On Thomas Nozkowski
On Thomas Nozkowski

All the World in a Painting

Waterfall photograph by Thomas Nozkowski

His approach to painting was driven not by grand ideas or overarching themes, but by a searching, curious, analytical engagement centered on our peculiar relationship and interaction with the world.

Martin Clark, Director of the Camden Art Centre, London

Known for his richly colored and textured abstractions inspired by his memories, everyday experiences, and encounters with nature, Thomas Nozkowski rejected established aesthetic conventions for more than four decades, developing instead a singular, deeply philosophical approach to painting. Thomas Nozkowski: Everything in the World, on view at our New York gallery through April 20, 2024, focuses in on a hugely formative period of the artist’s life and career: the 1970s and 1980s.
On the occasion of the exhibition, we’re traveling back in time to explore the ideas and questions that Nozkowski put forth during those years—and that he would revisit time and again in the decades to come.
Handwritten excerpt from Thomas Nozkowski's journal reading "Late afternoon actually got started on painting: tent. Another waterfall & a prophecy/annunciation. Worked late into evening after supper.
Detail from Untitled (2-57) by Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (2-57) (detail) © Estate of Thomas Nozkowski

The 1970s: Finding a Way Through
Against a backdrop of great social and political change, Nozkowksi found himself seeking a change of his own at the beginning of the 1970s. Breaking free of the aesthetics of Abstract Expressionism and the Bauhaus as well as Pop, Minimalism, and New Figuration—movements that dominated the New York art world at the time—he embarked on an intensely experimental journey into the expressive potential of abstraction.
Questions about mark making, color as both form and material, and other formal and conceptual subjects guided Nozkowski’s art during this decade, leading him into new realms of experimentation. He developed a distinctive visual language of forms, symbols, and notations grounded in his own reality while defying obvious legibility, forging constellations of biomorphic and geometric abstractions as part of his lengthy and exacting making process. In this way, the artist transformed his canvases into worlds unto themselves.

That’s part of what really interests me, which is how much we can see. How much we can think about what we can see. How big we are … and not about how small we are.

Thomas Nozkowski

Untitled (2-94) by Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (2-94), 1975 © Estate of Thomas Nozkowski

Untitled (2-58) by Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (2-58), 1977 © Estate of Thomas Nozkowski

He made two major decisions at this time that would shape and inform the next 40 years of his work: his paintings would be small-sized and rendered on canvas board, and everything he painted, the artist said, “would come in some way from life.” Anything and everything—from objects and textures to memories, moments, and feelings—could capture his attention and become the basis for a painting.

One can sense how Nozkowski’s project was born of a remarkable capacity to wonder at simple things.

Oliver Shultz, Curatorial Director of Pace Gallery, New York

This decade also saw several big changes in his personal life, including the birth of his son, Casimir, in 1976, and his purchase of property in upstate New York—in the town of High Falls, on the Shawangunk Ridge—in 1977. Both Nozkowski and his wife, the artist Joyce Robins, set up studios in their new country house surrounded by the natural wonders of the Hudson Valley.
Handwritten excerpt from Thomas Nozkowski's journal reading "Left in thunderstorm ... city at 2 and made good time. At home – phone is broken. SPent evening cleaning house. Also driving home had an idea about doing big pictures ..."
Detail of Untitled (2-101) by Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (2-101) (detail), 1980 © Estate of Thomas Nozkowski

The 1980s: Experiments in Scale
Though he had committed to painting on intimately scaled 16” x 20” canvas boards in the 1970s, Nozkowski experimented briefly with a bigger format in the ‘80s. The artist created fewer than ten large-scale canvases in his life, and these rare works—four of which are presented in Everything in the World—speak to the exploratory ethos of his practice in this period of his career. As with his other paintings, Nozkowski used small brushes to add layered details in these more monumental works, which are more than twice as big as his signature 16” x 20” compositions.

There’s a searching, restless quality to these works, building up and clearing back, exposing layers, strata, seams of color and texture—each field, form, structure, and void flickering with information and energy.

Martin Clark, Director of the Camden Art Centre, London

Handwritten journal excerpt by Thomas Nozkowski reading "Another strong day of painting! The key seems to lie in doing fresh work rather than continuously beating head agasint older unfinished (maybe unsolvable) pictures."
Detail of Untitled (LP-10) by Thomas Nozkowski

Thomas Nozkowski, Untitled (LP-10) (detail), 1986 © Estate of Thomas Nozkowski

Painting as Nature: Life Upstate
Nozkowski often spoke of his beloved walks, hikes, and camping trips in the Shawangunk Mountains, near his home upstate. The artist’s relationship with the natural world was always “a fundamental and treasured part of his existence,” as Clark writes in our new publication, but he wasn’t interested in creating one-to-one representations of what he saw.

Tied to ideas of landscape, less for what they ‘picture’ than for how they emerge into the world, they are not so much paintings of nature but paintings as nature—with nature understood now not as a narrow and reductive typology of genre, but as an expansive expression of the way the world produces itself, for itself, in all its impossible complexity.

Martin Clark, Director of the Camden Art Centre, London

With shape, line, color, and texture as his primary devices, Nozkowski used an entirely abstract language to suggest specific topographies, terrains, trails, bodies of water, and rock formations in his environment. He eschewed idealized forms in favor of evocative motifs, which enabled him to investigate, as he once put it, “both physical and speculative realities.”
Photograph of Stony Kill Falls, Wawarsing, New York by Thomas Nozkowski
  • Content — All the World in a Painting, Apr 13, 2024