What would Thomas Nozkowski have done with COVID? I don’t mean to ask how the abstract painter would have responded to the isolation, or the sicknesses and fatalities, or the political fallout, as so many artists have done in their own many ways. Rather, what would Nozkowski have done with the pictures, the molecular renderings, of the virus itself? That colorful gray orb with spiky red proteins jutting out and waving around, cuddly yet ominous, like the lovechild of a pufferfish and Sideshow Bob?
As a visual subject, the coronavirus seems perfectly suited to Nozkowski’s painterly eye, which often gravitated towards biomorphic forms, making a virtue of oddness and quirk. Alas, the artist died in May 2019, almost a year before our newest plague emerged. We’ve recently had two opportunities to view his work in New York. The first was an exhibition of “Last Paintings” held at Pace Gallery, which represents Nozkowski’s estate, from September 10 through October 23. The second, on now through February 26 at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation on the Lower East Side, is a two-person exhibition: “Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: True Fictions.”1
“True Fictions” is curated by Eric Brown, who works as an agent for the Freilicher estate and is a painter himself. In an introductory statement for the catalogue, Brown writes, “This show is not about mutual influence. It is not about personal connection or friendship. It isn’t an intergenerational show, the older painter influencing the younger.” Jane Freilicher (1924–2014) painted figuratively, from observation; Nozkowski (1944–2019) painted non-objective abstractions. Absent biographical influence, then, what cause is there to bring these two together?
Pondering this, I thought of a passage written by Fairfield Porter (1907–75), who was a close friend of Freilicher’s. It can be found in the excellent collection of his criticism, Art in Its Own Terms, edited by Rackstraw Downes. In a 1960 book review, Porter ruminates on art’s content versus its style, saying that style takes precedence because “any subject will do. An artist who seeks subject matter is like a person who cannot get up in the morning until he understands the meaning of life.”
My guess is that Nozkowski and Freilicher both would have agreed with this sentiment. For Freilicher, especially, any subject seemed to do. Though she also painted portraits, nudes, landscapes, and interiors, the current exhibition represents Freilicher exclusively by her windowsill still lifes, many painted in her Greenwich Village apartment and studio. Freilicher didn’t travel to exotic locales to find inspiration. Instead, she looked at her surroundings and painted them.
Though less obviously so, Nozkowski’s abstractions originate in impulses that are similarly close to home. In a late interview he describes making paintings about family members, events in his own life, things he sees in the newspaper, poems he’s read. He calls the paintings a form of reportage, and speaks of wanting to “accurately depict my feelings at this moment.” This he did through an idiosyncratic abstract language, conducted on canvases and boards of unassuming sizes.
Freilicher and Nozkowski, then, can both be said to have reported, in their own way, on firsthand experience. But going back to Porter, what’s more interesting is to ask: how did they do so? Do their artistic sensibilities align in less-than-obvious ways? The current juxtaposition makes a strong case that they did, and the conversation that results is beguiling and illuminating.
For one, both painters share an interest in putting ostensibly incompatible forms into delicate communication. Freilicher’s My Cubism (2004), of two flower arrangements set against a crepuscular Greenwich Village skyline, takes up the challenge of navigating the near and far; inside and outside; man-made and organic; fragile and sturdy; light and dark. To its right, Nozkowski’s 2005 abstraction Untitled (8-67) looks for corrupted harmonies between a hard-edge band (it’s not quite a true rectangle) of flat, prismatic hues; a set of thin gray lines that look something like the imagined connections between the stars of a constellation; and a ground of pink and blue stripes made atmospheric by a wash of thinned-out white.
The painters seemed also to share a sensibility for light and for colors, which are generally muted, but glow in odd and unpredictable ways. Against the ground’s dark browns and purples in Nozkowski’s Untitled (8-33) (2002), modest yellows and blues emanate with a strange intensity. Before this exhibition, I hadn’t noticed the extent to which Freilicher avoids rendering cast shadows in many of these still lifes. This dissociates her objects from their gravitational context, allowing the tones to assume their own weights and masses. In her Flowers on a Russet Table (2004), for instance, five stunning bouquets—all different colors, shapes, and sizes—threaten to overload the picture in sheer opulence and variety, but they’re anchored down by the hunk of blue vase to the right, proposing a tentative sort of pictorial structure. Yet any such structure gets finally subsumed by Freilicher’s overriding sensitivity for the nuances of material and color, which activates every inch of canvas with light and air, presence and feeling. Freilicher’s interest lay in the specific character of incidental facts. Do two petals overlap in space, or do they merely touch? Or if they don’t even touch, how does the space between them feel, and how does that space relate to the surrounding petals?
Next to Freilicher’s searching perceptions, Nozkowski’s work can feel artificial, contrived. Yet that same contrived quality caused me to look at the Freilichers in a different way, reinforcing that they too are constructions, and have their own quirks and impositions as a result. The longer you look, the more abstract they become. Further, the juxtaposition accentuates the essentially perceptual nature of Nozkowski’s own paintings—how abstract forms, in his hands, function as visual metaphors for actual feelings and experiences. In the end, what unites these two artists is their radical openness to those experiences, as well as their remarkable ability to capture them and note them for us to see.