Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (7-107, LA III), 1998, oil on linen on panel, 22×28” (Photo: BOMB Magazine)

Thomas Nozkowski is an artist I follow and have been interested in for some time. But I began diggging deeper into his work and his point of view after reading the review of his show at Senior & Shopmaker Gallery by his long time friend John Yau, A Truly Subversive Artist Is Not Necessarily Someone Who Is Theatrical or Gimmicky. (That title alone is worth further exploration.)

And now I am even more beguiled and fascinated. One of my best finds was an interview in BOMB Magazine between Nozkowski and the writer Francine Prose. These two intelligent, thoughtful artists share a conversation about art and art making that is refreshingly authentic, generous and “art world pretension”-free. Nozkowski is articulate about things that are often glossed over or flattened down to the usual clichés. His words have depth, amplitude, and the evidence of having thought through these issues for a long period of time.

As Prose states in her introduction, she was eager to interview Tom Nozkowski so that she might finally begin to understand what makes his paintings “so beautiful, mysterious, surprising and unique, so simultaneously and paradoxically whimsical and haunting.” The process of speaking with him only intensified and deepened the mystery of his work for her, the finest compliment IMHO. (I also admire Prose for saying this to Nozkowski about art reportage: “I read all those articles and essays that critics have written about you, and I have to tell you I didn’t understand a single word. It made me realize that the reason I started writing art criticism was because I couldn’t understand it.”)

One of the first topics they discuss is about Nozkowski’s long passion for the painting by Pisanello, Legend of St. Eustache. He remembered first seeing the painting in London many years ago and being deeply moved by it:

TN: I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it was as if I knew why every stroke was made. Every color, every shape. I thought it profoundly moving…I was trying to find out why those elements work.

FP: So did you figure it out?

TN: No, not in specifics. I mean, if you could figure it out, it would lose a lot of its magic. You’d possess it too closely. What I did come to understand was the possibility of working out of a feeling rather than a formal direction. There are a few very modest structural reasons for any of the forms and colors in that particular painting being where they are. They seem inevitable for another reason…

There are paintings that speak directly and privately to you. And it has to do with who you are. As a painter, I’m interested in painterly solutions, things that painters do… I think painters go to museums with different agendas and goals. You go to find solutions for your own problems and your own aspirations.


Pisanello’s Legend of St. Eustache

In another exchange about the more general experience of making art:

FP: Do you have any sense of what would be the ideal response to one of your paintings?

TN: If someone was able to look at a painting of mine for a period of time, to go with it and spin out some kind of logical—for lack of a better word—story from it, I don’t expect much more than that. The central fact of our lives, of any artist’s life, are the thousands upon thousands of hours we spend alone staring at these damn things, thinking about them. We sit there, and these things just go on, and on, and on. Everything in the world ties into them, everything that’s crossed your mind while you’re working on it. And, if somebody could just get a sense of that fullness in a work of art, it’s working, you’re on the right track. Ultimately, the one thing that a work of art is about, is the fact that a human being did it. That’s what’s extraordinary, and what’s wonderful.

FP: But Tom, you can look at really crappy art and think: A human being did that, too.

TN: Art objects are gifts. Sometimes you get a lousy gift, and sometimes you get a great gift. The more complex and the more interesting the art is, the more it gives you.

More to come on this.

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