Jane Freilicher & Thomas Nozkowski: True Fictions
Curated by Eric Brown
On ViewMilton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation
November 5, 2021 – February 26, 2022
All too often, the goal of two artist exhibitions is to elevate some secondary figure by linking them to a more famous artist. Such shows are difficult to bring off. Sometimes, however, showing opposed figures can be revealing, especially if they are of equal importance. I would love an exhibition juxtaposing Delacroix and Ingres, or a presentation of early Jasper Johns alongside Robert Rauschenberg. But Jane Freilicher (1924–2014) and Thomas Nozkowski (1944–2019), both important painters, were very different artists. She made figurative paintings of still life objects with countryside and urban scenes in the background, while he was an abstract painter whose subjects had elusive, “real” sources. They hardly knew each other, and they certainly didn’t influence each other. What, then, is to be gained displaying them together, in this exhibition of some 16 works, late paintings by both of them?
In his enviably lucid catalogue essay, Barry Schwabsky writes that:
The appreciation of any work of art is essentially an intuition of its particularity, and yet one can only arrive at a sense of this particularity by way of an awareness of its similarity to and difference from other works.
Thinking in these suggestive terms, let’s compare and contrast two pairs of works juxtaposed in True Fictions. Set Nozkowski’s Untitled (9-5) (2011) against Freilicher’s Study in Blue and Gray (2011). At the center of his dark blue background is a rounded cloud shape in lighter blue and white, inside the border of which are set eight small yellowish rectangles. Freilicher, however, sets a dark blue vase, a container for white flowers, alongside another, narrower light blue vase holding purple flowers placed before a cityscape with a gray blue sky at the top. If we needed one title to encompass both of the paintings, we might call these two works “whites and their blue containers.” Analogously, comparing Nozkowski’s Untitled (6-69) (2000) which is displayed alongside Freilicher’s Light Blue Above (2003) we see the pink of her flowers and the larger pink of his gawky central form set in a black field, with her blues of the sky and water in the background like his pale off-yellowish orange. Here the shared concern might be called “foreground and background: a study in mutual dependence.” Obviously, Freilicher and Nozkowski do not have comparable depicted subjects. We rather seek what Schwabsky calls elective affinities, shared ways of viewing and painting. Our goal is thus to identify what the exhibition title calls “true fictions”: illusions which are visually suggestive and so, in that sense, truthful. Indeed, Tibor de Nagy Gallery anticipated this line of reasoning when it did a show, Fact & Fiction: Abstract Paintings by Jonathan Lasker, Tom Nozkowski, Gary Stephan in the 1980s.
Similarly, Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885, at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005, compared and contrasted the representations of the two modernists. Their figurative paintings were often, though not always, based upon real subjects such as the landscapes they visited together. And so it was possible, at least in the catalogue, to relate their images to photographs of the actual scenes which they depicted. In a way that’s philosophically fascinating True Fictions reworks this procedure, for when we compare Freilicher and Nozkowski’s images, there is no real scene to which they are both responding. And so, when I observe that both Untitled (9-5) and Study in Blue and Gray present containers for light; or when I see that Untitled (6-69), like Light Blue Above, set bounded pink forms within a darker background field, I sketch what might be called a way of seeing, a shared feeling associated with very different works, neither of them necessarily a copy of some real scene.
Our concern thus is not with influences nor artistic sources located in experience, but with shared ways of looking that Freilicher and Nozkoswki achieved independently. This show is a marriage made in heaven, for it reveals true correspondences between her figurative works and his abstractions. The net effect is to make Freilicher’s pictures look more abstract, and Nozkowski’s more figurative. I always found Nozkowski, who is a great artist, very hard to write about, for it was devilishly hard to describe his compositions. This revelatory exhibition provides some concrete suggestions about how commentary might now proceed.
Barry Schwabsky, “Freilicher and Nozkowski. A Harmonic Convergence,” Jane Freilicher and Thomas Nozkowski. True Fictions (New York: The Milton Resnick and Pat Passlof Foundation, 2021), 13.
“Pioneering Modern Painting: Cézanne and Pissarro 1865–1885” is presented on the MoMA website: https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/112.