Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 28, 2019

Thomas Nozkowski (1944-2019): an extraordinary artist by any measure

Filed under: art,obituary — louisproyect @ 3:11 pm

Yesterday, there was an obituary in the NY Times about an artist named Thomas Nozkowski, who was extraordinary by any measure. Dead at the age of 75 from pancreatic cancer, he was best known for his small-scale abstract paintings that were a conscious rejection of the oversized canvases of Jackson Pollack, et al. Long associated with the Pace Gallery in New York, you can see his work and relevant information about the artist on their website.

Since I am not a trained art critic, I will only say that his work reminds me of Henri Matisse and Joan Miro’s. Here is an untitled painting that I found particularly beautiful:

What interests me more is the unusual path he followed in becoming an artist. To start with, he came from a working-class family. His father worked in an Alcoa Aluminum factory and then as a postman. His mother worked also in factories and as a bookkeeper.

While he was part of my generation that radicalized during the Vietnam War, his break with the status quo had more to do with his attitude toward his chosen profession. As Frances Stonor Saunders pointed out in her “Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War”, abstract expressionism was exploited by the CIA as proof that artistic freedom in the West trumped the hackneyed socialist realism of the USSR. While Nozkowski was little interested in an open rebellion against the well-entrenched abstract expressionism, he sought an alternate path as described in W magazine:

Then one day around 1970 he remembers walking into a SoHo gallery and seeing a 45-foot painting. “I looked at this thing and thought, This is crazy,” he says. “It was for the institutions that we’d been hating. Where does this go? A lobby, a bank, a museum, a rich person’s house, come on. At the time my paintings were a healthy 90 by 110 inches. Nice wall-filling items. And I said, I don’t want to do this. I want to do paintings that hang in my friends’ apartments.

He told John Yau, the author of a monograph on his work, that such large-scale works were nothing but “an extension of imperialism…it occupied whatever space it wanted to without regard for others”

Like many artists, Nozkowski had a “day job” before earnings from his work could sustain him. In his case, it was working for magazines, first at Time Magazine and then as the production director of Mad Magazine. He also designed hundreds of books. He told Hyperallergic Magazine that his specialty was pop trash: UFOs, Movie Tie-Ins, Disco Dancing, Celebrity Biographies and Bermuda Triangle books. He confessed that he even wrote one of those. You can even buy a copy of his work at Mad Magazine from Amazon.com.

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For many years, Nozkowski lived in a refurbished synagogue on the Lower East Side but moved to Ulster County in the Catskills, not far from where I grew up. He bought a house near the Shawangunk Ridge, a mountain range I used to be able to view from the rear window of the house I grew up in Woodridge, N.Y.

In a 2015 post, I wrote about my affinities with the Shawangunk Ridge that included this brief video clip.

In an interview with Dylan Kerr for Artspace, Nozkowski stated that his recent paintings were related to drawings that the artist did for the magazine Esopus:

I do a lot of walking in the area of the Hudson Valley where I live, on the Shawangunk Ridge, and I’ve worked with a lot of organizations preserving land on the Shawangunks. There’s an area near Kerhonkson where several hundred acres of land have recently been acquired by non-profits, and I’ve spent the last two years hiking around this area, mapping it and so forth. I decided to do drawings from this area for Esopus, and in fact I even drew a map of where the trails were for the magazine, so in theory someone could follow the map and find the locations. Not a chance that anyone will, of course, but that was the idea.

Here’s a lovely video of Thomas Nozkowski hiking up around the Shawangunks, talking about art.

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