The Brooklyn Rail met with Thomas Nozkowski at his house in High Falls, New York on a clear November day. We sat in the dining room as the afternoon sunlight filtered through the trees outside and set warm gray shadows flickering on the window shades. Tom and his wife, the sculptor Joyce Robins, spend an increasing amount of their time at their studios in this upstate home.
Chris Martin (Rail): Tom, how long have you been in New York?
Tom Nozkowski: I came to New York in 1961. I was a very bad student and it took me six years to get out of Cooper Union.
Rail: What was the New York art scene like in the sixties?
Nozkowski: It was interesting to be at Cooper Union and on the Lower East Side at that moment. The Tenth Street galleries were still there. There was that sense of a fairly small community of artists. Many of my teachers at Cooper Union were second-generation Abstract Expressionists—people like Nicholas Marsicano, David Lund, and Angelo Ippollito. They aren’t terribly well known today but they were serious and interesting artists. The wonderful thing about Abstract Expressionism was that it was a movement in depth. There were many artists who had all kind of individual interests—all trying to speak the same language and to work and have a life together. Pop Art and Minimalism were happening and everything was being questioned. The first year out of Cooper Union, I worked for Betty Parsons. Thanks to her I met Ruth Vollmer who, in many ways, became a kind of mentor to my wife and I. Ruth conducted the closest thing that I’ve ever experienced to a real salon. An enormously cultivated German woman from an intellectual family—her uncle was Sammy Fisher, the publisher of S. Fisher Verlag. She loved and supported young artists. Eva Hesse was a protégé of hers. Sol LeWitt and Richard Tuttle were very close to her. Smithson, the Mangolds, and Bob Ryman were often there, as well a group of older artists and writers.
Rail: Your college paintings looked like Abstract Expressionist paintings?
Nozkowski: Yeah, the first ones did. But by the time I was finishing up at Cooper—and I think I am quite accurate in saying this—every serious painter there was trying to find some way to subvert what we perceived to be the gross romanticism of our immediate predecessors in the New York School. There were all kinds of systemic approaches to abstraction, programmatic ideas to create paintings. Most of these paintings were quite large, although not as large as yours, Chris. But I was really trying to think something through and politics was informing everything that we were doing in those days, with Vietnam, with the early days of feminism, and with the Civil Rights movement. You can’t really understand artists of my generation until you factor the political atmosphere into any analysis of their work. I felt that I could no longer do big paintings that were for an audience of the very institutions that I then despised. The last thing I wanted to do was to paint for a museum, to paint for a bank lobby. I wanted to paint paintings that could fit in my friends’ rooms. So I started making sixteen by twenty inch paintings that you would recognize today as my work, in 1975. These pictures, initially for political reasons, had roots in subject, in things that connected to the real world.
Rail: And you were making sculpture as well?
Nozkowski: Yes. Very pictorial sculpture, usually made of quotidian materials and either laying on the floor (cloth, gravel, broken glass) or flat, brightly-colored ceramic shapes hanging in rows on wires.
Rail: It’s interesting that you went small in 1975. The first small Bill Jensen paintings I saw were also from ’75 or ’76. I believe that he made his shift to small paintings in the exact same year.
Nozkowski: Ideas go around. For me, remember that I helped hang at least one Forrest Bess show at Parsons in the late sixties. Richard Tuttle pointed to something about being appropriate in your choice of materials and scale. I was always surprised that there weren’t more people doing small paintings. It just makes so damn much sense; I thought it was really bizarre that this idea met with any resistance at all. But I’m sure Bill will tell you the same thing, that the attitude most art people had then about appropriate size was truly ridiculous.
Rail: When I met you in 1979, you were having your first one-person show—so you were around thirty-five years old. Most kids now, they come out of graduate school and are planning their Whitney retrospective at age thirty-five. What took you so long?
