From the exhibition catalogue Joe Andoe - What You See
University at Buffalo Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY, Nov. 10 - Dec. 15, 2000.
By Karen Emenhiser
The first painting I remember seeing by Joe Andoe was a landscape, a tar-black field intersected by a blur. The image was just barely identifiable as a landscape by that horizontal seep of light, strung with softly rounded forms -- hay bales. It was the sort of twilight scenario encountered through glazed eyes from the passenger seat of a fast moving car: both mesmerizing and routine.
The painting brings to mind the often-told story of Tony Smith, a sculptor associated with the beginning of minimalism. In 1959 he took an evening cruise on the still-unfinished New Jersey Turnpike with three of his students. Later he described the experience: "The road and much of the landscape was artificial, and yet it couldn't be called a work of art. On the other hand, it did something for me that art had never done." He continued famously solemnizing this element of Americana: "The experience on the road was something mapped out but not socially recognized. I thought to myself, it ought to be clear that's the end of art. Most paintings look pretty pictorial after that." Andoe's landscape looks pretty pictorial, topped off with a curvaceous flourish in the upper left corner. This embellishment complements the row of hay bales just so and is also the signature of the artist, "Joe Andoe," in large, loopy script. The signature distinguishes the work as one-of-a-kind by an artist engaging the sort of pastoral picture-making recorded by hundreds of years of Western art history and continuing long after Tony Smith's dismissal of painting. But in spite of the hay bales and an unabashed embrace of the pictorial conventions dismissed by Smith, Andoe's works as a whole are remarkably minimalist: rectangles on a wall, bare-boned, austere, obsessively repetitive, and with a strangely pragmatic grasp of illusion.
The paintings possess an economy and resolve traceable to the artist's graduate years in the late seventies at the University of Oklahoma, under the sway of Earth Art, Robert Smithson and Jimi Hendrix. In that time and place, stripped-down choppers exemplified an aesthetic since gentrified by minimalism, but driven initially by passion, not theory. According to Andoe, "less wasn't more, it was cool." In art and life, the idea on all fronts was to create a complete picture with only the necessary means: a spare, junkyard appreciation of the well-worn surfaces of stripped-down cars dotted with exposed primer and Bondo. It was, and is, a minimalist means of celebrating the potential of a world disencumbered of excess baggage: lean motorcycles with all the decorative chrome banished, Hendrix infinitely bending and stretching just one note, Robert Smithson's Asphalt Rundown flowing freely, senselessly, down a hill. Donald Judd's definition of American art has been quoted before in reference to Andoe, but it bears repeating. "American art was born not out of a struggle against European art, but rather out of the vastness and uninterrupted space of the American landscape." Andoe draws on that sense of vastness, understanding it, as did Tony Smith, as something beyond social recognition. On the other hand, his exaggerated signature is a down-home testament to the individual, simultaneously flattening the illusion, decorating the void and laying claim to both.
Andoe refers to the works as "monochromes," and for the most part each painting is limited to a palette of either a warm black or deep red. He likes this self-imposed one-note restriction because it allows him to "telescope into the picture," concentrating on "pushing in and out" of the paint as opposed to a "lateral movement" involving a broader survey of subjects and styles. Regarding these paintings as monochromes -- focusing on form over content -- places them (somewhat oddly given all the cows, hay bales, and horses) in the tradition of mystical abstraction, the wholesale rejection of subject and narrative in favor of something less sullied by experience. Thomas McEvilley analyzed the mid-century phenomenon in "The Monochrome Icon." He traces its allure to the wrings of Goethe, who, according to McEvilley, believed that "beholding an unbroken expanse of a single color awakens awareness of universality. As such it has a tonic effect on the mind and tends to harmonize the individual beholder with the basic unity of things. The one-color presence is a channel into the mystery of Oneness." The modern practice of "channeling Oneness" through paint was brought to a head by post-WWII artists in pursuit of ideal form and an essential stillness bordering, wistfully perhaps, on the sublime. By the 1960's, however, artists tended to engage in a more skeptical, if no less ambitious, project of locating an alternative "essence" -- equally unified, orderly and iconic -- but with an emphasis on the material (minimalism's CorTen, concrete and asphalt) over the spiritual, and industrial-strength pragmatism over the One. Inconsistent though it may seem, the legacy of the monochrome remains tied to these opposing view of the "essential." It is more or less accepted that the essence of the essential is viewed differently through the convictions of different lenses. Joe Andoe's talent is to present these inconsistencies through a sort of stereoscopic lense that, if you squint just a little, fuse both the skeptical and ideal into a remarkably harmonic whole.
