Thomas Nozkowski, whose small, insistent, richly hued abstractions upended the heroic scale of postwar New York art and helped push painting in a more accessible, personal and wryly self-aware direction, died on May 9 in Rhinebeck, New York. He was 75.
Pace Gallery, his representative since 2008, said the cause was pancreatic cancer.
Kind and soft-spoken, displaying little in the way of overt artistic ego, Nozkowski was nonetheless a man of ambition, intelligence and firmly held opinions.
In the early 1970s, after several years of making large abstract paintings and then more modest post-minimal sculpture, Nozkowski found himself put off by the macho scale of both abstract expressionism and minimalism, and by what he considered their “imperialist” implications.
He decided to work small, and on the easel — initially painting on 16-by-22-inch pieces of art-store canvas board and later on somewhat larger rectangles of linen stretched over wood panels. He wanted, he told one interviewer, “a size that was scaled to my friends’ apartments, that could hang in a three-room walk-up tenement on Seventh Street.”
Nozkowski had studied at the Cooper Union with abstract expressionists as well as with refugees from the Bauhaus; he adapted the improvisatory working method of the abstract expressionists but used a small brush, scraping down and rubbing off paint in ways that often registered in his finished works.
He developed a wide-ranging vocabulary that fused the biomorphic and the geometric into abstract forms noted for their varied colors, their paint handling, and associations ranging from tiled floors or cell clusters to architecture or outer space. He said his untitled abstractions had been distilled from his own experiences of just about anything: memories, relationships, movies, books, other art, and the environment as he encountered it on his daily walks in either upstate New York or New York City, where he and his family lived for years in a nominally refurbished synagogue on the Lower East Side.
Nozkowski’s approach gave him an unlimited supply of source material, which he resolved into orbs, dots, ellipses, bulges, partial grids or arcs. This strategy also protected him, he said, from the predictability of a signature style — although not quite.
A Nozkowski is recognizable by its modest size and richness of color and surface, and also by a kind of dissonance both within the compositions of the individual paintings and among groups of them. This means, perhaps paradoxically, that each of his paintings functions as a peculiarly single entity, a world unto itself; whatever you experience with one Nozkowski doesn’t necessarily translate to the next.
Nozkowski emerged relatively late. He did not have his first solo gallery show of paintings until 1979, when he was 35, at the 55 Mercer Street Gallery in SoHo, a respected artist cooperative.