STEPHEN WESTFALL IN PERSPECTIVE
A Fifteen-Year Survey, 2002-2016
I felt an immediate connection to the paintings of Stephen Westfall when I first saw them at the Daniel Newburg Gallery in New York in the late 1980s. I had recently opened my own gallery, Lennon Weinberg, down the hall at 580 Broadway, one of the classic Soho loft buildings colonized by galleries relocating from Tribeca and the East Village, and start-ups like mine, which had sent the Soho gallery scene into overdrive. Westfall and I were both “established,” in our own ways, but very much at the beginning of a journey we have now shared for almost three decades.
By the time we began to work together in 1997, Westfall was exhibiting regularly in Germany, Switzerland, France, and elsewhere in the United States, and it was tasked to all of his galleries to show bodies of new work as they were completed. This show at Cooper & Smith is the first gallery survey exhibition that takes a broad view of a fifteen-year period during which Westfall redefined the parameters of his work in both its formal and referential nature.
Many elements of Westfall’s later development were already present in the mix of ideas and compositions in his early work. His paintings were diverse; some had a tremulous, irregular grid structure in neutrals and earth tones, others referenced game boards, or included squares oriented as diamonds. By the 1990s, he had honed in on an unstable grid – one in which the vertical and horizontal elements shift out of alignment as they cross – executed in an increasingly rich vocabulary of evocative colors. New York Times critic Roberta Smith wrote this about his second exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg in 2001:
Artistic originality can strike early or late, fast or slow. In the case of the painter Stephen Westfall, who is 48, it has arrived gradually over the last decade or so. His 11th New York show may be characteristically quiet, but it is a quiet knockout. Delicately calibrated destabilization is Mr. Westfall's trademark. Over the years he has used it to revive the tired vocabulary of modernist abstraction, in particular the Mondrianist ideal of grids and color blocks. But he has also infused this vocabulary with just the right amount of worldly reference and postmodern play…. Mr. Westfall's paintings have always been spiced with allusions to the real world; in this show the wide-spaced triangles of ''Grand Opening'' evoke the strung-up pennants of a new store.
Summer, 2000, 60 x 60", oil and alkyd on canvas
The painting Smith cited, Grand Opening, 2001, marked the beginning of a watershed change in Westfall’s work. The works in this exhibition at Cooper & Smith have been chosen to shed light on the years from 2002 to today when Westfall’s grid paintings in two and three colors ceded to an array of spectrum colors and a newly prominent role for triangles, diamonds and diagonal bands.
Grand Opening introduced a new approach to color in addition to reintroducing the diagonal, eschewed by Mondrian, back into Westfall’s repertoire. The painting features a color chord of red, blue, black, yellow, purple, green and orange in a system of stripes, triangles and enclosing bands with the intervening white reading as ground. Thunder Basin, 2002, the earliest painting in this exhibition at Cooper & Smith, upped the ante with a similar composition with all the spaces filled with color in a way that undermined the shifting figure-ground dynamic that generally defined his paintings until then.
Geographically, Thunder Basin is a grassland prairie in Wyoming and Colorado. Westfall was born in the east and has lived in New York for a long time, but was fledged in the culture of the West Coast, and earned his undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of California Santa Barbara. He is an aficionado of the cross-country road trip with a particular appreciation for the vast plains and deserts of the American mid-section and the layered cultures therein. Winslow, painted in 2005, epitomizes Roberta Smith’s comment about “postmodern play,” titled as it is for one of his favorite small towns in Arizona and perfectly capturing an ethos of civic pride and promotion in the form of pennant strings that at the same time satisfy the rigors of formal composition.
Grand Opening, 2001, 48 x 48", oil and alkyd on canvas, Private Collection
Winslow inspired Westfall’s first monumental wall painting at Solvent Space, at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond in 2007, a format he would further pursue during an American Academy in Rome Fellowship in 2009-2010. A year before his departure, he had created a striking composition that he explored in five paintings; two of them, Within You and Without You and Too Much Love, are included in this exhibition. The paintings have quadrants of color bands that radiate diagonally from the center overlaid by concentric squares that flicker back and forth between figure and ground. The structure set the stage for important work he would do in Rome and after his return.
Installation view, Solvent Space, Virginia Commonwealth University, Richmond, 2007
Thunder, 2010, was painted in Rome and has a taut yet supple geometry. The rectangular format is divided into four, with bands of color stacking out from the center and aligning as squared diamonds. The same nine colors are used once in each section, and the intuitive placement of colors achieves an even distribution of light and dark, warm and cool, even as there are some strong moments of dark next to dark, hot against hot. Characteristically, his hues are mixed, often with their complement, enhancing the way the colored bands advance and recede against each other.
The color-banded structure of Thunder relates to several other paintings, including Forest, a work that was reconceived as a permanent, commissioned exterior wall painting at Westfall’s alma mater, UCSB. Hours and Star, each somewhat unique, one-off paintings, were also painted in Rome in 2010, and evince the scrutiny that Westfall was devoting to architecture and the decorative embellishment that is ubiquitous in Rome.
Argus, 2015, 10'8" x 20'5", permanent wall painting, University of California Santa Barbara
Not long after returning to New York, Westfall made a striking departure in Thrum, 2011. It is an overt homage to traditional compositions of Navajo blankets, and was followed by other allusions to the universality of geometric patterning. Badlands, 2014, is a symmetrically mirrored painting that features in its center a cross shape often seen in both functional and art objects of the American desert southwest.
The most recent painting in this survey exhibition, Polyphony, is a multi-colored harlequin-patterned painting. It has a simple diamond-based structure inspired in part by a leaded-glass window in a church but also embraced because Westfall found it so well suited to further interests driving his work today. In his own words:
My painting is about abstract painting’s precarious and target-rich environment of referring to its own history and serving as signs for the “real” world. “Polyphony” springs from a group of paintings that I’ve been making in response to the squared or rectangle grid, which has existed as a somewhat uncomfortable compositional substrate in my work for decades. That is to say I can’t bear the symmetry of the grid even as I recognize its usefulness for distributing a surface across the picture plane, evoking architecture and a system for establishing perspective. I believe this is due to my own physiological make up. I’m dyslexic and have “mixed dominance” between right and left-handedness. I desire symmetry but apparently can’t live with it. So I’ve used the grid to structure certain compositions that make a nod to landscape space, twisted the interstices, broken compartments into other compartments, and have introduced diagonal elements resulting in the harlequin pattern that informs “Polyphony”. The color distribution is felt out with no discernable logic. The harlequin is a rich motif in painting, picked up by Picasso and then Johns, but it also evokes the simplest gothic stained glass windows, and thereby Matisse. That Mondrian and Ellsworth Kelly are also in there should be self-evident. The diagonals add a different energy and sense of history from rectangularity.
As Roberta Smith noted in her 2001 article, Westfall’s work is generally identified with the tradition of European and American modernist abstraction, but I posit that its reach is wider. An affinity for systems of geometric form seems to be hard-wired in the human imagination and has been expressed in cultures worldwide. Stephen Westfall’s eye is open to its manifestations in architecture, painting, textiles, mosaics and tile — indeed in any and all visual and functional forms. Add to that his inclination to “worldly reference and postmodern play,” and you have a body of work that is simultaneously intellectual, pastoral, zen and pop, deeply respectful of precedent, thoroughly forward-looking and optimistically inclined. The paintings in the exhibition demonstrate a brand of agile pictorial thinking that has always exemplified the best of Stephen Westfall’s work.
Jill Weinberg Adams
Lennon, Weinberg, Inc.
New York, October 2016