There was a time when the separation of working sketches and finished paintings in exhibitions annoyed me. I was young, and I thought hanging the works side-by-side, so I could easily compare them, would help me learn.
The Pace Gallery's current Thomas Nozkowski exhibition (through December 4) satisfies my younger self, hanging nearly half of the 60 careful abstract paintings next to what appear to be their studies (though apparently he made the paintings first). It presents a strong argument for why such displays rarely occur: successive similar artworks often aren't very interesting.
I tried to imagine the rationale Nozkowski would have offered in 2001, when he taught one of my classes at Rutgers. I came up with very little, but the pairings communicated a distilled narrative about the artistic process. My own evaluation of Nozkowski's apparent decisions immediately followed. "Untitled (8-120)": "I'll make the circles smaller inside this blob." Better. "(Untitled (8-115)": "I'll make the sky yellow instead of grayish-purple." Worse. "(Untitled (N-30)": "I'll remove the white from this thicket of red hatching." Not sure.
I don't imagine it was Nozkowski's intent to elicit this kind of aesthetic second-guessing, nor do I believe an artist working at his level would be unaware of the impulse to read the hanging this way. A more charitable interpretation might be to say that the choice simply aims to acknowledge the enormous amount of production in the show by denying any sense of uniqueness. After all, it's much harder to describe a painting as special when its twin is nearby.
This interpretation lends the show a little more teeth, but the concept's a stretch. The real problem is that too many of these works either don't depart far enough from their real-world sources or too closely evoke others. Color triangles hung from a line look just like the flags at the Maker Faire; a multi-colored set of cubes ultimately just resembles houses; and a bulbous black form seems inspired by Lite Brites.
What's most interesting is how Nozkowski resolves seemingly impossible compositional and color problems, but few works in here demonstrate this. In "Untitled (8-121)," one such success, a yellow striped background is abruptly overlaid with an arched white form outlined in black. "Untitled (8-127)," in which a rainbow of orange, blue, and pink is disturbed by a brownish cloud encroaching from the left side of the panel, feels much the same. In both cases, the surprising interruption of form disrupts the composition of the painting in a compelling way.
As for the rest of the works in the show, too often they read like beautified versions of their predecessors. Nozkowski has often used grids and strips in his work, but they rarely take on the flavor of home decor that they do here. It's a letdown.
(images © Thomas Nozkowski, courtesy The Pace Gallery; photos by: G. R. Christmas/ Courtesy The Pace Gallery)