Josh Smith’s ipsedixitism

I’m still dwelling on names and naming today and this leads me, inevitably, to the work of Josh Smith and his signature “name” paintings.

Bob Nickas, in his book Painting Abstraction, describes these works as follows:

The “name” paintings, composed with the letters that spell his first and last names, at first seem to identity their author, and yet what they really represent is a way to make a painting without having to think, “What should it be a painting of?”. Smith could make one after another, playing with the forms of the letters, introducing color, making large ones or small ones, and so on, without interruption and until he felt nothing more was to be done. They have a subject, but no subject matter – except for painting itself. They also address a question that Smith may not have intended to pose: what do we want or expect from an artist?

I was struck by how Nickas’ description of Smith’s “name” paintings, in their draining of a painting’s subject matter, but at the same time acutely pointing to the practice of the artist themselves, reminded me of a particular trend in ancient philosophizing. Supposedly originating with Pythagoras, this method of doing philosophy has been dubbed ipsedixitism, a ‘he-said-it-ism’. The Epicureans would become experts in this mode, but Platonists, like Apuleius, would also adopt this mode. In his On Plato and his Doctrine, Apuleius follows his brief bio of Plato with two books of natural and ethical philosophy and rather than transition from topic to topic like a school-teacher or lecturer, all of the doctrines discussed would be introduced with a ‘Plato said’, ‘Plato argued’, ‘Plato claimed’. Josh Smith’s “name” paintings do something similar in simply stating “Josh Smith paints”.

Nonetheless, just as Apuleius doesn’t limit himself to this mode of philosophical exegesis, Smith too uses this ipsedixitist baseline to create startling subjects, which on account of the “name” paintings, are all the more dramatic.

Closest in form to the “name” paintings, in that they index the act of painting as subject, are the “palette” paintings.

But then Smith also has the works in which other subjects take over. He has “skeleton” paintings (he has a skeleton in his studio, so he just looks at it and paints it):

Then he has his “fish” paintings and prints that dig deeper into a subject, creating a taxonomy of fish from his native Tennessee.

Then there are his “palm tree” paintings, a series he blames on the film director Harmony Korine:

In On Plato and his Doctrine Apuleius’ equivalent departure from ipsedixitism would be how he introduces characters – what I have called in my book Apuleius’ Platonism: the Impersonation of Philosophy – ‘conceptual personification’. This is when an idea like Reason or the Wise Man takes charge of the narrative. In his second ethical book, however, Apuleius starts to address his audience, either directly as a collective ‘you’ or including himself in a joint ‘we’. This I dubbed ‘authorial protreptic’ and the closes Smith comes to it is in his “announcement” paintings:

Finally, to complete the analogy, Apuleius adopts these same processes across his literary and philosophical corpus – his treatise On the Universe, his lecture on demonology (On the god of Socrates), his collection of speeches (Florida) and his forensic speech defending himself against accusations of magic (Apologia). For Josh Smith this variety of approaches could be mapped onto his collage works or his deep interest in making books.

But if you want to understand how ipsedixitism transforms into a compete performance, for Apuleius you go to his masterpiece – the Metamorphoses (aka The Golden Ass), while for Smith all you need to do is watch this video of a talk he delivered a few years ago. His commentary on the PowerPoint sequence of his work (which his friend and co-publisher Todd Amicon helped put together), the irrepressible, interminable sequence of works and images and the dynamic with the audience is the way to get a total picture of Smith’s work, one that started from his ipsedixitist “name” paintings.


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