David Amico, “Newstand” (2011), 96 x 72 (all images courtesy the artist)

LOS ANGELES — After spending the good part of three days in David Amico’s studio, looking at work he’s made since he was a student at California State Fullerton, I have been thinking about how to characterize his paintings and his career, both of which have remained under the radar. Are the paintings he has made since the mid-1980s, when he hit his stride, abstract or representational or both? Would it be accurate to say that Amico is an observational abstract painter working in the sphere of artists as different as Catherine Murphy and Peter Dreher? How should we regard his use of the camera and overhead projector? Would it be accurate to say that he is a photo-based abstract painter working in counterpoint to Robert Bechtle? After all, many of Amico’s source images come from particular neighborhoods, just as Bechtle’s stark, moody paintings were inspired by the empty streets of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill. Can an artist working this way still be true to paint’s multiple identities? 

This is what I like about Amico’s paintings. They don’t fit into any of the categories established by the art world. I can say what I see in individual works, and even guess the sources of many, but I have never come up with an umbrella category for them as a group, nor has he has ever developed a signature style or been part of a trend. Now in his early 70s, Amico is an under-recognized artist whose works warrant a museum exhibition and monograph.

Early during my three-day marathon studio visit, Amico and I began talking about sources, appropriation, and what he learned after he left Hunter College and his work was included in the first group exhibition at PS1 (now MoMA PS1), A Month of Sundays (September 19–October 10, 1976). I learned that he had a residency at PS1 that came with a studio, where he often slept, and that he took photos of nearby industrial neighborhoods and train yards, then in a state of decay. This suggested to me an interest in areas that haven’t been gentrified, as well as a connection to his roots in Southern California, where his family moved from Rochester, New York, for job opportunities. His father, a high school dropout, worked in a slaughterhouse. Shortly after Amico’s PS1 residency ended, he returned to Los Angeles and began living in lofts downtown. When I asked him why he left New York, where he had moved specifically to study with Robert Morris and others in Hunter’s MFA program, he said he could not afford it; in Los Angeles, a space of comparable size cost 1/10 of the rent in New York. 

David Amico, “Drum Rust” (2009), 72 x 48 inches

Over the next 40 years, Amico developed a practice that is as true to his area of Los Angeles as David Hockney and Jonas Wood are to theirs. Amico lives in LA’s Skid Row neighborhood. His street is lined with encampments of unhoused people who form a community and look out for one another’s safety. Living in a sunny, industrial space in an area that has not been gentrified, as he has in downtown LA for more than 40 years, Amico has watched the neighborhood change, while remaining essentially the same: a refuge for people who are unhoused, with SRO hotels, missions, and clinics.

For years, Amico has driven around Los Angeles early in the morning and taken photographs in industrial neighborhoods of walls and surfaces: a scarred, discarded drafting table, for example, or a rain-washed sidewalk on which mud and stones have scattered. Yet, in contrast to Bechtle and other photorealists, Amico was not interested in pictorial compositions. He focused on marks, shapes, graffiti, and moldering surfaces. In this regard, he shares something with Cy Twombly, whose interest in graffiti and mark making is highly celebrated. One difference between them is legibility, with Twombly working on the side of the readable and Amico preferring the asemic. 

Amico has challenged himself with the particular images from which he’s chosen to work. How can you replicate a stain on an industrial wall or convey the way a liquid adheres to a pockmarked surface without becoming photographic? Can you remain true to paint’s materiality, from liquidity to manipulable density? How do you acknowledge the ravages of time? 

Instead looking for a certain type of image, Amico has walked around unpopulated industrial areas looking for material both in New York and Los Angeles. Years of exploring has taught him to take his camera wherever he goes. If he doesn’t have it, he will return with it. I learned that the source of one painting we looked at was graffiti on a brick near the entrance to a Chinese restaurant. Based on the marks and placement of the brick, it occurred to him that the graffiti could only have been drawn by someone lying on the sidewalk, and that the marks seemed both purposeful and aimless. 

David Amico, “Untitled Blue” (2007), oil on canvas, 108 x 144 inches

Amico’s way of seeing the world dates back to his days as an art student at Cal State Fullerton, when he delivered newspapers before dawn, and later gathered detritus to incorporate into his art. At the time, the school was surrounded by industrial spaces for canneries, paper products, and aerospace factories. His interest in the discarded, overlooked, and anonymous is one of the through lines of his career.

While Amico devotes himself to being truthful to the materiality of the image — faintly stained surfaces on which other marks have been made by both humans and nature — the transformation he engenders through paint is what I find spellbinding. In the oil on canvas “Untitled Blue” (2007), which is 108 by 144 inches — a scale he has used often — we see a subtly changing, thinly painted blue ground with blue stains and an unidentifiable form. A line defining an oblong shape is just off center. Are the lines just that or should we read into them? 

In “Desert Stream” (2010), do we read the dark gray area cutting diagonally across the painting as a stain or shadow? What about the circular orange spots near the top edge or the solid black shape extending up from the lower left edge? How should we see the myriad little marks and smudges, which suggest a mountain scape? Even if we know the source, we are left with more questions than answers. 

Abstraction’s beginnings were utopian. Kasimir Malevich believed the Russian Revolution would lead to a new modern society and spiritual freedom. The De Stijl group, founded by Piet Mondrian, Theo van Doesburg, and Gerrit Rietvald in 1920, felt that art could be both beautiful and functional. In 1926, van Doesburg, Mondrian, Rietveld, Bart van der Leck, and Gerrit Berkelaar signed a manifesto declaring that their collective goal was “to create works that are simple, direct and devoid of all superfluous ornamentation,” with “no concessions” made to commercialism or consumerism. 

Over a century in which this optimism has all but vanished and painting has repeatedly been declared dead, Amico continues to believe in both painting and abstraction. By choosing industrial walls, boarded-up buildings, and other marked edifices as the subjects of his work, he commits himself to pursuing a path in which abstraction and the everyday world, the manmade and nature, come together. By focusing on anonymous marks and stains, he pushes backs against the heroism of gestural abstraction and the reductive order of Minimalism without giving up the possibility of drawing in paint. At the same time, he honors the history of anonymous mark making in “Untitled Blue” and all those who made such scrawls, whether in a cave or outside of a Chinese restaurant. There is a directness, beauty, urgency, and an awareness of time and change to these layered paintings that the art world has yet to recognize.

David Amico, “Desert Stream” (2010), oil on canvas, 108 x 144

John Yau has published books of poetry, fiction, and criticism. His latest poetry publications include a book of poems, Further Adventures in Monochrome (Copper Canyon Press, 2012), and the chapbook, Egyptian...