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BTW, “yes,” the title of this blog is a reference to Arthur Danto’s collection of essays “After The End of Art.”


So I have thought a lot about this word since a friend asked me to for a discussion group happening later tonight in Raleigh (7pm at Tap Yard on Automative Way). It’s gonna be a whole vibe is what the kids say I think. If you don’t know about Discourse & Dialogue then guess what? Now you do!

Because words are serious, or at least serious Art demands them, I took time prior to having to talk and discuss my ideas on this topic to write my thoughts down, which I’m posting below. Yeah, it’s really an essay. I felt really challenged by the exercise and also really loved the opportunity to put a bunch of links to good content in one place. I hope you guys are here because you are into this stuff. Have at, hope you enjoy, I’ll buy a beer or coffee for anyone that wants to talk about it more. Cheers!

Formalism? Really???

Conventionally (academically) the word “formalism” has very specific meaning: 

“Formalism describes the critical position that the most important aspect of a work of art is its form – the way it is made and its purely visual aspects – rather than its narrative content or its relationship to the visible world.

Formalism as an ethos is to be credited with much of the development of abstract painting- Widewalls has a very good summary of this development and correlates the epistemological grounding of it within the Arts (IE between the visual arts, music and literature). 

As a description of an approach to object-making in the visual arts, “formalism” elicits images of work and words related to the ideas of many artists we classify as Modernist. The Tate (source of the quote above) clarifies that this tendency points towards a culmination rather than a beginning. Most likely, schooled, American artists will think of the second generation of abstract painters (Frankenthaler, Olitski, Poons) who advanced ideas imported from Europe by their predecessors (who valued process and intuition), eschewed gesture and surface and focused on color and shape (form), as well as later artists who followed through on a general reductionist mission for its own sake (Stella, Downing, Kelly et. al.). 

The notion that art could be – was, at its highest level of intended function, only to be- understood “on its own terms” is a distinctly Modernist idea that is very humanist and therefore Euro-centric, by proxy being associated with most of the evils that propelled the dominance and embedded supremacy of Western civilization from the last century (pick one- militarism, Capitalism, racism) and often with good reason. Because of the association of this cause célèbre with the often acerbic and always arrogant Clement Greenberg, formalism as an ethos is out of fashion, to the point that “clembashing” is still an activity that causes practitioners of the modality headaches even today. The contemporary painter Andrea Marie Breiling has commented that she finds herself asking (in the context of wanting viewers to see and experience with purpose) “How could I make work that sucked people in and lifted them to a higher state? A spiritual place itself and not a place of painting for painting.” Tldr- the specter of Modernist formalism is real.

I’ll note here that the larger, meta-cultural question of “what is art” of which formalism is a progeny, also lead to so many investigations which diverged creative activity from not only abstraction (eg Warhol) but from painting itself (eg Duchamp). While formalism begat reductionist tendencies and was certainly in vogue for a non-trivial amount of time, its dominance was not total. In particular those of us who are instructors must be clear with our charges that figurative painters like Jack Levine and Romare Bearden were active and making important art during this era. The conclusion that formalism as a response to the question “what is Art” was either inevitable or the most logical response is just a silly position to take, then, or now.

I found Adam Simon’s recent review on Two Coats of Paint (a legit source of love for painting) of Tom McGlynn’s work enlightening in the context of these considerations. Adam notes that, for the contemporary artist considering reductive forms “these basic shapes are historically weighted signifiers, no longer free of association. One cannot now make a geometric abstract painting without it also being a depiction of a geometric abstract painting.” Shorter- no form used today can be considered bereft of “content.”

It’s also worth noting that most artists who practiced “painting for painting’s sake” (or at least were celebrated by the art critical community for doing so) did so out of a commitment to a broader, cultural mission to create new ways of seeing, suited to a new world that needed to abandon outdated institutions and mores (avant garde anyone?). I would argue the cultural context of this activity is definitely part of its content, even if it was not to be considered primary. 

