At the height of COVID-19 restrictions in New York City, artist Josh Smith hauled a series of new paintings, along with seven ceramic sculptures dating from 2013 and 2014, to the roof of his Brooklyn studio. Taping the name of his show, Josh Smith: High As Fuck, to the inside of the stairwell door, Smith transformed the space into an open-air gallery. While quarantine measures kept the exhibition inaccessible to the public, photographs and video clips documenting Smith’s efforts can be viewed online at the website of David Zwirner, the gallery that officially represents the artist.
In one clip, Smith speaks sardonically to the camera, declaring, “this is a real show,” before saying “cut.” This may be a wry understatement—of course it’s a real show, David Zwirner says it’s a real show—but after three months of staring at the eternal present of my computer screen, the distinction between what is real and what is not has become murky for me, and I appreciate his candor in acknowledging the question. What remains unclear, however, is whether the show is what happened on Smith’s roof, or if it’s the photos and videos, or maybe the website itself? Perhaps none of this matters. Smith is quoted on the website saying, “This is a gallery show for a gallery that’s not physically accessible because of our collective isolation.”
The paintings show the empty streets of Smith’s neighborhood, seen during his morning and evening walks through a city in lockdown. Choosing a cool palette of greens and blues for street and sky, Smith creates a forlorn environment into which he angles houses and buildings in vibrant hues of red, yellow, and pink. There is not a figure to be seen, but a warm glow of orange in the windows of his edifices hints at the lives unfolding within. The work has the feel of an old children’s book—I thought of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel (1939) and Curious George (1941)—but it also evokes 20th century depictions of American cities by Stuart Davis and Louis Lozowick. In one of Smith’s paintings (all of them are captioned Untitled, 2020), a squat red house with a striped awning over its door stands at an intersection. From behind it, the turquoise gable of another house can be seen, a grey ribbon of smoke rising from its chimney. Another work shows a four-story building with an awning and a row of flower pots full of orange blossoms in front of it. Painting with a fast, thick brush, Smith restores the idea of the city as a place of overlooked charm, where a solitary walker can take comfort knowing that however alone they may seem, they remain surrounded by community. The inhabitants of Smith’s world are home, safe and sound—they just can’t come out. Photographs documenting Smith’s paintings modestly propped against the parapet of his roof echo his search for workarounds to isolation, and undercut the coy persona Smith presents in the video clips.
Seven years ago, I sent an email to the painter Josh Smith to ask about a possible interview. Four years later, I received a one-line response: ‘I will do the interview sometime if you like’. From that moment, it was another three years before we were able to find an afternoon to meet this past winter.
As we discuss in the following interview, Smith is resistant to socialising, and prefers to spend long stretches of time in his Brooklyn home, a largely windowless warehouse he’s transformed into a live–work complex. Throughout the building’s two storeys, he’s set up several spaces for his art: a workshop for building, a ceramic studio with a kiln, a casual studio, mostly used for storage, and a primary painting studio with a ping-pong table “for exercise”. The house also contains multiple lounges, kitchens and a large art collection, which includes a piece by Mary T. Smith (no relation) in the bathroom, and a living room tiled with Haitian paintings.
On the day we spoke, Smith’s studio was empty of new work, but I was able to flip through a few stacks of paintings from the various series he’s made over his career. There were some grim reapers, tropical sunsets, fish, devils and monochromes, all rendered in his loose, full-armed strokes. Not present was his early work: the abstractions, the canvases he uses as palettes or the paintings of his own name, the ‘signature’ works that are most often associated with his success.
Smith usually paints in batches of highly specific, simple subject matter – fruit, animals, land-scapes, myths – which often have the appearance of being made feverishly and in the pursuit of honest, unmediated expression. He works in this same way across collage, bookmaking and clay, using seemingly arbitrary content as his engine for accreting material. Taken together, his work suggests one man recreating the fundamentals of painting.
For our interview, we settled into his library, walled with grey metal shelves and filled with books: art, fiction, poetry and history. In the middle of our talk, he pulled down a monograph of some American Colonial painters and opened it to a portrait of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart. “I wish I could do portraits,” he said, “but I’d have to be more patient.”
After the interview, Smith brought me down to the basement, where he grows an impressive variety of leafy green vegetables. For ten minutes, he carefully snipped until he had stuffed a plastic baggie filled with lettuces and chards, which he gave me as parting gift.
Ross Simonini We’re sitting in this library, surrounded by books, almost all of which are artbooks. Do you read these or just look at the pictures?
Josh Smith Mostly I just look. You know how you read an artbook: you open it, you look at a picture, you read what’s around the picture, then you kind of lose interest. And there are periods where I read a lot. Like a lot. But that’s when I’m not smoking, not using, you know, any pot or anything.
RS Smoking isn’t good for reading?
JS Not even a little. I get hung up on every word and everything becomes so intensely interesting for me that I can’t make any progress. But other times, I’ll take a load of artbooks upstairs and read.
RS You get your input from books.
JS Yeah, because you need gas to keep going. I mean, you can see from the books around us, it’s a collage of everything I love.
Josh Smith, the "What, me worry?" cavalier of painterly jazz, keeps 'em coming with well over a hundred fast, loose, hot-colored canvases—even Smith's blues smolder—and about a dozen gawky ceramic sculptures of traffic cones. “Emo Jungle,” Smith calls the show (at the Zwirner gallery, through June 15). A frieze of fifty-five pictures puts a vaguely heraldic turtle motif through changes of attack and pattern, from frenziedly visceral to near-doily-like precious. Elsewhere, devils cavort in red Hells, and Death, with his trusty scythe and empty mien, stands in tropical settings against enormous suns or moons. But don’t be scared, kids. The striations of the Reaper’s cloak are like riffs on Washington Color School stripes. These works are to seriously intended paintings as stuffed lions are to beasts of the Serengeti. All the better to take one home and imagine that it loves you.
As a painter, Josh Smith can be an infuriating contradiction in terms. He is a passionate cynic, an artist who degrades and celebrates his medium through the relentless yet fervent repetition of a selected motif. Mr. Smith tends to work fast and a trifle sloppily, until a certain image becomes second nature, a template. This automatism opens the door to incessant variations in brushwork, background and, above all, color — as well as our consideration of same.
With “Emo Jungle,” at David Zwirner, Mr. Smith has ascended to a “Big Four” gallery (Gagosian, Hauser & Wirth and Pace are the others) with a blowout of nearly 110 paintings spread through three enormous spaces. The best are the large Reaper paintings (too colorful to be called grim), which repeat faceless, genderless figures in hooded cloaks and landscapes of many vibrant colors. Carrying scythes, they sometimes stand among imprints of actual plants, beneath lurid suns and skies. And each image has a distinct border, or three: dots, diamonds, hearts, flowers or curling fringe.
A hallway of postcard-size “Small Reapers” in appealing touristy burned-wood frames leads to the second gallery, which offers red-on-red devils and more, mostly middle-size Reaper paintings. The last space harbors a gaudy frieze of 60 canvases, 4 feet by 3 feet, of stylized turtles, shown on their backs with elongated birdlike heads, a design that recalls the animal designs of Mimbres pottery. The turtles’ shells are painted every which way, as are the areas around them giving new life to the old formalist figure-ground duality. The visual deluge of this terrific if vexatious show meditates on painting as object, performance, psychic communication, pleasure and, yes, salable product.
Anyone who has followed Josh Smith’s work, since his memorable exhibit at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in 2005, would undoubtedly admit the boundary of the artist’s often-rectangular canvases does not constrain his highly-charged emotional and restless energy. Most would take notice how Smith has continually been able to explore endless potential, and experiment to foster and sustain his work. At once seemingly casual and unpredictable the paintings are underpinned by a pragmatic mind at work and always present. Although we first met at a daylong series of talks and discussions on the work of Willem de Kooning during the artist’s retrospective, curated by John Elderfield, at MoMA in 2011, for which we were fellow panelists, and on many occasions would see each other in passing at some social functions, I never had the full pleasure to pay a visit to Josh’s studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn till days before Emo Jungle, his inaugural solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation that took place at the end of what appeared to be a beautiful spring day.
Phong Bui (Rail): I’d like to begin with a compilation of various things you have said in past interviews and lectures, which I think would generate sufficient correlations to your idiosyncrasies, as to move things along, especially the idea of being sympathetic to what we do as artists but also as human beings. For example, in an interview you did with Rita [Ackermann], published in Bomb magazine (2014), Rita said “[I]t’s awfully hard to talk about the spiritual meaning of today’s paintings,” and your response was, “[A]s close as I can get to being spiritual is being honest.” Does honesty in your personal experience imply both being vulnerable and being strong at the same time?
Josh Smith: Yeah, if you defined it in either way you kinda have to annoyingly stop yourself from moving in either direction. I would be better off not thinking about it and just experiencing it. The minute I think something is resolved, it changes, or it deceives me, or it moves in a way that I don’t understand. Honestly, I don’t know what honesty means, but I think life and art are one in the same. In life, the only two things that I live by are the code of the schoolyard, respecting the right people in the right situations at the right time, and two, letting things flow in their natural way, because in case it doesn’t happen soon enough it’s an indication that I should probably not be involved in it in the first place. It has taken me a long time to learn these two simple things, and I’ve not learned either one well. I don’t know, sometimes those two things are moving at you at once and there’s no way you would know how to react.
Rail: It’s like catching two fish with one hand. You end up with none.
Smith: Yeah. I feel lucky if I can just catch one.
Rail: Would living by the code of the schoolyard mean determination and bring windfall to some degree? For example, when the curator at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, your first show in Switzerland, told you, as you were leaving for Geneva, they were not going to pay for the transportation of the paintings, you just flew there the next day and painted the whole show directly on the walls in three days with ink, gouache, and watercolor. Megan [Lang, Josh’s partner] told me it took a longer time to prepare and tape off the walls than the actual execution of the paintings. I’d say that’s a risk most artists would not dare undertake.
