The following is an essay by Lilly Wei published on the occasion of a private exhibition in New York City, Joan Witek: New Paintings, February 1-February 24, 2000 (all rights reserved):
Joan Witek: Back to Black
by Lilly Wei
Black has always been Joan Witek's primary vehicle. From the time she graduated from art school in the '70s to the present, she has, with rare fidelity, used no other color in her paintings, drawings or prints. For Witek, black has
always been more than sufficient. “Black," she says, "is usually considered the absence of color; it is severe, rigorous, associated with death, with depression and repression but that's only one aspect of its many qualities. One of the reasons I am attracted to black is because of its dichotomies. It is sophisticated and primitive, emotional and intellectual, it is a color that everyone responds strongly to, in one way or another.”
Witek plays these oppositions endlessly; in her work, black is both ascetic and alluring, Apollonian and Dionysian, meditative and expressive, flawless and flawed, fierce and demure, a distinct unequivocal presence, yet subtle, elusive.
At one time, her surfaces were entirely black but she wanted to let "some air in, not light, not white, but air, opening it up." In order to ventilate them, she shifted to “stroke” paintings in the '80s and early '90s, which were carefully calibrated to balance the black with glimpses of the underlying canvas, film or paper. Driven by repetition and difference, her newest paintings are more ornate than any previous work. The rectilinearity and gridded divisions-- quadrants, bisections-- that governed the surface are almost gone, subsumed by a florid, overall pattern that suggests ancient motifs and text: derivations of a t'iao t'ieh (a stylized Chinese dragon head), pictograms, hieroglyphs and cuneiform, for instance emerge from the general motif. She now gessoes the ground and the
resulting black against white offers a more glimmering surface which Witek calls “black impressionism.” The black, reiterated and reconfirmed in a few small, solidly painted rectangles which occupy the frontal plane, as always in Witek's treatment, is so full-bodied and voluptuous that it looks raised, inviting the touch.
Although Bernard Berenson was thinking of Renaissance images, his criterion of "tactile values" as a measure of good paintings seems applicable here. These fragile, filigreed abstractions are, as usual, conditioned by titles. Some are: “The Trickster,” “Tiger, Tiger” (from Blake), “When I Was White…” (from Coleridge) “The Raven,” “Autorretrato,” to name a few. Witek locates her paintings in their specific materiality and formalist content but twists them so that they also inhabit a linguistic domain. There, graced by their own particular sense of beauty, where the objective mingles with the subjective and implies a story, they reverberate with two-fold intensity.