David Zwirner Paris & Frieze London

Josh Smith’s Carte Rouge

Words by Albert Shyong

Josh Smith in front of Living With Depression (2023) installation, David Zwirner Paris

The monographic and monochromatic exhibition Living With Depression at David Zwirner Paris departs from the serial work expected by the American artist Josh Smith, this time pivoting to a medley of abstract and representational paintings united under a common colour — red. What remains constant, however, is the contemplative artist’s expressive brushstrokes that evoke familiar experiences within our collective consciousness, intended as a beacon of hope beyond superficial appearances.

On the eve of the finissage of Living With Depression and the unveiling of his towering bronze sculpture Friend (2023) in Regent’s Park on the occasion of Frieze Sculpture London, Josh Smith muses on the light of the end of the tunnel behind his work during this prolific period.

Living With Depression (2023), installation view

Albert Shyong: I’d love to start with the title Living With Depression. I know that it stems from a bad day, and it’s there to provoke, but it’s such a powerful and emotionally charged title. I’m curious what emotions you hope viewers have as a first impression upon seeing your work.

Josh Smith: I hope it serves as a sort of reset, giving over some control to the viewer so they can form what it means to them, because the title is both unusual and a little bit ambiguous. It has some teeth. There’s one painting called Living With Depression in the exhibition, and it’s featured off to the side so it’s one of the later things that you see. The title caused me a lot of thought and questioning. Ultimately, I decided that people are similar enough that they could handle it. Everybody has times when they don’t feel their best or they’re thinking too much. I just wanted to project that it’s a common feeling, and that I feel it too.

You previously held a show outdoors on a rooftop in New York, and this time it’s in a beautiful Parisian space at David Zwirner. It’s covered and indoors, with a glass sunroof that allows light to come in differently. Did this influence you compared to the previous exhibitions?

I was aware of how beautiful and historic and special the space was. The rooftop show was followed by a show in London and a show uptown at David Zwirner, but they were both during the pandemic so they were kind of undercover. Since I hadn’t done a show in Paris in 15 years, I was excited to show my work to a set of different people. I took a somewhat perpendicular path and introduced something new. A lot of times when I do a show overseas in Europe, I’m just carrying the momentum I have from working here. This time I stopped and made a whole show, as a chance to break out of the idea that I just work in series. Paris is a high profile venue and I like to take risks whenever I can.

Living With Depression (2023), installation view

This show has so many aspects, some more abstract, some more representative and some more figurative — all united under this colour red. I’m curious if you feel like by having a monochromatic show, there are overlooked aspects of composition that have been brought to light.

With the red, I was able to let go of ideas I had about painting. I let the paintings drip more and I combined representational elements, abstract elements, and abstracted representational elements, all because I was under the red umbrella. I felt like I had a safe space to move around because the colour kept catching me from falling. But at the same time the colour is corrosive and I felt like I had a limited amount of time I could spend with such an intense experience of working monochromatically. It gave me a lot of time to think about how to paint with a more limited palette, which is something I needed to learn how to do. In my last shows, which were mostly colourful, abstract paintings, I used colour indiscriminately. Here I just decided to make it my partner while I was working.

Has your relationship to the colour red changed? 

I’m definitely more tired of it and aware of its potency, aware of the value of it and what it does to a painting. I haven’t started working much since I got home, but I assume when I go back to work it’ll have a big impact on how I paint. I really saturated myself with it, so it’ll be interesting to see how I come out of it.

Living With Depression (2023), installation view

I think it’s really interesting how you consider yourself both an artist as well as the viewer of art, even though it’s your own work. Can you elaborate on this dichotomy?

There’s a time when I’m the painter but every time I sit down or step back, I feel like I’m the viewer. In saying that, I’m not trying to devalue the idea that I’m also the artist, but I like to think of myself as among the people as opposed to separate from the people. I want to be part of the discussion too, it helps me. Art is thought-provoking and it can be therapeutic or repulsive. I want to be able to experience all those feelings. Maybe in my mind, I’ve invented a way to separate myself. The working process is so intense that as soon as I can, I jump out of it and step back. As often as I can, I try to just switch back into being a viewer.

A lot of artists say they don’t think of the audience when they work. However, considering myself part of the audience, I would be dishonest if I said that I didn’t think of the audience. What I feel, what they might feel, it’s all a guess but I respect the viewer. I know that seeing art takes passion, effort, and time. I’m thankful for the people with whom I share my art. Yes, I want to give them something they don’t understand or didn’t know they wanted to see, but that’s also what I’m doing for myself.

You describe painting as a pure form of exchange.

Painting as an art form is a straightforward transaction because of the two dimensional surface, as opposed to sculpture where you have an endless amount of things you could do. With painting, you just have a flat square. It’s like a piece of paper with writing on it, the currency is similar. You’re able to exchange ideas with other people whether they’re dead or alive. The flat surface can be read like a poem.

Friend (2023), London

How did you approach the transition from 2D to sculpture for this massive seven foot bronze Reaper sculpture that’s now in Regent’s Park in London for Frieze? Do you see it as an extension of the Paris exhibition?

I make little sculptures all the time, and we picked out these two I made a couple of years ago. Originally it was 30 centimetres or 12 inches and we 3D scanned it and scaled it up. It was an amazing process and the end result is fantastic. The Reaper has been something I’ve kept playing with because it’s the first real figurative form that I’ve been able to get my hands around. I made it the same colour, with a reddish lobster coloured patina, because my mind was locked in that zone. As far as them being connected, I don’t know how obvious that would be. I thought of putting the sculpture in the exhibition, but it would have given the show a tone that wasn’t what I intended. Bronze sculptures change over time with the weather, they oxidise at some point being outdoors. I don’t know what’s going to happen to it.

Obviously there’s an immediate connotation of death with the Reaper, but does it personify anything else besides death? Because when I view the sculpture, it’s jovial and endearing, almost a friendly character.

He’s kind of a sentinel figure who makes a joke on death. One thing that humans have in common is that they live their lives aware they’re going to die and structure their lives with that idea. The sculpture isn’t meant to project anything but a happy reminder that there’s still fun to be had, even though life is on a ticking clock. We can still relish our lives. I also hope it’s a motivating character to do something, that’s why there’s a pointing finger. I’ve made a few more that are holding a torch, like a light. It’s meant to be a guide, loosely saying, “We’re alive. We’re going to die. Let’s all try to be the best and do the most in the best way that we can.”

Living With Depression (2023), installation view

There’s really an inherent optimism in the way you approach art. So much generosity and light is present in all the work. Is that an ultimate goal?

I try to keep a lightness in my work. Each work is a journey and I would say there are darker periods and happier periods. I would like the happier periods to be at the end. Many paintings, especially by historical artists, are illustrations of loss and depression without it being explicit. I can sense that and I would like to steer my paintings away from that feeling.

The message might be that art doesn’t have to be such an alienating thing. A lot of art draws a line between the viewer and the artwork. I like when people look at my paintings and don’t have to get hung up on them technically. I want to leave them open-ended and as inclusive as possible. The last thing I want to do is make somebody feel like they don’t understand, I’d rather them just not like it, which is fine. If everybody likes your work, you’ve got a problem, right? You’re not taking enough chances. You’ve got to be hard on yourself and do the work to take out all the difficult things so when you present it, you’re presenting something that’s been scrubbed of opacity. I don’t like my work to be opaque. I like that you can see it and see through it onto the next thing. A light at the end of the tunnel, and a light illuminating the road ahead.

Living With Depression closes at David Zwirner Paris on October 7, 2023 & Friend (2023) is part of Frieze Sculpture London through to October 29, 2023.




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