Take Your Time: New painting at the Museum of Modern Art
"Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? / Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” Those lines, from T. S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock,’ ” published in 1934, came to mind at “The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World,” a challenging show of seventeen mid-career artists at the Museum of Modern Art. The note of dismay resonates generally today, when another of Eliot’s prophetic laments—“distracted from distraction by distraction,” from a year later, in “Burnt Norton”—might be this morning’s spiritual weather report. But consider the signal plight of painting. The old, slow art of the eye and the hand, united in service to the imagination, is in crisis. It’s not that painting is “dead” again—no other medium can as yet so directly combine vision and touch to express what it’s like to have a particular mind, with its singular troubles and glories, in a particular body. But painting has lost symbolic force and function in a culture of promiscuous knowledge and glutting information. Some of the painters in “Forever Now,” along with the show’s thoughtful curator, Laura Hoptman, face this fact.
Don’t attend the show seeking easy joys. Few are on offer in the work of the thirteen Americans, three Germans, and one Colombian—nine women and eight men—and those to be found come freighted with rankling self-consciousness or, here and there, a nonchalance that verges on contempt. The ruling insight that Hoptman proposes and the artists confirm is that anything attempted in painting now can’t help but be a do-over of something from the past, unless it’s so nugatory that nobody before thought to bother with it. In the introduction to the show’s catalogue, Hoptman posits a post-Internet condition, in which “all eras seem to exist at once,” thus freeing artists, yet also leaving them no other choice but to adopt or, at best, reanimate familiar “styles, subjects, motifs, materials, strategies, and ideas.” The show broadcasts the news that substantial newness in painting is obsolete.
Opening the show, in the museum’s sixth-floor lobby, are large, virtuosic paintings on paper by the German Kerstin Brätsch, which recall Wassily Kandinsky and other classic abstractionists. Brätsch encases many of her paintings in elaborate wood-and-glass frames that are leaned or stacked against a wall. The installation suggests a shipping depot of an extraordinarily high-end retailer. Next, there is a wall of six canvases by the American Joe Bradley, who, at the age of thirty-nine, has been hugely successful with dashing pastiches of circa-nineteen-eighties Neo-Expressionist abstraction. His pictures here are swift sketches in grease pencil that a child not only could do but has likely already done, such as a stick figure, the Superman insignia, a number (“23”), or a lone drifting line. How little can a painting be and still satisfy as a painting? Very little, Bradley ventures. After straining for a sterner response to the works, I opted to relax and like them.
The fearlessly insouciant artist hatches yet another easygoing, instantly generic way to paint, on the off chance that anyone wants paintings–nonchalance on that score being his sneaky philosophical riposte to fretting about the medium’s fate. On plaster-like white backgrounds, quick lines in grease pencil, usually black or orange, do just enough to sate an aesthete’s jones for the pictorial; at times, they’re joined by splotches of watercolor and scuff-marks from negligent handling. The effect is no-big-deal vatic–the sublime without tears–and pitch-perfect, in a vengefully pleasant kind of way.
This artist is devoted to unpredictability and a seeming nonchalance that usually pay off, or at least stir curiosity about his next move. His new “sculptures” – no exception – feature loose, spare marks on panels painted white that were made a few years ago and left outside. The results suggest works abandoned by Cy Twombly. Once more Mr. Smith’s version of bone elegance, robust touch and assured composition convince.
"The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World” has been a long time coming. The Museum of Modern Art has steadily been acquiring new painting, as a visit to its website will confirm. But for years it has disdained actually saying anything about the state of the medium in exhibition form, and all the while painting has developed actively on numerous fronts.
“The Forever Now,” which opens Sunday and is organized by Laura Hoptman, curator of painting and sculpture at MoMA, considers some of those changes, and it does so with a normal combination of successes and shortcomings, including a lack of daring. Its thesis hinges on the word atemporal, inspired by “atemporality,” which was coined by the science fiction writer William Gibson in 2003. The idea is that, especially in the digital era, culture exists in a state of simultaneity, where all of history is equally available for use.
It could be argued that simultaneity is nothing new: It was once the definition of postmodernism; it also describes the ways artists selectively consider past art alive and useful, and can be a cover for simple derivativeness — a condition not entirely absent from the exhibition.
The terrain the show stakes out is diverse and fairly recent, but also very familiar: The 17 artists represented here are all known, mostly market-approved entities familiar to anyone who follows contemporary art even casually. Nearly all the participants possess résumés dotted with solo shows in smaller museums and at blue-chip galleries, here and abroad; 12 of the artists are already represented in MoMA’s collection.
In short, this exhibition looks far too tidy and well behaved, much as you might fear a show of recent painting at the Modern would look: validating the already validated and ready for popular consumption. For the majority of the museum’s visitors who rarely set foot in commercial galleries, the show may hold surprises and even mild frissons of shock.
You can’t help but feel there’s something cunning about the latest exhibitions from Josh Smith, currently being held simultaneously at Luhring Augustine’s galleries in Bushwick and Chelsea. While sharing few outward traits other than color, each respective display speaks to a number of Smith’s avowed artistic interests—the presence of the artist’s hand in his work, exploration through seriality, an insistence on degrading the “preciousness” of art—and all with generous and astute hints of irony. More than that however, these exhibitions make clear Smith’s adroit understanding of how he is perceived by the contemporary art community.
In an array that shows the childlike exuberance and spirit of exploration one’s come to expect from Smith’s work, his newest exhibition in Brooklyn houses 90 ceramic sculptures and a series of 19 surprisingly gratifying palm tree paintings.
The ceramics on display, shown in installations of nine to 31 sculptures, include rough, hand-hewn icons, most of which fall in line with Smith’s symbolic lexicon of ghosts, jack-o’-lanterns, leaves, and skeletons, as well as clay bottles and cans created by molds presumably taken from detergent containers, salad dressing bottles, large tins, or the like.
While some of these re-appropriated consumer forms show loose and impulsive brush strokes that dress them in Smith’s name, others are more thoroughly manipulated, such as two ceramic cans that are re-imagined as a tower from which a small figure tries to escape. Stripped of their functionality, these everyday objects see their raison d’être replaced by the artist’s play with color, form, and texture. Some pieces, made to resemble decayed bottles or cans-turned-rocket-ship, even go so far as to conjure political ideas in regard to waste and technology.
You’re a Tennessee man born and bred, aren’t you? I was born in Japan; my dad was in the military. I was moved around a lot, but I spent most of my life in Tennessee. In 1998 I moved to New York, and in 2012 I came here to Pennsylvania. I still have to go back to New York a few times a month.
What brought you here? I was having a hard time in New York. My parents had a friend whose son had fixed up a house here and wanted to sell it. I bought it because it looked nice and it was in the woods. So this is where I ended up. It is a real retreat.
Where do you fit in the art world? There are two types of artists: artists who just make art, and artists who want to exhibit and be involved in some sort of larger discourse. I’m probably more like the second type.
You were an art handler in the beginning. What did that involve? In New York there is a whole industry (I’m sure it’s the same in London) around packing, moving and handling art. I worked in a lot of different galleries; that’s what young people do in New York. Then you make friends and you get other jobs, setting you up for art fairs and working on trucks and going to people’s apartments and setting things up. It is just freelance work. I didn’t quit working at a job until 2005 or 2007. I worked for Christopher Wool for seven and a half years. That was a great place to hide. I didn’t worry about being a successful artist because I had that job. Three days a week and I could pay my rent and stuff.
So you were an art handler, you were earning enough to pay your rent from working, and yet you knew you were going to be one of the best artists in America? I knew I was the best artist where I came from. Art was very easy for me. I didn’t ever assume that I would be the best artist in New York. I knew I would work harder and be more critical and harder on myself than almost everyone else. And I always do the opposite of what everybody else is doing, which is fun. I moved to New York to be in a community of people who work hard and are not complacent. Tennessee people try to have an enriching and comfortable life; it is probably no the best place to make art that has teeth. I grew up coming to New York.
What artists have inspired you along the way? Rauschenberg, Warhol, tons of artists. The idea of being an artist in New York probably inspired me more than anything else. Working in a melting pot where there are all different types of people and there are oppressive forces and positive forces. When you have a good moment in New York, it is very meaningful.
You mentioned doing the opposite of what other artists do… you are almost a contrarian, or am I wrong? Yes I am. For my own peace of mind, if I want to make a living out of being an artist, I have to do something that I don’t understand. I want to understand it more after it’s done. While I’m working, if I start to understand what I’m doing, I’ll put it away and work on something else. I want to make myself uncomfortable with my art. The turmoil is going to be there no matter what. I see this in my family, even in my grandparents: they question a lot of things. My psyche is like a roller coaster. I’m afraid of the truth, but I try to curve it a little bit through my art, paint the wrong way a little bit, until it seems like it is right for me.
Is this why one of your constant themes involves writing your name on your work? Well, I have to fill it up somehow. My name is a good one that fills up some space and conveys something. I have plugged it in probably five or six different ways throughout the course of my life as an artist who is trying to make something besides a painting of flowers or a landscape. When you are learning to do a technical thing, you need an image. I didn’t want to think of an image; I just used my name as the image to get me through school. It got me through printmaking classes, it got me through painting classes. I like the name-paintings. I find them the most confrontational things. They always give me pause and make me doubt.
How would you define your art, then? I want each work to be a closed thing so that anytime I put a painting on the wall it doesn’t need anything else. I want it to be comprehensive. That’s why I make a lot of works – so I can learn about what I’m doing and figure out what’s bad and what’s good. I have to do ten and then decide what’s good. Then I have to either get rid of the other things or change the other things enough to make them good. I want my paintings to be read like image-poems or something.
You strike me as very gentle and calm, yet you have had a reputation as a bad boy. I did a show at the Brand Foundation and they had a PR frim do the publicity. All of those newspapers interviewed me and made me into a bad-boy artist because I don’t go to every single opening. If you’re not a complete pushover and glamour-puss, you get labelled as a bad boy. For better or worse I don’t have a lot of patience with certain things: fashion-y things, things that involve waiting in lines, dinners where there is no food. There are certain things that I just don’t do. I mean, this is the way New York works; this is how it is in every job. No matter what you do, there are functions where people go to network and stuff, and fortunately I don’t have to do that. My career was not made by networking; it was built up really slowly. I am weary of that sort of scene. That is why I am not in New York anymore. All I want to do is represent myself and support my friends.
Do you feel that you are somehow a race apart? No, I am not a race apart from other artists, just way different than a lot of artists who take themselves very, very seriously. I take myself seriously too, but not as far as becoming mean to other people and then acting like a jerk in public.
