Odili Donald Odita challenges the long-held belief that abstract art began with Paul Cézanne, and that it is a purely Western tradition in which Pablo Picasso’s appropriation of African art played an important role. This is the tradition with which most abstract artists align themselves. In this narrative of art history, Europe is at the center and the rest of the world is on the margins. Starting in the 1940s, American artists and critics helped shift the center to New York. And critics such as Clement Greenberg, Donald Judd, and Rosalind Krauss helped to strengthen this perception.
Thankfully, not everyone agrees with this. Odita’s brightly colored geometric paintings on reconstituted wood veneer register all the different ways that he has stepped away from the white masterpiece tradition in which the artist applies oil paint to large swaths of canvas or linen. More importantly, he has never tried to establish a signature style and make formulaic paintings (one of the pitfalls of this tradition), which many regard as the epitome of success. Odita’s paintings are recognizable, but the compositions are never mechanical. He’s not phoning it in, as they say. Conceptually, it seems that he has thought his way through Western abstraction and the parallel movement of pattern and decoration, which often relies on repetition, as well as Op Art and its reliance on optical illusion. Whatever traces remain of these styles in Odita’s art, the viewer can be assured that he has done something to them.
These are some of the reasons I visited the exhibition Odili Donald Odita: Burning Cross at Jack Shainman Gallery (January 10–February 18, 2023). Of the show’s 12 vertical, square, and horizontal paintings, all but four are in acrylic latex paint on reconstituted wood veneer, which is black or dark brown. For the acrylic on canvas works, in which pattern and sharply angled shapes press tightly together, no ground is visible. I do not think Odita’s color choice is purely aesthetic. In 1965, Richard Artschwager famously recounted that “Formica, the great ugly material […] was a picture of something.” In Odita’s paintings, the reconstituted wood veneer is a picture of Blackness, reminding us that there is nothing neutral about working in oil on canvas. In the early 1970s, Joe Zucker used cotton balls to depict subjects such as Eli Whitney and the invention of the cotton gin, which shaped the economy of the Southern states, and views of plantation life and slavery. Odita’s consciousness of materials and color helps distinguishes him from his peers. He is not trying to comfortably fit in.
Odili Donald Odita, “Void” (2022), acrylic on canvas, 60 x 60 x 1 1/4 inches
Odita never uses the same color twice in a painting. This slows the viewer down, drawing attention to difference rather than similarity. I think this is one of the artist’s primary impulses: he wants to challenge our assumptions and push beyond our comfort zone, even as this viewer at least finds great pleasure in looking at these works. He wants to open up a space for reflection.
In “Void” (2022), the symmetry of the composition of eight-sided irregular polygons and pentagons (derived from the polygons) is undermined by the use of different colors. At the center of the painting is a …….