Nozkowski: I think there’s a new model in the world today for one; but number two, it took me a while to figure things out. I was working at Betty Parsons's and she would occasionally show my sculptures in group shows and in her office. She and Ruth Vollmer would generously send people to my studio to look at work. They’d come to see the sculptures but I would always pull out some paintings and, boy, I would just get treated terribly. I remember Steingrim Laursen, who was then the director of the Louisiana Museum near Copenhagen, coming by, and, to my surprise, he got excited about the paintings. This was 1975 or ’76, and he pulled a whole group out, said that he thought they were really interesting and then said, “Your psychiatrist told you to do these right?” He just thought it was some kind of therapy, he couldn’t imagine that this was serious work. I got a lot of that. Even Betty Parsons who was very supportive and loved young artists, she would flinch whenever I showed her a painting. So, I joined a co-op gallery to have a way to get them out of the studio and into the world.
Rail: It seems amazing that no one could see what you were doing—why?
Nozkowski: Well, at that moment, paintings had to be large, they had to be fairly reductive in program, if not in formal values, in colors and in images. I think size was the first problem, the second thing was I was working on canvas boards for quasi-political reasons again and that was held in contempt. I’ll tell you another story. There was an organization called the Organization of Independent Artists and they were attempting to subvert the gallery and museum system and all the established hierarchies. They had decided that each artist shown in their group shows would pick the next artists and so on. I was one of the artists chosen for the second show. I remember going to the organizational meeting and being told that the other artists had decided I couldn’t be in the show because the paintings weren’t serious.
Rail: Fascinating, what a story! But that must have been painful. So how does it feel now to have a growing audience for your paintings?
Nozkowski: I’m happy that anyone likes to look at them. One of things that interests me are the ways that paintings survive over time and in different places. I am fascinated by the different ways in which people look at and understand my paintings. I don’t have any problem with that. It’s wonderful.
Rail: What do you think is the purpose of abstract painting?
Nozkowski: To expand consciousness, to increase freedom.
Rail: Can you talk about more specific content or subject matter in your work?
Nozkowski: I think that people still don’t understand the use of subject matter in my work. They don’t believe that it exists. And they are very skeptical about the possibilities of working from daily experience. Sometimes I think they are afraid to do that. Content comes out of the same political impulse that made me do small paintings in the first place. I was very tired of not being able to use my craft, to celebrate or to mourn things that were important to my life. If somebody was born or died, or something happened that I wanted to possess—I decided I would be direct in going after anything that interested me. The key word there is anything. I believe that one can make a picture out of any kind of experience, both an intellectual experience and/or a lived one.
Rail: Are you talking about a specific visual hook or are you talking about a larger, less definable content?
Nozkowski: One has to play this out in a visual way so the temptation is always to find a visual analog or a visual component of the thing or moment that one wishes to possess. For example in my current show, one painting comes from a novel. There is a structural device in the book and there’s a character in this book that plays a structural role. I tried to recreate something of how I think this character and structure works. But I’m not diagramming, I’m trying to recreate the intellectual effect.
Rail: But Tom, you never make that kind of reference explicit, I mean you never name the paintings. Like Howard Hodgkin will title a painting “Hotel Room in Venice” or something so we get a clue. But I usually don’t know the specific impetus or content of a Nozkowski painting. I can recognize that there is something very accurate there, that they are true to themselves. I am deeply sympathetic to your desire to really go for the content and I agree that the content has to be present in everyday life, if you don’t find it when you wake up in the morning then you’re not going to find it anywhere. But content can be such a mysterious amorphous thing. How do you get from content to mark making?
Nozkowski: You start by doing things on purpose. I am going to make a mark and it’s going to stand for my aunt Thelma. That’s on purpose. We easily see marks that were made on purpose as opposed to marks that were made accidentally or through some mechanical process; similarly with composition, with color, and with the facture of a painting. If I was saying I’m going to copy this banana, and I am going to get the yellow color and the curve of the banana then you’ll have no problem with that. It’s still the same leap of activity. Before men spoke, when cave people were roaming around, it’s clear that they must have had a visual language. They read the world. I think that it’s built into our DNA from a million years of evolution. A certain movement means something, a broken twig means something. The color of the sky means something. We talk to people that we’ve never met before and we know they are lying or that they’re in love, or all the kinds of emotions that we all read extremely accurately in people’s faces. I think we have a visual language that we live, even if we don’t know how to quite speak it. We don’t quite understand its grammar, but we all can do it.
