Larry Webb and Bob Witz
Way downtown at Studio 128, Larry Webb and Bob Witz exhibit paintings that nearly scream of the New York School’s influence. Looking at the work, I can all but smell the odor of turpentine emanating from paint-stained wooden floors of garreted Tenth Street lofts and the smoke curling from casually held cigarettes as intellectuals and artists discuss existential profundities. The 1940s and 1950s weigh heavily on these two painters—for better and for worse. Their resolute dedication to a particular era gives them integrity but sometimes makes their work seem dated.
Witz handles history with greater felicity than does his more somber comrade. This humor is a saving grace and contributes to the success of paintings like “Nietzsche/Pollock.” In title and style, it makes reference to abstract expressionist painting. Witz stipples like Pousette-Dart in a bright cadmium palette of yellows and reds. But he does things that would be anathema to the irascible generation, such as incorporating comic portraits of Nietzsche and Pollock in the pockmarked surface of his painting. This playfulness carries over into the gallery’s back room, where Witz’s best paintings, his small ones, are on display. One set of six small paintings is composed of little faces set into a grid of one-inch colored squares. Witz draws the faces by scraping into impasto paint with the butt of a brush. They’re the pedestrian faces we see around us, but colorful and alive.
Although a few bits of imagery are visible in Webb’s paintings, he’s never as insistent as Witz is with his faces. Form in Webb’s abstractions is never assertive, and this is a problem. When you abandon imagery in a painting, something else must assert itself in order to give the work a raison d’être. It could be form, as with the biomorphic surrealists. In could be gesture and color, as in de Kooning. It could be the tension between image and abstraction, as in Cecily Brown. If nothing asserts itself, you risk leaving the viewer wondering why the painting was painted. This is the case with many of Webb’s paintings, which seem to hang in an uneasy limbo between New York School abstraction and 1980s neo-expressionism. “Yea Gods” is a case in point. For all its ferocious coloring and hints at morbid imagery, the painting lacks conviction. It’s as though the painting’s forms were neither significant enough to clarify nor superfluous enough to jettison.
The work of both painters has the authentic feel of homegrown style. One would never question their integrity or suppose that they have not worked hard to get where they are. No way are they driven by the crass commercialism you occasionally sense in certain prominent artists. What Webb and Witz seem to lack, in their weaker moments, is the critical rigor and acute consciousness of historical precedent that much postmodern art exhibits. The focus remains on an era of painting now half a century old. Painters of that period privileged intuitive painting derived from gut instinct. In contrast to this, minimal and conceptual art in the 1960s asserted a place for the intellect in the process of making and analyzing art. Whether they agree or not, contemporary painters must come to terms with this legacy in their work.
Leland Bell: Paint, Precision, and Placement. A Centennial ExhibitionBy John Goodrich
OCT 2022 | ArtSeen
Any ambitious painter faces a conundrum: what can a painting say today that hasnt already been said? Some artists, chastened by the historical record, may phrase it a little differently: how to paint something worth hanging on a wall, when the walls of our museums already boast the most extraordinary paintings? Leland Bell (1922-1991), who would have turned one hundred years old this fall, was possessed by the second of these challenges. His centennial show at the New York Studio School, which includes some two dozen paintings and drawings selected by curator Steven Harvey, puts on full, luminous display his passions, insights and struggles.
Lisa Slominski’s Nonconformers: A New History of Self-Taught ArtistsBy Jo Lawson-Tancred
JUNE 2022 | Art Books
Building on the history of Outsider art dating back to the 1970s, this book dives into the implications, limits, and paradoxes of the popular and problematic label. Placing the emphasis on the artists themselves and the formal properties of their work, the book foregrounds their practices over excessive biographic detail.
The Sharpe-Walentas Studio ProgramBy Andrew Paul Woolbright
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArTonic
The material conditions of being an artist in New York have a direct impact on the aesthetics and considerations taken in the studio and within an artists practice. While the return of the influence of Arte Povera and the prominence of post-studio practices can both can be attributed to ideological and conceptual decisions or to new structures of feeling in Raymond Williamss terms, they can also be translated and defined through the prices of lumber, rising studio costs, and the commuting culture created through the gig economy.
Erika Doss’s Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and ReligionBy Daniel Kraft
MARCH 2023 | Art Books
Through case studies investigating the role of religion in the lives and works of four 20th century American artistsJoseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warholand through a short closing chapter discussing Christian imagery in more recent art, Doss demonstrates how reductive this dismissal of spirituality really is.