Bob Witz: Milk Made
January 22 – February 28, 2020
Bob Witz, the subject of the exhibition currently occupying OSMOS gallery in the East Village, is an 86-year-old artist and publisher who was born and bred in Tomah, Wisconsin, the dairy capital of America. Witz initially received attention for early work carried out prior to becoming a full-fledged New Yorker. He only moved from Wisconsin to the East Village after a series of his ironic “starving artist” letters were published in the September 1973 issue of Artforum in conjunction with an enthusiastic two-page spread on his work by the renowned critic Robert Pincus-Witten. This was a remarkable way to begin an artist’s career, especially for that time.
While not exactly a universally-known name, Witz has fearlessly pursued his career in New York ever since. After moving into a Chelsea loft, where he has lived and worked for well over 30 years, Witz began publishing Appearances, an elegantly designed art periodical that began to appear around lower Manhattan in the 1980s. The uncompromising, often blasphemous, content that appeared in this East Village publication included not only the work of soon-to-become recognized artists, but exemplary poetry and fiction written by incarcerated prisoners. It was a totally unique publication.
The exhibition at OSMOS includes some issues of Appearances magazine as well as examples of a kind of milk carton-based sculpture that Witz began producing in the late 1970s. In these works, Witz inserted paper cylinders, taken from an old frozen orange juice container or a toilet tissue roll (among other sources), into the open spouts of used half-gallon milk cartons. The next step was to paint the carton and spout, primarily with thick layers of oil paint that occasionally contained small objects, such as hairpins, suspended in the pigment.
The works included in the show date from between 1980 and 2019—or so we are told. For the most part, the exact dates for individual works are not given. This allows the artist to revisit and reengage with his mixed media assemblages on a regular basis, often making additions and changes, despite the fact that they were, at one time, presumably imagined to be complete. A work begun in 1985, for example, may have been further developed in 1991, or, for that matter, as recently as 2019. In addition to the standard paper and paint versions of these half-gallon containers, there have been a few occasions when the artist decided to cast one or two of them in bronze. For the presentation at OSMOS, these bronze sculptures are shown together with the standard milk cartons in a manner that makes it difficult to distinguish them clearly.
The artist’s interest in paper as a sculptural material is fascinating. This is especially true of another, untitled, series in which brown paper grocery bags, soaked in water, have been twisted into ropelike coils. They are further twisted around and through one another in a considerable density, making it virtually impossible to discern the end of one strand from the beginning of another. In one of the larger sculptures, these coils are inserted into a flat cardboard box over and over again, so that eventually the box is nearly hidden from view. As a recent take on sculpture, these unnamed works go beyond the scope of traditional form as we know it. Something else has gotten in the way, producing another system of perception, a heightened material perception offering a radical sensory revision of form. In the work of Witz, the worn-out notion of originality has suddenly reversed itself and come back again—this time giving language a physical state of mind in which theoretical concussions no longer need to prove their own existence.
Put in more literal terms, Witz’s approach to these consciously ambiguous paper constructions has dispensed with the notion that the concept in art has replaced the physicality of form. Instead, Witz has reconnected with form as a physical construction, rather than using it as a discursive alibi. Any language that goes beyond the making of art, at least in this case, will interfere with the experience of engaging with the work’s lack of formal definition. For Witz, this gives precedence to emotional content, a concern that would appear to be the overall direction of this refreshing and brilliantly edifying exhibition.