Writing Archive

James Walsh is the Whole Band

catalogue essay for James Walsh: The Elemental at Berry Campbell, January 9, 2020

I.

Conversation during my latest studio visit with James Walsh turned quickly to the disheartening phenomenon of eight-year-old musical prodigies on YouTube. These damnable children steeped in Suzuki Method and online music tutorials can shred with convincing fortitude, displaying not just technical chops but something resembling soul.

In addition to making abstract paintings at an extraordinarily high level, Jim plays guitar. (He won't call himself a musician.) In fact he was seriously involved with music while an undergraduate at Rutgers. The college was sufficiently full of jazz- and John Cage-types to produce an avant-garde gamelan act, with which he performed and toured. Explaining to me that he had no musical talent, only obstinacy, he gave himself over to visual art. In that realm he has his revenge on the YouTube musical savants, because no equivalent phenomenon exists for abstract painting. Even prodigies have to go through the wringer to produce something worthwhile in abstraction, which requires obstinacy, talent, and spirit in abundance.

In abstract painting, you have to be the whole band. You have to be Trane, Monk, Wilbur Ware, and Art Blakey, all at the same time. Eight-year-olds can't paint at Jim's level for the same reason that we don't have eight-year-old orchestral prodigies on YouTube. This would explain, conversely, why the onset of the Tenth Street Touch, gestural painting hardening off as an imitable style in the 1950s, proved to be such a crisis. While post-painterly abstraction sustained production through the '60s, much of what followed it, painterly or not, simply required too much invention of too many different kinds for most artists to manage.

Part of the problem was the limitations of oil paint, which remains our most beautiful art material but must be handled in certain careful ways in order to adhere to a surface and dry without destroying itself. I have art books from the '70s that characterize acrylic paint as something just this side of garbage. But despite its reputation at the time, many people,, notably the Golden clan, were busy working out how to make them of high quality. Physics won't allow you to load pigment into acrylic polymer like you can load it into linseed oil. But hardly anything is so adhesive in art materials outside of actual glues, and the variety of additives with which one can alter its properties is enormous.

Jim's education took place while this research was first underway. He first pursued ceramics at the Livingston College of Rutgers. Seeing an exhibition of Robert Motherwell at the Princeton University Art Museum in 1973 clarified on which side of the art-craft divide he resided. Jim's production in clay, its semi-fluid, semi-solid dimensionality, informed his work thereafter. Darryl Hughto selected him from applications to graduate school at Syracuse University. Jim had been prompted to apply there after seeing a photo of an Anthony Caro sculpture that had been constructed at the then-renowned Syracuse Clay Institute.

That stroke of fortune made him one of the few people who was able to enjoy something like an apprenticeship to the milieu of Greenbergian modernism, while its major players were still alive and before art rejected Clement Greenberg like an ailing body rejects the transplant of a healthy organ. I'm not going to re-litigate that. Suffice it to say that Greenberg's contribution has not yet been fully understood, and that is largely the product of a broad effort to misunderstand it.

Jim's commitment to abstraction won him the fond recognition not only of Hughto, but the whole network of serious modernists at the time. Chief among these was a fellow student, Ann Igelsrud. She had been directed to the graduate program at Syracuse by Friedl Dzubas, with whom she wanted to study at Cornell but he was retiring from teaching. Jim and Annie have been together ever since. Jim reached out to Walter Darby Bannard, a fellow New Jerseyite, after they showed together at the Newark Museum in 1977. Darby, though a generation older, warmed to them immediately as colleagues. Other introductions that took place at the SCI included Greenberg, Ken Noland, Noland's son Bill, and Andre Emmerich.

Also while at Syracuse, Jim and Annie helped Tony Caro produce a series of bronzes. Caro was a considerable source of inspiration and support to the young artists. Upon their graduation in 1980, Caro funded their trip to the Emma Lake Workshop, which that year was led by Hughto and Kenworth Moffett. Upon their return, they moved to New York City. Emma Lake inspired Caro to found Triangle along with Robert Loder in 1982, in a set of barns in Pine Plains, NY. The Walshes assisted with that founding, married after the first summer in Pine Plains, and continued to be instrumental in Triangle's operations for the following two years.

Once in New York City, Bill Noland introduced the Walshes to a circle that included Larry and Paula Poons, Kikuo Saito and Eva Maier, Jules Olitski, Cecilia de Torres, and Willard Boepple. They grew quite close with Clem, who saw everything they made from the time they arrived in 1980 until he became too sick to visit. They were in the hospital room along with Janice van Horne Greenberg and their daughter Sarah Greenberg when he died in 1994.

This event bookended a several-year decline for the whole circle, during which time it grew difficult to sell paintings and maintain life in New York City. Darby went to the University of Miami to teach in 1988. Bill Noland decamped to Duke University around then as well. In the summer of 1990 a recession hit, obliging the closure of an art moving business that Jim and Annie maintained as a side hustle for much of the prior decade.

