Odili Donald Odita: Abstraction in the "Apostate" Tradition

Roald Nasgaard
Professor and Chair of the Art
Department at Florida State University

Odita painted abstractly until 1993 when he stopped. For several years thereafter his larger project, poised at the intersection of his African and Euro-American origins and influences, found its most discursive articulation in photography and installation projects. When he returned to abstract painting in 1999 it was to re-invent it, as he has explained, as a critique of the universalizing grid of modernist space as well as its vertical, stationary egocentricity as expressed in Barnet Newman’s declaration of the ‘I’. Odita’s alternative solution was to desublimate the space of his hardedge abstraction, profane it a little, so to speak, spreading it out horizontally, opening it to narrative exposition played out by engaging the viewer in simultaneous complex and alternative readings of his pictorial structures.

In the larger perspective it is fair to remain a little surprised that a younger artist like Odita should find abstract painting useful again. It was only yesterday, after all, that we doubted that abstract painting, let alone painting in general, had a life, much less a future. For the last quarter of the twentieth-century visuality itself had seemed under siege, more so in the United States perhaps than in Canada or Europe. As the art world in the 1970s reoriented itself to doing conceptually-based socio-political work, the visual elements of visual art were largely consigned to play documentary rather than creative roles. The pleasure of sight was either transformed into the male gaze, or, because of its alleged passiveness, came to seem merely self-indulgent in a world demanding intellectual critique and social action.

In the United States, perhaps the single most salutary event giving renewed licence to the practice of abstract painting, was the rediscovery, at age 69, of Bridget Riley in New York as a consequence of her much acclaimed exhibitions at the DIA Center for the Arts and PaceWildenstein in New York. Riley, as we will recall, was a veteran of the MOMA’s Responsive Eye, 1965, a fun-fair of an Op Art show that, however, sank critically, the active ‘opticality’ of much of the work condemned as gimmickry when juxtaposed to the repose of the Greenbergian Modernist paintings of Kenneth Noland and Morris Louis in the same show. Riley’s work could gain no foothold in a critical climate that reduced her work to simple mechanistic concerns with optics. Those who knew her art more deeply, of course, also saw it more complexly. When John Russell first encountered Riley’s work in London in 1963, he described its dramatic and unexpected swoops and thrust, its threats of breakdowns and dissolution, as "almost frantically subjective and an unremitting search for truth in private feeling."1 Another London critic, Nigel Gosling, describing the tensions that grew out of the speed, scale and color temperature of her visual fields, spoke of how they could make us “feel with our eyes.”2

It is useful to recall this history because, as it has turned out, much of the new abstract painting, like Odita’s, that began to emerge internationally in the later 1990s, takes few of its cues from the Modernist abstract painting tradition that, following Clement Greenberg, culminated in Postpainterly Abstraction. Instead its real lineage is rooted in what has been called the ‘apostate’ Modernisms, those alternative non-figurative investigations of the 1960s - from so-called Op Art to Minimalism - which formalist criticism so severely condemned, especially because of their emphasis on experience as it stretched through time, or, as Michael Fried said, it was subject to indefinite “duration.”

In 2001 I had occasion to juxtapose new paintings by Odita and Riley (Rêve, 1999, from the PaceWildenstein show), and a comparably new work by the Montreal artists Guido Molinari who had also participated in The Responsive Eye.3 Molinari remains a much under-rated artist in the larger world. Since the mid-1950s he had been developing hard-edge painting differently from New York; with reference to Mondrian, Pollock and Newman, but devoid, like Riley, of even a hint of that Matissian lyricism and illusion that still clung during the 1960s to other stripe painters like Noland and Gene Davis. Instead of striving for the time-suspending “presentness’ of Postpainterly Abstraction, instead of wanting to be seen instantaneously or holistically, Molinari constructed his 1960s Stripe Paintings so that they functioned as events caused by the visual interaction of the juxtaposed colors in the eye of the beholder. We might say that Molinari’s concern was not the aesthetics of color, but its dynamics, color released to give full expression to its chromatic energies and interactions, never ceasing to perform in response to the viewer caught up in the space that radiated outwards from the paintings. To account for comparable experiences evoked by his Minimalist objects and extended structures (if more visceral than visual) Robert Morris coined the term “existence art.”

It is out of the tradition of these pulsating painted worlds of Molinari and Riley that Odita’s work emerges. He shares their perception of pictorial space as an energetic field of infinite possibilities, suspicious of fixed identities, embracing the unpredictable, the irrational and the transitory. Significantly, however, alongside the measured choreographies of Riley (who at the beginning of the twenty-first century was rehearsing the decorative graces of the late Matisse) or of Molinari (once again touching base with Mondrian’s Boogi-Woogies) Odita’s rhythms stand out as jagged and erratic. He can be graceful and lyrical, but more usually Odita’s paintings dance to less ethereal tunes than those of his predecessors from the 1960s. They drive our eyes with sharp and interpenetrating shafts or planes of dissonant color planes. Their forms diverge and converge and contort themselves around multiple horizon lines, and meet in curt juxtapositions and abrupt stand-offs, as if caught up in an excitement that covets restlessness over resolution. Odita’s palette is similarly idiosyncratic and personally inflected. Unlike his predecessors it belongs less to the studio and to art than to a life world, whether its sources lie in, as is often repeated, West African textile patterns, or in retro American decorators’ colours that fascinate him, or in the ubiquitous flashiness of the commercial world, the TV screen, the computer, visual stimulation jumbled in sensory overload, excess and fragmentation. Odita quite happily compromises his abstraction in other ways, flirting with landscape and other illusionistic spaces, transgressions to Modernist flatness long sanctioned by Gerhard Richter.

