Fisher Landau Center For Art, Long Island City
February 3 – April 7, 2008
Might it not be time to begin rethinking what happened in painting in the 1980s? Typified by some as the moment when painting came back from the dead, and judged by others as further proof of painting’s retrograde position, the eighties was a decade full of hoopla, with lots of posturing both inside and outside the art world. It was a decade when image-makers gained the lion’s share of accolades and attention. Open any survey of paintings done in the eighties and you will see glossy reproductions by David Salle, Donald Sultan, and Peter Halley—image-makers, which is not nearly the same as being a painter, whose work was celebrated by a chorus line of collectors, curators, and critics, while painters for the most part were stuck on the margins. However, three decades after making their initial impact, a swarm of questions fills the air: have they expanded upon, transformed, or shaken themselves free from their initial style of image making? Or are they, like Tom Wesselman, Mel Ramos, and Kenneth Noland before them, period style artists? And, like all fearful traditionalists, isn’t there something clichéd and obvious about their work? They were savvy conformists, who made the right-sized work about the right things (women, factories, and formalist abstraction) at the right time.
The recent survey of Thomas Nozkowski’s paintings from 1979 to 2003 suggests an altogether different view of what happened in the 1980s. There were painters who refused to conform to mainstream expectations, who did not settle into eccentric or self-indulgent gestures, and whose work adamantly resisted assimilation into any of the well-known narratives regarding art’s progress or demise (isn’t this latter accomplishment a virtue?). There are twenty paintings in the exhibition, half of which were done in the eighties. All but four of them are 16 × 20 inches, and all but five are done on canvas board, which is what you get in a 1950s “paint by numbers” set. From the outset, Nozkowski was outlandish, but he never gave a knowing wink to the viewer. With his choice of materials, he began his challenge to orthodoxy at the most basic level. It’s one thing to bring non-art materials, such as sixties furniture and cracked crockery, into art, and quite another to make oil paintings on canvas board about the size of an art monograph lying open on a table. What Nozkowski’s decisions prove is that you can upset the apple cart and have almost no one notice (Joseph Mascheck, an early supporter, was an important and eloquent exception).
The artist has not only persisted on working on an intimate scale, but, after gaining increasing attention during recent years, he has also refused to cash in; there are no big Nozkowski paintings, no attempt to make a grand statement. In fact, their size is contrary to practically everything hung on most contemporary art museum walls. The scale Nozkowski chose is not only extreme, but in effect he is throwing down the gauntlet, and daring us to slow down and scrutinize what is before us. Busy as we are, do we need paintings to be big because it makes getting through a gallery or museum maze an easier task? Or, are we actually going to take our time and look?
Nozkowski doubles his dare by refusing to make images that fall under the purview of discursive language. He recognizes that collective language is an illusion, and that images are a predictable and dependable form of currency in a world that cares little for meaning, except when it is predigested by others. At the same time, he predicates his paintings on a formal issue, which is the figure/ground relationship. Here again one should take note of the artist’s radical relationship to his circumstances. Instead of paring down the figure/ground relationship, as a number of his contemporaries did (Peter Pinchbeck, Stuart Hitch), Nozkowski articulated an odd configuration made up of discrete, often interlocking shapes, an approach that is evident in the earliest painting in the exhibition, “Untitled (3-4)” (1979).
The basic point behind all of Nozkowski’s decisions was to be inventive, which many critics believe is no longer possible. He wanted to arrive at a painting that defies language in ways that give pleasure to the viewer. This doesn’t mean that his paintings aren’t gnarly, because “Untitled (4-97)” (1984), with its semi-enclosed phallic form, leaves a lot to the imagination, or wisely witty (the tilting red square in “Untitled (7-103)” (1997). The uneasy relationship that Nozkowski establishes between his figure (or what Marjorie Welish astutely called “the vexed silhouette”) and the ground is central to his project; he doesn’t accept the conventions determining this bond, but instead always finds its unique connection through the process of painting. Even when the silhouette seems to be floating in the middle of the rectangle, there is nothing static about the painting.
Nozkowski’s inventiveness is a challenge that the art world’s custodians prefer to ignore for obvious reasons, one being that it makes it more difficult for everyone to go about the business of tying up loose ends and packaging the story of painting’s rise and fall. And so, while his work was included in the recent, controversial Venice Biennale, but not mentioned by nearly anyone reviewing it, and he is about to have an exhibition of new work at a blue chip gallery (for which I wrote the catalogue essay), I think that overthrowing conventional thinking, which Nozkowski began his career by challenging, still remains to be done. In the meantime, his unwavering allegiance to painting and inventiveness should help remind us that, as bad as things are, they could be a whole lot worse.