it so well as Tom’s did; every bud, every brushstroke, every wry witticism. Oh, poor world.
David Levi Strauss
Tom Nozkowski and Pauline Kael walk into a heavenly bar, dressed as sausages. No one knows why they are dressed as sausages, but they are. Pauline is dressed as an Andouille and Tom as a Kielbasa.
As soon as they are seated at the bar, Tom asks the bartender, "Why do Marxists drink weird herbal teas?" The bartender says, "I don't know. Why?" Tom says, "Because all proper tea is theft."
Tom orders a black English tea with a shot of Irish whiskey, and Pauline orders a Manhattan, with rye.
Tom and the bartender then strike up an intense discussion of the similar interest in complex and meaningful tracking shots in Vincente Minnelli's Madame Bovary, and Max Ophüls's The Reckless Moment, released in the same year (1949). This devolves into an argument about the smarmy art dealer portrayal of Darby in The Reckless Moment, and whether James Mason’s Irish accent was worse in this film or in Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, a very romantic movie in the Doomed Lovers vein. Tom points out that Mason also appeared in Ophüls’s Caught, with Barbara Bel Geddes, in the same year as The Reckless Moment.
Tom and the bartender are so involved in their discussion that they don't notice when a cigar someone had thrown into the waste basket behind the bar causes it to burst into flames, which quickly engulf the entire bar.
Pauline Kael turns to Tom and says, "Well, that was certainly a reckless moment." And Tom turns to her and exclaims, "Oh my god, it’s a talking sausage!"
* * *
In addition to missing his inimitable joke-telling, I will sorely miss walking with Tom, over the hills and through the dales of his beloved Shawangunk Mountains. He knew this region like the back of his hand and had eyes to see what others missed. He loved the utter endless unpredictability of the visible world, and was preternaturally attuned to its quirks and intricacies.
As we walked, we talked about what we saw, and also about politics, movies, and books. We talked about other painters and writers quite a lot, and Tom could be singularly articulate and expressive about others' works. I suspect that this, and the attunement, and the joke-telling, made him a good teacher. It certainly helped to make him a good friend.
Luckily, we have and will have what Tom would have said was the best of him—his paintings and drawings—for a very long time to come. And that is the kind of miracle that Tom had come to understand well. So long, Tom.
Tom Nozkowski (1944–2019) was a generous, eloquent, and warm-hearted person. He was also a great painter—I liked him so very much. In the summer of 2014 Stephen Hannock and I were putting together a show of contemporary artists in the Hudson Valley to fill the homes of Thomas Cole and Frederic Edwin Church. We spoke first to Martin Puryear as we knew we wanted to give him pride of place, and we asked him if he might suggest other upstate artists for the show. This was July, and Puryear led us in his car to Nozkowski’s home, where the painter immediately agreed to be included, and gave us a memorable studio tour. The space was as immaculate and organized as his compositions; the chaos was limited to three low shelves bearing hundreds of tubes of paint. Nozkowski painted at two low easels while seated in a ergonomic office chair on casters. Below five sash windows set high up on the adjacent left wall he had tacked seventeen 22 by 28 inch canvases in a three by six grid—the eighteenth was on the right easel. He worked on them simultaneously, when the mood hit. He told me that day that in his work, the product of daily hikes around his Ulster County base, he was “using memory as a kind of strainer,” to make his abstract designs. I asked him when he knew a painting was complete, and he replied that he always wants “to be surprised at the end of the piece,” and that joy in painterly discovery, and the uncertainty that follows, is part of the complexity of his art and the satisfactions it supplies. He liked the word “satisfaction” —I heard him use it on a number of occasions. He loved what he did, that is for sure. And the true landscape became but a template for the artist’s imagination.
I went with Tom to Pace on 57th Street to pick out works for our exhibition with Dave Goerk, who was his gallery liaison. We lined them up and went over them carefully. We also went through some paintings from the Elizabeth Murray estate to include in the same display. I asked Tom if it was ok if his pictures hung across from Murray’s glowing early work Untitled (After Golden Delicious) II of 1972, and he put up his fists like a boxer and playfully growled “Bring it on Elizabeth!”
He knew not to worry. Nozkowski’s five glorious abstract landscapes commanded Thomas Cole’s upstairs Sitting Room at Cedar Grove in the resulting “River Crossings” exhibition in the summer and fall of 2015. He never had a bad show. And he was always pleased to see you. Rest in peace, great hiker and painter of Esopus and the Gunks!
I feel that Thomas Nozkowski was one of the most important American painters. Tom was also my friend. Similar sentiments have been acknowledged as Tom was extremely generous with his time and his acquaintances. To me, he was always kind to the outsider from Philadelphia and I hope he appreciated my affection for him. I can still hear his voice in my head.
We possibly met briefly in the early 1970s at Parsons-Truman Gallery. Later, in 1983, I ran a gallery that was first to exhibit his paintings outside of New York, and in 2000 I premiered his drawings at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at the University of the Arts. In all, I presented him six times.
Tom was one of the first postwar artists to question the heritage, hubris, and clichéd bloat of Abstract Expressionism. His intelligence transformed art as a political act; the creation of exquisite canvases that would fit in humble homes and not necessarily be destined for corporations or institutions. They weren't small scale but rather economical. Indeed, his works often retained a rather large scale (the figure to the edge of the support relationship) to them, though the panel's actual size might be modest.
