One of the reasons I was so eager to interview Tom Nozkowski (who’s been a friend and whose work I’ve admired for twenty years) is that I imagined that might finally begin to understand what makes his paintings—inventive, often brightly colored abstractions on small panels—so beautiful, mysterious, surprising and unique, so simultaneously and paradoxically whimsical and haunting. But of course, our illuminating conversation—like any true education—only deepened, or intensified, the mystery. Our talk, which took place at the kitchen table overlooking the garden of Tom’s house in the Hudson Valley, got started after we’d cleared away the stacks and stacks of books (on literature, art, travel and gardening) that he’d bought the previous day at our local library fair.
Francine Prose So I read all those articles and essays that critics have written about you, and I have to tell you I didn’t understand a single word. It made me realize that the reason I started writing art criticism was because I couldn’t understand it.
Thomas Nozkowski The reason I started making paintings was that I couldn’t understand them, so we’re in the same boat.
FP What do you mean?
TN You see something really beautiful and wonderful but you don’t know why it’s beautiful. You read a story or a book, and suddenly it just opens up, and it’s different from any experience you’ve ever had before. I can remember half a dozen paintings I saw as a kid…
FP Which paintings?
TN One that is really tied in to the way I paint now is Pisanello’s Legend of St. Eustache.
FP Oh, that’s the Flaubert story, “St. Julian Hospitaleur.”
TN Right. I saw the painting in London in 1975. I don’t know how to describe the feeling, but it was as if I knew why every stroke was made. Every color, every shape. I thought it profoundly moving, and in fact the first paintings I made in the format I now work in—mostly 16×20 inch panels—were inspired by some of the shapes and colors and images in the Legend. I was trying to find out why those elements work. How could a pale yellow disc have such a strong effect?
FP So did you figure it out?
TN No, not in specifics. I mean, if you could figure it out, it would lose a lot of its magic. You’d possess it too closely. What I did come to understand was the possibility of working out of a feeling rather than a formal direction. There are a few very modest structural reasons for any of the forms and colors in that particular painting being where they are. They seem inevitable for another reason. Or perhaps it’d be better to say the form follows the necessity of the story behind it.
FP With that painting, how much do you think was a religious necessity and how much an artistic necessity? Or can you separate them?
TN I’ve never tried to separate them.
FP I don’t know if you can. (laughter) I’m just asking if you think you can.
TN The story is a very attractive one to an artist—a story about revelation. In fact, what I’m telling you about a work of art that transfixes you and changes you is also a story about revelation. It’s truly bizarre—St. Eustache is in full profile, he could be Egyptian, in a deep-green night with all sorts of animals appearing out of the darkness, almost as witnesses.
FP In this whole huge museum, why were you drawn to that particular painting?
TN Again, there are paintings that speak directly and privately to you. And it has to do with who you are. As a painter, I’m interested in painterly solutions, things that painters do. You know that story about Douanier Rosseau? He’s talking about art to some Impressionist buddies. And they’re dumping on Bouguereau. Rousseau says, “I think he’s a really terrific artist. A great painter.” Someone says, “How can you say that? This guy is really lame!” He answers, “Yeah, but the way he puts highlights in eyes, it’s absolutely extraordinary!” I think painters go to museums with different agendas and goals. You go to find solutions for your own problems and your own aspirations.
FP Do you like icons?
TN Yes. Not so much the Russians, I like the earlier stuff. After the 13th century it falls apart for me. But I’m interested in Byzantine aesthetics. This idea that somehow an icon really represents the godhead, the communion wafer… That’s pretty seductive stuff for an artist.
FP I’d say, pretty ambitious. But that must relate quite directly to what you’re trying to do. That is, trying to translate complicated personal and even spiritual experience into an abstract form in which it would be very difficult for anyone else to see that experience.
TN It really has to do with how people read images, and what one expects people to get from an image.
FP What do you expect people to get out of a work of art?
TN Something that was really important to me when I first started working this way was Nabokov’s introduction to Bend Sinister. He says the book is really about a spoon-shaped puddle outside of his window in Cambridge. At first I thought it was a joke. But now I think he was dead serious. He saw this extraordinary object and spun a whole world out of it. It’s the secret motif of the book. Yet who would read Bend Sinister and say: Oh, well, gee, I get it. It’s about—
FP —A really great puddle!
TN You write these wonderful novels—and who knows where they come from? I’ll never know what it was you really cared about at the core of it, the kernel. What we admire is the completeness of the vision. What we admire is how full, how rich this thing is. These objects, whether they’re books or paintings, have to compete with the real world. That’s tough. Talk about dealing with the godhead!
FP Do you have any sense of what would be the ideal response to one of your paintings?