The forms used in this work were quite often personal, too- one need only look as far as Wikipedia to read about the influence that surrealism (a movement centered on unlocking and releasing the subconscious) had on Abstract Expressionism vis’a’vis Robert Motherwell.

One of the distinctions I am quite interested in, as a way to understand artists who leverage formalism as either a generative strategy or an ends, is exemplified by the North Carolina-born painter William T. Williams. WTW is known for his process-based approach to painting that engages motifs drawn from personal memory and cultural narrative to create non-referential, abstract compositions. He is known to have said that “my art is about my experience which, by nature, makes it about other people’s experience . . . I’m trying to evoke human response. My demographic is the human arena. I hope my work is about celebration, about an affirmation of life in the face of adversity, to reaffirm that we’re human, that we’re alive, that we can celebrate existence.” 

I think this illustrates a very humanist and therefore Modernist tendency within William’s oeuvre. The Concrete Art movement, as described by the historian Werner Hartmann in this excellent Wikipedia article, summarized their ethos thusly- “Art should endeavour to give form to life itself.” BTW, I’d also be remiss if I mentioned Williams and didn’t nod to an amazing talk he gave with Sam Gilliam (RIP) and Melvin Edwards in 2010.

For this writer, I find the phenomenological musings of Robert Irwin of greatest influence on my approach to making work which seeks to engage the imagined viewer in a sense experience distinct of narrative and subject. This is possible or at least conceivable for Irwin, and myself, because of bracketingHe also elevates questioning in his practice (for this creative, questioning- probing a form or strategy until it reveals a direction or intention- is also central).

If a (revised? reformed?) formalist strategy can exist in 2023, I think it’s clear it isn’t in the way that we are taught to use the word in academia**. If there is an example of what practice which centers the “language” of color and shape looks like I would offer it is Stanley Whitney’s color-rific practice, with his strategy of “following the painting.” James Sienna’s ongoing modus as a developing theme also comes to mind.

**It’s worth considering what Saul Ostrow wrote about Jeremy Gilbert Rolfe’s Paintings from 2009 to 2022 at David Richard

Jason Stopa hints as well that there is a possibility for a sub-set of the activity of painting to exist in a way that allows space for contemplation which is sort of parallel to “traditional” formalism- he calls it “self-reference.” He also sees the act of making the work as a reference to the world of ideas because the context of the activity is our very non-utopian society (I think this is very much like the way Williams approached painting). In an Instagram post (of all places) he dropped this gem (in reference to his exhibition Joy Labyrinth for which Raphael Rubenstein penned the catalog essay): “I see self-reflexiveness in painting as a means toward criticality. The utopian architecture I’m referencing in these paintings is about the impossibility to create ideal conditions, but our pursuit of idealism persists nonetheless.” 

I really love the group discussion Jason put together just before the start of the pandemic with Katherine Bradford, Sharon Butler, Thomas Micchelli, and Craig Stockwell, who has this wonderful quote: “When things get real and very difficult, I need to turn to something that is sustaining. I think painting in all its forms is remarkably engaging as a thoughtful activity, as a thoughtful and physical activity. Personally, to go to the studio and have the experience of making, spending hours in this thought process, and responding to difficulties, seems so small in certain way, but it’s incredibly sustaining in a difficult time.” I don’t think Craig Stockwell would ever say he paints solely for “paintings’ sake” and I can’t think of anything else to call the impulse he describes other than a belief- faith?- that painting is valid as an activity that centers itself, full stop.

All of these words lead me to this series of thoughts, that are nothing more- or less- than the reason I am comfortable referring to the object-based part of my own practice as “formalist:” primarily, that the activity centers form, line and color; the contemplation and reflection by artist and audience is an intentional activity that elevates and preferences the senses; the act of said contemplation and reflection is a social construct and a subject of philosophical inquiry and therefore can be both distinct of and content of the work itself; and this act of contemplation, bracketed outside of our utilitarian social institutions, is imbued with the very spirit of the human condition and relates by default to identity, to politics, and to the striving of all people for connection and transcendence.

