New York

Roy De Forest

Whitney Museum of American Art

The Bay Area artist Roy De Forest has said he thinks of himself as a “classical American painter with some correspondence to American primitive art and people like George Caleb Bingham and Edward Hicks.” Over the past 20 years, De Forest has been pushing his primitiveness to a point of polished sophistication. The process is traced in a thorough, compact retrospective which traveled to the Whitney from the San Francisco Museum of Art where it was organized by curator John Humphrey, who also wrote a brief, rather insufficient catalogue essay. The exhibition included paintings, drawings, and painted wood wall pieces. My only objection is that there might have been more drawings and fewer wall pieces, but, that aside, it is one of the best exhibitions I have seen at the Whitney all year.

De Forest owns several dogs, likes dogs and paints dogs, along with a few other animals (mostly horses and cattle) and occasional humans. The dogs he says “are almost ciphers, because I sort of regard man as being basically an animal. I reject classical figure painting for that reason—the figure in the room as being kind of egocentric. And a bunch of dogs is, after all, a different kind of figure painting.” De Forest didn’t always concentrate on dogs. During the late ’50s and early ’60s, he painted mostly textures, crowding the surfaces with thick, neat dots of paint, which looked like gaudy, overgrown maps. Toward the mid-’60s, he cut down the dotting and started to draw, outlining crude circles which he filled only partially with dots and other shapes. Much of the canvas was left bare. Cartoonlike hands reached in from the edges and a few small figures, human and otherwise, wandered through. The paintings have always been narrative and involved with journeys even when they simply looked like the terrain. But when De Forest started concentrating on the people and animals, on his own kind of figuration, he found a safety valve and a purpose for all the crazy texturing and his zany ways of handling paint. During the very late ’60s he hit his stride and started laying out in his paintings a monumental figuration and a complicated kind of space. His work became formally and narratively more substantial.

The paintings from 1970 and 1971 are among the best. In Steamship to the Interior a magnificent head of mortared brick spews forth, like a furnace, an area of black (dotted) smoke which takes the shape of a house with a window and a face in the window. An onlooking dog (spotted) has extending from his mouth a balloon in which a steamship at sea is visible. Each layer, however flattened, gives way to another layer, another time, behind it. Often these interior times and spaces are contained within figures, Trojan Horse-style, or are “spoken” by other figures. De Forest grants his figures the powers of observation and imagination; they tell their own stories and in doing so generate the surfaces and intricate space of the paintings. They have a complete and complicated knowledge; his dogs have eyes with three pupils, three dots of paint, and sometimes beams of light shooting from them. They are the eyes of seers. They certainly don’t look naive; they survey the scene before them, us included, with sinister assurance. These animals, particularly those with frontal stares, are credible and a little frightening.

De Forest’s drawings are easier to take and a relief from the radiant belligerence of his paintings. They are fine and light, like Twombly, but are more calculated, carefully laid out across the paper in a single layer. They are rarely overworked, as the paintings can be, and the best indicate the inventiveness of his forms and technique. But the drawings sometimes imitate a familiar primitive naiveté whereas the space and scale of the paintings are the products of a more modern, if eccentric, imagination that has grown in clarity over the past few years.

De Forest gives his animals force through their confident appropriation of a complexly structured space, through the even heat of his color, through the variety of his painting. This force is what makes his dogs “another kind of figure painting” and also, with Katz and Guston, among the best.

Roberta Smith