Joan Witek "Equivalent," 1983, Oil and graphite on canvas, 72 x 116 in (182.9 x 294.6 cm), Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, Pittsburgh: The Henry L. Hillman Fund, 1984

The following is an essay by John Caldwell published in conjunction with the exhibition Joan Witek: Paintings, 1980-1983 and Drawings, 1976-1984, at the Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute, March 3-April 29, 1984 (all rights reserved):

Joan Witek

By John Caldwell
Museum of Carnegie Institute. Pittsburgh

Joan Witek's paintings and drawings are powerful and new. They represent a further development of the formal language invented in the 1960s and 1970s by Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Serra, and Frank Stella, among others. But at the same time her work represents in some ways a critique of theirs, a forthright grasping of issues such as meaning and emotion that they largely chose to sidestep or ignore, at least in public statements, and a subtle transformation of their discoveries into a kind of art that, though related formally, serves different expressive purposes. Whereas Stella, for example, has until very recently insisted that "what you see is what you see" and tended to deny any personal references in his work, Witek has constantly alluded in her paintings and drawings to her own experiences, going so far as to call her paintings self-portraits.

Witek's choice of art as her sole vocation was made slowly, and for a long time she seriously pursued the career of museum curator as well. After switching to a major in fine arts in her last year of college, she worked first at the Jewish Museum in New York, then from 1964 to 1968 in the field of primitive art at the Brooklyn Museum. During this period Witek largely put aside her artistic ambitions, but in 1969, after a year spent traveling in Europe, she enrolled at the Art Students League in New York and began to paint seriously. While studying at the league, she returned to museum work, this time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she was assistant curator of primitive art. She began to share a studio in 1973, the year she stopped work at the league, and in 1976, after a number of one-person and group exhibitions, she established her own studio in Lower Manhattan. And since leaving the museum in 1978 she has devoted herself primarily to painting and drawing.

During the early years of her study at the Art Students League, Witek's work was vigorously representational. In 1969 she began a series of portraits of people seated in chairs. The paintings are remarkable for their adventurous coloring and highly energetic, slightly distorted forms. Gradually, her subjects became not the people occupying the chairs but the furniture itself, until, in the last of the series, she painted a brightly colored green chair  upholstered in red - and on it a coal, very carefully drawn, meticulously shaded, yet unmistakably flat. From there it was only a short step to pure abstraction. At first, Witek painted highly simplified, linear abstractions that suggest the influence of Joan Miró. The following year she was painting luminously colored canvases in a style not unlike that of Mark Rothko; but she was evidently uncomfortable with the soft edges of these forms, and, in a large
work painted in 1971, she focused on a precisely outlined, almost square shape in black. Thereafter, her forms were more often hard-edged, and her canvases tended increasingly to be divided into geometric, often square areas of color.

In 1974, Witek painted a very large work on four canvases that she arranged to surround a blank square. This may well have been her response to the shaped canvases that were beginning to appear in me work of New York artists in the early 1970s, but it was not an innovation that she would pursue for long. More significant, as it turned out, was her decision to use only black, a choice she has adhered to ever since. The painting was her first, as well, to be concerned exclusively with simple geometric forms, which she defined not by outlining and then filling in shapes but by building forms with rows of parallel lines.

Witek made this painting in a shared studio she had established the year before in a loft below Canal Street. She found the move there exceptionally stimulating both because she had her own space devoted exclusively to art and because she found herself in an area that was increasingly inhabited by artists. She remembers those early days in the section of New York that is now called Tribeca - and that period as a whole - as one of markedly increased freedom and a growing confidence in her own abilities. One of her neighbors was Richard Serra, who was making large, all-black paintings in a new medium, paintstick (oil and traditional pigment suspended in a solid form that resembles crayon), applied to canvas that he then left unstretched and stapled to the wall. Witek did not know Serra but heard about his work, and, in her next painting after the four-part work, she too used paintstick and left the canvas unstretched. She did not, however, adopt Serra's practice of producing monolithic all-black work with only slight variations in appearance over the surface of the canvas.