Would you then describe yourself as a happy man? I’m happy when I’m in my element. Here I can control things pretty much completely. I can be the happiest person on earth, I’m certain of that.
Does control create happiness? Right now it does, for me. That’s not a good thing, that’s just how it is. Not that I’m controlling, but right now I would like to be in control of my life a little bit.
Is art an obsession for you or a profession? It’s legitimately a lifestyle, so I guess it’s both of those things. It’s a way I pass the time, it’s a way I organize my thoughts, it’s a way I represent myself for the world, it’s a defence, it’s a manipulative thing. I can compartmentalize whole aspects in my work or hide them somewhere. I can just put them away forever. It is a luxury, and I often wonder how people who don’t have these outlets do it. I guess they have friends and spend more time with their families or play golf or go out to bars.
Isn’t your being in this secluded wood also a kind of hiding? Oh yeah. I don’t know anybody here, not one person. There is a woman at the grocery store who sometimes says hello and goodbye to me. That is the most social interaction I have. I guess it’s my own artist-in-residence arrangement. You put yourself in certain situations and wait and see how you react and how your art reacts.
Your home and your studio are separate, aren’t they? Yes. At home I just sleep and read and hang out in the yard. Here I watch sports and look and my books and it is all very different. I have an office here. Sometimes I wish I lived here, but I don’t.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “If you have an apartment then art is a job you go to, but you don’t then art is your life.” I know. I like my house here so much that I didn’t want to take the chance of ruining it. In New York I was suffering. I lived in the East Village and my studio was in Midtown so I had to commute every day. I ride my bike in New York and it started to feel like a job. When I go back to New York , I definitely want to get a live/ work space. I am one of these artists who believe in moving studios every five years, maximum. I don’t like it when you go to see a person who has had the same studio in New York forever and everything’s filled up and sort of dusty and you can see stuff from the ‘60s and ‘70s. I want it to be really fresh.
You mentioned that your father was in the military and that you moved around quite a bit… Yeah. It made me more transient; I don’t feel like I come from a particular place. Pennsylvania is as much my home as anyplace. New York feels like my home too. That is part of why I came here. What I’m realizing is that I do actually love being in New York.
What part of your journey has been the most challenging and transforming? I have a few sharp memories, all of which involve people being mean to other people, with me either being the one who is being mistreated or watching people mistreat other people. You see people behave in a lot of different ways in New York. Some are really beautiful and some are really troubling. They accumulate inside you. I have a good memory; I don’t forget things. I wish I could forget more things. I’m in Pennsylvania to protect myself, to preserve the core of my existence. I am sensitive, piece-of-shit guy, and I don’t want to become a jaded, mean old man. I hate when people say, “Let it go.” At night I lie there thinking of letting it go, thinking how great an idea that is. I am here to learn how to do that.
You seem to have a love/hate relationship with art… Art can be very pure or very convoluted. It’s a complicated business that I’m in. It would be nice if you just made a salary and didn’t have to sell things.
Have you paid a price for your art? I’ve got a broken-down body. Working alone is very hard on your body. I don’t have assistants; I’m not that type of artist. It’s a complicated, messy, beautiful and troubling lifestyle. No book a million pages long could ever explain the nuances and the rewards and the tragedies of it. It is very surprising.
And the effect on your work has been what? I made the name-paintings knowing that people would think they were stupid, knowing that they wouldn’t like them. If you make a painting of a flower and someone doesn’t like it, it’s like, “How could you not like a painting of a flower?” But if you make a painting of your name and someone doesn’t like it, you understand why right away. Why would someone like a painting of my name? So there is a comfort in understanding why someone doesn’t like your work. Then you can try to correct it.
Is your work about self-sabotage at all? Being destructive in art is not like destroying family or destroying something real. It is a metaphor for destruction. When I destroy art, it’s not buried. The word destroyed is a violent word, but I’m not doing terrorism or killing people or anything. It’s a metaphor for something that one person feels. It’s not a real thing.
Josh Smith has a sly, slippery persona in both his statements and his art. Fittingly, his double exhibition at Luhring Augustine shows him moving in two seemingly opposite directions, toward the sacrosanct and the trashy. Unsurprisingly, he does trashy much better.
Sacrosanct prevails at the gallery’s Chelsea space, where Mr. Smith upends the modernist monochrome and its tendency toward reverential fetishization. The 19 large slapdash oil paintings, 5-by-4-foot canvases, seem to have been covered as quickly as possible, using a wide brush and one of a spectrum of apparently from-the-tube bright or drab colors. Some surfaces and colors are better than others, but it is clearly speed and the ensemble effect that count. This show is a new version of Mr. Smith as sardonic conceptual-installation-painter, but with the usual result: It is hard to imagine any of these paintings separate from the pack.
The 19 paintings at Luhring Augustine’s Brooklyn outpost are considerably better. Each canvas (also 5 by 4 feet) consists of bands of lurid tropical sunset colors — blues, purples, oranges and yellows, with occasional reds and pinks — against which are silhouetted one to three spindly black-over-green palm trees. Here again, a formula is carried with a dispatch that might almost be described as automatist. Mr. Smith seems to paint in fast, slurry gestures with his mind elsewhere, as if to see which art historical references heave up from painting’s collective unconsciousness. Here, we get riffs on the 20th century’s various Expressionisms — German, Abstract and Neo — along with David Hockney, tourist art and Richard Prince’s forgotten travel-poster photo-appropriations. These are some of the best, least cerebral paintings Mr. Smith has yet churned out. The absurdly strong, clear colors are especially welcome. The prospect of seeing the works individually is, for once, attractive. The sculptures consisting of shelves of generic artist ceramics are busywork, fun but inconsequential.
My name is Joshua Smith. I live in New York and I make monochrome paintings. Recently a number of people have asked my opinion of a new show from a painter about a decade older than I am, Josh Smith, whose new exhibition at Luhring Augustine happens to incorporate a lot of monochrome paintings.
I first learned of Smith when I was a 20-year-old photo student visiting PS1 on a date about 10 years ago. I stumbled upon the work, something like six drawings with his name scrawled lyrically across the paper: JOSH SMITH, which is also my name. Of course it’s a common name but it was still a treat. For super-specific reasons it made me feel part of the work, in the way I feel about Wolfgang Tillmans or Felix Gonzalez-Torres, artists whose own biographies are beautifully incorporated into the content and messaging of their work.
I thought then that it was bold of him to literally use his actual name as the primary formal element of his work. I thought then that the work felt defensive, as if he was preemptively defending his name and his integrity. The work betrayed some kind of anger, or at least some kind of posturing. That’s how I read it immediately, and really still how I read those works. Not as a comment on theories of authorship or anything like that but as a willingness to present oneself as an average person. And to make a show of his averageness. Maybe these are my own class issues, but I think they’re pretty universally shared class issues in this town. Or I hope they are. I mean, they aren’t.
I’ve always loved those name paintings because here was an artist who didn’t seem particularly talented in any technical sense (just like me), who studied printmaking, which I studied a version of (photography), and who, despite his background attending a school in Tennessee, far away from a global art center (I went to college in Detroit), got to New York and was showing his work in impressive situations. And we had the same name. This is what I, selfishly, took away from those works.
My hobby: posting artworks on Instagram, sequencing the purity of the monochrome into that endless reshuffling of history that now defines contemporary life. Josh Smith’s two-part exhibition at Luhring Augustine’s galleries in Chelsea and Bushwick balanced a brushy group of monochrome canvases in Manhattan against an Edvard-Munch-goes-to-the-Bahamas grouping of palm-tree silhouettes (and a modest selection of oddball, endearing ceramics) in Brooklyn, requiring the viewer to travel physically as well as mentally. Smith has often mixed unexpected images within a single show—e.g., his 2011 exhibition at Luhring Augustine included paintings of stop signs, insects, leaves, his name, etc.—but this time each exhibition adhered to a tight focus, as if the artist wanted to be sure that the memory of the first stayed with you during the longish trip to the second.
“I make a piece of art just to prove that I exist in my own way. And I can’t make something nice. I have to make something that makes me uncomfortable,” Smith has remarked. What he does supereffectively is make other people uncomfortable, too. In Chelsea, Smith’s apparently slapdash yet Fordist monochromes issued a frank assault on those sensibilities that still hold tightly to the sanctity of that format’s purity, its revealed materiality, its divine nothingness. The apparent single-mindedness of the monochromes played off the slutty, spindly black palm trees as they wave dolorously against radioactive Hotel California sunsets. These paintings—some the very same size as the monochromes—provoke strong reactions, too, for all their apparent easy-sleazy motel-tryst allure. They’re irksome because they play fast and loose with kitsch representations, yet they are quite resolved (viz, good) paintings. The discomfort engendered by these twin shows could be traced to multiple sources, and Smith’s opportunity to orchestrate the resonance of these references expanded with the counterpoint of a second venue.
In his 1986 essay on monochromatic painting “The Primary Colors for the Second Time,” Benjamin Buchloh elaborates yet again the distinction between the historical avant-garde and the neo-avant-garde with respect to originality: “[W]e are confronted here with practices of repetition that cannot be discussed in terms of influence, imitation, and authenticity alone. A model of repetition that might better describe this relationship is the Freudian concept of repetition that originates in repression and disavowal.” In choosing monochrome as the focus for the Manhattan show, Smith resurrects this most uncompromising version of abstraction, along with the concomitant arguments for painting’s necessary demise. But in so doing, he also evokes the “other” time and place of art classes. Both gestural and formulaic, the works suggest the awkward, deceptively amateurish absorption and repetition of forms and genres from art history. The straightforward colors and surfaces linger somewhere between earnest and offhand, and the pleasures of opticality—that privileged variety of looking at nothing—are blunted.
The palm trees in Brooklyn—simultaneously recalling motel art, which is to say kitsch, and Munch, with anxiety percolating in every picture, sometimes to the point of hysteria—play out pictorially what the Manhattan show adumbrated conceptually. The trees are almost Halloween horrors; they reach out menacingly and/or comically, Walt Disney does Mulholland Drive. Trees of death à la Friedrich or Böcklin? The sublime relocates to Venice Beach. But the brilliantly, dreadfully colored sunsets enfold everything from Richter-ish abstractions to creepy clown faces; I saw lots of peering eyes and liver-lipped smiles. Dirty hands reach down from the tequila sunrise to drag us back to the beach.
