Anyone who has followed Josh Smith’s work, since his memorable exhibit at Reena Spaulings Fine Art in 2005, would undoubtedly admit the boundary of the artist’s often-rectangular canvases does not constrain his highly-charged emotional and restless energy. Most would take notice how Smith has continually been able to explore endless potential, and experiment to foster and sustain his work. At once seemingly casual and unpredictable the paintings are underpinned by a pragmatic mind at work and always present. Although we first met at a daylong series of talks and discussions on the work of Willem de Kooning during the artist’s retrospective, curated by John Elderfield, at MoMA in 2011, for which we were fellow panelists, and on many occasions would see each other in passing at some social functions, I never had the full pleasure to pay a visit to Josh’s studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn till days before Emo Jungle, his inaugural solo exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery. The following is an edited version of a longer conversation that took place at the end of what appeared to be a beautiful spring day.
On ViewDavid Zwirner
April 25 – June 15, 2019
Phong Bui (Rail): I’d like to begin with a compilation of various things you have said in past interviews and lectures, which I think would generate sufficient correlations to your idiosyncrasies, as to move things along, especially the idea of being sympathetic to what we do as artists but also as human beings. For example, in an interview you did with Rita [Ackermann], published in Bomb magazine (2014), Rita said “[I]t’s awfully hard to talk about the spiritual meaning of today’s paintings,” and your response was, “[A]s close as I can get to being spiritual is being honest.” Does honesty in your personal experience imply both being vulnerable and being strong at the same time?
Josh Smith: Yeah, if you defined it in either way you kinda have to annoyingly stop yourself from moving in either direction. I would be better off not thinking about it and just experiencing it. The minute I think something is resolved, it changes, or it deceives me, or it moves in a way that I don’t understand. Honestly, I don’t know what honesty means, but I think life and art are one in the same. In life, the only two things that I live by are the code of the schoolyard, respecting the right people in the right situations at the right time, and two, letting things flow in their natural way, because in case it doesn’t happen soon enough it’s an indication that I should probably not be involved in it in the first place. It has taken me a long time to learn these two simple things, and I’ve not learned either one well. I don’t know, sometimes those two things are moving at you at once and there’s no way you would know how to react.
Rail: It’s like catching two fish with one hand. You end up with none.
Smith: Yeah. I feel lucky if I can just catch one.
Rail: Would living by the code of the schoolyard mean determination and bring windfall to some degree? For example, when the curator at the Centre d’Art Contemporain in Geneva, your first show in Switzerland, told you, as you were leaving for Geneva, they were not going to pay for the transportation of the paintings, you just flew there the next day and painted the whole show directly on the walls in three days with ink, gouache, and watercolor. Megan [Lang, Josh’s partner] told me it took a longer time to prepare and tape off the walls than the actual execution of the paintings. I’d say that’s a risk most artists would not dare undertake.
Smith: I remember not thinking very much except that I only had one option which was to do what I ended up doing. Really, I can only take credit for having my name on it, especially when it comes to doing exhibitions. I try very hard to not let unfortunate circumstances prevent me from my goal. I know it’ll always get done and it’ll always be good. I don’t have any problem getting things done, knowing there’s a lot of anxiety about exhibitions because there’s a lot of people involved. I always feel they do their part, and I do mine. After that experience, now when a curator tries a power move or does something mean, I get away from them as fast as I can. It happens often. No reason to waste time with a bad person running the show.
Rail: Again, it’s not easy for most artists to be so hands-off with curators. I know when you were invited to participate in the New Museum’s first triennial The Generational: Younger Than Jesus (2009), you sent 20 paintings of your classic, uniformly sized 48 by 60-inch canvases, and was it Massimiliano Gioni or Laura Hoptman who assembled 18 paintings in a grid?
Smith: It was Massimiliano, I remember mostly, but it must have been a consensus among the curators. I don’t take those sorts of opportunities lightly. I look at it like a mutual collaboration. I have something to contribute, and they do too. I could say I’m not just a so-called artist, I’m an exhibitionist too. Even though I get joy each time I make a new painting, I tend to maximize the experience by creating a bigger family of the image in different possible ways, so what Massimiliano did was give a new perspective on how I think about my work in relationship to the idea of ancestry. I love one painting that gives birth to another.
Rail: You’re creating the family’s genealogy in a sense. It’s a very fertile way of thinking of serialization and repetition.
