STEPHEN WESTFALL: On Richard Roth's New Paintings
Richard Roth is making a welcome return to painting after a more than ten year hiatus, during which he pursued collecting and archiving various examples of what might be called “vernacular modernism,” such as commercial paint color charts, blank filing forms, and women’s compact mirrors displayed with the lid open. His reconsideration of abstract painting is visible through the lens of his collecting activities: his small box-like format constitutes a more tangible object than the shallower projection of a conventional panel or stretched canvas. The deeper sides of the boxes are wide enough to constitute another pictorial plane, which Roth exploits by extending the composition around to the sides while making sure that the pictorial “event” is echoed on each side. The image is abstract, a structurally essential embedding of figure into ground that changes from painting to painting and which can be defined by a curve, a diamond, or a plane bracketed by taut bands running along the edges, on the sides, and top. This is an objectified space, what we call “iconic,” and Roth’s paintings are unusual in that this iconic space is fulfilled on three sides. We can add Roth’s current body of work to certain Mary Heilmann paintings and Jo Baer’s early canvases as being among the few paintings that make the sides pictorially vital.

Roth’s pictorial compositions seem extrapolated from memories of the world, fragments of something seen: side furniture and architectural ornament, packaging, even masks and the contours of the body. They are geometric, nearly minimal, but always quiver with this sense of being sourced elsewhere. The colors, too, seem to come from another place, as rich and vibrant as they are: the world of worn signs, perhaps. This sense of the work having traveled is odd because of the pristine beauty of their execution. Roth has always been a wonderful painter and he exhibits an elegant touch in his new paintings with Flashe acrylic, a paint of brilliant color that dries matte to an effect that is more like gouache. Roth describes the paintings as “aphoristic,” like quips or snatches of conversation that expand in the mind. Their objecthood and their internal compositional variety across a regulated format suggest that Roth sees this body of work as connected to his collecting and curatorial activities of the last decade, as though he’s curating a “collection” of object/paintings that meet a certain set of criteria.

This is not a dispassionate process, just smart. It’s the “Self” observing itself having a conversation with the motivating culture of the “Self.” Since Mondrian, one wing of abstract art has largely been a Talmudic commentary on exposed indexical and syntactical operations, and on influence. Thus it joins material craft with philosophy. We can see Mondrian, Kelly, early Stella, Myron Stout, Blinky Palermo, and Moira Dryer in Roth’s conversation, but the important thing is that his art has its own character: exacting, circumspect, and humorous. Roth holds his own in this high flying company. His touch, color, sense of scale, and general exquisiteness are felt as an original contribution, not just to discourse, but the pleasure we take from well crafted form and image.

- Stephen Westfall, 2007 - from the introduction to the Richard Roth exhibition at Reynolds Gallery, November 2007

Stephen Westfall is a painter, art critic, contributing writer for Art in America, and faculty member at the Mason Gross School of the Arts, Rutgers University. He has exhibited in the United States and abroad for over a decade, showing at Lennon Weinberg Gallery, Galerie Zurcher, and Galerie Paal. His work can be found in numerous public collections. He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the New York State Council of the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation. In addition to Art in America, his writings have appeared in The New York Times, Arts, Art News, the Partisan Review, and the New Criterion. He holds an M.F.A. from the University of California, Santa Barbara and has taught at Bard College and the School of Visual Art.

SAUL OSTROW: On Richard Roth's New Paintings

This exhibition marks Richard Roth’s return to painting.
Having started as a painter, then having explored that
ambiguous terrain of assemblage that constitutes a
synthesis of the best aspects of formalist painting and
sculpture, Roth proceeded to abandon painting
altogether to explore the conceptual and aesthetic
capacity rooted in the readymade world of visual and
material culture. During this later period, his primary
activity was the assembling of collections of such
edifying artifacts as color charts, compacts, targets,
and legal forms. In other words, Roth has spent a
significant part of his professional life trying to escape
the gravity of paint on canvas only now to be pulled
back into its orbit.

Roth has come to the realization that “paintings are
cunning artifacts that can alter perception, and create
new narratives.” What is interesting about this statement
is that it is not a refutation of his previous concerns,
nor that of Post-Modernism, which asserted that
painting was dead. Instead, these two goals constitute
criteria by which what is possible (using anything to
make art) and what may be necessary (changing our
awareness) are to be judged. Given this proposition,
the quote constitutes a manifesto reflecting a repositioning
of art, and with it, painting’s function. This
radical interpretation may be the rationale for a con-
servative turn, or inversely, it could represent an act
of resistance against the standardized and repetitive
narratives of contemporary art and the ersatz products
of the entertainment industry.

