Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (9-32), 2014. Oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Courtesy of Pace Gallery, New York
Many people hold Tom Nozkowski up as a rare exemplar of the artist who was uncompromisingly devoted to his work but was also able to achieve success in his career. He was an artist’s artist, authentic and devoted to the arduous work of art making, day in and out. But that did not prevent him from also being very good at getting his work seen and sold. This combination is rare, and Tom was a singular example of how to do a career in art while preserving those rare qualities of authenticity and integrity.
Tom Nozkowski died on May 17. In the obituary that appeared in the New York Times Roberta Smith wrote, “Kind and soft-spoken, displaying little in the way of overt artistic ego, Mr. Nozkowski was nonetheless a man of ambition, intelligence and firmly held opinions.”
I first wrote to Tom ten years ago after reading an interview with him. He spoke with such honesty about art making that I just wanted to thank him for being candid. I was also heartened to find alignment with my own approach to being in the studio.
He wrote back to me right away:
I have been following Slow Muse. Very well done, a serious effort. Thank you for your kind words. I’m very happy that my work and some things I’ve written over the years are meaningful to you. It’s always great to learn that there are people out there with similar interests and concerns.
Over the years we wrote to each other periodically. He was thoughtful about inviting me to his openings. I admired his work, his words, his way of being in the world. He was always kind to me.
My connection with Tom was a small one, nothing like the larger, more expansive accounts of his life that will be surfacing as close friends, family and students share their stories. But Tom holds a rare and very important place in my life. In the very complicated, conflicted world of art making and art careering, he was someone who was good at both. He did so with a sincerity that is rare, and his example is an essential reminder that yes, it can be done. And done with grace.
I have selected a few passages from previous essays on Slow Muse that capture some of his thoughts about art making. (Links to the full list are at the end.) His words and images will continue to speak to me and so many others. Adieu 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.
(From an interview with Francine Prose)
At the heart of Nozkowski’s practice is improvisation, a willingness to take something (anything) and do something else to it. He seems to have been one of the few of his generation to understand Jasper Johns’s declaration: “Take an object. Do something to it. Do something else to it. Do something else to it, etc.”
The other binder in Nozkowski’s work is reflected in a remark he made to me in an interview, where he said that he always “go[es] to the opposite of what the logical move would be.” In other words, he begins by undermining his own immediate assumptions and responses to a particular experience.
This is what subversive artists working in our postmodern epoch share. They don’t have a style, which is, in the end, both a brand and a judgment. How can you produce a brand and be subversive? (It’s like selling torn jeans made by Armani!) Subversive artists always try to undermine conventions, including those that might influence their practice.
I like painting best when it turns a little homely, turns away from the grandiose and opts for simple desire. To really want to possess something and to be willing to do anything to get it will take you pretty far. That’s the reason so much outsider painting looks so great.
From John Yau’s, “Truly Subversive Artist Is Not Necessarily Someone Who Is Theatrical or Gimmicky”
For myself I prefer careers that last thirty years to those that last thirty months, but there is no reason to believe there is always more integrity to one pattern than the other. Let’s face it, it’s not like this is something that is under our control. Not really. Much of the time, if an artist is any good, she is developing a way of understanding the spirit and the stuff of the world that is bound to go beyond the way just about everyone else sees and thinks about it, at least for a while. We are not ignored for malicious reasons, alas. Recognition, when it comes, sometimes can seem like a misunderstanding. The real life of the artist is solitary.
The central fact of artists’ lives — the part that non-artists never seem to quite understand — is the loneliness of the studio. Before our runs are over we will have spent more time –thousands upon thousands of hours — alone, just staring at these things we make. This part of our experience must be factored in to every idea about artists’ lives if you want to understand them. More artists stop working because of this loneliness than for any other reason.
If there is one essential survival skill that you must learn, it is how to sustain yourself and your work over the years. There is really only one way to do this, and that is by loving what you do, being fascinated by your work, and by being obsessed with making art. You will get in trouble if you need the approval of others to keep your work moving forward. After all these years, the one essential element in my practice, the one thing I am sure of is that I need to be interested in and happy about what I am doing in the studio.
From “Letters to a Young Artist”
Nozkowksi on Slow Muse