Smith: Painting is just a really good vehicle for me, to move what’s in me outward. I love this format of a flat object, which I can put part of myself into. I can take certain things out, while putting something else in, moving things around, and whatever. It’s a created world where no one’s getting hurt. It’s all invented and recorded on this surface, often in a single size because I just like the uniformity—think of a writer with a stack of standard papers, which he or she is going to turn into a novel, so here they go—and I just think “okay this is what I’ve got to work with, how am I going to get this together?” For each show I just form a family tree within my own interest and capacity. At some point in my life, I shouldn’t be so worried about shit, knowing that shit does happen in spite of my will.
Rail: Yes, my friend the painter Lisa Yuskavage refers to it as a “shituation.”
Smith: I really mean that. Let’s just roll with things. Why get so bent out of shape? I just feel I need to fight against my prejudices about myself, because I know I don’t want to be the cause of anything that’s discord. I feel like my work is good, and I always try to do the best I can. I wonder sometimes where that desire comes from. I’m kind of a declarative person—I don’t ask a lot of questions really. I’m just laying things out to the world, and hope the paintings carry the “joie de vivre”—the spirit of what I do. Each painting doesn’t demand much except for “hey, let’s spend a second here, and look at this,” and you can get really interested or investigative, but you don’t have to, and it’s a message that you can read however you’re responding to it. I’m reacting to what is coming out of me.
Rail: The artist is the conduit from and through which the medium is passing.
Smith: Yeah, the less conscious I am of it the better. It may be slightly unconscious from time to time. I would say that it is more that I am a curious person, who tests a lot of things out to get to a point worth getting to. I highly doubt that I am any sort of medium. I definitely parse and refine my work a lot before I present it.
Rail: Josh, anyone who has followed your work would acknowledge that it explores or exploits the possibility of exhaustion through one or another form of excess—be it the motif of your name, fish, insects, leaves, or skeletons. I mean, you seem to be unhampered by endless potential recreations of contemporary production, which as you’ve said in the past has roots in your early experience as a printmaker. Still, I wonder whether this aspiration has some degree of imbedded subversion?
Smith: For sure! I gravitated naturally to printmaking probably because of my love of duplication.
Rail: And I would add work ethic, which comes from whom?
Smith: From observing others, mostly people in my family. My father is the hardest working and maybe the most conscientious person I have ever known. My mother was a great school teacher. She taught younger kids. Many former students have told her later as grown-ups that she had changed their life. She always made her classroom cooler and more fun, so that students felt lucky to be there. They were. As I’d mentioned before in one interview, I’d often help do all kinds of things after school like making duplicates from the mimeograph, cutting out letters, organizing her bulletin board which was filled with tons of information—all that I’d inhale and still carry with me. She would decorate the border of these bulletin boards with all sorts of patterns, and so on. Which now I realize with this group of new paintings being embellished with different kinds of border, that there is a good chance that influence may have come from way back then.
Rail: Mostly painted with a roller through stenciling that embraces irregularity and imperfection.
Smith: Yeah, the love of duplication grew when I went to art school (Miami University, Oxford, OH 1994 – ’96, University of Tennessee, Knoxville 1996 – ’98). I ended up studying printmaking. The idea was I could later get a job as a printmaking professor at some college. But soon, pretty much right away, I started to realize that art allows you to go deeper and deeper into your interior life which I wasn’t aware of before.
Rail: During freshman year?
Smith: Well I went to two colleges. I went to a school in Ohio which was more traditional and too expensive for me, and then I transferred to the University of Tennessee after two years. This was a good choice for me because they do have one of the greatest printmaking departments in America. They also had a super painting professor and an ambitiously amazing visiting artist program which was established by my late great painting professor Michael Brakke. I made sure to get myself into his classes. There, art became an open-ended term to me. It began to mean everything, and that’s how I have read it since. This is a life I wanted to pursue with everything I can pour into it.
Rail: Harmony Korine, in his interview with you (published in Interview magazine, April 2011) said you’re the hardest-working artist he knows, and your response was the opposite, “Don’t try too hard. Do it by accident as if you live in the world you want to live where things should fall off of you. And if they don’t then I just revaluate … I just go into a deep dark depression until I feel better. I mean it.” How would you know when things are not going right?
Smith: You don’t just feel it; you also know it. I don’t claim to know anything because I’m experiencing as we talk what we’re talking about. It’s like talking about a roller coaster while you’re on it. We’re on a rollercoaster talking about being on a rollercoaster, which is okay as long as we’re having fun.