Taken together, the shows resonated as a kind of transport—aesthetic, art-historical, literal—and the sway from rich and established Chelsea to Bushwick felt appropriate. The “styled” lives across both boroughs echo the most trenchant aspect of Smith’s paintings: Their “realness” conveys the uncomfortably visible process of trying to express oneself or something meaningful in yet another already inhabited territory.
Monochromes? Monochromes! Continuing to exhaust any pictorial mode that piques him, and to make a quality out of quantity, the breezily matter-of-fact Smith has dashed off a show of eighteen one-color smooth or brushy paintings on panel, each five feet high by four feet wide. The hues are primary, secondary, and mixed (bluish green, lemon yellow, “Pepto pink”). Viewed in sequences, the works suggest a poor man’s Ellsworth Kellys. They are passably lovely and infectiously dishonorable.
By now, the artist Josh Smith’s practice of turning his signature into the subject of his frenetic oil paintings is familiar. Rendered in quick, colorful dashes, sometimes piled on top of each other is J-O-S-H-S-M-I-T-H written across the canvas, looking half like a vandal’s tag and half like the distinction and hero-worship reserved for the great masters. In fact, so much has been made about the 35-year-old Tennessee-born painter’s signa- ture (Is he a narcissist? Is he turning the subject into an object? Is he taking the piss out of portraiture?) that it’s easy to forget that Smith paints a number of other subjects (fish, leaves) and includes collaged materials (newspapers, photocopies, prints) in his layered works as well. Earlier this spring, though, Smith brought his signature back into the gallery with a solo show at Luhring Augustine in New York City, literally shining a spotlight on it on a sculptural stage set, while paintings of insects and skeletons covered the walls. Here “Josh Smith” was being connected with death—death, by the way, rendered in bright, acid-fueled colors, has never looked better—and also with the eerie immortality of fame.
Smith’s aggressive, fast-and-furious painting style belies the fact that he works very strategically and methodically. His unusual ethic will be further explored this month when a new exhibition opens on May 7 at the Brant Foundation Art Study Center in Greenwich, Connecticut. For the show, artists Urs Fischer (who Smith knew previously) and Julian Schnabel (who Smith did not) will serve as consultants. Under their “consultancy,” Smith is considering on mixing works (his and also perhaps others) from the Brant collection with new pieces created on site in the few weeks before the opening. In a way, it’s the perfect Smithian mash-up. Here he talks to his good friend and fellow Tennessean Harmony Korine about being an artist—and the struggles that lie therein.
HARMONY KORINE: What’s up, motherfucker? Josh Smith in the building. Josh Smith is the new Mike Jones. [both laugh] I just saw your show at Luhring Augustine. Where did the ideas come from for those paintings?
JOSH SMITH: It’s three disparate elements: the stop sign, the stage paintings, and the skeleton paintings. Those are three sharp ideas, although none of them are necessarily good ideas. Tons of artists have made whole careers out of those three ideas.
KORINE: Tell me about the stop signs.
SMITH: It’s the ultimate conceptual artwork. I took a piece of metal and just painted an image of a stop sign on it—a four-by-four-foot stop sign. KORINE: Did you make them all by hand? SMITH: I tried to do it, but it’s easier to use a stencil. I didn’t want it to have any technical virtuosity; I wanted it to just be really clear how it was made. For my work in general, it’s always really clear how it is made.
KORINE: We both grew up in Tennessee. I remember all the stop signs by my house were riddled with bullet holes—or BB holes.
SMITH: Oh, yeah. And the cool kids always had a stop sign in their bedroom. Which means: “I don’t care if people die. I want my stop sign.” At least the assumption was that they took it down from somewhere and now there are old ladies hitting each other head-on somewhere.
Eyes In The Heat: Jean Dubuffet, Cathy Wilkes, and Josh Smith
It is 1946. The war has just ended, and Henri Michaux, an avant-garde poet turned painter, finds himself haunted by faces: “As soon as I pick up a pencil or a brush, ten, fifteen, twenty of them surge up to me on the paper one after the other. And most of them wild. Are all those faces me? Are they other people? From what depths?” In Michaux’s works of the period, these questions are redoubled on the page, where the human face is reduced to a zero-point of legibility. A year earlier, Michaux had started on a series of faces using thin washes of gouache, watercolor, and ink to evoke the eerie cohort. Fugitive, tortured, these small works on paper distill the basic attributes of the face: the ghostly outline of a head and the bare, and occasionally grotesque, indications of eyes and a mouth. The faces came to him from within, Michaux claimed, each with its own persona: horror, misery, joy, and so on. They belonged to him, he concluded; they were his faces, the grimaces of a host of inner selves. But they were trapped on the inside, unable to get out:
Behind the face with its motionless features, deserted, now no more than a mask, another superiorly mobile face contracts, seethes, simmers in an unbearable paroxysm. Behind the set features, desperately seeking a way out, expressions like a pack of howling dogs . . . Lost, sometimes criminal faces . . . Faces of sacrificed personalities, “I’s” stifled, killed, by life, willpower, ambition, by a propensity for rectitude and consistency.¹
The story of modernist painting could be written as a story of the face—beginning with Manet’s Olympia and ending in crisis, with Jackson Pollock’s Eyes in the Heat, or the monstrous child-animal faces, as disturbing in their way as Michaux’s wraiths, that proliferate in the work of the Cobra group at roughly the same moment in the 1940s. In the period immediately after the war, however, representations of the face all but disappeared from painting. Why? And what explains the face’s uncanny return in the work of so many contemporary artists—among them Cathy Wilkes and Josh Smith, whose work I’ll examine below?
The frantic, irrepressible mind that must reside in Josh Smith's head comes alive in the artist's voluminous new show. Forty-three works, including several grouped panels, fill the gallery walls from floor to ceiling. The creative mania is overwhelming and thrilling, with one work as good as the next, despite the fact that they are mostly variations of one another. Smith never tires of an image, be it found or a reproduction of his own work. He sees endless possibilities in its slight changes, which he mines tirelessly.
Telluric and motley hues of red, brown, blue and green dominate in casual, gestural paintings and smudgy mixed-media panels that manifest an infatuation with the holy triumvirate of German art: Martin Kippenberger, Albert Oehlen and Sigmar Polke. Smith's other great inspiration: himself. As if celebrating his own artistic history, he has re-created some of his earliest works—a series of "stage paintings" in which a sheet of white canvas spelling out his name is hung across a small, black stage lit with clip-on lamps. These haphazardly displayed pieces spotlight the performative role of the artist, but they also project a funereal humor.
The paintings that are derived from the same idea—with which Smith made his name (wink)—make fitful appearances. Meanwhile, images of leaves and fish proliferate, as well as skeletons, insects and a few stop signs rendered in limpid red-and-white enamel on aluminum. Supposedly, these are meant to be read literally, urging viewers to take a breather before moving on. It's good counsel, given how much there is to digest. Smith himself, however, doesn't heed his own advice as he churns out work incessantly. His latest fecundity is further evidence of an artist who's equally virtuosic painter and mad scientist.
Despite his rising status in the art world, Josh Smith leads a humble life. He doesn't even have his own apartment. He sleeps at his girlfriend's place or in his New York studio. "If you have an apartment, then art is a job you have to go to," he explained recently. "But if you don't, then art is your life."
For six weeks Mr Smith's studio was in Greenwich, Connecticut, where he worked to fill the 9,800-square-foot Brant Foundation Art Study Centre. His exhibition "The American Dream" opened on May 7th. Peter Brant, a media magnate and art collector (pictured top right with Mr Smith), opened the centre two years ago as an appointment-only space for new art, and he gave Mr Smith free reign. "We consider Josh to be one of the most talented and interesting artists around today," he said.
"It's kind of the biggest show I've ever done," offered Mr Smith, adding that it was a challenge to fill such a large space. He received some guidance from Julian Schnabel and Urs Fischer, two artists who have exhibited at the Brant centre, but Mr Smith is still recovering from the task of filling such a large space. "I may never even do another show this big again."
In his third solo exhibition at this gallery, the indefatigable Josh Smith employs a form of morbid humor through a study of memento mori that treads the line between irony and sincerity. A macabre sensibility lurks in his recent paintings, which might elicit a shudder or a smirk. Scrawled depictions of skeletons, insects, and decaying leaves are a few of the subjects here, all made manifest in an elaborate production that involves an infinite amount of permutations. One room presents several collaged panels made with scans of Smith’s previous paintings, their colors warped and modulated, along with layers of silk-screened images and newsprint. These works are hung in an orderly grid, and their imagery emerges from their built-up surfaces, only to disappear into abstraction. As if to foreshadow Smith’s signature repetitiveness, a few homemade aluminum stop sign paintings appear as a glib note to self in this room, and yet they are unyielding in their provocation.
The tongue-wagging panels meet the vaudevillian in Smith’s “Stage Paintings,” 2011, where rough-hewn platforms showcase a draped piece of canvas on which the artist’s name is rendered, akin to his earlier works. Illuminated by clamp-on lights, these stages, supports for the drop cloth paintings, literally collapse and fold up onto themselves, ready to be rolled away for the next show. They are installed as a cluster in the back gallery, and their self-containment—practical in their portability—evinces the forethought of construction. Throughout, Smith generates an experience in this show where painting, in its extension into different forms—as backdrop, as sign, or as memorial—performs in a greater capacity, perhaps for a wider audience.
The New York painter Josh Smith calls Peter Brant “the guy with the eye.” It’s an apt phrase for a well-known talent spotter and dealmaker who was in his 20s when he met Warhol and has since amassed one of the largest holdings of work by that Pop Art master. (Mr. Brant also owns Interview Magazine, which Warhol founded in 1969.)
But his holdings extend far beyond that, with dozens of examples of paintings, drawings, photographs and sculptures by art stars like Jean-Michel Basquiat, Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman. Two years ago he opened the Brant Foundation Art Study Center, an appointment-only space in Greenwich, Conn.
Right now the place has been quietly taken over by Mr. Smith, who, with the help of Urs Fischer and Julian Schnabel — two artists who have shown there before — is getting ready for an exhibition of his paintings that opens there on May 7. The show will feature some canvases that Mr. Brant owns and some Mr. Smith is painting on site. “I am trying to work out of my comfort zone, making really large paintings — a few over 30 feet square — on canvas,” he said, speaking by telephone from the foundation. “I’m also taking advantage of the perfect light and huge open space that has ceilings 25 or 30 feet tall.”