TN If someone was able to look at a painting of mine for a period of time, to go with it and spin out some kind of logical—for lack of a better word—story from it, I don’t expect much more than that. The central fact of our lives, of any artist’s life, are the thousands upon thousands of hours we spend alone staring at these damn things, thinking about them. We sit there, and these things just go on, and on, and on. Everything in the world ties into them, everything that’s crossed your mind while you’re working on it. And, if somebody could just get a sense of that fullness in a work of art, it’s working, you’re on the right track. Ultimately, the one thing that a work of art is about, is the fact that a human being did it. That’s what’s extraordinary, and what’s wonderful.
FP But Tom, you can look at really crappy art and think: A human being did that, too.
TN Art objects are gifts. Sometimes you get a lousy gift, and sometimes you get a great gift. The more complex and the more interesting the art is, the more it gives you.
FP A young woman came up to me at a reading for my last book and said, “I noticed you used so many exclamation points.” It made me so happy! I’ve always said that if somebody were to notice or understand how hard I dither about punctuation, at least they’d be reading it on something close to the level on which I wrote it.
TN It’s amazing when somebody does tap into what you’re doing, and gets close to it. Sometimes they tell you things that you didn’t see. I was giving a talk at Mt. Holyoke, and I mentioned that part of my studio practice, when I’m stuck on a painting, is to turn to the opposite. If there’s a problem with the red, try green. If something’s soft, try something hard. And I was showing my slides of the most recent paintings, which are fairly geometric. I mentioned how I was mostly living in the country these days, and somebody pointed out that these more geometric, harder paintings are the opposite of the country. And it seemed true.
FP Isn’t that amazing? I had to leave New York before I could write about New York. I never, or hardly ever, have been able to write about the place where I am.
TN It’s good to use your memory as a strainer, to drop away some of the stuff that’s not important.
FP Do you give suggestions when you’re talking to the art students?
TN Only in the most general way. You try to follow the logic of what they’re doing. I remember teachers telling us all sorts of things. One teacher—I’ll leave this person nameless—said, “Never use green, green is the most impossible color!” (laughter)
FP People say the most outrageous shit! A student told me that one of my colleagues had told her, “Never put food in a story!”
TN There’s a kind of homely wisdom you can give to students: Never show in September; Always find a dealer who’s hungrier than you are—things like that. But when it comes to practical advice, I genuinely believe one can make a great work of art with any material in any medium to any goal and for any reasons. I don’t think there are boundaries.
FP So what about your process? What is it?
TN Everything I do comes from something in the real world, not limited to objects or places but pretty much anything. And I try to come up with difficult sources for images. Could I paint this light now, you and I here talking? The space between us, the light behind you? I might start drawing one of these real objects and try to go with it. See if I can get something that works.
FP So how do you know: Oh, this might be a painting?
TN I assume that if something interests me enough to get my hand moving on the canvas, that’s a good enough reason. I finish ten, twenty paintings a year. I start about thirty. I operate on the premise that every battle can be won, every idea can be completed somehow. I keep these extra ten to twenty paintings a year that don’t get finished. I’ve got maybe three hundred unfinished paintings in racks in my studio, and every so often I go back and try to complete one. Sometimes you wake up one morning and realize you’ve found a way to finish a painting.
FP How do you know when it’s finished?
TN To put it as simply as possible—and this is a simple answer, not a total answer—I know when a painting’s finished when I understand why I wanted to do it in the first place. When it becomes clear, there is this energized space, there is this color, there is something interesting to me. What I like more than anything else about painting, and the thing that makes being in the studio attractive, are all the other things that come into making that image. Again it goes back to us sitting here now. I look at you; maybe you remind me of somebody else, maybe the plants behind you make me think of something in a painting, all kinds of stuff starts coming in. Seeing how they fit is really exciting. Let’s say a shape appears. Let’s say I try to get the shape of this tape recorder here, and it goes on the canvas and suddenly reminds me of something else, maybe something on a totally different scale. Can I use that? And does that go back to why I found this interesting in the first place? So, there’s a kind of excavation of my own memories and my own ideas and my own tastes that I find really exciting and really satisfying.
FP So you see or remember something? And then what? Do you draw?
TN No, I was taught by abstract expressionists. So the idea of any kind of preliminary work beyond an impetus is absolutely foreign to my character. I will sit in front of the canvas and put some paint down. I’ll think: That seems like a good idea. I’ll put a stroke down and look at it and think: Does this make any sense? If it doesn’t, I’ll make a second stroke, and if that doesn’t, I’ll fix the first stroke.
FP Is there an image in your brain you’re going after?
TN A final image? No. Again, there might be a shape that seems interesting as a place to start. It’s very rare that a shape would survive in the place where I first put it. But I think you have to act, to try something to see how it works.
FP That’s completely understandable to me. I write a sentence and then write the next sentence and then see where that’s going. Speaking of seeing, do you think you see more, or differently than other people?
