Over the course of five decades Richard Pitts has migrated through the margins of New York City’s art world despite a flourishing career that began in the early 1970s and lasted until the late 1980s, when the popularity of the art market crashed. Once confidence fell, figurative art lost its elevated grace, became more human as a form, more literal and translatable, reflecting different degrees of self-doubt, loathing and inner shame. The weight of pluralism led to the loss of meaning. Painting was considered dead, a new cliché at the time. Richard Pitts stepped away from figurative art and entered into a long-term reflection that focused upon works he had made in the early 1960s while living in Germany, serving in the U.S. Army.
This change was both significant and risky because Pitts was walking away from years of success as a figurative painter who’d been recognized and somewhat revered in New York City as early as 1969, soon after he graduated from Pratt Institute. His paintings had been curated into solo and group exhibitions that took place in Manhattan’s upper-tier network of galleries, located in Midtown, while publications such as Artnews, Arts Magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post reviewed his shows. When Pitts moved from painting to sculpture in the 1990s he chose solitude in order to transform what was once a standard, methodical process into something more complex: rendering space and matter unseen but present nonetheless. Pitts since has lived beyond the din of the city and its spectacle of recognition.
While residing in Germany he had no studio except the blank pages of a journal which measured slightly larger than 8-by-10 inches. Upon these sheets he created selections of abstraction, employed via gouache and watercolor, that portrayed thick brushstrokes of color weighting-in layered rows upon the page. These early paintings portray neither figures nor signifiers, though what they do portray is an implied search for space. As different shades of color drip and blur over one another, it is clear that these compositions formed the basis of the artist’s turn to sculpture in 2007, briefly working in steel from the outset before moving to aluminum due to its lightweight properties.
In 2013 Pitts’ new style entered the coursing network of public art with Quixotic (2012), in Yonkers, New York along the Hudson River Waterfront, and Pick Up Sticks (2012), in Gaylordsville, Connecticut. These installations were followed by outdoor exhibits in Summit, New Jersey, and at the Sculpture Barn in New Fairfield, Connecticut. At each of these locations the artist presented tall but narrow aluminum works that presented a cluster of blocks, rods, and spheres arranged into freestanding forms. These unique suspensions emitted a bright silver glow in direct sunlight and carried a scruffy, textured matte surface that prevented any type of mirrored reflection of the immediate environment.
Following the 2015 installation of Crayons (2007-14) at the Leonia Sculpture Park in New Jersey, Richard Pitts’ sculptures began to receive far more attention, most likely due to the floating raft installation that took place in the Summer of 2014, when Torche’ Galerie launched some of these artworks onto the waters of Silver Lake in Belmar, New Jersey.
In Crayons, metal masses collide and move, revealing a flurry of lines that form through the contrast of light and shade over the sculpted form. The vibrant colors of the powder coat paint over each shiny silver-colored surface also created a series of visual accents that did not easily camouflage with Leonia’s outdoor surroundings, even though the forms did.
Unlike his earlier work, these sculptures took a sharp departure from the artist’s previous figuration and, instead, embraced the format of abstraction in order to reflect the essence of a changing atmosphere — the part of space that one can only feel but not see. As a result, Pitts’ sculptures formed an ambiance for viewers to encounter. Through this complimentary exchange, the artist’s new subject, while abstract, emerged fluidly from his earlier figurative work despite the ten years it took to establish.
In 2015 Richard Pitts also presented the cutting edge forms of Holy Smoke (2015) and Hyperglyph (2015) at the Fowler-Kellogg Art Center in Chautauqua, New York. Two more pieces titled Sundance (2012) and the earlier noted Pick Up Sticks (2012) appeared in Summit, New Jersey. From this point in time Pitts’ sculptures went on tour throughout different regional communities along the East Coast, opening up a curatorial exchange that extended from Chautauqua, New York to Eagles Mere, Pennsylvania and east to the towns of Danbury and Bethel in Connecticut.
The serendipitous form of Holy Smoke was so transfixing that it subsequently appeared at the Carolina Bronze Sculpture Park in Seagrove, North Carolina and then Salisbury, North Carolina in 2016. This was eventually accompanied by Candle (2015), a colorfully powder-coated sculpture set on a plinth that mixes dense black with iridescent blue along the base, followed by a vibrant strand of orange that stretches into a very bold red. From a level base, these forms explode: metal surfaces unfurl into the air and curl upward. Sundance eventually appeared in Salem, North Carolina.
