There are two shows currently up in Gagosian, the uptown show is largely made up of paintings and is a little underwhelming. The downtown show is the opposite and covers work on paper from the period 1951 to 2008 which were mainly made in Italy or his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky. Anyone completely unfamiliar with his work might come to wildly different conclusions, some of the tight and mysterious scribbles could be taken as graffiti on a men’s room wall – with pre-internet cyphers and codes – or maybe telephone numbers on a Kentucky phone booth. On the other hand an art therapist might look at the work and draw some major insight into the bold automation and repetition of the arcs and lines. Clues abound, and we are left with a body of work illustrating a wild range of emotion, some seemingly timid, vulnerable plea’s while others angry and urgent.
We relate to the work today because of its messiness and because of its difficulty to categorize. Labeled as an abstract expressionist, and with contemporaries like Rauschenberg and John’s, it is hard to place him in a box or in a specific place in art history. It’s easy to see his influence in others work, Basquiat obviously, and his sculptures and photography, equally as messy, informed so much of what we see being made by artists today. But who influenced him? The work is so unique and audacious – if it looks brave and avant-garde now, imagine how was it seen 60 years ago. In the Tate show several years ago I remember standing in front of a group of large green canvasses and thinking, improbably, of Claude Monet. We know that he was interested in the surrealist practice of drawing in the dark, and he must admired the sculptures of Giacometti and the vital economy of line that we see in Picasso…but there is no obvious predecessor or mentor.