Whatever the conscious intent of Roth’s thinking, it
none-the-less is premised on the view that art
(specifically abstract art) may aesthetically embody a
politic concerned with the totality of interrelationships
involving our relationship to power, authority, and our
sense of self. This politic resides in art’s ability to
confront us with the unfamiliar in the sense that it can
be used to challenge those expectations and conventions
which are associated with intellectual and
aesthetic complacency. This view is founded on a belief
that on the level of individual experience, abstract art, as
phenomena to be made sense of – rather than an
unpacking of literary contents – requires engagement.
For some this appeal to the primacy of experience and
self-reflection offers the possibility of creating models
of “self,” engagement, and “agency” within a cultural environment committed to the spectacle of mass media.
As such, one’s encounter with abstract art may bridge
and inform our understanding of the differing agendas
that form our trajectory across the numerous
territories and environments of everyday life.

By re-engaging painting’s geometric tradition, Roth
positions himself within a network of influences that
reflect Modernism’s systemic, industrial aesthetic,
which over the course of the 20th century was
promoted by Piet Mondrian, Rodchenko, Ad Reinhardt,
Ellsworth Kelly, Myron Stout, Jo Baer, as well as Imi
Knoebel, Blinky Palermo, and Peter Halley. Grasping
the significant changes that have taken place within
art’s function and criteria, Roth acknowledges the
differing goals and affects of these practices, rather than
their similarities. Roth finds the impetus for his project
not only in previously understated, unacknowledged
or prescient practices of modernism, but also in its
conventions. By working in series that are intuitively,
rather than systemically ordered, he investigates how
many different ways a given affect may be created or
deployed. The subtle “pop” references to contemporary
design, and his choice of color lend the work a degree
of aesthetic accessibility as well as a sense of humor.

In privileging form, physicality, and opticality over painterly
process and a desire to give representation to his
personal reality, the consequences of Roth’s approach
are two-fold. First, though the series he works in begins
with a set of parameters (primarily, those of format)
and the images are often variants of one another’s
general characteristics – each painting’s composition or
identity is pre-ordained. The second is that rather
than producing a group of individuated objects joined
by style or sensibility this series represents an investigation
into the multiple aspects of opticality via form,
composition, structure, limited palette – two colors,
single image. What is important is that the series gains
specificity by recording not the artist’s decision-making
process but the variants (and options) that will fulfill
imagistically (design) structurally (materially) and phenomenologically (perceptually) his functional criteria.
The resulting paintings therefore rather than being
objects are assemblages of literal and structural events
that unfold in real time.

Though the work may be reductive and mechanically
severe in appearance, Roth transforms the Modernist
abandonment of craft into something positive. What had
once been an aspect of a nihilist impulse, in these works
becomes part of a process meant to resist any further
concessions in the direction of the arbitrary. By
challenging both his own and the viewer’s subjectivity,
Roth orders an “encounter” via his paintings, which is
the result of more than a random conglomerate of
effects, conventions and simulations. The importance of
Roth’s phenomenology (the painting as an event) and as
a material proposition (as an assemblage with its own
internal logic) renders up a discourse that illuminates
the variety of markers by which we establish correlations
between experience, memory, consciousness
and the things and processes that initiate them.
Gratification is consequently neither purely aesthetic
nor intellectual but lies in the intersection of the two.

Roth’s emergent practice, therefore, can be understood
to focus on how the subject-hood of such a simple thing
as a painted object depends on the complex economy
that exists between things, their reception. The
illusionism that Roth employs effectively causes the
object/painting’s appearance to dramatically change
as the observer discovers the true nature of the work
in time. This permits them to occupy the interface
between the modernist reductive “object” and speculative
assertions concerning function. As a group
of objects, each painting acts in concert with the other
to generate an embodied sensory (aesthetic) moment,
unmarked by conflict or despair. This permits the viewer
to take pleasure in engaging both the object and
his/her own self-reflectivity. Consequently, the model
of art that Roth articulates depends on the broad-range
of concepts we employ to give order, structures
and meaning to the phenomenon and experiences that
make up our perceived world. In this, he induces
us to make sense of the existent order of things
as well as our preconceptions.

- Saul Ostrow, 2007, from the introduction to the Richard Roth exhibition Cowboy Magic at the Lamar Dodd School of Art Main Gallery, The University of Georgia, September 2007

- Saul Ostrow is an art critic and Chair of Visual Arts and
Technologies at The Cleveland Institute of Art. Trained
as an artist, he is best known as a critic and curator,
having curated over 80 exhibitions since 1985. He is a
contributing author to various arts publications, and is
art editor for BOMB Magazine as well as the editor for the
book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Criticism,
published by Routledge, UK.

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