Geometry: Constancy and Variation...

Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Wildenstein: Untitled 8, 2008, 22 x 28 inches

. the Work of Thomas Nozkowski, Tomma Abts and Roberto Juarez


Right now (and in the immediately recent past) there’s a lot of geometry in New York, along with a lot of color. As is often the case, geometry and color go hand in hand. And in the work of Thomas Nozkowski, Tomma Abts and Roberto Juarez, this is decidedly true. I’ve chosen to report on these three artists as a group, because it is the constancy of elements in their work, as well as the range of expression within their self-imposed parameters, that bring greater depth to their painting, and certainly more profound pleasure in our perception of it.

Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Wildenstein: Untitled P-38, 2008, oil on paper, 22 x 30 inches


Thomas Nozkowski, whose show at Pace Wildenstein came down last week, maintains the standard here. His easel-size paintings are not only constant in size, 22 x 28 inches, but in horizontal orientation (the works on paper are 22 x 30 inches). But what worlds within those parameters! Loose-limbed geometry is precisely realized in oil that’s as lightly handled as watercolor. The hues soar in chromatic brilliance, though Nozkowski frequently tethers them with dunned-down greens and ochers; it’s a wise strategy, for the hues tug, tug, tug to pull free, and the tension is sublime.


Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Wildenstein: Untitled 8-93, 2007, 22 x 28 inches

Nozkowski is prolific; the 40 works in this show are from the past three years, including several from this year. Am I wrong in thinking that after so many years of painting, he’s reached a place where the work just flows? Not that the compositions are not invested with formal decisions, but the brushwork seems confident and unlabored. Everything about this work radiates with a kind of visceral and joyous energy.

Thomas Nozkowski at Pace Wildenstein:

Above, Untitled 8-107, 2008; below, Untitled 8-103, 2008


The regularity of the installation suggests a narrative—readable from left or right—and each of the pictures suggests a story in a language you respond to but don’t quite understand. The formal, grid-referenced language is simple enough, but the inventiveness of circle, square, zig and zag, and the ways those shapes are endlessly permutated and placed in ambiguous space or against a patterned ground, is staggering. The visual pleasure is almost overwhelming. God, I love them!


Installation of Thomas Nozkowski paintings at Pace Wildenstein. This and all Nozkowski images from the gallery website


Tomma Abts, whose show at the New Museum is up through June 29, works within some of the same parameters of size and orientation (hers are a uniform 18 7/8 x 15 inches) to very different effect. Actually, the two shows seem tailor made for comparison—a kind of geometric He Said/She Said— for while Nozkowski’s work leans toward the organic, Abts is rigorously hard edged; while his colors are exuberant and kind of quirky, hers are often grayed and somber; and while his brushwork is loose and seemingly effortless, hers is dense, opaque, and almost obsessively ascetic. He’s prolific; she’s not. .

Tomma Abts installation in the skylit fourth-floor at The New Museum.

Image from "Abts' Traction," Sharon L. Butler's wonderfully titled article in the current Brooklyn Rail


The crystalline rigorousness of Abts’s painting is odd --the shapes and compositions seem completely anachronistic to any particular time, place or ism--but they're appealing nonetheless. In part it's the mystery of them; you can’t help but wonder what led to the painting you see before you, because close-up inspection reveals the textural pentimenti of what seem to be many paintings under the surface. In the exhibition brochure, Abts describes her process this way: "I work on each [painting] over a long period of time; there are many layers of establishing something, then many layers of getting to know what I have established and trying different options. The final painting is a concentrate of the many paintings underneath." The slight shadows she paints into her pictures just increase the ambiguity of what’s on or under the surface.









Tomma Abts, clockwise from above: Tabel, 1999; Meko, 2006; Fewe, 2005; Keke, 2006; all images from the Internet


To revisit the narrative analogy for a moment, if Nozkowski’s installation reads like a volume of fabulous stories—A Thousand and One Nights, for instance— Abts’s installation suggests to me the Stations of the Cross. Well, that's a bit dramatic. I haven't been religious in that way since I was a child, but I remember vividly the exquisite mystery and somber ecstasy they evoked. That's what I mean to convey.

. . . . .

Roberto Juarez is working within a totally different set of parameters—not of size or perimeter shape but of the ovoid shape within the composition of each painting, the vesica piscis. Latin for "fish bladder," this shape is formed by the overlap of two circles of equal size.

Roberto Juarez at Charles Cowles Gallery: V.P., 2007-2008, mixed media on canvas, 72 x 59 1/2 inches; Whale, 2008, mixed media on canvas, 60 x 84 inches


The vesica piscis is sacred geometry, an ovoid shape suggesting the fish as symbol for Christ, the birth passage, even the waxing and waning of the moon. In Juarez’s work it seems to be a purely formal compositional element. The "fish" swim this way or that, a lyrical geometry of movement as well as layered color.

Roberto Juarez at Charles Cowles Gallery: Latticework, 2008, mixed media on canvas, 72 by 96 inches; detail below


The layering has a physical manifestation as well, for Juarez paints on canvas and draws on a layer of rice paper that is then affixed to the canvas, and the two layers are further worked together. What initially appear as pentimenti are in fact essential and intentional elements of the composition. The elements seem to float—a sensation not unlike what I experienced while looking at the work.

