“Josh Smith: Sculpture” is how the sign reads. Yet behind it is a conservatively installed exhibition of drawings, conventionally framed and tastefully spaced on Luhring Augustine’s neutral white walls. So what’s the gag? According to a member of the gallery staff, the “sculpture” idea was the artist’s way of addressing the project’s material history. Apparently, wood panels prepared with a traditional gesso recipe were botched, resulting in cracked, peeling surfaces. Having rejected the option of redoing them correctly (a predictable choice for those familiar with Smith’s work), he decided instead to make drawings on them. Thus, a technical screwup led to an unremarkable decision to make the best of an accident, which inspired this art world veteran to inject a dose of graduate student overreach into the show’s concept.
Sculpture is not the first time I’ve seen Smith’s work presented as if it were a high-wire act. So the hyperbole in the press release was no surprise either. It declares that Smith “thrives on risk.” Frankly, I don’t see it. A bit of improvisational pluck hardly constitutes risk. And by the measure of modern art’s fuller history, a decision to go ahead with a plan that had been altered by unforeseen circumstance is quite ordinary and undeserving of the show’s absurd conceptual framework.
As to the visual aspects, the drawings fail to merge in any intelligent way with the distressed surfaces, which themselves appear only marginally interesting. The drawing technique is impromptu and scrappy in the manner of Cy Twombly, by which I mean that Smith’s marks appeared at first glance to be expressionist scribbles. However, closer inspection revealed little more than mannered incoherence. Presumably Twombly’s essence — a sense of complex thought hidden behind inscrutable clues — would have been too time-consuming for Smith’s usual production methods. We are instead given panels with a “risky” look, which begs consideration of another claim in the press release, that Smith’s work “resists being easily categorized or defined by a signature style.” Smith is in fact a tireless practitioner of a very distinct style.
It is a style of studied ineptitude. There is never anything in his work that implies talent, though there is more than enough self-regard to fill the void. It is a style that began with a big bang in the 1980s when its unmoved mover, the now canonic Julian Schnabel, introduced his ham-handed apotheosis of premeditated spontaneity, served up on a palette of unbending assertion. Acolytes of this cult hold to a simple tenet of faith: put some paint or charcoal (or anything really) on a surface, then leave it alone — do not correct, wipe, adjust, or allow any signs of hesitation to spoil its allusion to the artist’s supreme confidence.
A panel or two in the show came close to an animated spirit that in a moment of generosity I tried comparing mentally to Joan Miró’s automatism. But searching for traces of any follow-through in the remaining work proved a waste of time. In fact, the insipid dullness of the whole series forced a reconsideration of any thoughts regarding Miró. Each panel is given a scatter shot of lines, random dots, scrawls, and wads of dried paint that offer no coherent perceptual consideration of any kind.
Apparently, Smith’s entire enterprise is best managed quickly and with as little fuss as possible, but this does not indicate a lack of ambition. In several interviews for prominent magazines, and more specifically in a recent internet film by Max Fierst, currently on Vimeo, the artist speaks candidly about the work in this show. Standing between his drawings and Fierst’s camera, Smith extemporizes on influence: “everyone says … Twombly … yeah, I mean Twombly is there […] I’m trying to do the opposite of what he does, while still honoring — not honoring necessarily, but revering, respecting, referencing what [Twombly] established.”
Don’t let the casual and unrehearsed syntax distract you. There is real bluster here. Considering that what the enigmatic Twombly did is one of the more difficult and controversial questions of recent art history, what on earth does Smith mean by its “opposite”? And note the downward recalculating he improvises while describing his relationship to Twombly’s work — “honoring,” “revering,” “respecting,” and finally “referencing,” verbalizes an oedipal lowering of the older artist into his grave, illustrating Smith’s modus operandi. Why make the effort required to stand on the shoulders of giants when you can just announce it as a fait accompli?
In the face of such chutzpah, a critic is tempted to pass judgement on the artist’s sincerity. But I’m old enough to remember Tom Wolfe’s The Painted Word, in which the dandy of new journalism made a real fool of himself by asserting that major artists were involved in confidence games, executed behind smoke screens of pretentious writing. By assigning dishonest intentions to the artists in question the entire essay collapsed into a silly conspiracy theory. So, let me be clear. Smith is a hardworking and forthright artist. Both he and the gallery are up front and sincere about what is made in Smith’s studio and how it is being offered to the public. He believes in what he is doing and the gallery is unequivocal in its support of that belief.
My only complaint — and it is no small complaint — is that his work is so clearly inept, so obviously impersonal, unfeeling, contemptuous, cynical, and literally thrown together that I find myself down the rabbit hole trying to understand why the curators at MoMA, the New Museum, and the Whitney choose to give him any consideration at all. Only Luhring Augustine’s support seems rational. They are a business with a justifiable concern for the bottom line. It is their job to know where the bottom is.