Tag Archives: Stephen Westfall

“Wit” at The Painting Center

witJoanne Freeman, All Is Not What It Seems (2012), oil on canvas, 48″ x 36″; courtesy The Painting Center

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The following is an essay from the catalogue accompanying Wit, an exhibition curated by Joanne Freeman that was on display at The Painting Center from January 29-February 23, 2013.

Wit, huh? It seems an unlikely peg on which to organize an exhibition of abstract paintings and sculptures. We’ve been taught, after all, that abstract art is serious business. Kandinsky, Mondrian and Malevich, the holy trinity of modernist abstraction, scuttled representation in the cause of philosophical and sociological ideals–as a means of changing the world. The New York School, having seen how resolutely the world crushed their aspirations, redefined abstraction as a conduit for interiority–as a forum for primordial longings, universal symbols, that sort of thing. They did so to impressive effect—until, that is, the world went pop!

witRuth Root, Untitled (2009), enamel on aluminum, 24″ x 39″; courtesy of the artist and Andrew Kreps Gallery

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Here in the wobbly days of the early twenty-first century, abstraction is no longer viewed as a driving historical force or the necessary culmination of twenty thousand years of creative endeavor. Though you might hear otherwise from isolated outposts—variations on “my kid could paint that” being the most predominant—abstraction is pretty much a non-issue, and not a moment too soon. Shouldering the burden of tradition can occasion significant art, but it can also stifle artistic independence and skew perception, public and otherwise. Be grateful that abstraction with a capital “A” is over and done with. Painters and sculptors dedicated to the cause can now work with astonishing freedom. The King is dead. Now let’s see where we can go with this thing.


Stephen Westfall, Forest (For Franz Marc) (2010), 59″ x 59″, oil and alkyd on canvas; courtesy Lennon, Weinberg Inc.

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Eschewing the purity that was once abstraction’s sine qua non, the artists featured in Wit opt for an almost promiscuous inclusivity. No inspiration is suspect. High-flown ambitions–sure, we got ‘em; historical cognizance, too. But these artists are also characterized by a willingness to embrace a veritable laundry list of references: nature, narrative, comics, design, technology, science, representation and, not least, humor. Not that humor has been entirely absent from the history of abstract art: Malevich pranked Mona Lisa five years before Duchamp and Mondrian paid winning homage, in oil and canvas, to his beloved boogie-woogie music. Still, abstraction nowadays is more and more a repository of quirks, tics and pictorial double entendres, having as much in common with Buster Keaton, say, as Neo-Plasticism.

witMario Naves, Tart and Toff (2012), oil on canvas mounted on board, 20″ x 24″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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Just don’t hold your breath expecting Marina Adams, Polly Apfelbaum, Joanne Freeman, Joe Fyfe, Barbara Gallucci, Phillis Ideal, Jonathan Lasker, Sarah Lutz, Doreen McCarthy, Thomas Nozkowski, Paul Pagk, Ruth Root, Fran Shalom, Stephen Westfall and myself to sign a manifesto of purpose. Making art is hard work and individual visions aren’t easily won; few of us like (or want) to be pegged. But the work here is unified and engaging in ways that are somewhat sneaky, maybe contrarian and decidedly offbeat. Watch as these artists juggle forms, tweak relationships, disassemble materials, cajole surfaces and elicit a staggering amount of allusions. It’s enough to make you think that abstraction, as a historical and artistic phenomenon, is barely off the ground. At the very least, we should be grateful that it’s being carried on with clarity, sophistication and, yes, wit.

© 2013 Mario Naves

“Reverie” at Galerie Zürcher, New York

Stephen Westfall in the studio; courtesy The Bedlam Beat

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Is it just me or is there something a bit untoward about a curator who includes his own work in an exhibition he’s put together?

Critic and painter Stephen Westfall isn’t the first person to do so, and God knows there are bigger self-promoters in the art world. But, in fact, Westfall’s untitled 2011 canvas fits snugly within the organizing principle informing Reverie, a group show of eight abstract painters at Zürcher Studio. “When I am struck by someone else’s paintings,” Westfall writes, “I experience a temporary and pleasurable sense of appropriation, for a moment I feel I made that painting.” Perhaps this is rationale enough for orchestrating a tête-à-tête with one’s peers.

Peers, not betters. What’s notable about Reverie is its evenness. The exhibition features painters of greater and lesser interest and import—besides Westfall, there is Andrea Belag, Shirley Jaffe, Alix Le Méléder, Sylvan Lionni, Julia Rommel, Patricia Treib and Stanley Whitney—but not necessarily merit, at least not here.

As a fan of the inestimable Jaffe, the near-octogenarian New Jerseyite who’s made Paris her home since 1949, I was delighted to encounter two of her signature accumulations of clean, quick and flat shapes. I was also stymied by how seamlessly they were tucked in amongst sensibilities markedly less bumptious and quirky. You’d think a painting like X, Encore would fairly leap off the wall, particularly when juxtaposed with Rommel’s dour Minimalist tropes and Belag’s blurry runs of soft light and prismatic color. But it doesn’t. Jaffe’s picture is, as seen at Zürcher, a team player. Credit Coach Westfall with that unlikely curatorial feat.

Aiming to create “a coherent offering, a nostrum, a visual poem” from “differences” in sensibility, Westfall has mounted an exhibition that operates on the same lines as his paintings—that is to say, he’s achieved a laconic equilibrium molded from elements that might otherwise collapse upon themselves. Studiousness, then, informs Reverie, as does an underplayed wit.

Optimism, too. “Painting is dead,” the veteran painter dutifully reiterates, “but the holly and ivy are twining from out of the ground where it was buried. It’s spring, after all.” Within its gently astringent parameters, Reverie is an exhibition about continuity and hope.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the June 14, 2011 edition of City Arts.