Mr. Smith’s work is colorful and incorporates elements like abstract swirls and scribbles along with recognizable natural objects like fish and leaves. Some of his paintings feature his name written in different ways.
Artist Josh Smith, 34, is not someone worried about curbing his output. His all-American name is painted in wild permutations on hundreds of canvases, stools, books and gallery announcements all over his 38th Street studio, which doubles as the headquarters of his art publishing house.
But Smith’s name has always been a departure from which to explore abstraction, and his third solo show at Luhring Augustine in New York demonstrates further deviation in color and composition. The new work includes painting of insects in primitive or hieroglyphic detail, and paintings on the stubborn ground of aluminum. He’s also proposed a summit for the work he’s done on his own name name: writing it on a stage, underlight, as a backdrop and a marquee.
We met with him at his studio to discuss the difference between a name and a signature.
ADAM O’REILLY: This show seems like a departure. It’s not a just a painting show, but a demonstration of your work in abstraction in multiple media.
JOSH SMITH: I think once people see it they will understand that everything I do is the same. I have this touch; it goes through my filter. It’s a departure, but it’s metered. [It’s] not like a photographer doing a huge outdoor sculpture, but more like a painter deconstructing what he does a little bit, to prove a point.
O’REILLY: What elements are you adding to this show to demonstrate that deconstructive process?
SMITH: I don’t know how it’s necessarily going to come together—but the three elements are, regular size paintings of skeletons and insects, 4-by-4-foot Stop Signs, enamel on sheets of aluminum. And there are these sculptures that I made, like stages for performances. They have a backdrop and it says my name on it with lights. Folded up they are the size of a coffin with wheels; unfolded, they fold out to four-by-five feet flat.
O’REILLY: Previously you’ve painted on chairs (and on walls), but does this more object-oriented approach feel different? Or does it feel unified in terms of exploring different armatures for your painting?
SMITH: Well, I wanted to do something else. Everyone is sort of doing painting now. Were I to put another painting show out there, it would go down like a smoothie. The way I dealt with showing paintings in the first two shows was conservative. I’ve never objectified myself as painter as much as I did in those first two solo shows. I just put my paintings on the walls and let people scrutinize them.
I had the pleasure of meeting with Josh Smith one Saturday morning in December at his studio in New York City to discuss his work and whatever else happened to come up. Unfortunately, the tape recorder wasn’t on our side, and that conversation is gone forever.
Where were you born?
In Okinawa, Japan. My dad was in the military service.
What do your parents do?
My mom is a first grade teacher and my dad is a physical therapist.
Was there any art around the house you grew up in? What was your first exposure to fine art?
No, we had a lot of Japanese art, prints and little objects that my parents brought back from Japan. There was no real art until I went to college. In Tennessee, where I grew up, there were a lot of arts and crafts. I saw a lot of people making nice things, but it was not called art in that situation. In college I began to learn how art could be magic and have possibilities beyond just its appearance.
When did you start painting the name paintings? And why?
I have always been aware of my name and how it sounds. In printmaking classes I started using it to see it reversed. It is embarrassing to see a painting of my name and it humbles me as I work. I have to paint around that feeling and continually compensate for it. The name paintings are like pre-fab buildings. You can build the painting around it. As an abstract painting, it serves as a vehicle and obstacle to prod the paintings forward.
I came across one of your name paintings in someone’s apartment recently, and it occurred to me that it was like the painting was marking territory. Do you have any interest in graffiti or tagging or whatever it’s called these days? Do you pay attention to that stuff when you walk around town?
Really, I pay attention to other things more. In New York, and more and more in other places too, it all seems like a big collage. But sure, graffiti is something I think about and relate to. There is not so much anymore and it has been innocuous for a while.
How long do you typically work on a painting? Do you have more than one going at once?
Sometimes I work on one for months and sometimes just for one day. Typically, the work comes in groups. So I would say in six months I might finish 10 to 20 paintings. Plus I make a lot of palettes and collages.
In regards to the palette paintings, are you conscious of the fact that the palette will end up as a work of art at the end of the day? Do you ever fuss with them? Are there any bad palette paintings or is every one successful?
For the last couple of years, I have been more aware of that. I will leave a palette around for a longer time to see what happens. Or I will use a smaller name painting that I do not need or like as a palette. I hope there are bad palettes. If I think one is particularly bad I will keep it and bring it home to look at, but I don’t micro-manage them, it’s one part of my art, I just let it go. I don’t control the way the palettes look. Even if you waste a whole day painting and you don’t have anything to show for it, at least you have a couple of nice, beautiful palettes. They freeze, like water freezes into ice. And then you stand them up, I don’t do that for the paintings, I make them on an easel, because I want it to be a fair fight. Although the palettes and collages are made in the same spirit as the paintings and I have mashed the look and feel of the palettes into my other work and vice versa, they are by-products. I feel like the painting as the white stretched canvas already looks good. I would hang it up just like that and I feel I can only make it worse. That is why I paint. It’s a challenge.
What are you reading these days? Do you read art criticism? Artforum?
Nothing really, mostly art books. I just read Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, which was good. Now I am reading a big compilation of crime stories, Sports Illustrated articles, The New York Times, whatever’s around, but I love looking at art books and I make a lot of artist books, too.
I met this girl Veronica–she was a student at the University of Tennessee a few years ago when I was a guest artist there–she is a good artist and she made this book, a handmade object. She gave it to me as a gift and asked me to make a copy of it for her. I guess she meant a photocopy. I had it offset printed and made it into a real artist book. It’s a really cool book and people like it a lot. I didn’t know how to contact her or anything.
So she has no idea that this exists?
I don’t have her phone number or e-mail address, but actually she just contacted me this week.
She contacted you after several years?
Well, I put a note on my website that said “Veronica, if you see this please contact me,” and I guess someone must have told her that they had seen it and she contact me. Now she is going to medical school.
That’s quite a romantic story.
Yeah, everything about art in my life is romantic. Everything about my actual life is not romantic. I don’t know, it just always goes like that for me. It’s just… I am just naturally fluid in it, other people are fluid in other things.
What do you think of painting in 2010? Will anyone be painting in 100 years?
I think my painting is good. It is a challenging time to be an artist because everyone is so well-read and intelligent, when the best painting has really nothing to do with that. There are a lot of people who need to take a break from trying to be a painter, they need time to reevaluate what they are doing. I do not know, but often paintings that I see look forced, which is so sad. But there is also good stuff, the problem is finding and seeing it. If there are people in 100 years, they will paint.
I’ve noticed the fish in your paintings are developing thick, pouting lips. Are the fish gendered or just regular fish? Is there sex in your work?
No, the fish are every gender. They are way beyond those types of things. Sometimes, certain striking things about humans flare up in my mind and can be diffused into those paintings. Eyes and mouths are easy. The fish are a stretch… like the name paintings, so by default I have a large margin of error when I work. I’m into the technical stuff of art. I don’t like the idea end of art. I think ideas come and go. Whatever. My ideas about art get erased and form themselves anew every day, I think. I hate art for hours of every day. I hate it. But at the end of the day it always ends up OK.
What do you fear most?
Today, letting people down.
What is a typical day in your studio like?
Get there as early as I can. The day starts and things begin to come up, I try to work intermittently all day. Any long stretches of painting occur at night or over the weekend. There are a lot of good distraction there, so I often catch myself doing something I never intended to do. I have someone helping me three days a week now, so on those days I try to accomplish more tedious or physical jobs.
Are you religious? Do you believe in a higher power?
I do have a passing interest in religion, I just don’t like any of them. There is nothing special about any of that stuff. It’s just about thinking and getting people to stop their normal lives and focus on something else for a while every day. So no, I try to believe in me. There are too many poseurs, cheaters and liars to believe in anything else.
Do you pay attention to politics?
Yes, a lot, but it’s depressing. So sometimes, for periods of time, I will take a break.
You seem to have a healthy disregard for the “Kiss-kiss. See you at the afterparty!” element of the art world, yet there is a strong dose of pop and Warhol in particular in your work, correct me if I’m wrong. How do you reconcile Warhol’s obsession with pop culture and celebrity?
People do the “kiss-kiss” thing to me sometimes. I’m not interested in that social aspect of the art world. I’m gone by then. When the band is onstage… my art is poof. I’m not. I’m not Justin Timberlake. I’m on the plane already. I can’t take it. As for Warhol’s obsessions, the fashion one has annoyed me at times. Recently, I started learning to respect the differences between people; he just liked different things. Rauschenberg loved modern dance, but I am not at all there yet. Everyone is different and complex, much like wild animals.
Would you talk a bit about “On the Water” and how that particular show came about?
This is a show at Deitch Studios in Long Island City, New York. I did a show there where I painted on the wall and just made all of my regular paintings on the wall. I called the show “On The Water” because the large gallery space is located directly on the east side of the East River. The show came about after Jeffrey Deitch came to know my work. He saw a show I did last spring at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva where, because of a shipping problem, there were no paintings and I painted on the wall for the first time. He contacted me and told me how much he loved it. I did not know him well at all, but I saw him briefly a couple of times and he asked me to do the show. He offered me the gigantic space in Long Island City, so I just went out there and did it. It was up for so long I am beginning to want to go and work on it again.
Your shows are usually titled. How does the title function in your work? Do you give titles to individual paintings?
I don’t usually title paintings. Titles are like literature or poetry and I am not a writer. Some artists do have the talent and confidence when it comes to titling their work. Occasionally, I will think of a phrase or sentence that sticks in my mind as a title, but I seldom apply it. The curators or galleries I have worked with on exhibitions always ask for a title far in advance of any show, so I do not put up much resistance, because it leaves me time to think about it. I try to choose show titles, which are straightforward and unpretentious. Sometimes I cannot think of anything, so I will just call the show something like “Josh Smith: Paintings.” The titles do help to mark the show in my memory when I reference it or refer to a painting from a particular exhibition. Here are some of the titles: “Make it Plain,” “Abstraction,” “Hidden Darts,” “Currents,” “On the Water,” “The City Never Sleeps,” “Zurich Abstraction,” “Who Am I.” Those are all that I can recall right now.
