Whitehot Magazine

Ben Woolfitt: Blue Passage at David Richard Gallery

Ben Woolfitt, Blue Orb, 2021. Acrylic on Canvas, 42x108 in. Copyright © Ben Woolfitt. All images courtesy David Richard Gallery. Photographs by Yao Zu Lu

BY SIBA KUMAR DAS December 19, 2023

In 2018, Donald Kuspit described Ben Woolfitt’s abstract paintings as “throbbing with color, beside themselves with energy.” The same year, art critic Richard Rhodes said that Woolfitt’s paint “looks molten, colors bubble, and the surface flows like a tissue of living flesh.” On the face of it, the paintings in the David Richard Gallery show are a far cry from this earlier, volcanic, turbulent oeuvre. The eight paintings on view, including a triptych, are not, however, a break with Woolfitt’s past, and indeed they build on it. But they also tell us his painting style is undergoing transformative change. His drawing practice---eight drawings are on display---is also evolving.  

Sublimity is not quietude. It’s transcendence. It’s to be transported out of this world, even for a moment. It’s getting goosebumps as a flight of great music takes you into an infinite blue sky. It’s a “Blue Passage”, as the title of this show, filling two rooms but transcending that space, tells us. Whereas Woolfitt’s earlier paintings were dominated mostly by yellow and gold and red and brown, these new paintings find sublimity in blue, but also black and gray and white, as well as gold, green, and red. Blue dominates, however. Gorgeously beautiful, the paintings resonate with a profound depth. 

Ben Woolfitt, Blue Mirage Series III, 2021. Acrylic on Canvas, 72x60 in. Copyright © Ben Woolfitt.

To appreciate better the affective power of these works, let’s turn to “Blue Passage”, the painting that carries that name. Let’s view it keeping in mind the French artist Yves Klein, whose achievement Woolfitt admires. Discussing Klein’s celebrated International Klein Bleu, which Klein applied in paintings that comprised only a pure monochrome blue, British writer Kelly Grovier says that Klein’s key achievement lay in showing that “colour could transcend form or function; that the mere idea of colour could be elevated to the status of iconic, unforgettable art.” Woolfitt’s painting doesn’t abandon form but rather creates it through a subtle interplay that unites an intense blue with a blue that’s almost black. This interplay becomes even more captivating when the artist brings into his project turquoise, gray, white, and gold---the last-mentioned at the painting’s edges, particularly at the left. Woolfitt’s also allows his brushwork to glow through the painting’s surface to suggest swirls of cosmic activity. Klein, a judoka much attracted to Zen Buddhism, liked to quote Gaston Bachelard saying, “First, there is nothing, next there is a depth of nothingness, then a profundity of blue.”  “Blue Passage” resonates with Zen-like profundity, and, on this score, he may have surpassed Klein. 

Kerry Brougher, curator of a 2010 Hirshhorn Museum retrospective of Klein, said that Klein’s aim in deploying pure color went beyond painting a picture. What he wanted more was to create “a spiritual, almost alchemical experience, beyond time, approaching the immaterial.” Klein died too early, at 34, and had he lived longer, he might have carried his inventive radicalism well beyond what he achieved. But be that as it may, we see that in “Blue Passage” Woolfitt successfully marries Klein’s profundity of blue with his own apperceptions of color’s magic, a bodily and cognitive wisdom gained through decades of painting. In a painting suggestive of cosmic and celestial forces, he conjures a contemplative, meditative space that draws you in to look slowly. 

Ben Woolfitt, Blue Passage, 2023. Acrylic on Canvas, 60x72 in. Copyright © Ben Woolfitt.

Turn now to two other works in the David Richard Gallery show---the painting “Blue Mirage” and the triptych “Blue Orb.” Unlike “Blue Passage”, which calls for close-to-canvas looking, “Blue Mirage” is best seen from a distance. Applying paint with great intelligence, Woolfitt creates a dynamic image comprising movement in many directions, laterally within the picture frame and vertically both above and below it. The cerulean blue river that meanders through “Blue Mirage” may make you think of the Milky Way. Woolfitt has flung vermillion-red paint at the lower part of the blue river, creating a mirage of sudden movement towards the viewer. Think, too, of the grayish white-golden objects that may be galaxies far, far away from the river’s action. Are they akin to the orbs in “Blue Orb”? Enigma is piled on top of enigma. Maybe that’s what makes the painting ravishingly beautiful. 

The “Blue Orb” triptych may well be viewed as three cosmic cross-sections harboring galaxy-like objects seen from an enormous astronomical distance. Consider also the golden glow that seems to lie behind each cluster of galaxies; it is at once enigmatic and beautiful. The more you gaze at each painting of the triptych the more you are awed by the wonder and immensity of the universe. You see also that the blue hue of the paintings, ranging from intense ultramarine through cobalt and cerulean to turquoise, is itself expressive and a creator of transcendence. In Woofitt’s handling of paint, it is virtuosity that you see, a masterful skill that is itself a handmaiden to signification. 

Ben Woolfitt, Early One Morning, 2022. Silver leaf oil pastel and graphite on paper, 14x22 in. Copyright © Ben Woolfitt.

Whereas Woolfitt’s paintings have a process-driven start, his drawings, which he makes at the start of each day, begin with an emotional state originating in his internal life the night before. Employing a process enabled by frottage, a technique developed by the surrealist Max Ernst, he metamorphoses dream memories into images he creates on white paper darkened by graphite pigment. For this, he employs, in different combinations, graphite again and silver or aluminum foil. Lately, he has added to his quiver oil pastel, using it to introduce color into his drawings. For his frottage, Woofitt chooses from a variety of materials in accordance with need: crumpled paper, paper folds, wires, screens, bamboo branches and leaves---a wide range that reflects the global scope of the artist’s life, especially his long exposure to East Asia. At the end of the drawing process, he inserts thoughts and feelings through words he jots down quickly and spontaneously. The total effect of a Woolfitt drawing, as Chihiro Tsutsui, a Japanese art gallery owner, said in 2011, is one of “a stillness that can also be seen in Japanese art.” 

If you look at “Early One Morning”, a “Blue Passage” show drawing, you will feel this stillness brought home to you in a poetically lyrical way. Pay heed to the three words in the left part of the picture’s silver-gray expanse that tell you that this is a picture of an early morning. Seen in relation to the drawing as a whole, the three words are akin to a haiku. Already in the tenth century, Kino Tsurayuki, the compiler of the first imperial anthology of Japanese poetry, said that “Japanese poetry has the human heart as its seed.” Woolfitt’s ‘haiku’ gives emotional signification to the red dawn at the top of his drawing, and that redness imparts poignancy to his words. The longer you look at the drawing, the more “Early One Morning” tells you that it contains a whole universe of feeling.  

We have noted that Woolfitt’s paintings and drawings make their beginnings in two different ways. In the first, process is king, while in the second it is intentionality born of dream-driven vison or feeling that opens the way. In terms of effect, however, there is a great deal of commonality. Both transport you to transcendence, to that mysterious realm where beauty and sublimity are one and the same. On view November 29 through December 22, 2023. WM 

Siba Kumar Das

Siba Kumar Das is a former United Nations official who writes about art. He served the U.N. Development Program in New York and several developing countries. He now lives in the U.S., splitting his time between New York City and upstate New York. He has published articles on artists living in the Upper Delaware Valley, and is presently focusing on art more globally. Recent articles have appeared in dArt International, Arte Fuse, and Artdaily.com. 

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