‘The Real Question Is, What Do We Desire?’: Thomas Nozkowski on Art, Consciousness, and Endurance

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (T-92), 1996. KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (T-92), 1996.


Thomas Nozkowski has painted almost every day for the past 40 years, and the works he has made in that time are united less by a signature style than by an enduring inventiveness, moving through a range of lively, even rollicking abstract languages.

In his latest exhibition, “Works on Paper,” which is on view through March 26 at Pace Gallery in New York, Nozkowski is displaying more than 100 pieces that he made over the past 15 years, most never before seen. “They’re just works that for whatever reason, either idiosyncratic or in a group, just didn’t fit into specific shows,” Nozkowski told me as we walked around the show, surrounded by his paintings, which hopscotch between oils and watercolors and some of the smaller canvases he calls “drawings” due to their economical size, just 16 by 20 inches.

All of Nozkowski’s works are grounded in real-world inspirations, though even the most perceptive viewers will not likely be able to divine them. For “Works on Paper,” he has selected pieces based simply on taste, eschewing any overarching theme. The result is a room filled with his trademark forms and colors, from oils with a sense of order to more organic-looking watercolors, with many surprises in between. If any order is to be found, it’s in his process-oriented approach, which involves certain repeating motifs.

In a conversation, lightly edited and condensed below, Nozkowski spoke more about these motifs, his working process, and how he’s managed to maintain his momentum through all these years.

ARTnews: When you go back and look at a painting you did years ago, can you still remember its original real-world source of inspiration?

Nozkowski: Absolutely. I once gave a lecture and Jessica Stockholder was there with her husband, who’s a shrink. In the course of the lecture I mentioned the fact that people ask me, “How do you keep that initial source through the life of your paintings, which clearly change and evolve?” And I said, “It actually becomes clearer the more I go on.” To that Jessica’s husband replied, “That’s exactly right. We construct our memories and the more attention we give to a memory, the more signs it holds.” By associating a color, a sign, or a shape to a memory then, the more we own and can hold onto it.

Why do you avoid accompanying your work with its real-world source of inspiration?

If I put them up people tend to get confused, but I’ll tell you one. There’s a movie by Clint Eastwood with Kevin Costner called A Perfect World. Costner is an escaped convict who, in avoiding the law (Eastwood), has kidnapped a young boy. It’s threatening and dangerous for the boy, but as the odyssey progresses, Kevin Costner grows close to the boy, eventually giving up his life to save him. The final image of the movie is of a smiley-face mylar balloon the kid always had, only now it’s half-punctured and on the ground next to Costner’s body. Eastwood walks over, looks at the balloon, and says, “I don’t know a goddamn thing.” He just didn’t know why any of this had transpired. It sounds trivial talking about it now, but it was a very moving moment in a movie, and yeah, the image popped out of that.


Thomas Nozkowski, Acts of Mercy, 2008.


Interesting, in a way the painting you refer to looks almost cellular to me.

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, like Clint Eastwood at the end of that movie. The real question is, what do we desire? We share 99.9 percent of the same DNA, but we’re walking down the street, you look here and I look there. How come? Why do we desire different things? We should desire exactly the same things. We’re just little pieces of carbon.

So you’re saying why can’t we have basic impulses like plants and other animals? It probably has something to do with our consciousness?

Well, I think that’s it. That’s the great mystery—why is our consciousness different and not just about hunting and sex, or something else? So when I deal with something, there’s a source, it’s very specific, and you have these source-driven moves—shapes, colors, compositional devices. And then, when you’re doing it and you think, “You know what would be great? A purple triangle in the upper left-hand corner.” Then I think, “OK, can I fit that into the narrative?” What does that mean? Why do I want to see that shape, that color in this particular structure? One never knows whether this is delusional or authentic, but so what? Most of our lives we don’t know what’s delusional or authentic. So you try it, and you see if you can fit that into the story and see if it makes sense. Very often I find that it does and that I can let the formal devices pursue the subject as much as it’s anecdotal interior.

