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Installation view of ‘Josh Smith: Sculpture’ at Luhring Augustine (all images courtesy the artist and Luhring Augustine)

“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.

Josh Smith, “Untitled” (2014), rabbit skin glue, calcium carbonate, white pigment, ink, watercolor, graphite, grease pencil, and paint pen on panel

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.

Josh Smith, “Untitled” (2015), rabbit skin glue, calcium carbonate, white pigment, ink, watercolor, graphite, grease pencil, paint pen, and transfer drawing on panel (click to enlarge)

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?

Josh Smith, “Untitled” (2014), rabbit skin glue, calcium carbonate, white pigment, ink, watercolor, graphite, grease pencil, and paint pen on panel

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.

Josh Smith: Sculpture continues at Luhring Augustine (531 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through October 31.

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Peter Malone

A lifelong resident of NYC and environs, Peter Malone is an exhibiting artist, a retired assistant professor of art, an involved grandfather, and an amateur musician. He really has no time to write art...

27 replies on “A Hardworking, Sincere, and Studiously Inept Painter”

  1. Finally, an honest Josh Smith review. Thank you.

    The first Josh Smith I ever saw was in a restorer’s studio. The piece was just a couple years old and already falling apart. The restorer – I’d say his name but don’t want him to lose repeat business he gets from Luhring Augustine for fixing Smith pieces – was irate. He showed me the piece, a section of scrap plywood with xeroxes glued to it and black and white paint smeared on top. It made me think of those construction sites in Chelsea, usually around the High Line, as if a worker made the mess with his feet while eating lunch.

    It doesn’t really matter how many Peter Brants there are in the world to keep Josh Smith art circulating on walls (and through restorers’ studios), because one day nature will have its way.

  2. Thank you for this review.

    I’ve grown exhausted of the celebration of so many “bad boy” painters
    in this city who are actually just bad. “Artists” who are so cynical,
    self obsessed, and “ironic” to the point of nihilism. Frankly, I’m
    tired of the entire enterprise, where the majority of artistic discourse has
    succumbed to this idiocy.

    We’ve gone beyond the point of diminishing returns in regard to artists like
    the above and many practitioners like them. Ham-handed, cruelly ironic,
    slavishly reflective of cultural and social superficiality, obsequious to
    materialism and greed, aesthetically dead, empty of insight, pointless
    decorative elements. Enough.

    I feel like I’ve been looking at the same, dead dogshit for fifteen years now.
    Is it too much to ask that artists once again be celebrated for commitment to
    craft, aesthetics, intellectual (and dare I say emotional) complexity in
    whichever form that might take?

  3. Thank you for this honest review on Josh Smith’s art.
    I also “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.”

    Seems that the museum system is co-opted by the gallery system.

  4. These objects are antithesis of risk and the back story reads to me more like a mindless excuse to produce more crap. An abortion is a more apt description.

  5. It’s not necessarily what or how good the artist can create, it’s much more who the artist (and gallery) knows…

  6. Dear Peter Malone,

    Aw yes . . . Let’s hold Smith, of whom I know nothing other than from your review, responsible for what a press release has to say. A press release . . . that age-old source of reliable, objective information. Heavens, you’ve not even told us who wrote it, nor whom you might suspect.

    And how is it a mere name so offends you (Sculpture)? Your own may as well have been Richard and not Peter. Is your father’s name John? And are you either an Apostle or a saint?

    Really . . .

    As my teacher, Sam Scott, used to say, “Don’t confuse your taste with your judgement.” — especially when your taste so obviously influences your judgement.

      1. Dear psychomotikon,

        Unfortunately, most of us have very little to go on besides taste. (I don’t like the taste of your soufflé, it’s crap. Rather than, I don’t like the taste of your soufflé, but I can see that it is competently prepared.)

        Nevertheless, some among us ARE qualified to say, ‘I find your technique lacking, but you have raised some engaging points, you’ve made me, given me the chance to think about issues or ideas I may not normally, in the course of my day to day life, take the time to engage with.’

        I appreciate your question. There is no easy answer, but to couch one’s feelings (taste) in rhetorical terms that try to suggest some sort of reasoned response, seems, at least to me, a bit disingenuous. A rant is always a rant. Peter’s has little value, again, for me, as a review, though it might do better as a piece of art hanging on the walls of some gallery. It did provide many of the engaging features I like to find there.

        1. Taste, I suspect, is evident in one’s initial reaction. Most of us have had a negative initial response to art which over time change. Our perception and framework evolve and we can come to appreciate work that initially appears to be worthless. Acknowledging this, I read this review a little differently.

          The work just seems vacant of meaning, opaque in character and visually stingy. My reaction was to read the press release (something I don’t often do). I found the claims made in the press release offensive: Risky? Really? How so?

          I think the way we assign value to artwork sets the stage for ranting. Perhaps we’d do better to aim it at the real villains, as art like this is just their tool?

          1. Dear psychomotikon,

            Again, I don’t know who is respondsible for the press release, but, as you must know, press releases are all too often filled with hyperbole, which, of course, can so easily be meaningless, vis-a-vis the actual work.

