Odili Donald Odita challenges the long-held belief that abstract art began with Paul Cézanne, and that it is a purely Western tradition in which Pablo Picasso’s appropriation of African art played an important role. This is the tradition with which most abstract artists align themselves. In this narrative of art history, Europe is at the center and the rest of the world is on the margins. Starting in the 1940s, American artists and critics helped shift the center to New York. And critics such as Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, and Rosalind Krauss helped to strengthen this perception.
Thankfully, not everyone agrees with this. Odita’s brightly colored geometric paintings on reconstituted wood veneer register all the different ways that he has stepped away from the white masterpiece tradition in which the artist applies oil paint to large swaths of canvas or linen. More importantly, he has never tried to establish a signature style and make formulaic paintings (one of the pitfalls of this tradition), which many regard as the epitome of success. Odita’s paintings are recognizable, but the compositions are never mechanical. He’s not phoning it in, as they say. Conceptually, it seems that he has thought his way through Western abstraction and the parallel movement of pattern and decoration, which often relies on repetition, as well as Op Art and its reliance on optical illusion. Whatever traces remain of these styles in Odita’s art, the viewer can be assured that he has done something to them.
These are some of the reasons I visited the exhibition Odili Donald Odita: Burning Cross at Jack Shainman Gallery (January 10–February 18, 2023). Of the show’s 12 vertical, square, and horizontal paintings, all but four are in acrylic latex paint on reconstituted wood veneer, which is black or dark brown. For the acrylic on canvas works, in which pattern and sharply angled shapes press tightly together, no ground is visible. I do not think Odita’s color choice is purely aesthetic. In 1965, Richard Artschwager famously recounted that “Formica, the great ugly material […] was a picture of something.” In Odita’s paintings, the reconstituted wood veneer is a picture of Blackness, reminding us that there is nothing neutral about working in oil on canvas. In the early 1970s, Joe Zucker used cotton balls to depict subjects such as Eli Whitney and the invention of the cotton gin, which shaped the economy of the Southern states, and views of plantation life and slavery. Odita’s consciousness of materials and color helps distinguishes him from his peers. He is not trying to comfortably fit in.
Odita never uses the same color twice in a painting. This slows the viewer down, drawing attention to difference rather than similarity. I think this is one of the artist’s primary impulses: he wants to challenge our assumptions and push beyond our comfort zone, even as this viewer at least finds great pleasure in looking at these works. He wants to open up a space for reflection.
In “Void” (2022), the symmetry of the composition of eight-sided irregular polygons and pentagons (derived from the polygons) is undermined by the use of different colors. At the center of the painting is a cluster of four polygons fit tightly together, their triangular edges touching. One pair is blue and dark blue, almost black, while the other is orange and red. While the choices don’t seem arbitrary, it is impossible to identify the underlying logic. Improvisation and systems overlap smoothly. Here, Odita is in a color world all his own.
Odita, who was born in Nigeria in 1966 and raised in the United States, has stated that the scalene triangle in many of his works has its roots in African forms found on textiles and often seen on the painted clay walls of homes in West Africa. His father, Emmanuel Odita, was an important member of the Zaria Arts Society, a modernist Nigerian art movement — a reminder that modernism was born and developed in multiple places around the same time, not only in the United States.
In “Time and Space” (2022), the arrangement of the scalene triangles divides the square support into four smaller squares. Again, nothing is repeated. The wood grain brings to mind an aerial view of a logged forest. We see rings within rings, circular shapes crowded together. The juxtaposition of scalene triangles (and their allusions to Africa and hyperspace) and a forest of logged trees — the new and the old — is unsettling. From where did the materials that compose the wall or structure in which we stand come? What kind of destruction took place? Odita does not take these things for granted.
“Poison Mind” (2022) is built on four-sided shapes with no parallel sides. Adjacent to each side, two stacks of these shapes rise from the bottom to the top edge, with a space between them. Again we must marvel at the use of a set of related but not repeated tones. Meanwhile, the black ground, speckled with white, becomes its own totemic, abstract shape. The dialogue Odita establishes between figure and ground adds another layer of consideration into the work. The thoughtfulness of these paintings is unusual in the age of sound bites and visual distraction. Odita is a major artist who deserves deeper examination.
Odili Donald Odita: Burning Cross continues at Jack Shainman Gallery (513 West 20th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through February 18. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.