Richard Keen

The Garage Art Center recently showed an exhibit of Richard’s work titled Around the Edges. He draws inspiration from Maine’s natural and man-made surroundings, including waterfronts, island shapes, and horizons, and he incorporates these into his work through distorted shapes and skewed perspectives. Completing several pieces at a time allows him to establish continuity in his works.


Liz Markus

For her seventh solo in New York and her first with Shrine Liz Markus continues her Hippies series.  Her iconic hippie heads are each marked by Markus reaching for something – waves of energy, galaxies of stars, lush rainforests, vibrations of form, two-color pulsing auras. While Markus calls these subjects “hippies”, she almost obliterates their original countenance to create completely new emblems of freedom, living your own way and going with the flow


Lygia Pape

Lygia Pape (7 April 1927 – 3 May 2004) was a Brazilian visual artist, sculptor, engraver, and filmmaker, who was a key figure in the Concrete movement and a later co-founder of the Neo-Concrete Movement in Brazil during the 1950s and 1960s. Along with Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark, she was an important artist in the expansion of contemporary art in Brazil and pushed geometric art to include aspects of interaction and to engage with ethical and political themes.

I saw below at the Art Institute in Chicago recently, part of an exhibition of her prints.



One of the (many) ways my community is awesome is Jean Gray, and one of the ways Jean Gray is awesome is a discussion group she’s recently started, Discourse and Dialogues. And “yes” this article is a form of endorsement, next event is 5/24 for Raleigh folks (and you can put a reminder on your calendar that they meet every 4th Wednesday). FYI, I’ll be leading the discussion this time around as we dig into what formalism can possibly mean in 2023. If you miss it, I will definitely cover the topic in a future update.

As part of participating in this group, I found out about another awesome, new organization in Raleigh that you all should be following, Small School, a new, art-based alternative educational platform. Primarily focused on lectures/discussions to start, the plan is to offer… more, down the road. Check out their site, sign up for their list, and show up for an artist talk. The one I attended with Killeen Hanson and Leslie Vigeant was amaze balls- big surprise that it drew me in with a title like How Do We Pay Attention to What We’re Paying Attention To?

Through the Discourse and Dialogues discussion group, and participation by the Small School staff, I learned about Akiko Busch, the next visiting artist, who is also an author of several books, including How to Disappear. I’m getting there… the book touches on this study by Paul K Piff and others that explores “awe” as an “emotional response to perceptually vast stimuli that defy one’s accustomed frame of reference in some domain” (generally, in specifically, experience as part of viewing art) and pro-social behavior. I’m just now beginning to dig in on this work (for the ;tldr crowd def click on the hyperlink to the recording of Paul’s talk) but the high-level take-away as the kids say these days is that the study is actual, hard science, focused on “awe felt during experiences with religion and spirituality, nature, art, and music” which often centers upon two themes “the feeling of being diminished in the presence of something greater than the self, and the motivation to be good to others.


Howard Smith

Spotted below at Expo Chicago. Howard was (1928-2021) an African-American artist, designer and collector. He worked with paper, pigments, wood, clay, textiles and metal. He designed for industry—e.g. print textiles for Vallila, tableware and interior items for Arabia (the esteemed ceramics factory in Helsinki). He planned interior designs for corporate offices, public buildings and cruise ships. He especially enjoyed recycling items like scrap metal, used cardboard, castoff clothing–which he took and created into whimsical compositions. More


Howard Smith

Jeffrey Gibson

Sited below at Expo Chicago- it’s actually a functional drum. Apparently as always I’m the last to be on the know (he has almost 30k followers). His work has headed in new directions (although the galleria at informed me he still uses some of the drums in performances).