In 1992, Jim began a career at Golden Artist Colors that would continue for 25 years. He handled accounts from all over at first, but as their operation grew, he concentrated on the East Coast and New York City in particular. Golden is unique among paint manufacturers for understanding the need to surround itself with people like Jim, people who are not only capable technicians, but also fighters in the trenches of serious fine art. For a long time, Jim had access to experimental and idiosyncratic batches of acrylic mediums. This enabled him to work with extremely high volumes of paint, and figure out what one might call, if one didn't know better, a personal style. More on this later.

Jim showed his work widely the whole time he lived in New York City. He had solo exhibitions at Flowers East in London, the Mendel Art Gallery up in Saskatoon, Baker Sponder in Boca Raton, and locally, over the years, at Galeria Joan Prats, Long Fine Art, and Berry Campbell Gallery. He was a fixture in Edmonton Contemporary Artists Society shows in the 1990s, and Richard Timperio's quixotic Sideshow exhibitions in Williamsburg throughout the 2000s. Notable two-person and group shows took place at the Edmonton Art Gallery, the Martin Brest Museum in Jacksonville, FL, the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH, and the Portland (Oregon) Museum of Art as part of "Clement Greenberg: A Critic's Collection."

He also became a gallery director himself. In 2009, Golden inaugurated an exhibition space at their plant in New Berlin, NY, and entrusted it to Jim's worthy eye. During his tenure there he has mounted astute displays of Darryl Hughto, Carl Plansky, Larry Poons, Knox Martin, Friedel Dzubas, Judith Linhares, Kikuo Saito, Ann Walsh, and Susan Roth.

Having long noted the general trend of New York City realities, they prepared for themselves a compound in Oneonta, NY. They moved there permanently in 2019. While no longer working the company accounts, he retains his position at the Sam and Adele Golden Gallery, and is otherwise free to paint. The additional time and elbow room has given rise to new and singularly compelling body of work.

II.

Jim's style is something more like an anti-style. A Walsh is recognizable by its dramatic paint effects, usually with one or two veritable tidal waves of acrylic paint on an otherwise placid ocean of color. But formal commonalities end there. The only rule in play is continual reinvention from work to work. This means that color can vary widely, from acidic primaries to foggy neutrals. The applications range from gigantic brushwork to fluid pours. Surface effects include deliberate application of flat color next to mysterious laminations formed by transparent acrylic bases flecked with liquid paint.

It's a truism that reproduction doesn't do justice to good painting, but it's especially apt in Jim's case, as his canvases sometimes have crests of paint several inches thick adorning areas that have been stained, glazed, or scraped down to the cotton. Though hung on the wall and meant to be viewed from the front, many of them have a depth of six or eight inches. Crucial, though, is that Jim is employing the entire depth.

Onward North (2018) exemplifies the range. A bulging mass of lime and powder blue intrudes from the left side, abutting an even greater mass with a prickly, tortured surface. A wad of green, orange, brown, and Burnt Sienna pushes up from below, with marks from the tool used for the shove evident as complex scalloping on the picture's surface. The lower right is a quiet, transluscent blue beneath which one can see submerged ovals dispersing around the edges. A pearly coating has been poured across the middle and allowed to drip in what is now the upward direction of the painting.

Open A (2019)—note the guitar reference—is a simpler affair in which white paint smeared with Ultramarine and aqua pushes around a thick ridge of deliciously flat black in a big, graceful swirl. Hints of ochre, red, and yellow-green push in from the sides, remnants of earlier applications. But even without the numerous revisions of Onward North, he has generated the sort of complexity that one associates with Flemish altarpieces or landscape photography. One can just look and look into them, discovering more.

How to do this has always been a hard problem, and remains one. Lacking Jim's visual acumen and relentless making, abstraction itself offers no clue as to why one would execute any particular pour or smear or scrape at any given point on the rectangle. Too, composition of this much complexity is a gargantuan challenge. Consider Natural (2019), which contains a frosted sweep on the lower half with a coil of candy red poking through, stains of blue, pink, and green on the right, troubled mashes of various colors across the top, and a fat lip of white in the middle. Yet in aggregate, those four regions cooperate as distinct units, and the result is pleasingly simple. It looks like the product of outsize visual genius, and it also looks like there's nothing to it.

I wrote the catalogue essay for Ann Walsh's show at the Golden Gallery, and in it I cited her as furthering work on color that was implied to be possible by the oeuvre of Ken Noland. Jim, to my eye, is doing likewise with form as implied to be possible by the oeuvre of Hans Hofmann, particularly the later, post-teaching Hofmann in which he was pulling freely and insouciantly from an enormous vocabulary of surface, line, and shape. Jim, similarly, is able to make the colors as loud as he wants without ever sacrificing organization—the end result reliably coalesces into uncomplicated agreement. Contemporary acrylics create effects about which Hofmann could only have dreamed, and Jim is a world authority on their behavior. These new works of Jim's are the culmination of a pursuit of good form that originates with some of the seminal figures of American abstraction, and he honors them even as he equals them.

Word count: 1958

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