2123, graphite, 9×12″
Two branches of abstraction emerged early in the 20th century. The first branch developed from Cezanne’s late oils and watercolors. He used subtle shifts in viewpoint to create hybrid spaces. Some areas in his paintings follow rules of traditional perspective, while others undermine Renaissance conventions.
Picasso and Braque developed Cubism by pushing Cezanne’s technique to the point where multiple viewpoints disrupted and fragmented space. Although Cubist paintings became arrangements of mostly flat planes, the artists still used the visual world as a source for their compositions.
Picasso, Portrait of Ambroise Vollard
Kandinsky established the second branch of abstraction when he severed connections to the visual world. He believed that arrangements of shapes, lines, tones, and colors could evoke thoughts and emotions by themselves. No subject matter was necessary. He likened his painting to classical music. Arrangements of notes set in certain keys and time signatures speak directly to intellect and sensitive appreciation. No explicit narratives or descriptions of the physical world can be found in the music.
Kandinsky, Composition 4
Abstract Expressionists borrowed from Kandinsky but did not use his method of composing with defined shapes and lines. Their practice involved intuitive application of brushwork. The artist reacted to one move with a countermove. The final form of the painting emerged as the colliding impulsive marks gelled into an uneasy resolution. Feeling and meaning emerged in the process of painting but remained ephemeral and indeterminant. If Kandinsky drew inspiration from classical music, free form jazz musicians drew inspiration from the Abstract Expressionists.
Philip Guston, Untitled
Thomas Nozkowski’s work juxtaposes several modes of abstract language. He developed his idiosyncratic techniques in the late 1960s when Modernist painting had exhausted its ability to innovate. Nozkowski absorbed multiple styles of abstraction but did not pledge allegiance to any. He chose, instead, to use any approach that suited his subject matter. He knew his theme, be it a memory, a landscape, an idea, or a scene from a movie, ahead of time. He combined contrasting elements (cribbed from all fields of abstraction) until he found an arrangement that realized his initial source.
Nozkowski, Untitled (9-42)
I met Nozkowski in 1985. He journeyed from New York to serve as a visiting artist to the University of Delaware M.F.A. program. I picked him up from a bus stop outside of town. He carried a small box filled with 16×20″ canvas board paintings. He spoke quietly and humbly during his presentation and answered our questions patiently. He believed in his work to the point where he felt no need to aggressively assert its worth. He treated us fledgling painters with respect.
Nozkowski at work.