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Bob Witz: I Know Where I am Goin’

Curated by Phong Bui

Born in 1934 in Tomah, Wisconsin, Bob Witz attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison for two years before dropping out for an 18-month tour of duty in the U.S. army, which carried him from Paris to Berlin, exposing him to European art and culture for the first time. His service qualified him to receive free tuition from the G.I. bill, and in 1959 he returned to the University of Wisconsin to complete a B.A. in History and English Literature. He briefly studied painting in graduate school at the same institution, but quickly realized his temperament was more congenial to independent artistic pursuits than to the rigid pedagogy of the art school model.

Witz’s attraction to world history, literature, and art history was evident early on. He published poems and illustrations at the University of Wisconsin’s annual magazine Art and Society. This experience lead to a lifelong passion; he would go on to found and edit Appearances (which ran from 1980-1996), an annual magazine which focused on alternative currents of art and literature in the East Village. In 1973, Artforum published several of his handwritten letters as works of art; this was his initial inspiration to come to New York, where he continues to live and work. Upon his arrival in 1973, Witz was immediately receptive to new pictorial possibilities. While fully aware of the emergence of new minimalist and conceptual art, his disposition leaned towards the eccentric and visionary works of the sculptor Ronald Bladen and the painter Bill Jensen. He admired van Gogh’s spiritual aspirations and Nicholas de Staël’s painterly lyrical abstractions; he recognized that both used materials as if material is form materialized. Secure in his varied affinities, Witz never surrendered to the pressure to unify his work into one recognizable “look,” which would have assured him a visible niche in the art world.

“Double Self-Portrait” (1962) evidences Witz’s twin impulses: one refers to expressionist figuration, which extends the emotional range and content of abstract expressionism, the other mirrors minimal, monolithic forms manifested in found objects like stacked paper cups and milk cartons; it is as though he combines minimalism with pop art. His capacity for uniting polarities led to further transformations. His early expressionist self-portraits gave way to celebratory modes of known and unknown faces (like “Untitled Faces” (1982), which embraces both the painterly and the minimalist grid), or neohoodoo (a phrase coined by the poet Ishmael Reed in the late 1960s) figures that culled from folklore, urban mythology, and American spiritualities, Christian or otherwise. However varied his figures, Witz remains on a constant search for images that satisfy both his quest for the Rabelaisian arcane and his interest in the confrontation of dreams with the everyday, waking world. The images obey their own expressiveness, which testifies to Witz’s refusal to be compartmentalized or pigeonholed. Albert Pinkham Ryder once said the following of his own life and work, although the words are apropos of Witz’s as well: “Have you ever seen an inch worm crawl up a leaf or a twig, and then clinging to the very end, revolved in the air, feeling for something to reach for something? That’s like me. I am trying to find something out there beyond the place on which I have a footing.”

 

Phong Bui

Brooklyn 2012

Snapshots From NYSS

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