Artist lectures on basics of abstract art

On Friday September 6, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center hosted Thomas Nozkowski, a celebrated painter, Vassar parent, and art donor, as he gave a talk on abstract art and the show that was recently in the gallery, “Pictures of Nothing”. Nozkowski titled the talk “Pictures of Something” and focused on abstraction both in his own work as a painter and in works featured in the exhibition. According to the Lehman Loeb Center’s website, “The exhibition’s approach is to showcase varieties of artistic abstraction that emerged over the last century, and to highlight the distinctions among them—from surrealism, abstract expressionism, and geometric abstraction, to color-field and hard-edge painting and minimalism.” Kristen Cnossen ’15 affirmed this idea, outlining the diversity of works that exist between works in the gallery. “I think this idea helped the exhibition at the Loeb because it broke up the overall structure of semblance within the show. Mr. Nozkowski reminded us that giving a title to an exhibition or a name to a movement did not make all of the art within the movement similar. In fact, it may be an inaccurate way of looking at art, instead we should focus on individual artists, their own meanings, and their own movements,” she said. One of Nozkowski’s main points in his discussion was the way in which artistic abstraction and representation intersect in unexpected ways. Early on in the discussion, Nozkowski made the statement that “No serious artist today sees a difference between representation and abstract painting.” He continued, emphasizing the ways in which forms and lines that wouldn’t traditionally be considered ‘recognizable’ do have recognizable qualities. As he stated, “I believe we understand what we see in art by analogy to what we see in the world. We can never find the pictures we live, but sometimes we can assemble a picture of what we remember,” he said. Continuing on the theme of the artist’s personal connection to artistic abstraction, Nozkowski spoke in great depth of his own artistic process. In particular, he spoke of the ways in which abstraction is improvisational and doesn’t adhere to a set of techniques or practices like other art movements. As he stated,“I improvise from the very beginning but I do have a subject matter. I don’t believe in tinkering… It’s a machine and everything has to work together.” Nozkowski continued, underlying the sometimes frustrating processes that artists undergo in translating the image that exists in their own heads onto the canvas. “In this dream in your mind, its perfect, when you meet reality… you know, it looks pretty bad,” he said. A major theme of the talk was the way in which these recognizable qualities can jump out to the viewers and affect their art-viewing experience. Nozkowski spoke strongly about the particularities of looking at abstract art and the importance in the own viewer’s interpretation of what is before them. As Nozkowski said, “I believe that we really admire one thing in art. That is the shock of recognition that another person could capture something we knew.” Nozkowski also grappled with the idea of artistic abstraction’s importance in the context of art in general. This proved to be a common theme in discussions of abstraction on a larger scale. According to the Loeb’s website, longtime Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, late Kirk Varnedoe dealt with questions such as “What is abstract art good for? Whats the use—for us as individuals, or for any society—of pictures of nothing, of paintings and sculptures or prints or drawings that do not seem to show anything except themselves?” in an exhibition of abstract art at the National Gallery in 2003. This is also where the name for the exhibition was derived from. Cnossen appreciated the unique perspective Nozkowski brought to the talk. As she said, “I liked Vassar’s use of an individual artist’s explanation of abstract art vs. say, an art historian’s. I think the problem with ‘understanding’ abstract (modern, post-modern) art in our own epoch is that it is happening right now. We cannot step back and look at everything without bias or blind spots. Having Mr. Nozkowski come in and talk about not only his art, but the small groups of artists and intellectuals he often circulates reminded his audience that he wasn’t just talking about the history and expectations we’ve had in the past, but about the history and expectations of the future: the history being made in the present.” A key point in Nozkowski’s talk was the emphasis on the way in which abstract art is deeply personal to the artist. In describing his own process as an artist he noted specific ideas that he has tried to translate into art through abstraction. Nozkowski said, “I wanted to make a picture that could speak to those ideas in minutes. Direct and easy is more important than it seems.” He continued this idea, responding to the idea of abstract art’s audience by revealing that when an artist tackles the question on how to represent an idea, “Hopefully the answer will resonate at least within the artist.” Cnossen responded to this idea, echoing the importance of the artists own vision in his work. “I definitely think he hit a cord with his comment about how his own definitions of abstract art will only help the audience understand his own work,” she said. Reactions to the talk were largely positive. Questions went well into the time allotted for the reception after the talk and many students, faculty members, and members of communities outside of Vassar stayed to chat with the Art Department and Nozkowski. “I liked the lecture because Vassar brought an individual artist in and asked him teach his own art, not anyone else’s. Art of our time is so complex, I think it is hard to give a broad definition and explanation for it,” stated Cnossen. She continued, “Perhaps because we are living the art as it is made, or perhaps because time makes the details fade. Future generations might be able to give our art broad explanations, but until then we can only analyze “individual movements of individual artists.” Nozkowski finished the talk optimistaclly. He argued that today is the ideal time for artists and art appreciators to explore both abstract art and art in general. “This is the golden age. Our audience is the most sophisticated audience that there ever has been,” he said.

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