You mention that you are left-handed. Do you ever paint with your right hand?
No, I would for fun, or as a test, but as a deliberate way to make a different looking painting it sounds not worth doing. But anyway, I just use whatever hand is easiest to use for each particular situation. I would use my right hand no problem if there were a reason to, but otherwise I am saving it for Jesus Christ.
Josh Smith’s work appeared on the scene just over five years ago. It is remarkable that in that space of time, the few texts devoted to it immediately grasped its crucial characteristics. All agreed on the strategic nature of Smith’s output, on the use of his own signature as subject, on the importance of his pictorial procedures, on the work’s aesthetic kinships, and on the clear-mindedness of his ideas." While one ’s first encounter with Smith’s paintings might be somewhat of a shock, it would seem that, after the work’s initial surprise, it makes itself understood through the most intentional of ambiguities, all of which stem from its historical anchoring and formal intelligence.
Since the mid-1990s, painting has arguably been dominated by two major tendencies: one figurative (John Currin, Luc Tuymans, Neo Rauch) and the other abstract (Anselm Reyle, Sarah Morris, Thomas Scheibitz). While the figurative tendency is tinged with melancholy and a sense of nostalgia, the abstract one may be characterized by its decorative elegance, both rely on a conceptual base that distances the authors from their output. This strategy lends their works a certain neutrality embodied in a restrained style, a style under control. In this way they share an anti-expressionist position that has served as a vaccine against any suspicion of regression and allowed them to effect a reconciliation between different positions that, in the eighties, opposed one another with an ideological virulence but has since disappeared.
Seen in this shifting context, the painting of Smith – but also the way in which the artist envisions his output and its installation - was immediately perceived as an event, insofar as it was explicitly seeking to open up a different pictorial space. There was undoubtedly no better symbolic means of signifying this wish for a break than using his signature to structure the space of the picture. The previous generation had in fact bypassed the question of the signature and of style in order to focus on method. With the letters of his name occupying center stage in all his early works, he clearly announced his intention of abolishing that distance between the work and its author in order to explore, conversely, the contemporary possibility of conveying an emotion through a personal pictorial style.
Stretched, shortened, twisted, dissolved, and/or decomposed, the “Josh Smith” signature structures the picture while providing an ideal solution to the question of the work’s subject and author. These paintings, with titles like GET DOWN, GET BROWN (2003), 5TH AVE + 116th ST. (2003), and GRAY PAINTING (2002), also use the painter’s own name to avoid the trap of choosing between abstraction and figuration. Establishing this duality, Smith is then free to explore chromatic harmonies and disharmonies, dispersing these eight letters of the alphabet from their base structure in language to the contradictory, impulsive “movements” that animate his compositions from within. The palette, with its dark, oscillating grays and browns, furthers this sense of an inner space. Smith’s execution is rapid; it is simultaneously tense and casual, with much of the raw improvisational energy of the working process left showing. The result is an oeuvre that makes somewhat offhanded reference to a broad range of predecessors, from Cubism and German Expressionism to the painting of Albert Oehlen, Martin Kippenberger, and Christopher Wool, and finally the work of Franz West and Dieter Roth. From these artists, Smith has learned to use mistakes, failure, and impotence as a means of liberating form and injecting a sense of possibility into the painting process.
These artists are found at the extreme end of the modern project and can perhaps even be seen to have written its final, elegiac chapter in order to launch a critique of the project to which they themselves belong, though they refuse membership. As demonstrated by the outright abandonment of this path towards initiation by the following generation of nineties painters, it was not easy to write a sequel to such an undertaking, based partly on the total collapse of the modernist project. Moreover, the freedom with which Smith has drawn on modern painting’s vocabulary was not in the cards for Wool or Kippenberger, who were more focused, out of necessity, on liberating themselves from a stifling modernist orthodoxy. The very history of painting that weighed so heavily on many of his elders, like a relentless threat of castration, has been transformed by Smith into a repertory of forms free of copyright. However, Smith neither indulges in a blind appropriation of styles originated by others, nor does he eschew the ambition to produce a body of work that, in its very innovation, manifests an awareness of what came before.
Smith’s interest in Keith Haring or Jean-Michel Basquiat echoes that ambition. In the eighties, while artists like Eric Fischi, David Salle, and Julian Schnabel used “tradition” with a certain complacency, those two artists had managed the remarkable feat of producing a new kind of painting by jubilantly taking over a liberated pictorial space and inventing a formal vocabulary that engaged directly with the period.
With its explicit references to the history of painting, its “expressive” style, its signature effects, and its ambiguous subjectivity, the work of Smith may appear to be out of time, especially since he refuses to load his paintings with explicitly contemporary signs and subjects. Like many of the artists to whom he refers—Kirchner, Picasso, Haring, Wool—Smith does not use painting to illustrate a project. Instead he “thinks in paint,” as evidenced by the sheer quantity of works he produces—a phenomenon deliberately displayed in his installations. The picture is not conceived as a closed site, nor as something completed, but merely as one stage in a continuous process of creation.
On the occasion of his first exhibition at Luhring Augustine Gallery in New York in 2007, Smith’s controversial decision to re-hang the entire exhibition with a second, entirely different set of paintings, some of which had been produced after the official opening, was received by some as a cynical gesture and by others as a critique of the inflated art market. I see it as Smith’s way of taking the opportunity—at the moment his work was making its entry into a major gallery alongside artists with whom he was often associated, like Wool and Oehlen—to state a major difference between his and their practices. The decision to title the exhibition “Abstraction” underscores his weariness of misrepresentation and / or association with painters of the eighties. Furthermore, all of Smith’s pictures had the same format and were much more modest than those of Wool and Oehlen. They were, in fact, associated with his Palettes, canvases on which he literally wipes the remaining paint from his brushes while executing other paintings. In the Palette series, the other “composed” pictures find their mirror image, as formless and unarticulated muddy smears of pigment. Along with the unprecedented re-installation of the exhibition, the modest format of the works and the undermining nature of the Palettes signifies that Smith was not seeking to offer a tasteful collection of “masterpieces” to an eager clientele, but to impart to every element and by-product of his process a portion of the overall creative tension that drives the work. Compared to Wool or Oehlen, Smith’s work resembles a naive, crude grimace but in its aggressive nonchalance, it finds a fresh sense of conflict and vitality that lends it a lethal effectiveness. While his predecessors subverted modernist assumptions from within the space of the picture, Smith furthers this imperative beyond the limits of the picture frame by applying it to methods of production and distribution.
For many exhibitions, as in Memphis (Power House, 2006), Oslo (Standard, 2006), London (Jonathan Viner Gallery, 2007), and Brussels (Galerie Catherine Bastide, 2006/08), the artist executes his works on site in the space of one or two weeks, sometimes making as many as a hundred pictures though he only has room to show twenty. He distributes thousands of photocopied drawings in books published in editions of twenty or more. He makes and prints posters himself, which he then recycles as vehicles for paintings or elements in his collages. In recent months, Smith has started using plywood supports for collages and paintings. Light and inexpensive, he keeps hundreds in his studio for spontaneous experimentation with silkscreening techniques, paint, bits of paper found in the street, and even newspapers. A few months ago, Smith began to produce digital photographs in order to document the rapidly fluctuating surfaces of his works; he has begun to collage these cheap low-resolution images onto the surfaces of other works. It is this hyper-productivity that defines the work and that is crucial for the artist in a world that often equates quality with rarity. Smith is not interested in heightening the value of his work by limiting the quantity of his output.
The impenetrable boundary separating “originals” from “reproductions,” which has compromised painting ever since screen-printing was introduced in the sixties, is undermined from within by Smith’s proliferation of originals. This strategy allows the artist to emancipate himself from the hierarchical value system that distinguishes major from minor works. Smith succeeds in offering an alternative to the constant flow of products and images by producing a different kind of flow that cracks the value system wide open. In the case of Smith’s output, authenticity does not lie in the triumphant subjectivity of signature and expressiveness, but in a frenzied search whereby subject and work are constantly co-produced and modified. It is because the works carry within them the intensity and urgency of this flow that their number will never threaten their power. Quite the contrary.
Paper might rip, paint might spill, or the game might be on television, but Josh Smith doesn’t stop. The artist’s fulgent pictures withstand all diversions and relentlessly multiply—their motifs, in his best-known series, traversing the loping letters of his own name and the gaudy facture of “expressionist” brushstrokes. If Smith previously took up the argot of abstraction, over the past year he has increasingly focused on the trappings of representation: renderings and photographs of things. But, as always, interruptions and deflections occur along the way. He often paints a leaf—a dried specimen that he picked up on a rural walk—faithfully registering its particular notches and fissures. Any number of things might happen next, but frequently he digitally photographs the painting and then enlarges and prints the image onto a grid of letter-size paper. These sheets might in turn be pasted into a collage and overlaid with posters or book covers he has made, or with newspapers or screenprints or new painterly marks. Each work at once depicts and replays his signature devices with an eidetic memory. They become a peculiar type of still life, with all the covert aggression of the genre—wresting objects, as it does, from the natural world into the pictorial one.
Smith, in fact, expands this mode of seizure into all manner of transference. He shows not only flora but his own gestural flourishes. He not only paints but presses, blots, laser-prints, glues, scans, photographs. Many of his new collage works are processed onto stacks and stacks of plywood boards. He rotates through these supports as if they were spools of data, amending them with his adhesions and inscriptions (he even inserts blank boards to enforce a mental pause). Sometimes the boards stick to one another, victims of their acquired residues; peeling them apart, the artist occasionally tears holes in the collage’s surface layers, which he will simply leave and smooth down with the next round of glue. Such visual subtractions echo his iconic leaf’s own gaps. They remind us of the loss entailed in every reproduction, even in every glance—and of the way in which, now, the camera-eye is our eye, and to figure is to capture. As Smith says, “Rather than take a picture . . . , I just take it.” This is why his images can collapse different resolutions and levels of sharpness, a collapse enacted each time the jagged contours of digitized blowups about the comparatively high-res print of appropriated newspapers or the actual edges of torn paper. Or why they often present an insistently central shape, centrifugally contained by the framing edge, as if resisting dispersal by the lattice of pages it rests on. Within these tableaux, the serrated, pixelated perimeter or the gridded brushstroke looks normal and coherent. You take what you can get.
