Thomas Nozkowski was an American artist known for small-scale, abstract paintings that rejected the grand, heroic gestures of the prevailing Abstract Expressionist movement.Read More
Thomas Nozkowski grew up in Dumont, New Jersey. His aunt, who was a schoolteacher, would regularly provide Nozkowski with art supplies that he used over the weekends at her house. Nozkowski moved to New York in 1961 to attend The Cooper Union, where he studied under Abstract Expressionists and European emigres from the avant-garde Bauhaus school.
After he graduated from The Cooper Union in 1967, Thomas Nozkowski felt alienated by the grand, heroic gestures of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, the dominant artistic currents at the time. In an obituary in The New York Times, Nozkowski is quoted as being put off by their 'macho scale' and 'imperialist' associations. Struggling to produce paintings in this artistic climate, the artist took a few years off to work on sculpture.
Nozkowski's breakthrough occurred in the early 1970s, when he scaled the exaggerated size of Abstract Expressionist painting down to a much smaller format. His decision to go small was not only provoked by a rejection of hyper-masculine abstraction, but also by a desire to make paintings that were anchored in a practical reality. In an interview with Artspace in 2015, Nozkowski explains that he wanted to paint 'at a size that was scaled to my friends' apartments, that could hang in a three-room walkup tenement on 7th Street.'
Nozkowski also quickly discovered the liberation of painting in a smaller format. As opposed to the huge scale of Abstract Expressionist works, which required days to change if the artist was unhappy, Nozkowski found that he could work out ideas quickly and easily begin again if he changed his mind.
Following his first solo exhibition at age 35 in 1979, Thomas Nozkowski quickly rose to prominence. By 1983, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) had acquired one of his paintings for their permanent collection. By the late 1980s, Nozkowski's work had been featured in several survey exhibitions in museums in the United States and overseas.
Nozkowski's work was informed by his daily experience, drawing from a wide range of influences including memories, relationships, films, books, art, and his daily walks. The artist then translated his wide-ranging sources into a variety of abstract forms, which transcend a single formal style.
Adapting the improvisational methods of Abstract Expressionism, but with a small brush, Nozkowski was unbeholden to a specific aesthetic. His work ranges across biomorphic forms, geometric shapes, a variety of colours, and different methods of paint handling. Untitled (8-78) (2006) features an unmodulated expanse of blue, pooling around horizontal columns of white. It is a strikingly organic and minimal composition in comparison to Untitled (L — 64) (2018), a structure of multi-coloured cells that features blocks of flat colour in conjunction with paint that appears to have been scraped or rubbed down.
Unlike conventional practice, Thomas Nozkowski did not produce drawings as preparation for his paintings, preferring to begin directly on the canvas. He either made small, multimedia drawings that exist as standalone works, or larger drawings that act as conceptual tangents to paintings in progress. These took place on a second easel, which he used to capture an idea as it emerged on the canvas.
In 2018, an exhibition at Pace Gallery featured a selection of works for which Nozkowski would remain most known. All the paintings were produced on 16 x 20-inch prefabricated canvases, and, as with his other work, drawn from his personal experiences.
The final 15 paintings Nozkowski made before his passing will be exhibited in a show at Pace Gallery in September 2021. A book surveying the painter's lifetime work was published by Lund Humphries in 2017.
Thomas Nozkowski's paintings have been featured in over 300 museum and gallery exhibitions around the world. In 2009, the National Gallery of Canada held the largest survey of his work to date, featuring more than 60 paintings.
Thomas Nozkowski's paintings are held in significant institutional collections throughout the United States and Canada, including The Art Institute of Chicago; the Library of Congress, Washington D.C.; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (MOCA); and the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York.
Alena Kavka | Ocula | 2021