Although David Smith argued that “there is no such thing as truly abstract—all art has to emerge from a life,” the question of where art comes from deserves more attention. To be sure, critics have occasionally located the source of inspiration for important works—often in fearful or painful experiences. Picasso’s Blue Period, for example, is known to be rooted in the suicide of his studio partner, Carles Casagemas, and the poverty they were experiencing in Montmartre. It has been speculated that Jackson Pollock’s poured and spattered technique might have developed, in part, as a more positive recapitulation of blood spurting when a friend accidentally chopped off part of his finger. Jack Bush chose a shape to represent the pain he felt from angina in paintings like Onslaught, 1969, although it readily evolved into more pleasurable suggestions of flowers in the artist’s garden.
The catalogue for the exhibition “Ben Woolfitt: Rhythms and Series” confronts this important issue head on, working with a wealth of personal material provided by the artist in an interview with curators Kenneth Brummel and Alexa Greist.
Woolfitt draws every day, usually starting around 6:00 a.m. He sees this early hour as a time when “you’re as close to the sleep state as you can be, and you’re not really involved in a thought process.”
Almost all the drawings have writing on them, a diaristic record of the artist’s concerns and mental state at the time. Woolfitt says, “The texts are a way for me to examine my interior world.” Often they simply record the time, “So early in the morning, the sun burning …” Or a point in his travels, “On my way back home.” Sometimes they record his meditations on the nature of human existence: “We are really always alone.”
The artist’s focusing on his intimate thoughts and feelings was heightened after the death of his mother in 1980. He thinks of his etching Number 2, 1981 (not in the exhibition), as a kind of last letter to her. A long text in a drawing from September 1996 records his distress at the death of his sister, Shirley, the “main sustenance” in his early life: “And so, Shirl, I have come to the last page … But Shirl, I really don’t understand why there must be a last page in every book.” This drawing with a yellow spiky grid seems, atypically, insufficiently distanced from his pain to be a fully successful work.
Woolfitt reports that his first “Crinkle” drawing “was done within a day or so of my father dying” in 1999. He folded the paper, rubbed it down and applied oil pastel and metal leaf, so that the resultant drawing was “crinkled, as was my father’s hand.” The exhibition’s curators view the crinkle as “a signifier of trauma,” and it’s a recurrent motif in what I believe are some of Woolfitt’s finest works. In a particularly impressive drawing from May 2020, he returned to his father’s death: “The last day … I was there with him holding his hand.” He says that in making the drawings he experienced “abreaction … I had re-lived a moment that was extremely painful to me.” He is in an informed position to say this, since he is well aware of psychoanalytic theory, having worked with therapist Grant Goodbrand since around 1973.
And yet, Woolfitt’s drawings are supremely beautiful. Whatever pain lies behind them is entirely transcended, or, as Donald Kuspit put it, “stayed,” however much they may be “fraught with melancholy.” The textures of the “Crinkles,” in particular, are very rich. He folds the paper about a half-dozen times on each side, producing a fulsome, rhythmical array of ridges. Applying oil pastel and graphite, then wiping it all down with a paper towel, produces an extraordinarily rich range of tones. In the “Bamboo” series, fragments of frottaged elements—bamboo, a wire brush, metal mesh—run fluidly across the page, sometimes as mere decorative traces, just barely there. Metal leaf, with its glossy insistent presence, heightens the sense of fragility and indeterminacy in the rest of the drawing. There’s a surprising affinity with 17th-century Rinpa school artists in Japan, Hon’ami Ko¯etsu and Tawaraya So¯tatsu, who are known for their elegant, rhythmical calligraphy, fluency and surface decoration.
The catalogue text is rife with psychoanalytic references—Saussure, Kristeva, Pierce—as are Donald Kuspit’s two texts on Woolfitt, where he references Thomas Ogden, Didier Anzieu and Wilfred Bion (Ben Woolfitt: Drawings, with an essay by Donald Kuspit, and Ben Woolfitt: Paintings, with an essay by Donald Kuspit). To Kuspit, Woolfitt’s is “therapeutic abstraction.” Philosophy could perhaps be even more helpful. The artist argues that his drawings ease his soul. He finds hope, intimacy and tenderness in his “Mountain” drawings. I find his practice to be aligned with the ideas of psychologists like Edward Bullough and philosophers like Benedetto Croce, who argued that the process of aesthetic distance is central to the very idea of art. The artist’s attention withdraws from the locus of his distress to the pleasures of form, from the crinkled hand to the crinkles of the paper, so that his feelings are “resolved” and “transcended.”
There is one very beautiful canvas in the exhibition, Light in Darkness V, 2020. Kuspit suggests that in the paintings Woolfitt is a great master of colour and texture and that his paintings are thoroughly in the modernist tradition. But the bulk of this exhibition shows postmodernist aspects, since the drawings incorporate text, are concerned with questions of identity and self and are drawn to narrative. “They are,” as Art Gallery of Ontario Director Stephan Jost’s foreword suggests, “both highly specific and truly universal.” ❚
“Ben Woolfitt: Rhythms and Series” is on exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario from July 21, 2021, until February 21, 2022.
Ken Carpenter has been guest critic at the Emma Lake Artists’ Workshop, chair of the Visual Arts Department at York University and president of the Canadian section of the International Association of Art Critics.