Rail: Are you someone that thinks Tuesday is blue, and Wednesday is red?
Nozkowski: I think those things shift and mutate and change, you’re not doing it on purpose if you say automatically that Tuesday is green. I don’t think one mark or one symbol always stands for the same thing. I’m not talking about hieroglyphics.
Rail: Well I have a Forrest Bess book that has a little glossary of images.
Nozkowski: I think it’s a nightmare.
Rail: They present it as a key to the paintings—like a particular mark stands for the moon or the feminine. Do images reoccur in your paintings?
Nozkowski: Images do reoccur but not for subject/content reasons. I try to resist reoccurring images in any case strictly formally. The goal for me is to understand why I want to make a picture in the first place. Sometimes it’s an homage to somebody or about something that is really specific. But often just a detail interests you and you look at that space there, or look at that color, or look at that thing.
Rail: So painting is a tool for investigating what interests you? You start a painting hoping to learn something?
Nozkowski: Let’s face it, you spend thousands of hours alone staring at this damn thing. If you don’t learn something you’ve got to be pretty dense. I want my paintings to be in service to my life in some way. But on the other hand it’s all about finding a way to make a painting that I think is a good painting. It goes in both directions. I happen to believe that by having sources, having content, I can find ever more colors, compositions, and ways of application. So the mind flits around and makes connections, it makes comparisons and puts things together. I try to channel that. My paintings typically are very complex at the start, with lots of stuff. I put more and more things in and I put more things in and then slowly take things out, to make sense, to get it to speak.
Rail: Tom, in 1995 you painted twenty paintings grouped together and called “An Autobiography.” Can you talk about that? The catalogue includes photos by Judy Linn. How are they related to these paintings?
Nozkowski: You try to stretch your project. I am interested in finding improbable subjects for paintings. What can’t you paint? An autobiography seemed suitably unlikely. I have lived my whole life on a hundred-mile stretch of the Hudson Valley, so to organize this group of pictures, I decided to divide that distance into twenty-five-mile increments between my studio in lower Manhattan and my house in High Falls. I attacked this idea systematically, making long lists and hundreds of drawings. What personal memories could I attach to each of these five-mile increments? What historical events happened in each area of family history as well as of public history? What kind of plants and landforms? Which other artists would I associate with these places? I drove around a lot and took a lot of walks as well, just looking for stuff, chasing memories. After the paintings were finished I had the opportunity to make a catalogue of them and, trying to keep in the spirit of the project, decided to do one without words. I did want people to know that these were about places so we included maps and Judy’s photographs. I asked Judy to go back to these five mile areas and photograph anything that interested her. There are a few that are specific to me because Judy and I are old friends: my loft in lower Manhattan, the ruins of my grandfather’s farm, a flowering viburnum bush in the lawn here. When Judy first did the photographs she had not seen the related paintings. She came over with the proofs of the photos she had chosen. Joe Masheck and Marjorie Welish were here and as I pulled out transparencies of the paintings and put them next to Judy’s photos, we all started seeing these amazing connections. Wow! Mystical! We’re all amazed and then Joe suggested that we shuffle up the photos, put them in a different order and sure enough we found just as many connections. Which I think is wonderful; the world has lots of stuff in it and human beings are really good at comparing and contrasting and putting together all sorts of different images.
Rail: Do you draw for your paintings? Do you make studies?
Nozkowski: As I said, I was taught by Abstract Expressionists, so I think making studies is against the rules. I do draw in parallel to my paintings.
Rail: So your paintings start fresh, they don’t start with a specific drawing.
Nozkowski: Sometimes, if something really fascinates me, I’ll work in parallel, taking the same ideas and trying to develop them in different ways. With the autobiography series, I probably did twenty or thirty drawings of each one of the five mile areas. I did them as ballpoint pen drawings, pencil drawings, crayon drawings, gouaches, large oils on paper. The drawing images were totally different from the paintings even though they shared the same subject matter. I am interested in seeing how many different ways the same thing can be imagined.
Rail: Let’s talk specifically about color. Do you take the color directly from an object or from a real life experience and apply it to a painting?
Nozkowski: I do, I usually start with that or some color associated with it. But, really, I am not interested in color all that much.