Initially, Witek planned to extend her experiments with paintings composed of multiple canvases and made a number of collages with black paper as studies for paintings that in the end were never executed. These small works are significant, however, because they are the artist's first all-black works and because they record a series of experiments with large paintings comprised of many smaller canvases with wall space between them somewhat in the manner of Ellsworth Kelly. Unlike Kelly, however, whose works were composed of a large number of canvases that were identical rectangles spread widely apart so that they formed a series rather than a unified composition, Witek for the most part planned to hang shaped canvases close together to be read as geometric forms such as rectangles or triangles. She also experimented with sheets of black plastic, using them as a ground and dividing the field with bands of white paint. In other work she explored geometric forms - linked triangles, chevrons, and so on - in black, sometimes as a single figure on an otherwise unpainted canvas.

These years, from 1974 through 1976, were Witek's most experimental period. Rather as if she were progressing chronologically through the history of contemporary art, she had studied Miró, then Rothko, and finally Serra and Kelly in a manner that was both investigative and inventive. Yet it is probably significant that no full-scale work remains today that strongly recalls the work of either Serra or Kelly. In the end, about 1976, Witek returned to the configuration she had begun with two years earlier, the square.

Initially, the square was formed in a similar way to the one in her four-part painting, creating a blank space left in the center of other squares which were now black. An accident in the studio, in which paint got on the central square, which she then filled in, caused her to realize that by using differing textures in applying the paint she
could continue her format of assembled squares in canvases that were all black. [2] At the beginning, the squares extended to the edges of the canvas, but Witek soon gave the work a very narrow border on all sides. While she was developing the configuration of squares on unstretched canvas, she was also experimenting with the surface of the paint itself. Finding that oilstick alone produced too shiny and uninflected a surface, she added powdered graphite to the paint while it was still wet. The result was a considerable range of variation. The textural effects made possible by the varied application of the oil pigment were then heightened by the presence of the graphite, which affected the amount of light reflected from the surface. Though still entirely black, the surface now ranged from a very dark, silvery sheen to a deep, light-absorbing tone.

At this point, though making use of ideas and techniques developed by Serra and Kelly, among others, Witek had decisively established her own identity as an artist. She used black paints tick on unstretched canvas, as did Serra, but Witek's works, unlike his, were emphatically paintings and not drawings, as he called his oil-on-canvas pieces, and they had their own compositional structure, unlike his monolithic works. Merely to leave an unpainted margin at the edge of the canvas established the paintings formally as separate images in contrast to the uniform visual environment created by Serra's work, a distinction that was heightened by Witek's dividing the surface of the canvas into geometric figures. In contrast to Kelly, she elected to use only black and, by making the visual distinctions between the elements slight, she produced images that deliberately avoided the formal and coloristic drama to be found in his work.

Witek's work of this period has about it a mysterious, brooding presence. There is first of all the contradiction between the rigorously formal, geometric structure of the composition and the apparently casual, unstretched canvas with its heavily worked, personally expressive surface. Where Serra and Kelly tended to produce canvases that could be seen more as objects that carried no burden of meaning, Witek's paintings were personal and full of significance. As the artist herself put it:

“I've always wanted to make incongruous things go together: like squares being portraits. In the 1970s the square was so important. The square as a square was not enough for me. I loved its containment but I wanted the square to be filled.”

During the summer of 1978, Witek decided to produce drawings after the all-black paintings she had been making over the previous two years. Rather than simply reproducing the look of the paintings, she re-conceived them in both formal and expressive terms. First of all, they are not black; and, in fact, what one mostly sees in them is the white of the paper. To make the drawings, Witek adapted a technique she had first used in her four-part untitled painting of 1974, in which she defined a form by making a series of parallel black lines. Two years later, in an untitled drawing, she filled an abstract space with similar but much smaller vertical lines organized into a horizontal grid. The drawings during the summer of 1978 basically consist of a grid of equally spaced vertical pen strokes, with the formal structure of the paintings indicated by means of doubling some of the lines. The structure of these square compositions is thus no more emphatic in its delineation than the grid over it, and the geometric form seems therefore fragile and ethereal, almost nonexistent.

In expressive terms, the structure of myriad repeated strokes was an entirely successful corollary to the paintings. In the paintings, there is a resonant disparity between the visually and emotionally heavy black squares and the light, almost informal support of the unstretched canvas. In the drawings, the thousands of pen strokes are in their way as extreme an expression as the all-black paintings. The apparently obsessive repetition of the strokes and their wavering, trembling course on the paper create a powerful effect of barely controlled anxiety, over which is
imposed a fragile yet rigorously formal structure.