            I cannot properly respond to Smith’s work, as I only have the images accompanying the review, and they are very small. For instance, I cannot see the actual texture of the peeling, which may or may not play a role in experiencing the ‘Sculptures’. But I think a look-see, if I lived anywhere near the exhibition, might be worth my time.

            As I hope is obvious, I am neither responding to, nor defending Smith. I am simply responding to the attitudes expressed by some of the comments, and to some aspects of art and art reviews in general. Judgement is far too easy when it does not ‘disambiguate’ itself from taste. [Disambiguate. Your word, but I liked it so much I felt the need to use it when I judged it appropriate.]

            Be well,

          2. I think it is the underlying economics that provokes angry responses, vs. the art itself.

            It is another vilification of art that doesn’t evidence craft, beauty or a coherent ideology–except to those who buy in to the backstory and speculate on the value. (And that’s why I think the press release is an integral part of the discussion).

            The assignment of value depends on the scaffolding, and the same can be said for all art, so, Why does this show piss people off so much?

            It’s a good question worth investigating. I suspect it has something to do with apparent bullshit in service of commercialization.

          3. Dear psychomodikon,

            I suspect you may be right, that economics may lie behind people’s anger. But I have a problem with that in that those people are not making what I consider necessary distinctions. If I don’t like something, I try to make a distinction between what I don’t like and the person who made it, or the person who sells it. Or if I don’t like what might be called ‘the gallery system’, then I would do well to attack the ‘system’ and leave other, albeit related, issues to sort themselves out, with or without my engagement, but nevertheless as separate issues. The complexity of tossing everything into one basket is rarely productive. One issue at a time. ( I am not being naïve. Having dealt with galleries for many years, I know all too well what the issues are.)

            However, while the system (economic, commercial, speculative, and so forth) may be what drives people’s responses, it’s not at all clear to me that that is the point of the review. After all, Peter says quite clearly that “Smith is a hardworking and forthright artist.” He also says that “He [Smith] believes in what he is doing and the gallery is unequivocal in its support of that belief.”

            The further I go in rereading Peter’s review, the less sense it makes, and the less sure I am about what, exactly, he really wants to say.

  7. Excellent review. You’re so right, especially that last paragraph. It’s not just in galleries, it’s museums, too. Sometimes I wonder if the abandonment of critical judgments related to quality of concept, execution and emotional resonance are the result of the tastemakers and collectors being afraid to end up being behind the curve by not recognizing the next Picasso or Pollock — i.e. art that upset the established order, and was widely initially dismissed as an affront to quality or not quite art before a consensus arose that it marked an important and influential artistic development. This primes them to clamber onto any boat that appears “raw” and “radical” before it sails away without them. Or maybe they hope some of that aura of bold risk-taking cultivated by the likes of Josh Smith rubs off on them in the eyes of status-conscious peers whom they’re trying to impress.

  8. Really well written. Museums who prop up artists like this don’t prize talent or vision or effort as much as they do consensus. As in “let’s all agree to cosign this so we can get over on some rubes.” The more cynical and inscrutable the work, the easier it is to convince impressionable people that there’s some deep meaning to “get”.

    Like pump and dump schemes used to inflate the value of penny stocks on Wall St. you just talk it up and voila… value follows.

    1. I wouldn’t apply “really well written” to an article wherein the author shows that he clearly doesn’t know the definition of “belies”; the usage here is backwards.

      1. I meant well written like it was interesting and made solid points – a good read. If he employed “belies”correctly and didn’t have any valuable insight I wouldn’t say it was well written.

      2. The use of “belies” is fine. It is asking whether the apparent lack of
        facility is in fact an appearance or a real lack. It is thought to be a
        real lack in this case. Thus, nothing “belies” talent but simply “shows”
        its absence plainly. Also, hence the “sincere ineptitude” of the title.

  9. Josh Smith may be “hardworking and forthright”, but many others are not. Luhring Augustine may be “up front and sincere”, but many others are not.

    I’m afraid Wolfe was right. It is, by and large, a giant confidence trick and a scam.

    It is the bubble which needs to be kept eternally inflated by any and all means necessary. Too many have their snouts in the trough and depend on it being filled regularly.

  10. I think he’s an interesting artist. His video is pretty revealing. The title “Sculpture” for this exhibition is a refutation of Provisional Painting (he says something like if THEY are making things they call paintings – with holes and folded or whatever – then I’m making sculpture. The things THEY are making are not really paintings).

    Smith’s work is very formal – all about structures – that are kind of empty. The work might be structures filled with structures – in the video for example, a book of xeroxes made from rubber bands that look like drawings. The work is like Sol Lewitt only the separate projects are in the round, or like cells with dna inside.

    The paintings in “Sculpture” really look like art. I’ve seen art like these before, not necessarily Cy Twombly who the interviewer mentions in the video. They have a different kind of space and feeling than Cy’s. I imagine making each painting is a shocking thing – every mark or bump play a part. The paintings might be a little safe. I think most of his work is sort of safe and tasteful, which I guess would make it somewhat decorative, but still quite nice. In laying the pieces out, he’s a good floral arranger. I like the obsessiveness of the overall as well. I’m sure he can make anything beautiful.

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