TN I think it’s a myth that visual artists are terribly observant people. Somebody tried to break into my house, I got into a fight with him on my fire escape, and he got away. I ended up down at the police station looking at mug shots. And this crook wasn’t in the book. So they asked if I could give a description. I gave what I thought was a wonderful description: “He had the thinnest nose I ever saw in my life…” I’m going on about this stuff, and the cop says, “I hate you fucking artists.” This was on the Lower East Side. The cops found that visual artists gave them the worst possible descriptions.
TN I don’t know. Maybe we don’t share conventional ideas about what we’re seeing. I think a lot of people came to art because they really didn’t have a good visual grip, or found they couldn’t match other people’s ideas about the nature of the world. To make objects is to possess them. To try to understand what the hell you’re looking at, what you find so fascinating.
FP How much of the desire to make art comes from a “disability” of some sort?
TN That’s sort of what I’m saying. Back to those thousands of lonely hours. Why would somebody want to do that, except to pursue something they wanted to understand? And why would you want to understand it? Well, maybe because you weren’t in sync with the rest of the world about it. Or maybe you get out of sync by spending all that time alone!
FP That’s for sure! If you don’t start out that way, sooner or later you wind up that way. I think that’s true for all of us, that at some point, usually early on, we figure out that something’s not quite right or that we’re not thinking the way we’re “supposed” to be thinking or seeing. Let’s get back to what you actually do.
TN Well, when I’m in my studio, I’m actually working. There’s a brush in my hand, and it’s moving. I don’t sit there and stare at these things. That doesn’t work for me. I have to continually put things down and change things and see what it is, to know what to do next.
FP What’s the longest you’ve ever taken to complete a painting?
TN There was one painting in my last show that took about fifteen years.
FP Of work?
TN In my studio, at any given moment, there’s probably half a dozen sticky canvases. Then again, I’ve got those three hundred unfinished canvases. In any case, they build up these surfaces and sometimes people think that that’s what I’m interested in. These very lush, overworked, nuanced surfaces. In fact, if I had my way, my paintings would be paper thin and done in five minutes.
FP But those surfaces are great. I loved all that layering at the Diebenkorn show.
TN Sure. Paint’s wonderful. But what I’m trying to say is that the idea of working towards an effect drives me nuts. I always work to try to finish a painting in one session—the first minute I sit down at the painting I try to do something that, if it were right, would finish the painting. The first stroke. And boy, I’m waiting for that day! I’ve come close. Over the years, I’ve gotten some paintings done that are fairly thin, fairly quick—but not more than a handful.
FP So how do you know it needs more work?
TN Because it’s unsatisfying. It doesn’t go back to the initial idea. The shape on the canvas has nothing of the feeling that was going on; there’s nothing of what was interesting about that moment. So I have to get rid of it and try something else.
FP And do you scratch it out?
TN Yeah. Paint doesn’t like to have a lot of layers. And just to keep these things structurally stable, I’ll either rub it down with a wet turpentine rag if it’s fairly fresh or scrape it with a palette knife. I try to open up the whole surface. One thing I hate doing is tinkering. If a painting is perfect except that the color of a block has to be chartreuse instead of pink, I could never do that. Every time I work on a painting, I’ll make sure the entire surface is opened up with a wash of pigment or has been rubbed down so that everything is put back in question. If you see a painting that I worked on for fifteen years, what you’re actually seeing is the final day’s work. The entire surface of the painting has been worked on in that last session.
FP There’s a way you use paint that isn’t like the way anyone else uses paint.
TN My “project”—for want of a better word—creates a way of putting on paint. Oil paint is wonderful material, it’s forgiving, it’s hard to go wrong with it. Anybody who has a purpose to their work will come up with a unique way of putting paint on, that comes out of the purpose. As I was saying before, students should be encouraged to do whatever the hell they want to do. Because by doing it, they will find unique and interesting ways to make paintings. I always thought that folk art, naive art, outsider art represents a real challenge to sophisticated contemporary art-making. You see these works by people with no training or no special interest in the visual arts, and they’re extraordinarily beautiful on a formal level. You expect them to be compelling in terms of subject or emotion but in fact, they’re formally, unbelievably exciting. And the reason seems to be that no outsider would make anything without having a reason for making it.
FP Pure compulsion. Do you ever have to explain why you do smaller paintings?
TN Initially, the size thing was a colossal bomb. It was impossible to get people to take the work seriously. Over the last few years I think that battle has been pretty much won. I hardly ever run into that question anymore.
FP Why not?
