Paintings rather than pictures

There are many historic couples and group shows in the art world in recent years that have felt contrived. That’s why I had reservations about going to the exhibition Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: true fictions at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (November 5, 2021 to February 26, 2022), curated by Eric Brown. As Eric Brown is an advisor to the Freilicher estate and a painter influenced by Nozkowski, I even wondered about the motivations for the exhibition. However, once I read Brown’s thoughtful essay, “True Fictions,” and in particular the paragraph below, my hesitations and doubts began to melt away:

This show is not about influencing each other. It’s not about personal connection or friendship. It’s not an intergenerational show, with the older painter influencing the younger one. Nor does it encourage the split between abstraction and representation. On the contrary, it collapses the distinction. The show is not tendentious but expansive and open. I hope the viewer will come to see these works again, each through the lens of the other.

As Brown puts it, Freilicher and Nozkowski “only met once.” I knew from Nozkowski that he loved Freilicher’s paintings and had written a catalog essay for one of his exhibitions at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which Brown co-directed for more than two decades. Nozkowski also wrote a tribute for the Academy of Arts and Letters after his death in 2014.

I am not surprised to learn that he never missed one of his exhibitions, as he possessed a voracious appetite for looking at art and was encyclopedic in his knowledge of a wide range of subjects, from cinema to novels policemen through all kinds of music. Having exchanged emails with him daily, especially while I was working on his first monograph (2017), and until his death in 2019, I knew something about his interests and passions.

Installation view of Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: true fictions to the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation. From left to right: Jane Freilicher, “My Cubism” (2004), oil on linen, 25 x 25 inches, Collection of Jeff Forster and Sandy Deacon – Courtesy Tibor de Nagy Gallery, New York; Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (8-67)” (2005), oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches, Collection of Mark Pollack, New York; Jane Freilicher, “Light Blue Above” (2003), oil on linen, 24 x 24 inches, Private Collection, New York; Thomas Nozkowski, “Untitled (6-69)” (1988), oil on cardboard, 16 x 20 inches, Collection of Victoria Munroe, New York

I knew Freilicher, and she invited me to contribute an essay to her first monograph (1986), but we never got beyond college. And while we know Nozkowski admired Freilicher’s painting, I have no idea what she thought of his work, not that it necessarily matters. She liked him enough to reprint his essay in her second monograph (2004).

Of the 15 paintings in the exhibition, eight are by Freilicher and seven by Nozkowski, all dated between 1997 and 2012. Freilicher’s “Night” (oil on linen, 81 x 81 cm, 1997) is the largest work. Nozkowski worked in three sizes, 16 by 20 inches, 22 by 28 inches, and 30 by 40 inches (I believe he made less than a dozen in the latter size). While all of Freilicher’s paintings depict flowers against a cityscape or, in “Light Blue Above” (oil on linen, 24 by 24 inches, 2003), against a field and body of water, with grass visible on the other side, Nozkowski is an abstract artist whose paintings have always spoken of personal experience in the broadest sense. An avid hiker, many were probably inspired by something he saw while hiking in the Shawangunk Mountains, something he started doing as a teenager.

I like that Brown doesn’t include too many paints. Otherwise, I think the juxtaposition of works of similar size by two artists of different generations, one well known for his paintings of flowers placed in front of a city view, the other for his abstract paintings which rarely reveal their inspiration, would not work. What I also found beneficial was that Brown did not choose any of Nozkowski’s works that reference the night sky. I think if viewers were looking for a common interest in this topic, the show would have been a disaster (Freilicher wasn’t interested in the night sky as part of what Nozkowski called an “abstraction of nature”).

Instead, what stands out is how engaged each artist is with formal issues of near and far, figure and ground, and how to keep both in play. emerges is to make compositions composed of distinct parts, whether it is a group of colored flowers on a background of different colors or solid shapes on a curly or watery background. In the work of the two artists, the tensions and the links between the figure and the background hold our interest, because neither dominates.

Thomas Nozkowski,Untitled (8-40)(2003), oil on linen on panel, 22 x 28 inches. Private collection, New York

In Freilicher’s best works featured in the exhibition, unlikely things happen. The flowers sit at the tip between recognizable shapes and a variety of bushy bursts of color. In “Harmonic Convergence,” the bursts are set against an urban landscape that has drifted into a patchwork of tonally linked colors, a geometric abstraction. Because Frelicher is best known for painting flowers, it is worth remembering her formal astuteness as well as her grounding in abstraction, as she studied with Hans Hofmann. Over time, she has become a brilliant and subtle colorist.

One of the qualities I love about Nozkowski’s work is that he did not subscribe to a world ruled by Isaac Newton’s belief in cause and effect – he believed that a painting had no to reveal its source, even if it was somehow autobiographical. Another aspect is that whatever the source – and some were certainly mundane – he always turned his experience into a self-contained abstract painting. At the end of the Tang dynasty, landscape painting embodied the desire to escape from the repetitive everyday world. This desire to go beyond the ordinary without forgetting its existence seems to be a motivation shared by Freilicher and Nozkowski. Although they belong to different generations and have found ways to respond to different genres – abstract expressionism in the case of Freilicher and minimalism in Nozkowski – as well as the post-easel image, both refused to make part of the dominant trends.

By reminding us that it is possible to remain independent and that it is not necessary to fit in or do the wrong thing, each artist has given us a beautiful gift. In their own way, Freilicher and Nozkowski show us, as Barry Schwabsky writes of Nozkowski in his catalog essay, that “painting [can become] a way of entering the field of the nameless. We might get there faster with Nozkowski’s paintings, but look long enough at any of Freilicher’s paintings and the words will start falling out. We enter a world of palpable color sensations, as mysterious and nurturing as sunlight.

Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: true fictions continues at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (87 Eldridge Street, Manhattan) through February 26, 2022. The exhibit was curated by Eric Brown.

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