John Otte


John Otte is given not to grand gestures but rather to quietly commanding ones, as this selection of thirty-five works produced between 1982 and 2007 showed. His is an art of precisely composed images and finely wrought textures. Most of Otte’s works are intimate in scale, but even the larger ones express a sensibility attuned to the intimate, rewarding close scrutiny and familiarity with the art-historical and cultural references he invokes.

The earliest works in the exhibition, four pastel drawings on paper from 1982, create spatial paradoxes. In each, a black rectangle seems to float slightly above the center of a gray-white background. The figure-ground relationship is destabilized by the fact that the white, irregular shapes enclosed by the black rectangle also, at their bases, bleed into the rectangle’s white surround. All called Untitled (Newmanesque), these drawings do indeed evoke Barnett Newman, particularly his 1963 series of lithographs “18 Cantos” (Otte’s pastels are even of roughly the same proportions as the Newman prints, though a little larger). The homage is playful, as each of Otte’s images suggests one of the “Canto” prints superimposed on a Newman monochrome painting from the 1950s—Newman on Newman. But the real pleasure of these works resides in their facture as much as in their sly referentiality, in the hand-rubbed, palimpsestic look of white areas that aren’t really white and the carefully retained ruled lines that mark the corners of the black rectangles.

The art historical references in Otte’s subsequent work occur more at the level of borrowed detail than wholesale evocation of another artist’s style. A silk-screened design in Untitled (Garden State), 1988, derives from the fifteenth-century Italian painter Masolino da Panicale, who reveled in the ornamentation on rich brocades. Otte isolates the linear decoration and presents it on a worn-looking piece of newsprint against a bright stain of red and yellow inks. In emphasizing it thus, he invites us to appreciate the pattern for itself more directly than Masolino was able to do, but also presents it as an artifact—as if this stained, wrinkled bit of paper were a precious remnant found on the floor of the Renaissance artist’s studio.

While Otte’s reference to Newman is lighthearted, there is something elegiac about this fragment from Masolino, and an elegiac impulse has become more explicit generally in Otte’s recent work. In Untitled (World Without End), 2006, a photocopy (with touches of iridescent silver acrylic) of a George N. Bernard photograph from 1865 depicting a desolate rail yard at the Atlanta Rolling Mill is affixed to a surface whose patina resembles that of a rusted oil drum, evoking the ghosts of antebellum Southern industry. Looking at Untitled (I Walk on Gilded Splinters—Je suis un grand Zombie remix), 2005–2007, I associate the whitewashed panel—which also supports a framed image (a small landscape-like abstraction, in fact a photocopy of an Ellsworth Kelly drawing) and an artificial flower hung upside down—with New Orleans, another devastated Southern locale. And this is even without taking note of the title’s reference to a haunting song by Dr. John. Looking again at those early pastel abstractions, they started to seem a bit less like playful formal exercises and a young artist’s Oedipal jests, and a bit more like doors with dirty glass windows through which one might glimpse the indistinct shadow of another time.

Philip Auslander