I met Josh Smith’s books before I met Josh Smith. There were four of them in a pile on a shelf in my son Christopher’s studio. Josh was at the time Christopher’s new assistant. I am addicted to artists’ books—holding them, “reading” them, gives me a high. I was introduced to the genre by Dieter Roth, a close friend and the father, the son, and the holy ghost of contemporary artists’ books. A note of caution for the reader: Invited to write about an artist, there is a strong temptation, rarely if ever avoided, to write about oneself—and as Oscar Wilde said, “I can resist everything except temptation.”
Next to torture, art persuades most. —George Bernard Shaw
Josh’s earliest extant books, the ones I first encountered, had titles that described their contents, for example, Lives, Adventures, Exploits: Frank and Jesse James (June, 2000). The books, hand-bound compilations of photocopies of sets of drawings, many with a unique painted cover, were in an edition of twenty; that number has crept up over the past eight years from twenty to fifty to one hundred and, in a recent instance—New York Death Trip 4 (2008)—to one thousand. There were earlier books, books I have never seen, since they were lost in a 1999 studio fire—a loss I regret, but paradoxically, one that seems to have affected Josh considerably less.
Art is Art. Everything else is everything else. —Ad Reinhardt
The making of books has continued to concentrate (capture) a significant portion of Josh’s attention—production is high, indeed ever higher. The books are not easy to categorize: Most contain reproductions that run the gamut from fine drawings to quick sketches, to variations on one or more patterns, to just scribbles; others are simply collections of catalogue pages. Books of drawings predominate and the images most often are faces, fish, or his name. Not all of the books are equally successful. The best, however, are smashing triumphs, able to hold their own with the best of the species.
A good artist has less time than ideas. —Martin Kippenberger
Josh has made books in collaboration with other artists. A particularly successful joint venture was with Christopher Wool—Can Your Monkey do the Dog. Herewith, an edited (altered) account of their modus operandi as described in a press release in 2007 by the Belgian publisher MFC-Michéle Didier:
Christopher Wool and Josh Smith employ digital imaging and Photoshop to create an artwork “for four hands.” At the start, one of them proposes an image of a work from his corpus. From this basic picture, the other generates a second image by adding and/or removing elements. A third layer is often added by one of the artists. The absence of constraints and lack of censorship regulates the alternating interventions. The choice to keep or not to keep a work, after the successive alterations, is made by “common consent.” Eventually, it becomes impossible for the artists themselves to distinguish precisely who has done what.
Art is never finished, only abandoned. —Leonardo da Vinci
Josh not only makes books, he now publishes them. He has established a press, 38th Street Publishers, whose mission is to release low-budget books by artists who do not have the means to publish on their own or who do not want to get involved with the usual commercial publishers. This is an example, one of many that might be cited, of Josh’s generosity, and of his artistic brotherhood. Moreover, Josh insists that the books be eminently affordable.
There are three rules for making successful art. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are. --I.G.W.
The encounter with the four books on the shelf led to an inaugural studio visit (summer 2001), an imperative repeated on every subsequent trip to New York. The studio was a single room in a building on Fifth Avenue at 116th Street. Over time the studio itself became a work of installation art—a close approximation can be seen in photographs of Francis Bacon’s studio. The floor was often covered with several inches of sawdust from the sawing of stretchers, and littered with drawings; the walls were papered with photocopies of a pattern drawing; and in a corner there was a large barrel of drawings. The drawings, I want to make clear, were frequently masterful—many are precursors to what were soon to become his breakout Name Paintings. A visit to Josh’s studio has always elicited in me a feeding frenzy.
Art is made to disturb. Science reassures. —Georges Braque
While Josh may not be a master draftsman in the lineage that proceeds from Picasso to de Kooning to Dieter Roth, he has, nonetheless, quite often made drawings of astonishing power; moreover, their variety and their quantity are remarkable. There is a notable example: In 2005, the directors of the Taxter & Spengemann Gallery in Chelsea asked Josh to do an exhibition. He said there was a show he would like to do if they had a few free days between exhibitions. Not long afterwards the opportunity arose and he mounted a signal exhibition of 717 small (5 x 8 inch) pencil and ink drawings of faces. The drawings, done in a host of styles, many conceived by Josh for the occasion, were attached by paper clips to string, strung back and forth across the gallery’s long walls. Photocopies of the 717 faces were later bound in a book two and a half inches thick—a perfect catalogue of the show.
More in love with their response to art than with the art. —Anonymous
No matter how stunning Josh’s books and drawings, the heart of his art is his paintings. The paintings are lush, lush in all the meanings of the word—delicious, opulent, sumptuous, luxuriant, and intoxicating. Despite these qualities they remain tough. The paintings have a curious power—they get better each time one returns to them. The work declares, if a declaration is needed, that painting is not dead.
The artist must seize the Zeit by the Geist. --I.G.W.
There are two distinguishing characteristics of Josh’s art—diversity and volume. His art practice includes: paintings, drawings, books, sculpture (his one incursion an installation of painted bar stools at Reena Spaulings in 2004), prints (Josh trained as a printmaker and his oeuvre includes woodcuts, silk screens, and lithographs), posters (mainly announcements of exhibitions, some silk screened on canvas and, in one case, fifty variants based on a single image for the NY Art Book Fair, 2006), invitation cards, collages, beer coasters, and hundreds of decorated skateboards. Josh’s commitment to prolificacy—near countless paintings, drawings, and books—is so strong as to make one wonder whether it is intentional or compulsive.
Everything is what it is, and not another thing. —Bishop Joseph Butler
It was Dieter Roth who preached “quantity instead of quality.” The declaration implied a radical disparagement of the masterpiece, and scorn for the machinations of the art market. Roth writes:
...INSTEAD OF SHOWING QUALITY (surprising quality) WE SHOW QUANTITY (surprising quantity) I got this idea (Quantity instead of Quality) in this way: “QUALITY” in BUSINESS (f.i. advertising) is just a subtle way of being Quantity-minded: Quality in advertising wants expansion and (in the end) P o w e r = Quantity. So, let us produce Quantities for once!”
Dieter Roth has certainly influenced Josh—not only has Josh adopted, knowingly or unknowingly, Roth’s quantity-based art philosophy; other aspects of Josh’s making of art also seem to reflect the influence of Roth.
Create like a god, command like a king, work like a slave. —Constantin Brancusi
In his relatively short career—his first solo exhibition was in 2003—Josh has created several distinctive and personal bodies of work, work with which he is closely identified. The first invention is the Name Paintings—art in which the central image is his given and family name. There has to be a strong presumption that Josh has used the Name Paintings as a device to enter or approach abstraction—a way of avoiding narrative subject matter, yet benefiting from an identifiable image—just as de Kooning used the figure of a woman and many artists, particularly Joan Mitchell, used landscape. In the beginning his name was painted in grisaille on either wood panel or on canvas and consumed the entire picture plane. The construction and the orientation of his signature varied but was always painterly with a suggestion of abstraction. In some, especially the earlier paintings, the only discernable image was “JOSH SMITH,” and in one exceptional instance his name created an approximation of the figures in LES DEMOISELLES D’AVIGNON (1907). Josh is not afraid of Picasso. Later there were name paintings adorned with second images and/or decoration done in a variety of bright colors. Josh is not afraid of color. The Name Paintings remain the work most closely associated with Josh.
I close my eyes in order to see. —Paul Gauguin
The second Josh Smith invention is the Palette Painting. Each palette, on a 16 x 20 inch canvas, has the colors used in one painting. No attempt is made to “paint” the palette; Josh insists that if there is any purposeful intervention the palette is spoiled. The Palette Paintings are radical—a powerful idea and a unique undertaking. The chance aspect is reminiscent of the experiments of the Surrealists. Since they are literally palettes—surfaces on which Josh mixes paint—it is not clear why they are so successful, nor why some work better than others. Josh has also made a few “pseudo-palette” paintings; for these he blotted sections of a large (60 x 48 inch) wet painting in progress with the same sort of canvas that he uses for an authentic palette. Several of this type were shown at the Susanne Hilberry Gallery in Detroit in 2006. They are beautiful.
Ambiguity in art, paradoxically, must be coherent and opacity must not be promiscuous (arbitrary); both must add to the energy of the work. -Anonymous
A recent project is a series of spectacular paintings of fish. Josh is an avid fisherman with a history of employing fish imagery in his art—a history that dates back to his student days at the University of Tennessee. One of his artists’ books is a compendium of drawings of all the species of fish in Tennessee, over 300 of them. On a visit to Chicago Josh insisted on a trek to the Shedd Aquarium before undertaking anything else—he went, several notepads in hand, from tank to tank, making quick sketches of the aquatic residents. Josh’s piscine paintings are a combination of realistic, if exaggerated, representation and painterly abstraction. The fish are often depicted in action; moreover, they have a personality—some benign looking acrobats showing off their swimming and leaping skills, some monsters one would not want to meet in a dark stream. Once again, Josh is not entirely satisfied with them, but they are, in my opinion, killer paintings.
Art is a harmless pleasure. -Samuel Johnson
There are other themes in Josh’s paintings—the poster paintings for one and the mirror paintings for another. As Josh has noted, he does not want to close any doors; indeed, it is his conceit that there are no doors.
Conversation in a museum in front of a Vuillard. Father: “Do you like the painting?” Son: “Yes.” Father: “Should I have them wrap it up?” Son: “No, I'll eat it here.” -I.G.W. and C.D.W.
Still another Josh contrivance is his brand of collage. Certainly, Josh did not invent collage, but his are so different as to approach invention. The collaged papers are a mixed bag of flat waste—found advertisements, poster announcements for his shows, beer coasters, computer printouts of his drawings and/or paintings, newspapers, maps, blank sheets—all pasted on 60 x 48 inch wood panels. The collaged paper is often painted over.
Overheard in a large room at the National Gallery Washington with paintings by Jackson Pollock, Philip Guston, Barnett Newman, and Willem de Kooning: A man to his wife, “Let’s get the hell out of here.” —I.G.W.
The white whale that Josh continues to pursue is abstraction—the development of another signature style—like a baseball pitcher who has a dominant fastball, but wants a mean slider as well. He claims he has not yet landed his prey, although this is something of a contradiction since his show in 2007 at Luhring Augustine was titled “Abstraction.” In any case, the search for the whale goes on. There is in this the ambitious (driven) side of Josh.
