A Painter who became allergic to paint
an essay by Friedhard Kiekeben
and Willy Richardson
‘3 Muses 4’, 12 x 16 in,
oil on wood panel
The Santa Fe based artist Willy Bo Richardson completed his MFA in painting from Pratt Institute NY in 2000. Since then, his lusciously intense, and immersive color field paintings on aluminum, canvas and paper have received considerable critical and commercial success.
The work resonates with the bold history of geometric abstraction and a more conceptual approach to painting. Despite the dazzle of intense, luminous pigmentation, carefully built layers and translucent oil glazes, the work offers unique visual experiences to viewers that defy easy explanation and categorization.
Richardson’s work is decidedly abstract, and to speak with Clement Greenberg: ‘modernist painting ...has not abandoned the representation of recognizable objects in principle. What it has abandoned in principle is the representation of the kind of space that recognizable objects can inhabit. (lecture ‘Modernist Painting’, 1960).’
Willy Bo Richardson’s technique borrows from the Dutch tradition of layered oil painting –– building images from lean to fat –– , but his preferred current painting substrates are large-scale aluminum panels, a thoroughly industrial material, rather than the stretched canvases of old. Also his color palette is more at home with a jazzy mix of 1980s neons and day-glo colors than the more muted and carefully orchestrated hues of the old masters. Despite a very carefully developed and complex painting technique - and its avoidance of the flat color field approach of many contemporary painters - the work is firmly modernist and of our time.
Painting and the New Mexico light
By providing intense visual experiences to the viewer, this work places itself among other notable artists who likewise found tremendous inspiration in the spaces, light and atmosphere of New Mexico, and found new ways to place the experience of color at the center of their practice: Agnes Martin, Georgia O’Keefe, and James Turrell, to name but a few. And In ‘Specific Objects’ Donald Judd, another lover of the Southern light, wrote: ‘Half or more of the best new work in the last few years has been neither painting nor sculpture. Usually it has been related, closely or distantly, to one or the other’. Perhaps, one of the most important artists Richardson takes inspiration from is Mark Rothko, both in terms of a luminous color field approach, and in his painting technique.
Mark Rothko, 'untitled', 1953,
Walker Art Gallery, Minneapolis,
picture by J. Riedl
The Walker Art Gallery writes: "From 1938 onwards...
Rothko turned away from current events
and committed himself to 'the forms of the archaic
and the myths from which they have stemmed'.
and 'After 1950...
he also ceased publishing statements about his
aims and ideas, confiding to Newman that he had
'nothing to say in words'
about what he was doing on canvas."
Below is a link to our essay 'Rothko's methods revealed' by Jane Qui, first published in 'Nature', which gives astonishing new scientific insights into Rothko's innovative approach to painting, and his unique use of glazes, translucent layers, and painting mediums.
‘Music to Drive To 9’,
53 x 114inches (diptych),
oil on canvas,
at Richard Levy Gallery exhibition
"That's Where You Need to Be"
‘Clockwork for Oracles 1’,
29 x 93 (triptych),
oil on canvas
In 2016, Levy Gallery wrote: ‘Richardson stretches vertical bands of color so intense across each canvas that they seem to crackle like neon. He has described his act of painting as a sort of meditation, a give-and-take with gravity and the universal laws that determine our experience of the physical world...
The stripes are singular yet interrelated. Gestural under-layers with both dark and light elements offset his more disciplined vertical strokes — those so saturated that they vibrate, gripping the viewer, and each canvas’s humming field suspends the sensation of time.’
Others point to the musical nature of the work: ‘Using watercolors and oil, Richardson paints vertical lines with uneven brushstrokes, rendered precisely so that each stroke reads as intentional. In his works on both canvas and paper the oil paint seems to flow quite smoothly—showing no signs of being clogged by the teethy texture canvas often offers. Richardson’s naming schema seems especially Kandinsky-esque in form, as he frequently references music, and the synesthetic associations between sight and sound. In this way, Richardson’s dedication to verticality and use of vibrant colors seem especially significant in a sonic sense.’ (Artsy).
‘Wet Snow Falls from a Pine Branch (triptych)’,
oil on canvas,
applying final picture varnish in studio
Richardson shared his own thoughts on the sequential and rhythmic nature of his vertical and panoramic compositions and vibrant bands of color. ‘I find myself at the jumping point. I know this to be as a dream, and from here I lift off. Please excuse my abstraction in this coming paragraph. It’s for this reason painting is my medium. I see vertical strokes as the launch pad. It is the last bastion of creativity. It is not total freedom. It is the tension of knowing freedom is there and fighting against the limited structure that tethers us to this cycle. When I paint, I am aware of my condition, that my paintings will never be perfect, nor will anything else in this world we share, but I will strive towards perfection, towards freedom.’
Many artists seeking — and often finding — freedom of expression also encounter constraints of a different kind: many of the known art making materials and processes entail numerous chemical and physical hazards threatening the artist’s health, through frequent and prolonged exposure to toxins. In the following, the artist shares his recent experiences with these issues.
a respirator with organic vapor cartridge
in the artist's studio
Learning about Safety and Art
I learned general health and safety practices working as a painting tech at Cooper Union in New York for 7 years, and then teaching as an adjunct professor in Santa Fe for 7 years. I always wished to have safe studio habits, but was often lazy in my own studio, and university ventilation systems and practices were not adequate. Many of the solvents and mediums artists use would be taken much more seriously in a science lab. Unfortunately, I come from the generation that was taught to paint with damar, stand oil and turpentine. I explored many mediums over the years, including products from the hardware store. Eventually I settled on an alkyd medium and odorless mineral sprits (OMS). I explored less toxic alternatives, but wasn’t happy with the results and stuck with what I knew. Old habits and inertia landed me in the middle of a health crisis.
It was after I became sensitized to solvents that safety in the studio became priority number one. Now I can only paint with the highest standard for low toxicity and safe studio practices. Otherwise I will quickly become light headed and go home with a headache and nausea. So I’m not working with theories. If I mess up, I’m sick. I am currently able to work with oil paints and mediums in a traditional way while inhaling a minimal amount of fumes toxic OMS. I would like to share some of what I’ve learned about safe studio practices. I don’t consider myself an expert. Some of what I know may be outdated or incorrect. I am learning as time goes on and wish to have a completely non-toxic studio in the future.
February, last year, I taught a painting class on color theory, and oil glaze techniques at Santa Fe University. Early in the semester I went home with a headache and nausea. I hadn’t exposed myself to anything unusual that day. The next morning, I woke up with what felt like a hangover, and from that day on I could no longer set foot in my painting classroom without feeling sick the rest of the day. I also could no longer enter my own studio! I had become sensitized to the solvents and cleaning agents used in my painting practice.
'Glaze': Wikipedia, (Vermeer)
Solvent Free Fluid and 'Gamsol' OMS,
with 65%, 70%, 75% solutions