In a way, then, they kind of meet together. So, having a source is a way of divining your inspiration, showing you the start of the road you’ll travel down? Once you’re on the road, though, you kind of let it guide and surprise you.

Exactly, and this question of desire. What do you want? Why do you look at this thing and want to make a picture of it in the first place? In this room there are 1,000 possible paintings for me and 1,000 for you. You can spin out all kinds of different images. Why do you choose one? Why does one become the thing you really want to pursue?

I guess that’s a question you can never really answer.

Well, that’s what you’re trying to find out. That’s why you’re doing it.

Do you still have as strong of an impulse to keep searching?

I work every day. I have a little less stamina as I’ve gotten older, but here’s a thing—all of my ideas about why I make work, why I think other people should make work, are up for grabs. It may or may not mean anything. But what it does mean for me is it gives me a reason to be in the studio that I find compelling. I’m fascinated by being in the studio. Sometimes I’m not happy about it, it’s a real battle. But for me, there’s always something new to find, something new to do. I certainly hope that lasts forever. It feels like it will. It’s been 40 years.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (K-86), 2015. KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (K-86), 2015.


What is it about painting abstractly that has helped you maintain that momentum?

We tend to get obsessed with language and the information that can be carried by language. But I think long before men spoke, certainly before they wrote things down, they had a visual language and understanding of the world. A certain color meant a certain kind of weather was coming, a broken branch meant lunch just walked by. Or even—this is one that always gets me—you’re standing on a street and you’re looking three blocks away and there’s this little moving dot and somehow you just know it’s your best friend. There’s no way you could see enough to know that, but somehow by the presence of this dot in the world, you can read it. I think that’s our deep understanding of the visual of the world.

Are there any specific ideas that you return to?

For many years I very consciously tried to never repeat myself. Instead I’d always try to find a new way of looking at things—as Ezra Pound says, “Make it new.” Of course what happens as the years go by is that you discover no matter how hard you make it new, there are in fact things that keep reappearing, things that you maintain an interest in. They seem less like solutions as they do the interesting questions. It’s not like, “Oh, this color will fix every picture so I can use it all the time.” It’s more, “This color is such a mystery, such a question for me that I can keep asking it, keep pushing at it to find a resolution.”

And you find that with some elements more than others?

Yeah, and it changes over time. Eventually you wear something out. Well now I know enough about that question that I don’t have to chase it anymore.

What are some things you’ve recently been thinking about and exploring? Or put another way, are there any ideas that have remained out of your reach?

In my studio in the country I have a wall of flat files and each file has a name: “prints,” “studies for prints,” “oils on paper,” “old oils on paper.” I have one drawer labeled “unfinished or unloved.” Pretty regularly I go back into that drawer and pull things out and see if I can find a way to love these things or finish them, and I do. Sometimes a thing has to sit for a while, sometimes you need to grow to a point where you can answer the question and resolve it.

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (K-18), 2008. KERRY RYAN MCFATE/COURTESY PACE GALLERY, NEW YORK

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (K-18), 2008.


There seems to be a lot of broken circles in your work. Any reason in particular?

It’s a degree zero of shape making. So you have this intangible thought or feeling that you haven’t pinned down yet and sometimes that’s a place to start. Working with young students there’s this “aha” moment that happens to the best of them when they realize that they can have a shape, dent it slightly, and it changes completely. The slightest inflections can carry shitloads of meaning and ideas—that’s something that fascinates me.

You’ve mentioned before how you always hope to try complete an entire painting in one session. How often would you say you manage to achieve that?

I’d say like clockwork. Once every ten years I finish a painting in a day. But that’s like life, too—some days you just get a lucky break. It’s that idea of being in “the zone.” It’s about aspiring to that condition of life that’s unalienated and receptive.

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