Tom's knowledge was protean; he knew more about architecture, art, film and design histories, and music than anyone I have ever met. Little Moses, one atypically large and titled early canvas, was named after a Carter Family song. He might be thinking about a geological formation in the Shawangunk Ridge, a Bruce Goff building or a John Ford film as he painted.
Although Tom's oeuvre was eclectic, I have looked at his paintings for long enough to almost see periods, trajectories, and evolutions in form. His early panels tended to be centered, like one of his sculptures suspended in space. Literal curtain motifs, busts, or waterfalls might appear in the work. This was post war American composition; overall or centered, sliding parallel along the picture plane.
They involved the history of abstraction, the litany of historic tropes, as much as primary discovery. In an appropriative fashion, he was making pictures of abstractions. Surprisingly they were not pastiches, they were newly configured from an archive of modernist forms already in the world. How he used syntax was his poetry. Tom didn't invent formal vocabularies, he contextualized Modernism to his own ends. Many critics tried to tie Tom's buoyant, almost comic, biomorphs with his employment history. Few recognized the Arp, Guston, or Miró lineage (though Rob Storr made the leap to Gorky)—serious folk with carnivalesque strains. About two decades ago grids started arriving along the picture plane, but these were not the stringent grids of classic minimalism but hand drawn like spider webs or bridal veils. Even more recent: the broken pixelated bytes of digital games and computer screens, unnatural liquid crystal color.
Tom both participated in and shaped his world. He was an inveterate hiker and storyteller. His dear artist friends would pay homage to him in their own artworks and collegial anecdotes grew up around him. Critically, even though David Carrier, Joseph Masheck, Barry Schwabsky, Storr, and John Yau valiantly attempted to analyze the paintings, they somehow remained elusive. Did the Pedagogical Sketchbook explain Paul Klee? As a professor, Tom transformed Rutgers from its sculpture and Fluxus legacies to one orientated to painting.
Joyce said Tom made her promise not to reveal his sources. Tom covered his tracks; he didn't actually narrate or show specific sources (though it seemed so). His work was always coming into being. No one else could make a Nozkowski. They made perfect sense and denied logic in equal parts. I think that is what draws you in and continues to amaze. His work looked like the world. His world.
I met Tom in the early 1980s, when I started writing art criticism. He and his wife, Joyce Robins lived on the lower East side in a former synagogue. And so regularly I had the reliable pleasure of coming to their house, looking at the new artworks, and having dinner. There were a lot of paintings to see, each unlike all of the others. And the house was filled with a surprising array of books and recordings. Tom knew a lot about art history—he was very well read and well traveled. In 2014, reviewing an exhibition of photographs by his friend Harry Roseman, I ran into him on a midtown Manhattan street. He identified precedents for these unusual images of barbershops, material that I incorporated into my review.
Tom, a sociable man, who looked at many art shows, was the only person I knew who spoke of his fellow ‘brother and sister’ artists, in good 1960s style. But his highly personal ways of thinking had nothing to do with anyone else’s. He knew and admired many artists, but his works remained highly distinctive. He didn’t moralize about the state of the art world, but just did what mattered for him. When most of the abstract artists had a felt need to have some theory, often based upon their readings of philosophy, his concerns were always straightforward. John Yau’s excellent recent book gives a very accurate picture, absolutely true to my experience. Tom always said that the sources of his images came from his immediate visual experience. But since generally it was impossible to identify those sources, one had to respond to the images themselves. Tom, who was a big man, painted small pictures, usually 16 by 20 inches. (Some of his late paintings are a bit larger.) The domestic scale of his artworks was very important for him.
I have lived with a Nozkowski painting and two drawings for more than 35 years. My daughter, Liz Carrier, was born in 1984, which may explain why these images all contain three forms, forming an abstract image of my wife, daughter, and myself. There also were three members in his immediately family, so maybe these images also are personal. I have the most vivid memory of visiting Tom and Joyce in the country, where his teenaged son Casimir kindly took Liz, who was a toddler, by the hand.
Living with art is a pleasure that deserves attention. In a gallery or a museum, you can only look at art relatively briefly. But at home, you can glance at pictures in the morning, before you’ve had your coffee, or at night after your last drink. And in the middle of everyday conversation. I believe that more people would own art, and that the art world would be a better place, were there more awareness of these pleasures. In my experience, few art works are satisfying to live with in this way. They are like people; finding one’s ideal other is not easy! My Nozkowski has never failed to lift my spirits. On the wall alongside one of Joyce’s great ceramic sculptures, it often attracts and always pleases my eye. As yet I have not as yet even begun to exhaust the pleasures of this simple-looking work.
When Joyce and Tom’s city loft was sold, they moved to the country. And when he was taken up by Pace, his art attracted more attention. In the new larger studio it was easier to see rows of finished paintings. But so far as I could see, his basic visual concerns remained unchanged. Although I wrote repeatedly about Tom, in honesty none of my commentaries seem entirely satisfying. His way of working was so seemingly straightforward that his art is hard to interpret. Tom’s painting presents a visual morality, a vision of what art can make possible, which deserves attention and, so I optimistically hope, emulation by younger artists.