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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.