Los Angeles

William Pettet

Nicholas Wilder Gallery

The eminently dramatic appearance of William Pettet’s “mature” (at twenty-five) style on the Los Angeles scene came last summer in the form of scores of large canvases painted within four months time. There was suddenly this hugely efflorescent, opulent, sometimes sinister and, one suspected, accidentally achieved collection of wetly painted, air-blown curiosities; they seemed initially to have little to do with any L.A. esthetic “tradition,” at first recalling Louis and Olitski, but with none of their coolly arrived at, and reassuring, sense of ballast. Out of the approximately 30 works I initially saw, there were possibly five or six that could not at all be overlooked. They fell into basically two groups—those measuring 8 by 15 feet, and the smaller, 6 by 10 foot ones.

Pettet invented a technique for them whereby the canvas is laid flat on a large table; the acrylic paint is applied in layers by a combination of means, then, in some areas, forced across or into the canvas with an air gun, in other places left to soak deeply into the cloth, and in still other parts, or so it appeared, paint is simply sprayed directly onto the surface. Viewing all the paintings in close succession, the sheer sense of clotted, cloying richness and of bizarre, mostly unpalatable color—flared in improbable, often landscape-like and semi-illusionistic sweeps and fluid patches, flecked with fine, pearlescent substances—tended first to repel one, but some of it was undeniably impressive. It was a full-blooded, amazingly varied, and confident array of paintings whose range of sensational techniques alone was out of the ordinary.

Most of the canvases produced during those spring and summer months were sold immediately (a disquieting turn of affairs, somehow)and never shown publicly. A more recent body of work, however, is currently on view at the Nicholas Wilder Gallery. In comparison to the first paintings, the present ones are, as a whole, somewhat more tentative and subdued (though still richly “lyrical”), and yet it is no less difficult than before to respond to or assess them without feelings of ambivalence. One of the chief obstacles is the artist’s clarion intention to identify himself with the difficult and above all desperately serious terms in recent painting established by Louis and Noland, and associated with Olitski, Bannard and (particularly relevant at the moment) Larry Poons. The elaborate kinds of configurative and coloristic incident that Pettet relies upon for “weighty” effect have roots in Louis’s perfected staining techniques (especially in the Unfurleds); the emphasis on overall shape (some of the paintings at Wilder are Olitski-like vertical panels) is secondary. The comparison with Louis may not be altogether fair; it is profoundly disadvantageous to Pettet, who has none of Louis’s deliberateness or regard for clarity. The relationship to Olitski is more remote, though Pettet seems to have acquired a measure of color sense from him, as well as, possibly, Darby Bannard. Although Pettet is diverging significantly from these older painters, I don’t feel that he has broken important new ground or that his work suggests possibilities for dialectical advancement.

The present selection of paintings is wildly uneven. The largest canvas is also the most effulgent; it measures about 8 by 15 feet, and is extravagantly complicated in its chromatic mixtures and configurative effects. (There is no such thing as structure, or even syntax, in these paintings, since they are so amorphous and fogged all over the surface.) Some interesting spatial illusions play in this large, episodic work—the whole thing has a quality of expansive depth, like sky—created out of value and hue contrasts (purple into mauve, wisps of copperish green, milky areas); there are brooding, purplish stains along the lower edge, fuzzy, crater like patches of lighter tonalities, and throughout the surface a fluctuating layer of metallic fleck. The work is distinctly ugly; nothing is conceded to any of the “tasteful” proprieties in painting, such as restiveness, or lucidity, or lightness of touch. One would say that Pettet is being tough about things, but it is such a tantrum of toughness, and seems so murderous in its violation of intellectual amenities, that finally one loses patience and even interest.

In contrast to this is a work whose lilting, watery surface heeds every requirement of subtlety and restraint. Besides providing sensory relief, it holds together more solidly than either the oppressively “hot” canvases or the mild, peachy ones of which there are several in the new batch. This particular work is mostly deep, alga-green, with purplish and brownish colors. Knowing that Pettet has actually begun with puddles of paint, it is fine for him to refer to a pool’s dappled surface and luminous depths. That image isn’t necessarily literal, but it isn’t bad, either, if he intended it.

It is exceedingly unfortunate that Pettet has chosen to show several slim, vertical canvases that one strongly suspects were cropped from larger ones (not that it matters), because these works betray a horribly shoddy and licentious streak in him. They are saleable as hand-dyed upholstery fabrics are, but no more valuable. There are other paintings, some that merely parody “competent painting,” some that may not be entirely satisfactory, but are definitely not dismissible either.

Jane Livingston