WHAT YOU SEE
This work takes place somewhere in the art historical no-man's-land between romance and irony, the ideal and the material. These works are not a debunking of minimalism's monochrome or its attendant principles. But neither is it a dive into the modernist void. Instead, Andoe presents us with a thoughtful commemoration of things that, quite simply, are. In these works imagery functions as essence, much as a guitar chord for Hendrix, or the steel and concrete that formed the foundation for the "Primary Structures" of early minimalism. Horses, flowers and landscapes are the best-loved, most familiar subjects in art. As such, they are Andoe's givens, his ready-mades. He uses this imagery as a fundamental organizing device, something to govern his application of paint the way Frank Stella used the dimensions of his stretcher bars to determine how he "got the paint out of the can and onto the canvas" while working on his early black paintings. When Stella discussed those paintings in 1964 he spoke of their "objectness" and their presupposed freedom from the European conventions of composition, illusion and values. "All I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion." He continued with what is now considered the cornerstone of minimalist doctrine: "What you see is what you see."
What you see in Andoe's work stares back with just enough disinterest to achieve a similar "objectness." "I use horses the way they did before cars," says Andoe, "they work for me." And they do work, with precision and elegance. Prized for their beauty and grace, horses have long served a dazzling array of visual functions. In fact, lovely pictures of horses are so common there is little point in denying the poor animal the mechanical and purely functional status of an object: elemental fodder, so to speak, for artists across the world and throughout time. As subject matter, however, a horse is always metaphorical, conjuring adventure and discovery, beauty, gracefulness, the wild west and lonesome cowboy, a pre-SUV utopia, the trophy pet. But the remarkable thing about Andoe's painting is the way he balances the opposing notions of the horse as a subject -- as archetype and stereotype, the ideal and the hackneyed. This has something to do with the way the animals are portrayed, as beings existing on a level removed from that of the viewer and therefore unbothered by human metaphor. Andoe quotes Robert de Niro's "I never play down to a character" when speaking of his approach to his subjects. This deference to the uniqueness and strangeness of each animal -- while at the same time pumping the genre -- lends the paintings a complex ambivalence that is both seductive and a little uncomfortable. It is a tenuous balancing act that results in the sort of vibration that activates and authenticates a work of art.
If "objectness" can be essential then light is even more so: pictorially, biblically, and scientifically. Andoe, in his signature style of artistic revelation, banishes the material to expose the essence. Or, in more pragmatic terms, he wipes paint off the canvas with a paper towel in a method designed to leave the impression of, say, a swan. As utilitarian as the method is, the effect is one of mystery. The pictures are unabashedly romantic, with a pensive quality much like that of Albert Pinkham Ryder, but achieved through clarity of light rather than layers upon layers of paint. But, the light that defines a swan through remnants of paint caught in the weave of canvas also frees that swan from the material and the everyday canon of the merely pictorial. The contrast startles the eye, bringing the negative space of the pictures into a parity with the image. Technically, the figure is the ground; the image is the canvas, revealed. In the grand tradition of mystical abstraction, the parts become a pictorial whole. Andoe's sensitivity towards light was evidenced early by his graduate thesis exhibition at the University of Oklahoma. He lined up a series of paintings, end to end, evoking a long, uninterrupted horizon. He then removed the spotlights from the gallery, leaving the work to reflect whatever shifting daylight made its way through the skylight above. It was a profoundly poetic and deceptively simple work, and it informs these pictures even after twenty years. The present paintings retain that simplicity, even revel in it, but not at the expense of the pleasures of imagery. Even as the paintings conjure some of the more esoteric and intellectualized issues of twentieth-century art, they maintain a broad appeal. Andoe takes a generous view towards both the skeptic and the idealist. His penchant for inclusion and harmony is profoundly populist; in fact, he has referred to his imagery as a sort of shorthand for Americana. And he loves the fact that his grandma likes the things he paints. Like the subjects they depict, these paintings taker their place easily in the vastness, emptiness and tenacity of the American landscape.
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