Unapologetic Good Will: Roy De Forest

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Roy De Forest, A Man of the Country (2003), acrylic on panel with artist’s frame, 23-1/2″ x 21″; courtesy George Adams Gallery

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The following review was originally published in the January 15, 2008 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Roy De Forest; A Simple Life: Small Scale Paintings from 2000-2003 at George Adams Gallery (until February 9).

Generosity of spirit and joyous excess are the hallmarks of Roy De Forest’s blissfully excessive art, the subject of a memorial exhibition at George Adams Gallery. (De Forest died last spring at the age of 77.) His paintings, drawings and sculptures were often classified as “California Funk,” a description foisted upon a group of West Coast artists who treated tradition with cheery disregard. No highfalutin intentions, please, we’re Californians.

De Forest wasn’t ignored by the Manhattan art scene, as numerous exhibitions by dealer Allan Frumkin attest. Nor did the artist turn a blind eye to the New York School: Its compositional strategies filter into De Forest’s kaleidoscopic arrays of cowboys, dogs and relentless ornamentation. Yet never would you have caught self-important standard-bearers of high art—Robert Motherwell, say, or Clyfford Still—indulging in such goofball fantasies.

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Roy De Forest, A Bird in Hand (1965), acrylic on canvas, 72″ x 60″; courtesy George Adams Gallery

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The thing is, De Forest’s paintings aren’t fantasies; they’re real. An artist’s responsibility is to create a fiction we can enter, experience and believe in. How convincingly it’s realized and how much the artist yields to its logic determines its aesthetic viability. The inside-out, every-which-way cosmos De Forest brought to life sprawls like a topographical map and bustles like the No. 6 train at rush hour. There’s not an inch of canvas unaccounted for. Forget horror vacui: De Forest’s all-over and exaggerated pointillism, characterized by blips of acrylic squeezed directly from the tube, aren’t obsessive; they’re a celebration of life’s bounty.

The rough-hewn vigor of American folk art informs the paintings, as does the unmediated nature of children’s art. But De Forest’s sophistication precluded sentimentality—the strong coloration, surprising and intricate narratives and general air of ecstasy recall non-Western art, particularly Himalayan painting.

The flattened, topsy-turvy landscape in Silas Newcastle Goes Down (1966) has a hallucinogenic fervor that upsets its symmetrical composition. Black Horse Meadow (2004-2005), with its drowsy haze of soft yellows, is as quaint and warm as the wallpaper in grandma’s living room.

De Forest got cute with his handmade frames—kitschy self-consciousness didn’t suit him—and the drawings are too wispy to invigorate their rolling landscapes and clustered doodles. But the paintings offer glittering proof that happiness, optimism and unapologetic good will are their own reward—and ours.

© 2008 Mario Naves

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