Between a Name and a Signature: Q+A With Josh Smith


Artist Josh Smith, 34, is not someone worried about curbing his output. His all-American name is painted in wild permutations on hundreds of canvases, stools, books and gallery announcements all over his 38th Street studio, which doubles as the headquarters of his art publishing house.

But Smith’s name has always been a departure from which to explore abstraction, and his third solo show at Luhring Augustine in New York demonstrates further deviation in color and composition. The new work includes painting of insects in primitive or hieroglyphic detail, and paintings on the stubborn ground of aluminum. He’s also proposed a summit for the work he’s done on his own name name: writing it on a stage, underlight, as a backdrop and a marquee.

We met with him at his studio to discuss the difference between a name and a signature.



ADAM O’REILLY: This show seems like a departure. It’s not a just a painting show, but a demonstration of your work in abstraction in multiple media.

JOSH SMITH: I think once people see it they will understand that everything I do is the same. I have this touch; it goes through my filter. It’s a departure, but it’s metered. [It’s] not like a photographer doing a huge outdoor sculpture, but more like a painter deconstructing what he does a little bit, to prove a point.

O’REILLY: What elements are you adding to this show to demonstrate that deconstructive process?

SMITH: I don’t know how it’s necessarily going to come together—but the three elements are, regular size paintings of skeletons and insects, 4-by-4-foot Stop Signs, enamel on sheets of aluminum. And there are these sculptures that I made, like stages for performances. They have a backdrop and it says my name on it with lights. Folded up they are the size of a coffin with wheels; unfolded, they fold out to four-by-five feet flat.

O’REILLY: Previously you’ve painted on chairs (and on walls), but does this more object-oriented approach feel different? Or does it feel unified in terms of exploring different armatures for your painting?

SMITH: Well, I wanted to do something else. Everyone is sort of doing painting now. Were I to put another painting show out there, it would go down like a smoothie. The way I dealt with showing paintings in the first two shows was conservative. I’ve never objectified myself as painter as much as I did in those first two solo shows. I just put my paintings on the walls and let people scrutinize them.

O’REILLY: Much of your output famously repeats imagery as a departure point from which to take on abstraction. But what’s the goal of pushing abstraction?

SMITH: Everything I make is selfish. I’m making it for myself. With the abstract paintings, I try to make something challenging for myself to look at. It’s better to make something than to talk about.

OREILLY: Typically you screenprint large announcement posters on the occasion of an exhibition. But there isn’t one for this show, is there?

SMITH: Everyone gave me a hard time for making them. And now they are giving me a hard time for not making one! People say I make too much stuff; everybody says that shit.

O’REILLY: Do you ever feel pressure to make the same thing?

SMITH: I don’t think I’ve ever made the same thing twice. I have never given myself the luxury, even my peers get to do it. I would be happy to do the name paintings for ever.

O’REILLY: You included the name paintings in the show by way of the fold out sculptures, they become a backdrop. I always go back to them when I think about your work, are they a point a reference for you?

SMITH: You know how when Charles Shultz got real old and “The Peanuts” got all shaky? I just imagine it would be a good way to meter out your life as an artist.

O’REILLY: What’s been happening with your book publishing company 38th Street Publishers?

SMITH: My friend Todd Amicon helps me with that. He lives in Columbus, Ohio. We just did a new book with the [deceased] French artist Guy de Cointet. It’s a play written in code but made to be read out loud. You get this pseudo-phonetic rhythm from reading it.

O’REILLY: Do you differentiate between your painting and publishing, in terms of the amount you collaborate?

SMITH: I go back and forth about doing books with other people. It depends on how much is on my plate. When you work with another artist, you have to put your own artwork in a box for a little while when you talk with them. It’s really hard for me, but that being said, it’s a great way to interface with another person. Sometimes it’s really hard to say something to somebody like Terry Winters. It’s nice to have a project between you when you are building a friendship.

O’REILLY: They all seem like collaborations. Do you have trouble making compromises when working with other artists?

SMITH: [laughs] My patience starts to wear out and it starts to look like something I made.