Paintings rather than pictures


There are many historical couples and group shows in the art world in recent years that have felt artificial. That’s why I had reservations about going to the exhibition Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: real fictions at the Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation (November 5, 2021 – February 26, 2022), organized by Eric Brown. Eric Brown being advisor to the Freilicher estate and painter influenced by Nozkowski, I even wondered about the motivations of the exhibition. However, once I read Brown’s thoughtful essay, “True Fictions,” and in particular the paragraph below, my hesitations and doubts started to disappear:

This show is not about mutual influence. It is not about personal connection or friendship. It is not an intergenerational show, the older painter influencing the younger. Nor does it encourage the cleavage between abstraction and representation. On the contrary, it collapses the distinction. The show is not tendentious but expansive and open. My hope is that the viewer will come to see these bodies of work again, each through the prism of the other.

As Brown states, Freilicher and Nozkowski “have only met once”. I knew from Nozkowski that he liked Freilicher’s paintings and that he had written a catalog essay for one of his exhibitions at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, which Brown co-directed for over 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 any of his exhibitions, as he possessed a voracious appetite for art and was encyclopedic in his knowledge of a wide range of subjects, from film to detective novels. to all kinds of music. From exchanging emails with him every day, especially while I was working on his first monograph (2017), and until his death in 2019, I knew a little about his interests and passions.

Installation view of Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski: real fictions at 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 of 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 canvas board, 16 x 20 inches, Collection of Victoria Munroe, New York

I knew Freilicher and she invited me to write an essay for 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 her work, not that it necessarily mattered. She loved it enough to reprint her 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 canvas, 32 x 32 inches, 1997) is the largest piece. Nozkowski worked in three sizes, 16 by 20 inches, 22 by 28 inches, and 30 by 40 inches (I believe he did less than a dozen in the latter size). While all of Freilicher’s paintings represent flowers on an urban landscape or, in “Light Blue Above” (oil on canvas, 24 x 24 inches, 2003), on a field and a body of water, with grass visible on the other side, Nozkowski is an abstract artist whose paintings have always been a personal experience in the broadest sense. A die-hard hiker, many were likely inspired by something he saw while walking in the Shawangunk Mountains, which he started doing as a teenager.

I like that Brown didn’t include too many paintings. Otherwise, I think the juxtaposition of similar sized works by two artists of different generations, one well known for his paintings of flowers placed in front of a view of the city, 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 refer to 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 from nature”).

Instead, what stands out is how engaged each artist is in the formal issues of near and far, figure and ground, and how to keep both in play. The other concern that arises is emerges is to make compositions made up of distinct parts, whether it is a group of colored flowers on a different colored background or solid shapes on a foamy or watery background. In the work of the two artists, the tensions and the links between the figure and the ground hold our interest, because neither one nor the other 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 shown in the exhibition, unlikely things happen. The flowers lie on the borderline between recognizable shapes and a variety of bushy bursts of color. In “Harmonic Convergence”, the shards are placed against an urban landscape that has drifted into a patchwork of colors linked to tones, a geometric abstraction. Because Frelicher is best known for painting flowers, it is good to remember her formal astuteness as well as her basics in abstraction while studying with Hans Hofmann. Over time, she has developed into a brilliant and subtle colourist.

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 did not have to reveal its source, even if it was somewhat autobiographical. . Another aspect is that whatever the source – and some were certainly mundane – he always turned his experience into a stand-alone abstract painting. At the end of the Tang Dynasty, landscape painting embodied the desire to escape the repetitive everyday world. This desire to get out of the ordinary without forgetting its existence seems to be a motivation shared by Freilicher and Nozkowski. Although they came from different generations and found ways to cater for different genres – abstract expressionism in Freilicher’s case and minimalism in Nozkowski’s case – as well as the post-easel image, both refused to be part of the dominant tendencies.

By reminding ourselves that it is possible to remain independent and that there is no need to fit in or do the “right” thing, each artist has given us a great gift. In their different ways, Freilicher and Nozkowski show us, as Barry Schwabsky writes of Nozkowski in his catalog essay, that “painting [can become] a way of entering the land of the unnamed. This may be done faster with Nozkowski’s paintings, but looking at one of Freilicher’s paintings long enough, the words will start to fade. We enter a world of palpable color sensations, as mysterious and nourishing as sunlight.

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

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