The structure Witek had evolved in these drawings was crucial to all her subsequent work. After 1978 she developed the grammar of repeated pen strokes organized in grid patterns into a flexible means of expression that she has used ever since. Now she began to transform her newly acquired drawing method into a technique for painting. She produced several small canvases in allover stroke patterns without the superimposed figures from the drawings. These are, by comparison, extraordinarily soft, even tender works, in which the mood of anxiety, compression, and exertion of the drawings disappears. The forms created suggest patterns of light and shadow. In the first full-scale paintings using this new technique, Witek retained something of the intimacy and informality of these study paintings. The strokes are small and close together, sometimes even touching, creating an overall tonality similar to that of the all-black works. The geometric configurations of these early stroke paintings tend to be absorbed into the rich, slightly irregular patterns of their surface. In the first, painted in 1978-79, rows of vertical strokes are interrupted by a single band of stacked horizontal lines stretching across the upper part of the painting.

For four years, Witek had been leaving her canvases unstretched, and, in both the all-black and the stroke paintings made prior to 1980, she had left a small unpainted border on all four sides of the work. This had the effect of somewhat mitigating the rigor and tension of her compositions and emphasizing their distance from the traditional concept of the painted surface as being the sole visible portion of the work. But in late April of 1980, she made the decision to stretch the canvases. As she puts it today:

“When I began stretching the black stroke pictures I felt completely vulnerable. No longer was there the escape of even the smallest border. The picture was locked in. The energy and nervousness was trapped in an intensity that almost made the picture pop. That those seemingly simple forms and just one color could emote so showed me the real potential of my style of working.”

In her first stretched painting, In Between, 1980, Witek emphasized the new focus on the edge of the painted surface, which now, for the first time, coincided with the edge of the canvas. By grouping the horizontal strokes at the edges, she made them the visual focus of the painting. The viewer is in effect invited to continue in his mind the shapes at each edge, which would result in the canvases being divided into four parts by a figure that would resemble a cross. In Split, 1980, completed two months later, Witek echoed the tension of the stretched canvas in her composition. The vertical band literally splits the image in two, in a manner that recalls the vertical stripes or zips in the work of Barnett Newman. Yet the highly inflected surface of the painting, produced by the more than one thousand strokes, is utterly unlike Newman's uniformly painted canvases.

In Nostalgia Stretched, 1980, finished two months after Split, Witek completed developing the potential variations in the stroke format she had been exploring for the previous two years. She had already exploited the potential of different sizes of strokes, usually against a ground of the four-inch strokes that characterized her work until 1982. Nostalgia Stretched is composed entirely of four-inch strokes assembled in small squares and alternating in direction. All the vertical strokes, however, are precisely shaped and smooth, as opposed to the slightly irregular and sketchy horizontal strokes. By this point, the artist had developed the formal and expressive vocabulary she would use over the next three years. As Witek has said on several occasions, her paintings are portraits in a number of ways. One is in the relatively simple sense of measurement and proportion. All her large paintings, from 1976 through 1982, were almost six feet high (the artist's approximate height) by six feet wide (the width of her arm span), and the characteristic length of the strokes in her paintings was for a long time four inches, or the length of her index finger. More recently, the larger strokes have been eight inches, the length of Witek's hand, and even the largest of her paintings contains some important references to her height. In another sense, one that is more difficult to define, the paintings are portraits, actually self-portraits, of the artist communicating with the viewer:

“The irony of the work now is in appearing to be simple and easily grasped visually while an ongoing language of proportion and content proceeds through each work. Each painting depends on the others for interpretation. They are a handwriting. Although the writing style is relatively uniform, each picture has a uniquely based origin in my emotions or wherever a particular painting comes from. . . . Its themes are the art of painting, or my perceptions of the world, or the renderings of my insides.”

