Vom Abend, Joe Bradley at David Zwirner

A room with paintings on the wall

Description automatically generated
Installation view, Joe Bradley: Vom Abend, David Zwirner, New York, 2024. Photo courtesy of the gallery

The ten paintings in Vom Abend, Joe Bradley’s current show at David Zwirner, measure up to 93 x 120 inches and are all dated 2023-2024.  They are big and, with one exception, are in landscape orientations.  Framed with white oak strips, they have stately feel, yet they are hardly genteel.  They are full of crusty skins of dry paint that seem randomly attached to the surfaces. They are creased and folded.  They reek of oil paint.  And while the color is buoyant, joyous even, they are also dark.  Bradley isn’t afraid of black, and he explores shit brown with an alarming gusto. There are passages where the paint seems to have been aggressively ripped off the surface of the canvas, only to be tenderly painted over again.  There are staccato stippling marks.  There is erasure and heavy impasto in stretches.  Although this may sound like the paintings are heavily labored and full of themselves, they aren’t. And careful examination reveals worlds to explore.

Joe Bradley is a master of harnessing the drama of a show to make an impact.  In contrast to a lot of artists who compile works, saving up for an exhibition, Bradley has always been careful to use the occasion of a show to make bold statements.  In the past, dramatic stylistic shifts kept his audience on their toes.  Early on in his career he was known for monochrome constructions.  He then pivoted to grease pencil drawings on raw canvas, with a detour into making hilariously ham-fisted minimalist sculpture, then on to large-scale black and white silkscreens, followed by gooey oil stick works on drop cloths.   In his most recent shows, he has settled on something closer to a consistent style. Developments are more incremental now, but the occasion of a new body of work is a big deal in his hands. 

The paintings don’t have an obvious sense of orderly painted progression. Trying to determine their structure and imagery, or if there is structure and imagery at all, is a big part of the pleasure of this show. Abstract paintings often fall into stylistic camps or ethical poles. For Vom Abend, Bradley employs moves that appear to refer to analytical “process painting” while, at the same time, they reside comfortably on the other end of the spectrum: lush and subjective.  In Salute, for example, the bottom half of the painting is divided between a smudgy umber section and a large blue rectangle.  Look carefully, and see that there is a faint charcoal line, drawn with the aid of a straight edge, delineating the chunks of color.  Maybe Bradley left the residue as a nod to the “no tricks up my sleeve” approach of artists like Frank Stella.  Yet he seems at odds with Stella’s anti-compositional stance, these painting emanate from a personality rather than a principle.

A painting by Joe Bradley, titled Salute, dated 2023 to 2024.
Joe Bradley, Salute, 2023-2024, oil on canvas, 83 1/8 x 100 inches. Photo courtesy of the gallery

They are painted with confidence and a dizzying array visual vocabulary. They hold together and fall apart just as easily; they are agreeable in that way. Alternately playful and purposeful lines traverse the planes of the paintings, crossing the boundaries of big blocks of color, either buttressing or undermining them.  The lines define the contours of near-imagery or function as expression in themselves.  Edges seem particularly important, and compositions emanate from the corners and sides, providing rooted physicality.  Bradley is absorbed in spatial location across the span of the painting.  You can feel him fighting to find a structural framework to keep his bearings while, just as powerfully, you can feel him throwing structure to the wind, longing to get lost in the making.

One imagines that for Bradley, making his paintings is one part pleasure cruise of free associations on unstretched canvas then, with the addition of a stretcher, a long period of head scratching and fine-tuning as they become finished pieces.  Clues on the surface hint at how the paintings are made.  While Bradley and Morris Louis have little in common stylistically, I’m reminded of how Louis would send his finished canvases off into the world rolled up with vague instructions as to where the stretcher bars should be placed.   He put the boundaries of the work in the hands of the curators and art handlers.  Looking at Together one can see flowing marks on the edge that bend around the stretcher, suggesting brush strokes cut after the fact.  Bradley’s paintings feel like a hybrid operation, open to chance yet somehow still carefully plotted. 

Bradley makes us question our senses and understanding of how to view paintings, as the ideas embedded in the work spring from both high art ideals and hermetic underground culture. The paintings are all-over expressionistic works with hints of doodled figuration.  Easy Death includes a drawing of a sailboat on the bottom left, while Hash Eater has a big red and yellow thing at the bottom that could be a psychedelic mushroom, a dick, or a tipped-over garden gnome.  The creases could refer to both Simon Hantai’s sophisticated experiments in non-authorship or, just as plausibly, to the shortcomings of a self-taught art crank with an attic full of poorly stored artworks.  Bradley’s intentions can be hard to place, and that balance prompts the question of how irony functions in the paintings.

Joe Bradley, Easy Death, 2023-2024, 92 1/8 x 128 1/4 inches. Photo courtesy of the gallery

Titles have always been one of Bradley’s strong suits. Flat Earth, Kalparush and Occident are some of the more evocative. To my ear the show’s title, Vom Abend sounds like a comic book villain or a third-rate metal band, but it actually means “from the evening” in German, conjuring images of a string quartet tuning up to play some light chamber music as the sun sets behind a Tyrolian Lake. But whatever the allusion Bradley covers his tracks beautifully, hinting at esoteric codes and underground culture, but always allowing us the pleasure of pursuing our own interpretations.

A painting of a couple of people

Description automatically generated
Joe Bradley, Occident, oil on canvas, 85 1/8 x 111 inches. Photo courtesy of the gallery

Bradley’s love of both painting and looking -doing, searching, language- is easy to see in this show. The impact of the work is undeniable.  I can’t remember such an unusual surge of casual power filling a space in a long time. The paintings are by turns macho and vulnerable, clever and dumb, delicate and crass; Bradley is alive to the range of expression in painting, in ways both direct and impossible to pin down. 

A painting by Joe Bradley, titled Flat Earth, dated 2023 to 2024.
Joe Bradley, Flat Earth, 2023-2024, oil on canvas, 91 1/8 x 116 1/8 inches. Photo courtesy of the gallery

Vom Abend: Joe Bradley at David Zwirner through May 18, 2024

About the writer:
Wallace Whitney is a painter based in the Bronx. His work has been the subject of many solo exhibitions including Take the Air at Ceysson & Bénétière, New York and Patience’ Gift at Soloway, Brooklyn. Whitney has curated exhibitions in the United States and abroad, notably Unfurled: Supports/Surfaces 1966-1976 at the Museum of contemporary Art in Detroit in the spring of 2019, Feed the Meter, Vol. I and II at Ceysson and Bénétière in Wandhof, Luxembourg in 2015 and 2018 and Tangerine, at Acquavella Gallery, Palm Beach, Fla. In 2022.  Whitney is a co-founder of and partner at the artist-run gallery CANADA.