Smith: I really do love making art so I’ll adjust to any situation, even though the art world has changed, and everything all of the sudden moves faster now than it did just a few years ago. Some galleries have spaces as big as high school gymnasiums so artists like myself have to recalibrate our work production. It can be both exciting and stressful. Anyway, depression sucks and it’s a real thing that everyone struggles with in different degrees. We need to be more sympathetic to this human condition. It’s more prevalent and serious now than we think. Most of us have no choice but to build it into what we do.
Rail: Jonas Mekas once declared he goes through a mini nervous breakdown almost every day. He didn’t trust any artist who didn’t go through a nervous breakdown!
Smith: Jonas was a great man, a great artist, and a true bohemian. He treated everyone the same, which is very rare.
Rail: It’s one of the many attributes I’m trying to learn from him, which brings me to my next question: you once said, “Everyone is trying to be sophisticated, but there’re different kinds of sophistication.”
Smith: It’s like intelligence—you can’t really judge intelligence. The idea of IQ doesn’t really make any sense to me, because someone from another country or another part of the world doesn’t think of or equate life the same way. There’s the difference between intelligence and knowledge—even they’re incomparable. Intelligence is more about what to do with knowledge, whereas knowledge is a malleable quality that can be gained, acquired through life experience and education, and the environment. I think we feed off of each other’s energy. I just love the energy of people. When you’re really deprived of being around people you can really feel it affect you badly or it can affect you really, really nicely.
Rail: I couldn’t agree more. The culture of the community can affect and shape you either way. At any rate, you spoke of Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge, the two mountain towns and resorts in Tennessee.
Smith: In the Great Smoky Mountains.
Rail: Exactly! Pigeon Forge is also known for Dollywood, because of Dolly Parton’s partial ownership in the theme park and dining attractions. Anyway, I was interested in how you said the so-called self-taught artists or craftsmen who made art for public art fairs had bigger egos than any of the artists we know.
Smith: They do in their own context for sure. Early on we were discussing other ways my life could have gone—I mean honestly that was something that I would’ve dreamed of having before I went to art school. The way things and images like animals, birds, bears, trees, and mountains get made or painted so well. The idea of being a famous artist in Gatlinburg, as stupid as that sounds, sounded idyllic to me. Like not to be a swaggering asshole in a small town but to make a living making pictures of things in nature and selling it within the small little mountain-y community was amazing.
Rail: Like Thomas Kinkade would be excellent!
Smith: Yeah! [Laughs.] I hope I would not have been like that, but I might have.
Rail: Dr. Bob Ross! [Laughs] I used to watch the Joy of Painting when I got depressed. I loved his catchy phrases like “wash the brush, just beat the devil out of it,” or “happy little trees…”
Smith: It’s a good life man. I’m sure going back there now I’d feel different, partly because the world has changed, and partly because over 20 years I’ve changed.
Rail: Going back to your love of duplication and repetition of certain images, it seems they were chosen for a reason. You said the skeleton as an image, for example, is anonymous. There’s no skin or faces on them. And you can put your own personality into it.
Smith: Yeah, it’s just like the reaper—an open-ended image—so you’re not tied down to it being any specific type of person. I always feel mortality is a very serious subject and I don’t want to deal with it at all in my art. It was never my intention, even though obliquely, between everybody in the world and me, we all have to deal with it one way or another. But yeah, if you’re gonna look at something very seriously as a day-in day-out type of situation, either the skeleton or the reaper can be seen as one-liner jokes.
Rail: Like why are skeletons so calm? Because nothing gets under their skin. [Laughs]
Smith: [Laughs] They’re humorous and I find it very relaxing painting them. I initially painted the reapers maybe five or six years ago and I didn’t know if they were good or not so I put them as a stack facing the wall in the corner of the studio. At one point I decided to show the reapers in Norway because I thought it might be the right time, but, after looking at them again, I felt they just didn’t feel contemporary enough. At that point, I added the border on. This was 2017. Adding the borders, somehow made those paintings work. The show in Norway looked the way I wanted it to.
Rail: Partially because of the use of stenciling which is a technique of printmaking—
Smith: Which makes me feel like I’m in an assembly line. [Laughs.] The stenciling is kind of a pain but it looks good and the paintings need it here and there for my own sake. In the future I would like to use the stencils less because I do not like laying the paintings (especially larger ones) flat to paint that way—
Rail: I understand the appeal. What about the fish? When and how did that come to you as an image?