The show is at the Charles Cowles Gallery through May 17.

Constancy and variation: Juarez's work on paper at the Charles Cowles Gallery


As a coda to this post, I’d like to acknowledge the generosity and understanding of the Charles Cowles Gallery for letting me and other artists photograph in its space. This gallery and many, many others understand how important it is for artists, bloggers (and teachers and other art professionals) to have direct access to an artist’s work.

Conversely, I’d like to note the difficulty of obtaining images at Pace Wildenstein and the New Museum, both of which have no-photo rules. Pace at least has posted an excellent selection of images on its blogsite, but the New Museum requires that its PR department be contacted ahead of time to arrange to shoot the works, or to acquire images for publication. For a working artist such as myself, this is simply not possible. (It is huge challenge to maintain a painting practice, see art regularly and blog about it. To have to add secretarial duties to this schedule is simply impossible.) As a result, I pulled images from the Internet. If what the New museum wanted was to control image quality, their no-photo policy is self defeating; I would have gotten images of far better quality had I been allowed to shoot them myself with an eight-megapixel camera, rather than pulling relatively lo-res images off the Internet. If their no-photo policy was simply to control the flow of images, well that’s just not possible, for as you see, I have posted pictures.



Adeaner said...

Thank you very much for your post.

painting rules said...

yes, thank you, these are all good paintings, juarez really is fearless

Sweetcake Enso said...

I've even had to sign a contract and guaruntee that the image won't be downloadable! I figure if I want ambitious content, this is just going to have to be a part of it. It's a pain, but for me an issue is getting the galleries to trust me with their content and to raise the status of blogs as a medium. At the same time, I wouldn't want others to lose their street cred as guerillas, we need those, too.

I love to go the Met and see everyone with their cameras, tourists posing in front of Rosa Bonheur or someone getting close details of Carpeaux's clambering hands because they just can't believe it. But they own everything they've got and so can make their own rules. Galleries are protecting their artists, managing their careers, and so from an artist's perspective there is something to be said for their diligence.

Joanne Mattera said...


You make a reasoned and fair argument. If I were a museum, I would be diligent, too. Some blogs can be snarky and show the work to disadvantage--but then so can some newspapers of record.

But I'm approaching this as an artist, an unpaid blogger who has no intention of treating the work with other than respect and intelligent observation. So, frankly, it pisses me off when I have to jump through hoops. Especially since the images are available on line. The issue is whether I retrieve those, in their impure form (lo-res, inaccurate color, occasionally misidentified) or whether I can shoot the work myself and incorporate the shooting as part of my reportorial process. You certainly get to know work better when you photograph it.

This is an issue that will not go away. I'm happy to show ID at the front desk, and to send the museum a link to the writing--like what you have to do at Basel Miami and some of the other big fairs--but without a staff of three, I want to be able to focus on the ideas, not wrangling pictures.

Anonymous said...

It's an interesting legal question. Ownership of an item, be it a building, a garden, or an artwork, does not give one control over a viewer recording her memory of it, or sketching a likeness, or taking a photo. Being on private property, a museum may request strongly that no photos be taken on their property. That's the same as buying a concert ticket: you agree to play by their rules.
Originally, the museum rule was to protect the art from constant flashes of light from standard cameras. There's no such risk with non-flash digital cameras.
As to copyright law, your use of the reproduction in a blog can be considered a one time educational use, which is generally allowed. Obviously making greeting cards or selling the reproduction in verboten.
I wonder where this will go - Disney allows photos of characters in Disneyland but not reproductions of their own created images. Common practice is all over the map on this and I'm not aware of any court tests on the photos-in-galleries question. Joanne?

Joanne Mattera said...

The one-time use is exactly right. I have no plans for a line of Tomma Abts coasters and cocktail napkins. ;-)

The galleries and museums are trying to control the quality of images that are shown. I don't blame them, but I'm not a tourist with a disposable point-and-shoot. And neither are the other artists and art bloggers who take pictures. Besides, even with sanctioned images, they can't control the quality of every monitor on which the images are shown. So imposing onerous rules is not the way to go. (I don't want my blog to be cluttered with bad images, either.)

When I sign up at the press desk in Miami, I show my card and give them a couple of printouts of recent blog pages. That satisfies their requirements that I be a journalist. Of course once the dealers know you and what you're doing, they're usually happy to let you shoot.

Meanwhile, I've adopted a shoot-first-ask-permission-later policy. And if I get too much flack from a particular gallery, I'm not writing about it.

Pretty Lady said...

Great post! Thanks for doing the legwork. There's a lot of inspiring stuff here. It was also great to run into you last weekend! The Kinz, Tillou and Feigen show was AWESOME--I must blog it, but I haven't even checked to see if decent images are available. I get mine by the tried-and-true method of ripping them off a Google images search. ;-)

lookinaroundbob said...

That's a great post-thanks. Its interesting that you chose that 1st Noskowski jpeg-the same one that paitersync used. It has a more frequently used palate than many of his others. Not entirely different here than some Mary Heilman or even the grid on the your blog.
Its a great Blog - keep it up - don't waste too much energy on the copyright/sharing mumbo jumbo, that's their problem.