Tom Nozkowski: The art of staying true

Tom Nozkowski refuses to get too comfortable.Tom Nozkowski

“The hardest thing in the world is to become an older artist,” says Nozkowski, 65, a noted abstract painter and a professor of painting at the Mason Gross School of the Arts in New Brunswick. “[When I was young], everything was risky:  You either crash and burn or do something beautiful. That [uncertainty] ratcheted up the excitement.

“Now I can do it,” Nozkowski says. But as he tells it, mastering the art of producing a “Nozkowski” is potentially “dangerous ... I need to be challenged, to think there’s something I have to win, to conquer new territory, to go someplace different.”

Tapping into the restlessness of youth seems to appeal to Nozkowski, who grew up in Dumont and has worked as a painter for 48 years. He has had 70 one-person shows since 1979. In the last three years, he has had solo exhibits at the PaceWildenstein in New York City, the Biennale di Venezia, and the Stephen Friedman Gallery in London, among other venues. Nozkowski is a Guggenheim fellow and a newly elected member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

“He’s why I came” to Mason Gross, says Matthew Marchand, a second-year MFA painting student.

Marchand recalls seeing Nozkowski’s work in 2008 at PaceWildenstein: “It was the first painting I’d had a serious visceral reaction to. It was, ‘I want to…paint like this.’ ”

As a professor, Marchand says, “The best way to say it is he was responsive. He engaged with you.”

Second-year MFA painting student Jessica Bottalico agrees. She says Nozkowski’s habit of visiting with students every other week in their studios has been critical to her growth as an artist.

“His approach is unusual because you spend a lot of time alone with him talking about your work,” she says. “…It’s nice to have this stable source, someone who understands what you’re trying to do and understands where you’re coming from.

“He can be harsh, too, which is really great,” Bottalico adds. “If he gives you a compliment, you know you’ve earned it.”

Nozkowski does seem to understand where his students are coming from because he’s there, too, in the studio, thinking, working, and re-working. He says artists may collaborate in numerous ways: with themselves, with other living artists, even with an ancient art object, as he or she draws inspiration from a shape or a slash of color.

Recently, Nozkowski came across a dozen of his older paintings, mostly from the 1970s. He began to make new work based on one of those paintings, and there it was: Nozkowski collaborating with Nozkowski.

“My ideal audience is myself when I was 17,” Nozkowski says. “I was liberated. When I saw another’s art, it opened up a world of great pleasure and richness for me.”

Nozkowski seems intent on preserving even a glimmer of that 17-year-old’s liberation, mostly by nudging himself to poke around in that “new territory” he talks about.

“I love looking for things that are impossible to paint,” he says. “What’s the shape of an emotion? What’s the color of an idea?”

Ultimately, Nozkowski says, to make a painting, “you take colored mud and push it around with a stick with hair on it. It is a finite area. But the greatest achievements are really glorious in the intensity that can be brought to those modest materials.”