Smith: The fish are built in to me. I would say this is a subject I have rendered since I learned how to draw. They’re so free and expressive. I love painting them. I love painting their mouths. They live underwater so no one can really say, “hey you painted that wrong…” All the subjects which I render are subjects which do not have to be rendered perfectly.
Rail: I can see the love through their mouths, as many of them have the shape of a heart, painted in a variety of ways.
Smith: Oh, I never saw them that way. At least, I have not thought about it too hard. It’s cool that you see them as human hearts.
Rail: Like your name, the palm trees, or watermelons, among other subjects, can the fish, as an image, be a formal device?
Smith: Whenever I think about a particular image to paint I always think of myself being like a fisherman who knows he’s gonna catch some fish. And different fish require different lures, even though he may not be fishing like a person who knows what type of fish he’s gonna catch. Still, I’m not really repeating myself, I’m restricting myself which is a different thing.
Rail: Like Bob Ryman restricting himself to making white paintings but never repeating a painting?
Smith: Yeah, but Ryman changes the sizes of his paintings a lot. I rarely do.
Rail: True. And you and Bob share another thing in common: the use of names as a compositional element in painting.
Smith: True. The name became a go-to subject in college. It was a way for me to avoid getting involved with conjuring bullshit ideas in order to learn some skill or get through some bullshit critiques. It was painful observing other young people trying to make deep conceptual art, and then to watch the professors flinch forever. I took the bypass.
Rail: Is there a reason why certain paintings came so fast, maybe in one sitting, while others seem to take more time judging from how their surfaces were accumulated with layers of paint?
Smith: I had painted them in one sitting but I don’t do that anymore partly because I wanted something I could work on for a sustained period of time. I’m getting old, Phong. I would say the palm trees were sort of the gateway into spending more involved time on things. The same is true for the fish and for the reapers.
Rail: De Kooning in explaining why the images of the women are painted in the center of his canvases, wrote “because there’s no other reason to put it a bit on the side.” Frontal and center are how most images in your paintings are painted.
Smith: Like de Kooning’s response, most of my images get painted in the center and frontal so I can focus on other elements in the painting like gesture and color, etc. De Kooning’s art is great because he didn’t play any games. Of course, in the early paintings when he was a surrealist, there was experimenting with automatism and so on, but he became the de Kooning which we know through the Woman series—he was in declarative mode. He was not playing anymore. You could see in his famous Woman I painting (1950-52) he added a good four inches wide on the vertical band to the right edge of the canvas. I mean he was super fussy and particular.
Rail: It’s super true, because it’s partly preventing the image going off to the left side of the painting. What are your thoughts on Martin Kippenberger—an artist that we both admire for his massive production and high energy, I was also thinking of his and your love of prints and posters?
Smith: What Kippenberger accomplished in his tragically short life is amazing, but he would be struggling to make sense of everything that’s changed if he were here now. I find him so inspiring in that he embraced himself over and over again while maintaining a spine. He’d always manage to maintain the hard and the soft like his images of the egg. Once the shell is cracked, the egg is a messy yolk. The egg has been depicted in many iterations. I also think why he latched onto and attached himself to the egg was partly because of humor.
Rail: Humor and anarchy rarely go hand in hand as in his case. And I understand why you admire Kippenberger’s full embrace of his contradictions: on one hand, he loved to appropriate all kinds of styles, art movements, and even other artist’s works, especially multiples by Joseph Beuys, stuck on his oil paintings. On the other hand, he made extensive use of all sorts of assistants to expand the traditional idea of the artist’s role. I don’t remember you ever having an assistant in your studio!
Smith: I wish I could hire an assistant to help out in the studio. It’s one thing I do envy—other artists who know how to carve out their energy and time to train their assistants to get their works done. Just the other day I read Leonardo da Vinci used many assistants in his studio. He’d just put little patches of different already mixed colors on different areas of the paintings, and his assistants would know where to work for the rest of the day, or days. I can’t figure that system out at all. If I don’t move the paint around, the painting would look cautious. Even with Kippenberger, he experienced this. You remember when Merlin Carpenter was commissioned to make a series of “remix paintings”!
Rail: Yeah, Heavy Burschi (Heavy Guy) (1989/90)!