TN Because I think logic really is on the side of work appropriately sized for its purposes. When I got out of art school, I was doing very large paintings, 90×110 inches. If I had an idea for the background, that would be three day’s work. And if it was no good, it took three day’s work to get rid of it, to try something else. And no matter how disciplined I was, I started censoring myself. Life is short. I’m confessing weakness to you, Francine. It’s very hard to maintain a certain pitch when you have to do a lot of busy work. So when I made that switch to small canvases, I was suddenly able to do anything. To take the most capricious idea and do it in a minute. What about pink? If it doesn’t work, wipe it off and do something else. Serendipitously, I discovered all kinds of stuff that I never would have come to otherwise, that intellectually would have made for a much longer, slower and harder process on the larger canvases. There are wonderful reasons for making big paintings. But the amount of large-scale painting being done in the ‘60s and ‘70s was disproportionate to the achievement of great large-scale painting. Crazy things would happen to me. I was working for Betty Parsons and she showed some sculptures I had done. She would send collectors and curators over to my studio to look at sculptures and I’d say, “But you know what? I’m really interested in paintings. Let me show you my recent paintings.” And I’d show them these 16×20 inch canvas boards. I remember one very well-know curator saying, “You know, these are terribly interesting. Did your psychiatrist tell you to do them?”
FP They’re so obviously therapeutic!
TN But for me, working this size opened up whole world of possibilities. It really gave me way to work, a direction. I found it revelatory.
FP When did you first notice that you liked art?
TN I always made objects and drew pictures when I was a little kid, but it never even crossed my mind that I could be an artist until the minute I went to art school. Even then I wasn’t sure.
FP But you were in art school by that time!
TN I went because Cooper Union was a free school. I couldn’t have gone to any college that wasn’t free. And I wanted to be in New York City.
FP But you got into art school.
TN Yeah, I know. But the idea of being a professional artist, or actually of being anything never clicked.
FP I know. It never exactly clicked for me that I would have to make a living. So do you ever set yourself formal challenges, or assignments?
TN No. Again, I seem to work from subject. I’m much more interested in finding a truly bizarre subject for a picture. Something really strange to make a painting out of. I think you can actually make a picture of anything, a state of mind, an idea, anything. In fact I’d like to find something that I didn’t think I could make a picture of.
FP But isn’t that easier if you’re working in a non-naturalistic way so that the subject matter is a secret—more or less completely hidden. Has anyone ever guessed what one of your paintings was really “about”?
TN All the time. Sometimes the most surprising people will hit something right off. When I talk to schools or give lectures on my work, I’ll show slides and they’re all untitled and they all come from something in the real world. So people say: Come on. Tell us. What is this thing? And I always hold out as long as I can.
FP I think when people ask those questions, they’re desperate to know how you take this and translate it into that.
TN That’s why ultimately I’ll tell them. I’ll explain one painting. This is about blah-blah-blah-blah. But it’s misleading—because what does it accomplish? Now you have a nice story, but does that make the picture any more interesting? And on another deeper level… by the time the painting’s spent all that time ripening on the easel, all kinds of other stuff has come into it. The experience becomes richer and richer and richer, and how the hell can you explain that? If someone can just sense the richness—boy, that’s enough. That’s plenty.
FP Do you feel that your work has changed, or that your attitude about it has changed, say in the last fifteen years?
TN I think any artist reaches a point at which their motor skills have developed. Once their brain/hand coordination’s gotten to a certain level, they finally know how to do their own paintings. And it’s a terrible moment. A terrible, terrible thing. Before that, it’s all adventure. I’m gonna crash and burn or I’m gonna make it happen. Suddenly, you can make it happen, and that’s scary. It’s really the worst position, I think, for an artist to be in, and you have to find a way around it. Years ago, Joe Masheck and I were talking about Renoir’s Society of Irregularists, the fight against what Renoir called false perfection. He said something like, “I’m going to start painting with my left hand and mess it up on purpose.” And fifteen, twenty years ago, Joe and I were saying, “This is really lame, what a rotten idea.” Now I find myself getting older, and I think: Oh, my God, now I know why he was saying this. He was asking: How do you keep up the energy that you had when you were on a tightrope? How do you make a new tightrope for yourself?
FP Renoir got what he asked for. He had to tape the paintbrush to his hand because his arthritis was so bad. But isn’t there another side to it? Doesn’t it take a long time to figure out the purpose of what you’re doing?
TN You know, I had lots of little reasons for painting abstractly. I had lots of little reasons for going to subject. I had lots of little reasons for the size I was working in. But they hadn’t really formed into the complete thing that I feel now. So, yes, I think I have a fuller understanding of who I am and what I want to do. It comes with time.
FP Do you think one’s work gets braver?
TN Braver? I don’t know. Hopefully. That’d be nice. Braver or stupider?
FP Well, it’s often hard to tell the difference. (laughter)
—Francine Prose is the author of nine novels, two story collections, and most recently, a collection of novellas, Guided Tours of Hell.