Exactly how these paintings communicate the artist's meanings remains something of a mystery. As far back as 1969, Robert Rosenblum noted, in relation to Frank Stella's black paintings, that

“…uniform paint surfaces, clean edges, predetermined patterns, need not always reflect a detached, deadpan sensibility. Mondrian's work should have taught the lesson that a calculated economy and regularity of means could produce uniquely personal ends of high tension; ... The black paintings, once so stubbornly neutral, have slowly revealed a kind of dark, latent mystery that the artist would surely have denied in them.”[3]

Rosenblum, iconoclastic as usual, viewed Stella's paintings in ways that the artist himself rejected. Witek, for whom Stella's example - particularly his black paintings - has always had particular relevance, went much further. She says today, "I thought they were immensely spiritual paintings, like African religious objects in which the spirit is lodged in the carving.”[4] Even Stella himself, though insisting that "all I want anyone to get out of my paintings, and all I ever get out of them, is the fact that you can see the whole idea without any confusion" conceded that "the worthwhile qualities of painting are always going to be both visual and emotional, and it's got to be a convincing emotional experience. Otherwise it will not be a good - not to say - great painting."[5] Stella's reluctance to see meaning in his work was probably in large part a result of the critical atmosphere of the time at which he began to work, when art was seen to be in crisis, and the statement was often made that painting was dead. Witek, though she left her early work unstretched in part because of the anti-painting mood of the time, felt that her own work should have precisely the opposite message: that paintings did have emotional and even spiritual meanings.

Like Stella's early work, Witek's paintings have about them a sense of mystery. They have a sense of presence, of scale beyond their actual size, an aura that can seem inexplicable in rational terms. The sense of presence, of a kind of vitality and actual being that her work has, stems first of all from the unusual color. Entirely black objects  are rare in the natural world and even in our everyday lives, and black of course has innumerable powerful overtones and meanings in Western culture. Despite the artist's insistence that she paints in black not for its gloomy associations but because of its delicacy, it is almost impossible to conceive of a viewer's not experiencing an all-black work of art with heightened expectations of importance, meaning, and seriousness. In purely optical terms, as well, the constantly repeated contrast between the light-absorbing black in the work and the light-reflecting canvas that surrounds each stroke gives the canvas a kind of dazzle. Since the shapes of the compositions are easily grasped by the viewer and could be extended almost infinitely, there is the sense, as one approaches them from a distance, that they are expanding. This feeling, and the impression of considerable size and scale that it produces, is enhanced by the very large number of individual strokes that make up a single painting. Were it not for the artist's practice of introducing small irregularities, or "glitches", as she calls them, their multiplicity might be perceived automatically and so be ignored. The contrast between the large number of individual elements in the pictures and their simple formal organization is perhaps Witek's most significant innovation. In the art of Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra and the early work of Frank Stella, the radical simplicity of the design combined with the enormous presence and authority of the work itself to produce a kind of suspension of analysis. Once we got it, as it were, there was nowhere else to go, and in the end we were left looking back inward at ourselves.

Witek's work, too, has that reflecting quality or self-referential effect on us; but, because each painting is composed of a number of individually painted elements as well, the viewer is not allowed to rest with a sort of visual overstimulus combined with contemplative mood. The resultant tension between the multiplicity of the elements and the simplicity and forcefulness of the design itself creates an ambiguity in which the question of meaning arises with a heightened intensity.

Under these circumstances, the titles Witek gives the works assume added resonance. A particularly strong example of the process is Memories of Underdevelopment, a direct and energetic composition of large strokes crossing the canvas so heavily that they dominate and threaten to overwhelm the underlying structure and thus project the emotional content suggested by the title. As so often in Witek's work, the title includes multiple references to both historical and personal events, and the painting as a whole bears complex burdens of meaning which are inextricably linked to its form. Memories of Underdevelopment combines moral authority with lyrical grace, artistic assurance with human vulnerability. As much as any of Witek's works it exemplifies her discovery of a unique and extraordinary personal style and her own adventurous transformation of an inherited way of painting that was reticent and disengaged into a subtle and responsive instrument of expression.


  1. Quoted in William S. Rubin, Frank Stella (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1970), 42.

  2. Witek later discovered that these works were similar to the black paintings of Ad Reinhardt. The resemblance is superficial, however, in that, unlike Reinhardt, she tried to make her all-black compositions as clearly visible as possible.

  3. Robert Rosenblum, "Frank Stella," Vogue, November 15, 1969, 160.

  4. Witek had read of Stella's familiarity with Hiberno-Saxon manuscripts and recognized the possible influences from such religious works as the Books of Darrow and Lindisfarne and the Durham Cassiodorus.

  5. Quoted in Rubin, Stella, 42.