In his 2007 exhibition at Luhring Augustine Gallery, Josh Smith put aside for a moment works that had become his signature pieces. Until then, his paintings occupied three main categories: the Name Paintings, integrating the writing of the artist’s own name; the Announcement Paintings, on which he screenprinted hand-written posters for his shows; and the Collages, composed of various printed materials, from self-made exhibition flyers to take-out menus, pasted on plywood and sometimes painted over. Some absurd purpose appeared to condition each of these series: Why would a painting shout the name of its creator or announce a show to visitors already present? But the pictures in “Abstraction” did not pretend to any such purpose. No Name Paintings, Announcement Paintings, or Collages were to be found, but instead, abstract canvases in two sizes, 60 x 48 and 20 x 16 inches, at first sight devoid of any function or subject matter.
Smith’s show presented over forty colorful abstract paintings of identical format hung on the same level around the gallery’s two main rooms. In the entrance and the corridor separating the exhibition spaces, the artist added a number of smaller canvases, similarly hung in a line. This latter group, christened the Palette Paintings, was begun a couple of years before the Luhring Augustine show and seemed to occupy a more anecdotal position due to their size and mode of fabrication. Smith notes, “Usually, in my head, J call them ‘brush-cleaning paintings.’ I’ll have an empty canvas, and if I have a brush that’s loaded, I’ll just put it on there and use it.” The Palette Paintings were as abstract and colorful as the larger works in the show, but exclusively made of energetic spots of paint applied next to each other. The paintings’ vitality was solely generated by the artist’s working process. Smith explained to art critic Achim Hochdörfer recently, “The idea of Expressionism completely embarrasses me... And if things do come out... things that you define as being expressive or something... it happens because it is a by-product of a process, it’s not a direct expression. All the expression has been put through a filter, an ‘expression filter,’ so it comes out in a logical way. It’s not just pure and free but somehow justified and logical. Somehow the Palette Paintings look expressive but they are by-products of another painting.”
Most of the larger paintings in “Abstraction” comprised thick black lines—sometimes curved, sometimes angular—interlaced on surfaces made of interlocked round-edged shapes of three or four colors. In these works, two systems coexist without one dominating the other, thus avoiding any type of foreground/background relationship. Smith explained this relationship in the exhibition catalogue: “The abstract paintings are a mix between the palettes and my name paintings; the structure of the name paintings combined with the more colorful randomness of the palettes, When I was working on these paintings I tried to just walk that line.” The Abstract Paintings are not abstract in the sense of being expressive without resorting to figuration; they are instead abstractions of Smith’s own past work. The lines that composed the letters of his name or the announcements to his shows are set free from the alphabetical structure, just as the spots of mixed colors merge with each other and no longer stand in for the artist’s palette. It was striking then that a visitor to Luhring Augustine had to first pass the poster for the show, drawn by Smith, then a row of Palette Paintings, before entering the main rooms of the exhibition, unaware that these first pictures had somehow fed upon each other to create the Abstract Paintings.
Shortly after the opening, a magazine review stated with disapproval, “It’s only April, but there are forty-two good-sized canvases in Smith’s show, and they all bare the date 2007.” The writer obviously did not know that Smith had made many more. On April 17, the artist replaced the paintings in his exhibition with other similar works executed during the same period, so that a visitor coming early or late in April would see the same exhibition but different works. In conversation, Smith explains it as a form of generosity: why artificially rarity his production or deny that his working methods lead to a large number of works? Indeed, his production appears to be exponential. Each painting or poster is automatically recycled into the whole, continuing to generate new pictures over the years. In the artist’s economy, nothing ever seems to get lost.
Smith’s entire process grew out of almost nothing: “An exaggerated American name... like a pseudonym...[that] Europeans say with a smile.” Smith used his name in his work as others before him used the ready-made—a found object that could be collaged onto his paintings. The Name Paintings could be Smith’s only original gesture (while the Announcement Paintings, for instance, have clear precedents, I cannot recall any artist who produced an entire body of work on this single idea. These paintings set off a snowball effect, allowing the work to drag along everything it encountered and to gain its autonomy by constantly cannibalizing its own production. For instance, shortly after the Luhring Augustine show, Smith decided to publish, in a facsimile edition,” the gallery sign-in book, traditionally used in New York galleries to collect visitors’ names during an exhibition, both as an alternative catalogue of his show and a mirror image of his own Name Paintings.
In February 2009, Smith opened another exhibition at Luhring Augustine in many ways similar to “Abstraction,” but in others radically different. As in the 2007 show, “Currents”’—whose title was borrowed from Robert Rauschenberg’s fifty-four-foot screenprint of newspaper collages—presented paintings hung on one line around the gallery’s two main rooms; the other spaces were left empty. In what seemed an even tighter presentation, the works juxtaposed mixed paintings on canvas and collages on plywood without directly resorting to Smith’s habitual categories. Smith’s vocabulary had expanded, now including figurative motifs (a leaf with worm holes and a fish with human eyes) and a greater variety of pasted materials (proof sheets of his current catalogues and newspaper pages, for example), while his compositions had become more gestural. The catalogue published on the occasion of the show reproduces more than six hundred works made in less than a year. There, the artist explains that some of the panels were covered with images, usually of his own work, created with a digital camera and a laser printer.” In his new paintings, Smith made use of the capacity of any basic software to divide an image into sections that can be printed separately on letter-sized pages in order to recompose, for instance, a large picture in its original format. With this method, aiming at creating backgrounds for new paintings, the artist literally turned his past paintings into collages. Looking at the show produced an almost overwhelming effect, as the work seemed literally to duplicate itself. The process went full circle indeed: paintings had been photographed, photographs printed, prints collaged, collages painted over, and paintings photographed—only to emerge stronger each time.
Around 1957, Robert Ryman began using his name (at first RRYMAN and subsequently just RYMAN) as a compositional element in his paintings. When asked about this some decades later, Ryman explained that the signature was a traditional device, albeit not in the way he put it to use. Cleaved both from signification and subjective presence, these inscriptions read first and foremost as lines or curves, which is to say, visual incidents not unlike—or qualitatively distinct from—the surrounding passages of brushy facture. Akin to a word spoken so often as to void it semantically, RYMAN, repeated again and again, proposed a ubiquity meant to negate authority.
In one of those odd, too-good-to-be-true synchronies, another New York–based artist by way of Tennessee has recognized identity’s malleability: Over the past few years, Josh Smith has manipulated his own name as a kind of cipher. Js careen across supports and “smith”s clump in a corner, willfully productive of a buoyantly meaningless abstraction. But for Smith’s recent outing—his first at Luhring Augustine—he mostly jettisoned the autograph (hooked Js still surface residually here and there, but gone were canvases crammed full of letters). Telling was the show’s title, “Abstraction,” which evidenced a charismatic withdrawal relative to 2006’s “Dial J for Josh” at Power House, Memphis. Likewise, it was far from clear that the related announcement (some canvases looked like the black-and-white poster while copies of it also became grounds for others) for the Chelsea show was indeed for Smith’s exhibition. For an artist most frequently compared to the self-propagandizing Martin Kippenberger, such a move refocused attention from the name as guarantor of subjectivity to categorical signifier of “painting.”
In this, Smith’s foray into abstraction gains force, with strokes unmoored from connotation—representational or otherwise—in much the same manner as suggested by his play with nomenclature. Having tested the possibilities of Smith, and just maybe pushed them to exhaustion, next up is the gesture. Signs of “art” abound here. In addition to unaltered palettes standing in for, and as, finished abstract paintings, there are surfaces so liquid they might still be wet and arrangements so familiar they all but shriek “generic modernism.” Standardized scales and formats reveal Smith’s training as a printmaker, with certain aspects serving as guides for multiple iterations—the dots, squiggle, diagonal line, and zigzag of one painting are deployed variously in other works. Similarly, a coil recurs, rendering canvases less sequential than interchangeable.
Admitting the rapidity and profligacy of Smith’s production is part of the point. The pieces are tossed-off, almost automatic, yet still organized according to the logic of the template. In “Abstraction,” this industry came to a head, as viewers who returned might have found. Typically mimetic of their venue, Smith’s hangs underscore context, and in the cool commercial setting here, his paintings were almost too well behaved, coming precariously close to that which they were presumably aping. That is, until midway through the show’s run, when he switched out paintings and reconfigured the installation with new works, some painted since the opening—disorienting, to be sure. One had to try to remember what had been where and what was different, then ask why and how the before and after mattered. Whatever the answer (More to sell? Homage to Richard Tuttle? Rejoinder to New York Times critic Roberta Smith, who had written disparagingly of the “big-box” gallery phenomena only days before the reinstallation?), Smith’s intervention coerced a temporal narrative from the objects at his disposal and promised that there would still be—even in aftermath—more to come.
Josh Smith is best known for murky, expressionistic canvases covered with the twisted letters of his own name. This riff on “signature style” is carried out most often in the quintessentially expressive medium of painting, but also in prints, collages, and artists’ books that tease out issues of authorship through devices of mechanical reproduction. Much of his work follows a humorous and puzzlingly simple formula through which endless repetition of the artist’s own name and references to his exhibition history prompt art-critical buzz about authenticity, signature, biography, mythology, and genius. The new works, collectively titled “Abstraction,” are deliberately clumsy “archetypes of abstract painting” that place no premium on aesthetic appeal. The familiar letters of his name, while now considerably more difficult to find than in the past, are lurking there nonetheless. There is a discernible s in every squiggle, an m in every peak, an o in every circle, and several appearances of a bold, unmistakable j. Of course, this sort of decryption could also be a function of the imagination, a matter of seeing what one expects to see. This is the moment—when we are caught in the act of looking for familiar forms, grasping for meaning, and trying to find the artist in his work—that Smith’s paintings begin to shape-shift into something much better. The alphabet itself may be the best archetype of abstraction—a meaningless set of lines and shapes that, when arranged in a certain order, convey meaning. But communication occurs only for those who have access to the language, and the exclusive language of abstract painting can be bafflingly complex and remote. By reducing it to a few simple elements and switching focus to the framework through which meaning is created—from basically nothing—Smith's first solo show in Chelsea hit the mark.