Lest we forget, the practice of drawing lines was what enabled Philip Guston to radically change his work in the mid-1960s. Had Guston not drawn — transitioning between pared-down abstractions and cartoonish images without concern for “doing the right thing” in art — he would never have made his breakthrough.
Chuck Webster’s obvious devotion to drawing is what initially drew me to his work. His first show, at ZieherSmith (June 19–August 8, 2003), was packed with modestly sized drawings done on sheets of antique paper and hung salon style. It was immediately clear that he loved to draw and was not focused on developing a signature style. Process, rather than product, seemed to be primary.
As I subsequently learned, Webster is not averse to absorbing diverse sources. He has spent long hours looking at Old Masters at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as well as analyzing the work of contemporary artists, such as Thomas Nozkowski, Louise Bourgeois, Jim Nutt, Brenda Goodman, Forrest Bess, Steve DiBenedetto, and Chris Martin, just to name some. In our conversations, I have seldom mentioned an artist whose work he did not know and had not thought carefully about. For him, no response was simply yes or no.
Guided by his curiosity, Webster is voracious — even what some might call indiscriminate — with his influences. What anchors his work is drawing; he is not afraid to reveal himself through this age-old practice, using whatever means are at his disposal: graphite, watercolor, ink, gouache, or crayon. Nor is he afraid to alter a finished drawing in order to move forward and get somewhere else. In this, he shares something with writers who know that rewriting is essential to the process.
I was looking forward to going to the exhibition Chuck Webster: Signals, Calls, and Marches at Planthouse, which opened March 3, but this has become nearly impossible in recent weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. But, as the gallery is within walking distance of where I live (and I walk my dog nearby twice a day), I made an appointment to see the show. This is how I became the only visitor to Webster’s exhibition.
The show consists of 20 collage drawings, 5 wood sculptures, and 1 bronze sculpture. For someone who has followed Webster’s work for more than 15 years, and written about it a number of times (including the two-person show MANTEGNA: William Kentridge and Chuck Webster at David Krut Projects from June 23 to July 29, 2016; and Chuck Webster: Look Around at Betty Cuningham from January 14 to February 18, 2017), I was happily surprised by the sculptures — which he showed for the first time — and to see him combining drawing and collage, which I also had not seen before.
By cutting up his own drawings and collaging them together before affixing them to grounds, Webster employs two different processes to push his work into a new place. In “Torment (for M.B.)” (2019), for example, the artist poured different layers of wet paper pulp onto the surface, then let each one dry before applying a different color. Each semi-transparent layer dries flat. The final work is a compressed record of all the different pours.
This method enables Webster attain different atmospheric conditions. In the aptly titled “Storm Warnings” (2019), which measures 58 by 39 inches, a blackish, dust-like cloud — which is denser along the drawing’s right edge — rises, undulates, and thins out as it spans the upper part of the paper up to its left edge. Beneath this porous cloud, rising up from the drawing’s bottom edge, is a multicolored, jigsaw puzzle-like aggregation, which, because of the variations in the palette, seem to be made up of semi-autonomous zones. Something different is going on in each of these zones, which together form a fantastical landscape, with a set of stairs visible on the lower left. What are we to make of the blue, head-like shape extending horizontally out of the multicolored mountainous landscape dominating the left side of the drawing? The four limb-like forms extending helplessly into the air from what looks like a mountain-torso underscore the question.
At one point, while looking at the commingling of joyous color and foreboding forms in “Storm Warnings,” I thought of the collage-drawing as a view of the hill town of Assisi, dominated by The Basilica of Saint Francis, as seen through the eyes of an avid comic-book and science-fiction reader. By bringing together these divergent possibilities, Webster infuses the work with a genuine depth of feeling.
In 1964, Jasper Johns wrote this in his sketchbook: “Take an object / Do something to it / Do something else to it. [Repeat.].” Certainly extending back to the literalist art of the 1970s, artists have taken an object and done something to it. However, many artists seem content to stop after doing one thing. Closing the gap between the so-called “idea” and the making is about product, rather than process — smart, capitalist efficiency (often under the guise of conceptual art production) rather than dumb, open-ended procedure. However, when Johns writes “Do something else to it. [Repeat.],” he is emphasizing just that: to do “something else,” which means not doing the same thing, to arrive comfortably at a signature product. This is what gives Webster’s work its juice; it is not predictable and he does not have a signature style. The work can be uneven at times, but I find that to be a strength rather than a weakness. Webster is not interested in replicating a brand, which seems to me to be one of the basic underpinnings of today’s celebrated art.
“Torment (for M.B.)” measures 30 by 40 inches and combines a collage made of several drawings on handmade paper and a paper pulp painting. The inspiration is “The Torment of Saint Anthony” (1487-88), Michelangelo’s earliest known painting, done when he was 12 or 13 years old. Michelangelo based his painting on an engraving, “Saint Anthony Tormented by Demons” (1470-75), by the German artist Martin Schongauer. While Michelangelo sticks close to the source, Webster’s imaginative response invites this question: how do you bring the past into the present? It is one that has haunted contemporary artists as different as Guston, Johns, Suzan Frecon, and David Reed.
Beyond their love of art, what joins these artists is their sensitivity to the constant perils of being alive. In works from the Italian and Northern Renaissance, each artist found something that sparked his or her imagination: Hell; the Deluge; the poisonous effects of ergotism (a disease caused by consuming fungus-infected rye grain); the tormenting of a saint; the Virgin Mary reluctantly learning her future, and the burden it would press upon her. I think of these subjects as urgent responses to the inevitability of suffering that we all face. It seems to me that Webster has taken up from his forebears the daunting challenge of making art that offers the viewer pleasure, yet does not turn away from the impending, inescapable chaos of time passing.
So far, I have only written about the works on paper and not the sculptures, which add another facet to Webster’s work. If you have been following his development, you will know that an image of what resembled a croquet mallet entered his work, most notably in the large painting “Liberty or Death” (2013-2016, oil on panel, 84 by 120 inches), included in his 2017 show at Betty Cuningham Gallery.
Cast in bronze, “The Keeper” (2020) is made of one large and two smaller mallets, arranged like an abstract personage, with a wedge for a body. The large mallet is upright, like a head on a long neck, while the smaller ones extend horizontally from the wedge, like arms culminating in clenched fists; all of this is placed atop a stepped platform. Incorporating the mallet (in different sizes) in each of the five tabletop sculptures, Webster animates them with a light, witty presence.
Named after the Egyptian pharaoh who built the pyramid at Giza, the predominantly blue “Khufu” (2020) evokes comparisons to a many-legged centipede, with four mallets rising from its body, a felucca, and a child’s toy. With four yellow and black mallets (think bumblebee) rising vertically out of a yellow, wedge-like body, “Rocker (for Mark di Suvero)” (2020) honors di Suvero’s penchant for making interactive sculptures with movable parts. With this exhibition, Chuck Webster extends his use of materials and processes, moving forward once again.
Chuck Webster: Signals, Calls, and Marches is currently on view at Planthouse (55 West 28th Street, Manhattan).
Editor’s note: Please note that physical viewing hours for this exhibition have temporarily ended in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. The exhibition is now being presented online. Cognizant of the importance of discussions around art and culture during this time, we encourage readers to explore the exhibition virtually as many of us continue to self-isolate. Please check the gallery website to see when viewing hours will resume.