Each of these sculptures creates an experience with the observer that seems to emerge from nowhere. For instance, when starting out with the observation of a specific point, one line suddenly transforms from a thin contour into a thick ribbon before a rush of other juxtaposing forms appear. The full moment experienced while looking at these pieces is always on edge. Details tilt vicariously and lack definition while rendering the weight of time, leaving no trace of an opposite to resist.
By 2017 Richard Pitts was exhibiting 13 sculptures in a handful of parks located throughout the East Coast. The sculptures within the Crayons-series, for instance, were disbursed to different locations. These local outdoor sculpture parks are as much about space and landscape as they are about the movement through time, while the artist’s feathery sharp artworks act like visual verbs that imply action, revealing the artist’s interest in how abstraction creates surface and textures.
If space is time, then Richard Pitts’ sculptures represent everything in between: “I think of my sculpture as a three-dimensional attitude rendering that which is most important: feelings.” For 2018, the artist has 8 public installations on the calendar, one that will take place in the newly emerging neighborhood of New Rochelle.
There is something ironic and paradoxical in the “rediscovery” of Richard Pitts, since he has had such a strong exhibition history which started soon after graduating from Pratt Institute in 1968. In 1969 the artist co-founded an artist-run space called the First Street Gallery with Leonard Petrillo, Larry Montalto, and A.D. Tinkham. The program at First Street Gallery restored recognition to the genre of figurative painting at a time when Abstract Expressionist painting continued to be handed down from one generation to another.
When Richard Pitts first saw a Willem de Kooning painting in person, it was at the Museum of Modern Art. Pitts saw the layered paint trail that was left behind by the brush stroke, realizing that De Kooning was “real.” The trace made manifest through the layer of oil paint, was the mark that signified an element of human imperfection. While reflecting upon this moment, Richard Pitts mentions the Grand Tour as a ritual that had once been the most significant milestone for any artist. Now a bygone practice, the tour had long been part of the creative tradition since at least the Middle Ages. Later during the Renaissance, as visual art grew in demand, the Grand Tour became more significant.
During the 1970s Pitts’ paintings reflected a dark color palette while using a range of hues that portrayed mythic vignettes, mundane moments and group portraits in familiar interior settings. These compositions were a persuasive move away from the repetitive nature of abstract painting. Land art, commissioned by the Dia Art Foundation, evolved at this time, transforming subject matter into something grand and experiential. In 1974, John Russell of The New York Times reviewed Richard Pitts’ solo exhibition at the Grace Borgenicht Gallery and concluded: “Richard Pitts gets into his figures something of full-bodied activity: a turning, thrusting, all-or-nothing movement that animates the whole scene. He also sites them securely in space: at any time, and most anywhere, these pictures would look well.” Pitts’ work continued to appear in Manhattan’s upper tier gallery network well into the mid-1980s at spaces such as David Findlay Jr. Fine Art, the Fishbach Gallery and Marlborough Gallery.
In 1983 John Russell praised Pitts as “an interpreter of the classic American paradise.” Russell’s review for The New York Times described the artist’s flat landscape paintings as vividly colorful compositions. “All this he sets out in an expansive, four-square and open-faced way. How far it can be called ‘realism’ is an interesting question, but it will give pleasure to a great many people.” These early paintings were acquired by several public and private collections including the Hobart & William Smith Colleges and the Port Authority of New York.
The artist likes to think of his sculpture as “being able to make the mystery of the invisible visible.” What is the meaning of the world without the eloquent filters of either myth or metaphor? The interrelationship of space, both interior and exterior, remains key to the experience of Pitts’ work. And yet he continues to look for a new kind of space to put the figure in – a space that takes your breath away. To clarify, Pitts explains, “Rembrandt uses space similarly. It’s a serious kind of space, because in my view the individual is physically pressed against by the atmosphere.” In other words, we do not control events but they control us. Our abiltiy to control events compares little to how events themselves, and the space in which they take place, hold sway over us.
Jill Conner is an art critic based in New York City with a focus on Modern and Contemporary Art. Since 1997 Conner has contributed to publications such as Afterimage, Art in America, Art Papers, Interview Magazine, New Art Examiner, Performance Art Journal, Sculpture and Whitehot Magazine.