Karl Wirsum: Sum and Reduction
It’s Wirsum time again. I wrote the catalog essay for Derek Eller Gallery’s Karl Wirsum: MR. WHATZIT, Selections from the 1980s (Sept. 7-Oct. 8, 2017).
Here’s a bit:
The late 1970s and early 1980s mark four major shifts for Wirsum’s work. First, he returned to canvas painting
and stuck with it after a restless period of material experimentation in the 1970s, bouncing between kites,
marionettes, shaped works, and a variety of surfaces. Next, with this return to canvas, he scaled up and made
the largest paintings of his career. Third, he moved away from the elegant blizzard of lines, textures, and shapes
that comprise paintings like Junior Messin’ with the Kid, 1968, or Harry Kari’s Arms Exchange, 1976, replacing
this manic activity with a more open space, fewer active elements and serene color ways. Finally, he did away
with the cultural references of these paintings, moving us into a strange place closer to abstraction than to any
normative definition of figuration. Wirsum in the 1980s is most concerned with stillness, quietude, and the act
of painting. There are experiments with anamorphic techniques (most notably in this exhibition with Untitled
(Streetwalker series), 1985–6 and background patterning, but mostly we are in an emptied-out land of figuration
and uninterrupted color fields.