Sometimes viewing an art exhibition online isn’t so much an inconvenience as a comfortable buffer. Consider, for example, the irreverent, relentless visual cornucopia created by the great but under-known artist Roy De Forest (1930-2007), a large selection of which booms forth from the website of the Manhattan gallery Venus Over Manhattan.
The show’s 37 paintings, drawings and assemblage wall reliefs span from 1960 to 2006 and constitute the largest De Forest show in New York since a 1975 survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art. His efforts bristle with saturated colors, notably red, reflecting a love of early Matisse, and surprising textures, especially raised pointy dots squeezed directly from the tube (think Nestlé chocolate chips). Strange cartoonish characters abound, including sentient animals, mainly dogs and horses — which are often the protagonists.
De Forest’s artworks batter received ideas of taste and beauty no less today than they did when they were created. They eviscerate (perhaps definitively) the pejorative term “regionalist” with which New York art worlders used to label most postwar artists who lived west of New Jersey — Los Angeles excepted. Far from regionalist, or parochial, De Forest’s works reveal an artist who viewed the styles of early modernism as building blocks and used them so inventively that we barely notice.
But De Forest openly acknowledges one source of his crowded, pushed-forward beings and their staring eyes in “Painting the Big Painting,” a 1993 work that includes figures and faces from Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon.” It’s not my favorite De Forest by far, but it’s a useful skeleton key to a mind that drew inspiration from Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Surrealism, Dada and Expressionism as well as history painting and the Aboriginal Dreamtime artists of Australia.
The main components of De Forest’s artistic universe are on full display in the close-up of his 1972 painting “A Figure of Our Time,” which is the first image under “Exhibitions” on the Venus home page. That figure is a large brown dog relaxing on a circular rug of many yellows. In the background, a beautiful miasma of red, yellow and blue blots drifts past with several areas studded with the signature chocolate-chip dots. Another De Forest touch is the cameo scene within the larger image. Here, there is one on the right, featuring a smaller dog, also seen in profile; the dotted lines emanating from its green eye indicates special communication with its larger sibling.
Proceed into the site and you’ll encounter the painting in full, with another dog, a horse, several women, some more cameos, a wonderfully Max Ernst head of studded red bricks and sundry dotted sight lines, suggesting the characters’ dispersed attention. All this specificity adds up to an aura of ambiguity, completely open to the viewer’s interpretation that is De Forest’s parting gift. (Don’t miss the sweet nocturnal scene of a ship at sea in the lower right corner.)
Next to it hangs “Baja Nights” (1982) dominated by four pairs of staring eyes, multiplying the viewer’s gaze. Two sets belong to the dogs that are clearly the alpha players here; one to a sphinx with a chimp-like face; and the last to a terrified red humanoid that seems paralyzed by whatever is going on behind it. The supporting cast includes a cactus, a cactus figure and a green macaw, as well as a huge yellow moon. De Forest’s dogs often look as if we’ve interrupted them in the middle of some mischief and they don’t care. They just outstare us.
De Forest was a member of a talented generation of artists that started emerging in the Bay Area in the early 1950s, among them Joan Brown, Peter Saul, Robert Arneson, H.C. Westermann, William T. Wiley, Franklin Williams and Maija Peeples-Bright. They absorbed and then mostly rejected the tenets of early Abstract Expressionism promulgated by Clyfford Still in his few years teaching at what is now the San Francisco Art Institute, and opted for images and high jinks over abstraction and high seriousness. Their linguistic quirks, which registered most often in titles, were awakened by the free-form poetry of the Beats. And many of them — De Forest in particular — pursued a kind of hallucinatory visual overload in advance of the counterculture.
De Forest’s art is predicated on abundance, whether of narrative options, interpretive possibilities or pictorial incidents — all of it improvised. You can see this excess emerge in this show in the paintings from the 1960s. The dense allover fields of dots and patterns echo Abstract Expressionist all-overness, but are humorously dispatched and contaminated by tiny figures and faces. These dense fields are then subdivided into comical aerial land-use maps, as in the untitled canvas from 1964 (where an orange hand reaches in from the left side) and “The Problem of James R.” of 1968. In “Among the Lilies” (1974), the improvisations are so plentiful and lush, they threaten to obliterate the central image of a canine with a lasciviously large tongue.
To enrich your understanding of where De Forest’s achievement comes from, read “Of Dogs and Other People: The Art of Roy De Forest,” by the art historian Susan Landauer. This vivid, informed account of his life and times was the catalog to the 2017 full-dress retrospective that Ms. Landauer organized at the Oakland Museum of California. She describes a young artist with a curiosity fueled by extensive reading, especially in art history and philosophy, who left few early interests or skills behind — including a lifelong subscription to Scientific American, whose images he sometimes cribbed.
The early whittling talent with which he entertained his sisters while growing up recurs at Venus in his hand-carved wood frames, the dogs and horses stationed on his wall reliefs and the large, entangled equine form in the wall sculpture “One Life to Lead” (1986). It doesn’t take much imagination to see the effect on De Forest’s sensibility of his beloved childhood dogs (all named Hector), his mother’s crazy quilts and the costumes, crafts and ceremonies of Yakama Indians of the Yakima Valley in Washington, where De Forest’s family settled after fleeing Dust Bowl Nebraska in 1934.
Since the 1990s, we in New York have had a chance to grasp the greatness, largely through gallery exhibitions, of several artists formerly known as regionalist, especially Jim Nutt, Mr. Westermann and Mr. Saul, whose work is currently the subject of an exhibition at the New Museum. De Forest has not been entirely invisible over these years but this big show is, even online, irrefutable evidence of his stature.