Smith: Yeah, they were paintings based on images from all his catalogues, which were photographed, reprinted to their original size, and framed, before he cut them into pieces and put them in the dumpster. They were too good, and he was right. I’m not built that way. I’m too busy enjoying plugging holes in the studio. I mean sometimes I walk downstairs doing one thing and completely forget I was supposed to be doing something else upstairs.
Rail: Seeing a few amazing Purvis Young paintings on the walls in your kitchen compels me to ask what is your perspective on self-taught artists, outsiders, or outliers in a broader sense?
Smith: I like all art equally. I generally think it’s not fair to discriminate between different types of artists because not every artist has access to a classical education like, say the way Michelangelo was taught how to paint the Sistine Chapel, or Leonardo with the Mona Lisa. Both Michelangelo and Leonardo would be just as impressed with what artists in other parts of the world did if they had access to their culture and resources. Just think that, even with the Renaissance masters, they were making art from what was given to them as a myopic perspective. That’s crazy. Just think of what artists working today know. We essentially know every single obscure tribe or obscure culture within the last century—knowing that art doesn’t make progress as science does, etc. Also, the whole thing about high and low art is so pointless, a waste of time, and who gives a shit! I can’t stand art that is nailed from the inside of the coffin, which makes it is impossible to open from the outside. It’s just like, fuck, you’re just wasting art materials.
Rail: You remember as a child, whenever we didn’t feel like going to school, we tried to sound like we were sick so we could just sleep some more and stay home?
Smith: That never worked for me. It could be convincing if you were a good actor.
Rail: Oh yeah, it means you were determined to make it convincing, like Gandhi once said, “You can wake a man only if he is really asleep. No effort that you make will produce any effect upon him if he is merely pretending sleep.”
Smith: Well, you only bother to wake up someone sleeping when you care enough about the person.
Rail: Otherwise, it’s too hard. Another great aphorism from Max J. Friedländer, the German curator and art historian, “It’s easier to change your worldview than the way you hold your spoon.” In any case, in this new show, the images of the devil are new. Where do they come from?
Smith: I did one woodcut print of the devil a long time ago and buried it. This was over 15 years ago. I felt it wasn’t something I’d paint until only recently. This group of devil paintings are wet paintings. I have been keeping them wet. They’re just like butter so I can move the surface around. I remember seeing a painting of a devil holding a little paintbrush, it was in a magazine. I thought it was funny. I actually made a little drawing of it, then looked closer at the painting and it turned out to be a pitchfork, not a paintbrush. [Laughs] When I realized I was wrong, I started liking the idea of a painting of the devil painting. I do not think it’s a great idea, but I do like it.
Rail: Can you share with us why and where the image of the turtle appeared in your painting?
Smith: Last spring I did a show at Eva Presenhuber Gallery in New York titled Understand Me. I had intended to show paintings of watermelons and turtles. I liked how both were the same shape, only the turtles I would paint vertically and the melons horizontally. I thought this would be no problem. But I could not get the turtles good enough in time for the show. So I only showed the watermelons. I kept working on those turtles though because there were a lot of them and I was determined for them to work. They started to perform only within the last few months as I became consumed with working on the show for David Zwirner Gallery. Once I was focused on something else the turtles somehow finished themselves up well. This happens a lot with me—once I am distracted with something new, I can finally see the beauty of something I have put aside. I was strangely pleased. The turtles were the trickiest paintings to make worthwhile. I was pleased because I assumed it would be easy, and it felt good to be humbled by something seemingly simple.
Rail: What about the four-legged spiders, and their extended horizontal format—super unusual for you, I mean they remind me of small friezes?
Smith: Those four-legged spiders are what I refer to as human animals. I thought it might be a good idea to have a set of paintings to hang above the Grim Reaper paintings. I honed up this long-format spider figure. The meaning of these painting is nebulous, but they function well. These paintings appear simpler because they are smaller and long-format and read somewhat as accent paintings. They also read somewhat like reminders. They are not actually that simple. Let’s see how those work out in context. With the exception of my name and maybe the watermelons, the skeletons, and the palm trees, all others like the fish, the leaves, and especially the devils are in a way, humorous. I can generally say if my work doesn’t have an element of humor it just won’t function. You have to understand that the maker is this flawed person. I’m not asking for miracles here, you know? I’m just as curious as to what’s going to come out every time I approach a painting, which with occasional laughs would be nice. Otherwise I rely on two things: let’s take one day at a time, and do one thing at a time.