November 12, 2021

Thomas Nozkowski's Distinct and Personal Vision

Thomas Nozkowski, who sadly died in 2019, made paintings like no one else's, and each painting was an exploration of color and form totally its own. A recent show at Pace Gallery, "The Last Paintings", presented 15 paintings, done in the last few years of his life. They are insistently modest in size, but not in feeling or painterly ambition. Each work measures 22 x 28 inches, and all are oil on linen stretched on a panel. There's been a great deal of excellent writing on this show and on Nozkowski's body of work, including two beautiful tributes from people who knew him: by the artist Tom McGlynn in the Brooklyn Rail, and the writer John Yau in Hyperallergic. The New York Times published a laudatory, informative article, with lots of studio photos. I don't feel that I have anything insightful to add, but I wanted to join the chorus of praise for this beautiful and moving show.


In the painting above, with its interlocking masses of organic shapes, blues alongside greens, I think of a landscape, perhaps turned on its side, but the bright promise of these forms is belied by the subtle blacks behind them, peopled by rounded forms rising out of the dark, like ghosts. Nozkowski's handling of paint is masterly in its myriad approaches: in this painting clear, crisp, opaque forms backed by vertical transparencies, all in perfect pitch. Of course, photographs flatten the complexities of the paint. (If you click on the image you'll see it in more detail.)

Floating colored circles are seen through transparent, undulating shapes, like things seen under water. The image seems airy and lyrical, but the stark white circles, some partially overlapped, startle in their contrast. I can be tempted to try to discern the source of Nozkowski's images, since all come from out in the real world––perhaps landscape or film or literature––but ultimately it's not important that we know. In a terrific interview with the artist in Art News in 2016, he explains his painting ideas and approaches at length. One thing he said about sources: 

Well, here’s the thing, once you say you’re using sources and you have content, people think that’s the end of the story—that’s what it’s about. But of course you know absolutely nothing...

To illustrate that knowing nothing, a story: I recently commented on a friend's abstract painting online, writing that I found it very poignant. It turned out that it was inspired by seeing an echocardiogram of his elderly father's heart. Of course I could never have guessed that source, but was moved by the painting without knowing. The quality of the form told its story. 

A viaduct of colors crosses black and white terrain, connecting shapes recalling water and land. I love the way the solid mass of blue, a stable element, contrasts with the jazzy goings on––disparate yet connected––in the black and white center of the painting.

Here is another painting in which the center is a total surprise in its radical difference from what surrounds it. I'm in awe of how Nozkowski came up with these ideas, and with the techniques to pull them off. Strongly colored shapes, outlined in pale yellow, border, on two sides, a busy field of red and yellow.

The area of actively criss-crossing yellow lines on red creates, for me, an atmospheric effect, a shimmering in light, that sits behind the "window" of the foreground shapes. It is like a bright spring morning.

Irregular colored shapes float gently––or are they broken pieces falling?––above a cool gray ground, which is composed of many small adjoining and overlapping shapes. The foreground shapes are primarily soft greens, but then there's that insistent red square and the orange shape alongside it. The red square demands attention, as if to say that things aren't as you expect them to be; that there's always a surprise in store. 

Another surprise is that there is a gray shape that overlaps the corner of the orange one. Even though the grays are painted delicately, transparently, here one breaks its polite place in space and moves forward. This is such a great twist, one that upends certainties. 

Seeing Thomas Nozkowski's last paintings was an exhilarating experience. With his vivid painterly imagination he presents to us wide-ranging, glorious human possibilities. 


  1. I appreciated reading your perspectives on this wonderful exhibition, Altoon, thank you.

  2. Lovely write-up Altoon. I am glad to see so many images of this show. Painterly surprises are part of Tom's work, he seemed to have an endless supply of inventions in his head all clearly in his own personal language.Most of his roots were Abstract Expressionist perhaps but he was one of a small number of contemporary ambitious painters who went against the rule that a painting had to be larger be serious. There is so much delight in his work. Love it.

  3. Thank you for drawing my attention to this terrific artist.
    His work is compelling and Inspiring.

  4. Thank you for the essay Altoon. Thomas was a painter that had something to say for so many of us. The modest format of his work makes me realize that one doesn't need vast real estate to make a profound statement in painting. Just vision.

  5. Altoon, Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts about Nozkowski's work. I had very similar observations about these paintings, and appreciate the clarity of your thoughts.