Odita has described the viewer–painting relationship in this way: “One does not penetrate an image, it penetrates you – like a slogan, or propaganda,”4 inflecting our concrete perceptual experience of his abstracted constructions with something like directed content. There have been a number of critical attempts to account for how the new abstract painting that appeared towards the end of the 1990s has resuscitated a discredited Modernist tradition of abstraction by delivering it back into the world of social and urban space reconfigured by the new technologies of representation and communication. These accounts are usually rooted in a critical anxiety to differentiate clearly between the old abstraction, perceived to be single-mindedly tied to transcendent purity and autonomy, and the new polysemic one. They are obsessed with vanquishing a myth of monolithic Modernism which has perhaps lives more vividly in the mind of the postmodernist critic than it ever did in the social reality of the production of modernist abstraction (except perhaps in the long lingering final days of Postpainterly Abstraction). It seems an odd defense of the work of the artists like Odita, who largely honour the Modernist tradition and embrace it full of belief in its continuing vigor.

These new abstract painters that emerged in the late 1990s are optimistically forward-looking rather than nervously retrospective, which is perhaps why, consciously or unwittingly, they have found themselves continuing the historical lineage of “apostate” Modernism. As a tradition they have found it - unlike the Neo-Geo painters of the 1980s for whom Op was a sign of modernist failure good only for ironic appropriation - a vital living model for the future of abstraction painting. Neither Op Art nor Minimalist “existence” art was after all a style, a reductive style such as Postpainterly Abstraction became, nor commensurate with the ideologically idealist program to which criticism reduced the project of twentieth-century abstract painting. On the contrary, the “apostate” Modernisms did not seek eternal essences or transcendence, but perceived of reality as a series of constantly renewed relations with one’s surroundings, on the part of both artist and viewer, that were in constant living transformation. Theirs was, and is, a mode of operation, a performative activity, that at the least echoes John Cage’s notion of art as acting in “imitation of nature in her manner of operation." As such, purity (and the alleged purity of Modernist abstraction is greatly exaggerated) or corruption are largely beside the point, whereas the specifics, in the case of a Donald Odita, of what it means to be an African-born and Ohio-raised artist living in an unstable everyday world is the subject matter that drives his painting.

On an earlier occasion I asked the question of whether, or how, those problems of identity, race and culture as they arise from Odita’s larger artistic project can express themselves in abstract painting? The question is probably quite wrong-headed because it burdens visual art with logocentric expectations; and why, as Mieke Ball has asked, “should the visual field [have to] obey rules imposed by language?”5 May we not trust the state of sensitive “being” into which paintings like Odita’s thrusts us, to embody their own order of intelligence before we translate it into metaphors, signs or symbols? Or alternatively, as Barbara Maria Stafford maintains: “The beholder’s heightened perceptual acuity reminds us of the sensuality of the intellect and of the responsive flesh lodged within visual experience.”6

It would seem that by necessity Odita has found his way towards the optical tradition’s space and strategies of destabilized perception as the most viable instrument for the expression of dislocation and decenteredness. It is surprisingly true of much of the new abstraction that its presentations of heterotopian spaces are rarely sites for mourning or regret. We should not be surprised then that Odita describes his own abstract paintings not only as stripped of “the politicized pointing” of his earlier work, but also as more positive, offering up a painted space “where we can be free.”7


1 John Russell in “British Painting and Sculpture, in Contemporary Art 1942-72: Collection of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, (Praeger, 19723) 133-134.

2 Nigel Gosling, The Observer Review (25 July 1971) 26.

3 Roald Nasgaard, Pleasures of Sight and States of Being: Radical Abstract Painting Since 1990 (Tallahassee: Florida State University Museum of Fine Arts, 2001).

4 Odita in conversation with Philippe Pirotte, Resistance (Brussels: Matrix Art projects, 2003).

5 Mieke Bal, looking in: the art of viewing, introduction Norman Bryson, Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (G+B Arts, 2001) 67.

6 Barbara Maria Stafford, Visual Analogy: Consciousness as the Art of Connecting, (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1999) 161.

7 Odita in conversation with R.N., Tallahassee, FL, 8 October 2000.

Roald Nasgaard, Professor and Chair of the Art Department at Florida State University, was for many years previously the Chief Curator and Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto. Among the many exhibitions he has curated are Structures for Behavior: New Sculptures by Robert Morris, David Rabinowitch, Richard Serra and George Trakas (1978); The Mystic North: Symbolist Landscape Painting in Northern Europe and North America, 1890-1940 (1984), and Gerhard Richter: Paintings (1988). He is a regular contributor to Canadian Art, and he is currently completing a history of abstract painting in Canada.