The Albright-Knox Art Gallery has acquired Thomas Nozkowski’s Untitled (8-117) (2009). The painting, which is little bit wider than two-feet-square, was included in Nozkowski’s 2010 show at Pace and is on view now at the A-K.
It’s a super little Nozkowski, a painting that seems to blink color at a viewer from across a gallery, beckoning you to come closer. At least some of the painting blinks: The ‘background’ or the painting seems to emit pulses of light, but the yellow bulb in the center-foreground seems to glow steadily. I have found that when I write about Nozkowski’s art, I use the phrase “seems to” a lot.
Upon arriving at the painting, I discovered that for all that bouncing-light vibration, the surface of the painting is flat and nearly anti-painterly, as if it was a matte Georgia O’Keeffe or a mid-19th-century French painting made smooth for the Salon. The effect here is that the canvas didn’t emerge from an artist’s studio, but that it has always existed. (Last year Nozkowski told the Brooklyn Rail’s John Yau that he achieves this flatness by way of a mysterious Japanese tool that he uses to scrape the surface of his paintings.)
Some of that permanence stems from the remarkably broad range of art historical sources Nozkowski mines. The Albright’s new painting conjures up a surfeit of slippery memories of paintings past, reference points that are as hard to pin down as Nozkowski’s abstractions themselves. In Untitled (8-117) I see: Pierre Bonnard’s light passing through a tree or through the back of a chair, a crinkled, wavy Yayoi Kusama dot painting, a classic modernist grid folding in on itself, something Philip Taaffe saw under a microscope and blew up, only to reduced back down again by Nozkowski, and the experience de Hooch gives us of light arriving at viewer only after it has passed through a couple of rooms and doorways.
And it’s not just the bent background grid (in which Nozkowski has been intensely interested in recent years) that seems fleetingly familiar. The shape in the foreground seems right out of mid-15th century Florentine portraiture, such as this painting at the Metropolitan (which has occasionally been attributed to Uccello, and on which Martin Puryear has riffed). And is that straight red line in the middle of the light-bulb glow half of a zip?
As with so many Nozkowskis, it’s hard to be sure. Many of the things I think I see are probably there, but I bet I’m also finding things that aren’t. Regardless, it seems like everything Nozkowski has committed to canvas is exactly where it should be, even if I don’t know what it is. That’s awesome: With Nozkowski, a good, slow look-’n'-solve is part of the fun.