Rail: People will be surprised to hear you say that.
Nozkowski: I think color is the most slippery, the least precise of all of our tools. I think the relationships between colors is much more exciting than specific colors themselves. For me color is really good at helping us tell one shape from another.
Rail: I remember when I first met you in 1979, you were on a ladder and you were hanging a painting, which had a detail of a Giotto of the angel rolling back the ceiling of the sky. I recognized it and I remember being sort of proud of myself for recognizing it, and very surprised to see a direct quote from Giotto in SoHo in 1979. Do you still quote directly from other paintings?
Nozkowski: In the early seventies, I would often work with older works of art. I would quote them, but more to understand why I thought they were powerful in the first place. I had been to Europe in the fall of 1973. I was completely knocked out by Pisanello’s “The Vision of Saint Eustace” in the National Gallery in London. I still think it’s one of the greatest paintings ever made. I came back to New York, actually it was the first time I used small canvas boards, and I tried to paint pieces, abstracted details, from this Pisanello painting to see why it worked. It would drive me nuts, I don’t know what I expected, but you would see a lemon yellow disc in the Pisanello and it would move you to tears. And then you’d come back and do that on Hester Street in the Lower East Side, and what the hell is this, it’s just a little yellow disc! It was a great lesson in the limits of formalism but it’s one of the things that really started me along this path. I stopped doing that many years ago. In this last show there are two paintings that include the element of homages to artists, but there’s no real direct quoting from other works of art.
Rail: Well I was looking at the biggest painting in your current show and thinking that it looks like an Arthur Dove sunset in a Kwakiutl village.
Nozkowski: Yeah, someone else saw the Northwest Indians there, and I think that’s great. I made one painting about ten years ago that referenced Northwest Indian imagery—but that wasn’t one. People read paintings all sorts of ways. Arthur Dove is one of my least favorite artists. I’m a Burchfield guy—even though he has made small abstractions based on reality. Too often I find his work corny and pretty predictable in his moves. If I were to tell you there’s an Arthur Dove hanging down the block and it’s called “Foghorns,” we almost don’t have to look at the damn painting to know there’s going to be great big gray donuts floating in the sky. I try very hard to be as smart as I can be about my images and I try to replace every last piece of sentimentality with genuine desire.
Rail: Are there living artists today that you feel in dialogue with?
Nozkowski: Well, every time I see a decent painting I feel in a dialogue with it, and I don’t discriminate. I think there is a lot of good stuff out there. I’m as guilty as everybody else of moaning about all the kitsch that’s in the art world today but, you know, there’s an enormous amount of serious work being done as well.
Rail: Tom, why does it take you so damn long to make the paintings?
Nozkowski: Because I’m not good enough. If I was really good they would be paper thin and they’d be done in fifteen minutes. I associate no special merit to sweat and labor. I think that it’s really about getting it right, it’s about getting into the zone.
Rail: How long can you work on a painting?
Nozkowski: In the show up at Max’s there are a couple of paintings that were 10 years or so in the works. I’ve always got a stash of unfinished paintings in my studio, waiting, just waiting for that burst of inspiration that will resolve them.
Rail: Wow! Are you working on them all at the same time?
Nozkowski: No, there are a number in pretty deep storage. Every time I go back to them and go through them, I see if I can find one that I could work on, that I could resolve. And sometimes that happens. In my studio at any given moment there are probably eight to ten sticky paintings, paintings that are in active play.
Rail: How do you know when you’ve resolved a painting?
Nozkowski: It’s done when I understand why I wanted to paint it in the first place. Everything we do represents a more-or-less conscious choice. Why this stroke or color and not another. The biggest mystery is that first choice: Why this subject and not another? Painting enables me to understand why I look at something. And usually, alas, that takes a long time.
Rail: Do you ever get a gift—an effortless painting ?
Nozkowski: Yes, once in a while.
Rail: What would be your advice to a young painter in Brooklyn?
Nozkowski: Survive. Find tactics and methods that allow you to keep working. It’s easy to have a career that lasts thirty months; it’s a lot harder to have a career that lasts thirty years. You have to find things you want to do. It’s important to want to do it. To love doing it.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.