Lari Pittman is a writer’s painter. Just as a writer packs maximum punch into an essay, selecting words carefully, making sure each one means exactly the right thing, making sure no space is wasted, so too Pittman paints on panel. Pittman’s compositions are dense and complex, full of references both obscure and obvious and compositions that seem to make sense in two dimensions and three. Every Pittman painting — and Pittman is remarkably consistent, a Pittman is obviously and only a Pittman — is packed full of symbols, narrative, story, fear, decoration, confrontation, color and then more of all of the above. The way Tom Wolfe writes, Lari Pittman paints.
The surfaces of Pittman’s paintings are hard, seemingly bulletproof — after making paintings out of acrylic, enamel, alkyd and spray paint, Pittman has recently pivoted to using Cel-Vinyl and lacquers — but somehow invite you into the shallow depth of each painting. Like the work of Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, or James Rosenquist each painting features a lot to, well, break down and put back together.
Pittman’s considerable oeuvre is the subject of a new monograph just out from Rizzoli. At 276 pages and nearly five pounds, “Lari Pittman” is by far the the most significant Pittman monograph ever published. It’s the grandson of the 1996 Howard Fox-curated Pittman survey exhibition that traveled from LACMA to the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston and to the Corcoran, a show that featured a thin (but essential) 88-page catalogue.
“Lari Pittman” strength is its thorough inclusion of 215 Pittman paintings, each seemingly shown bigger than the last. Less interesting are its essays: Critic and NYU professor Wayne Koestenbaum meanders in desperate need of an editor, and Yale School of Art dean Rob Storr seems primarily interested in pigeonholing Pittman as a campy, gay, Los Angeles painter, but never really gets anywhere interesting in his discussion of such. (It’s strange and disappointing that Doug Harvey, who probably writes about Pittman better than any American writer writes about any American artist, isn’t here.)
ICA Boston curator Helen Molesworth’s Q&A with the artist is the best written passage in the book. Particularly superb is an exchange in which Molesworth tries to understand how Pittman builds each painting, how he organizes the complicated semi-abstract compositions that, against all odds, somehow hold together. [Image: Pittman, This Expedition, Beloved and Despised, Continued Regardless, 1989. Collection of the Yale University Art Gallery.]
[Molesworth:] So how do you make the transition from this world where all this information is coming in simultaneously, to the studio, which is a putatively removed, quiet, contemplative place? Do you set up still lifes? Do you work from memory? Do you make a drawing first?
[Pittman:] I never make a drawing.
[Molesworth:] You never make a drawing? Lari, you never make a drawing. Holy crap.
[Pittman:] No. I don’t draw on the paintings either. I start.
[Molesworth:] Wow. That is so wild. Do you see the picture before you make it, in your head?
[Pittman:] A basic structure, yes.
[Molesworth:] A basic structure but then things unfold as you’re making it?
[Pittman:] Well, I think I construct a few sentences and the sentences might produce a painting. “Roulette wheel with hands attached rotating and knocking things off of a table.” That might be a sentence.
Molesworth’s text saves the printed word here — the book badly needs a contextualizing biographical essay — but the reason to own “Lari Pittman” isn’t the words, it’s the images. There’s no other place — online or off — to see as much of Pittman’s work in once place. For that reason alone, “Lari Pittman” is a must-own.