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.