Los Angeles

James Hayward, Honky Tonk Woman, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 66".

James Hayward, Honky Tonk Woman, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 66".

James Hayward

Richard Telles Fine Art

James Hayward, Honky Tonk Woman, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 66 x 66".

Mike Kelley, in a curatorial statement written to accompany a small retrospective he organized in 2005, described James Hayward as “one of the few truly important West Coast painters.” That show, however, was only Hayward’s fourth solo in New York, and he hasn’t exhibited in Manhattan since. Compare his situation with those of some of the most widely acclaimed LA artists (Kelley for one) who regularly exhibit in New York but sometimes leave their hometown feeling neglected. It could be said that Hayward’s West Coast–ness is part of what makes him great, but operating peripheral to the postwar capital of painting has, arguably, marginalized his contribution to the medium. Timed to coincide with “Pacific Standard Time,” the J. Paul Getty Museum–initiated survey of California art (in which Hayward’s work was featured via “Under the Big Black Sun,” at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles), “Satori” was a revisiting of the artist’s early efforts, and was aimed, in part, at correcting that oversight.

This tightly curated selection of works spanning the years 1970 to 1981 marked the shift from Hayward’s initial Day-Glo-hued “Visionary” paintings to the monochrome panels around which his practice has centered for the past four decades. The earliest works on view, optically intense arrangements of dots painted in thinly sprayed, acid-tinged gradients, hinted at a lysergic origin even without the black light under which they were originally intended to be viewed. The largest and most complexly layered of these hippie paintings, Honky Tonk Woman, 1972, was particularly far out in its interplay of wild color and destabilizing of figure/ground relationships. And yet, kaleidoscopic as they are, these works seem more like representations of an enhanced visual experience than the vivid sensation itself.

The real meat of the exhibition was found in the next room (the main space), where a half-dozen monochromatic panels traced the ramifications of Hayward’s realization that he “would never again paint on this or that side of another line.” These chromatically intense paintings, built up from thinly layered brushwork allegedly applied in the dark, offered a surprising degree of variety, given their restricted means. In Automatic Painting: White #7, 1978–79, a 33 x 33" flat white surface shimmered with nearly imperceptible fluctuations in opacity. The larger Vicky Died Today, 1975, by contrast, contained a range of blacks in the palpable marks that faded in and out of view across its monochromatic surface. But these works played tricks on the eyes, and true shifts in tonality became hard to discern, given the mind’s pareidolic response. In this sense, the automatic paintings represented less of a break with Hayward’s previous visionary ambitions than a better-realized embodiment. Automatic Painting, 66 x 66, Neutral, 1976, the show seemed to suggest, was the most psychedelic painting Hayward could have possibly made.

In exhibiting these first mature works alongside pieces created before the artist had gotten into the zone, so to speak, the gallery risked various misreadings. The juxtaposition had the potential to privilege a few bits of juvenilia and, in effect, undermine the seriousness of the artist’s later work. There was a chance that this pairing, revealing the roundabout path by which Hayward arrived at the monochrome, might call the artist’s credentials into question. However, the clarity of the installation quashed all of these concerns. Rooting his contribution to monochrome painting in a regional vernacular, “Satori” made the case for Hayward as far more than a late, possibly belated, and arguably displaced modernist. As the title of this show suggested, Hayward’s moment of sudden insight entailed a decisive shift in method. Though all along, his approach has, evidently, never veered from the ecstatic.

Ben Carlson