THE ART OF NOAH BECKER BY ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST
Many of Noah Becker‘s paintings are presented as landscapes but landscapes of a peculiarly distinc- tive kind. He isn’t capturing the raw, natural world nor is he responding to the life of a city. The spaces he paints, with their grasslands, the trees, which are alone, in small groves or woods, and the single storey buildings, are indeterminate, but they don’t have the vibe of a suburb. Some of the buildings are clearly barns, for instance, and a forest, an indus- trial plant or on one canvas Manhattan may be a wispy presence on the skyline. Other human beings only appear in a few canvases, mostly it’s just the artist himself, standing, wearing a topcoat, a hat with a narrow brim, with a pent-up demeanor and seldom looking directly at the viewer.
To which I should add that the dominant presences in many canvases are the enigmatic rocks. These rocks are almost always rounded, not of a size coded to mean awesome or threatening, indeed not much larger that a human, and they are frequently marked up with bright Big City-type graffiti. And it was the rocks that took Becker’s work into its current direction. “I started the series because I couldn’t figure out what to paint,” Becker says. “So I decided to make a series about nothing. I prefer paintings to be about nothing. That way I’m not doing illustration.”
Christo had often told me that he hated art that was just illustration. “There’s been so much already covered in art history,” Becker said. “So you kind of hit a wall at a certain point and you wonder what can you add to this massive pile of art that already exists? So when I came up against that, my choice was to make my art about nothing. I think of the rocks like Monet’s Haystacks, more than of my trying to paint a photograph of a real landscape. It’s important that I have no idea what the painting is about and the viewer also has no idea. It’s about something but it’s mysterious to everyone. But it really just means that meaning comes out later.” And the graffiti on most of the rocks? Does that add muscle to the meaning? No. “The graffiti is just texture to me. It’s a reference to the city. I’ve always thought graffiti was interesting it’s very DADAist.”
I noted that many of his canvases were landscapes. “It’s more of a set,” he said. “An installation. You make a scene and then you populate that scene. I like the artificiality of that approach and the freedom to do whatever I want within the landscape. The landscape represents a space. What I’m doing relates to installation art. Like Jason Rhoades. Or Warhol, putting in the silver balloons. It represents an empty gallery.”
Which brings us back to the rocks.
48 x 36 in (121.92 x 91.44 cm)
‘I’m working with sculptural elements and irrational abstract forms and logical forms. Rocks are interesting because they can be used sculptur- ally. It’s like being in New York city but drawing it like the country. It’s dystopian, the end of the world. Or the end of Planet of the Apes. It’s a landscape with traces of the city that was there before the Apocalypse. “
So you are painting the End Times? “I think it’s interesting when you have land- scapes that are manipulated in a way that is not naturalism but uses naturalistic elements. I feel like I’m manipulating the landscapes. But I don’t have environmental activism in mind.”
You sometimes reference the time of day in titling a canvas, I observed. “Paintings are illusions,” he said. “The magic is what makes the transference, what happens between the viewer and the painting. I think it’s very complex to convey the time of day in paintings. It relates to the sublime. Monet’s Haystacks come to mind. Van Gogh’s Starry Night. We all relate to the time of day or light or weather differently.”
Such references to art history generally and to specific artworks or bodies of work in particular play a consistent part in Becker’s practice.
“Usually painters will work from photographs,” he says. “I tend to work from paintings. For example. if I want to do a painting of the landscape, I will research old master paintings of landscapes or impressionist paintings of landscapes. If I do use photography it will be somehow combined it with other paintings from history. It’s a way of think- ing about painting conceptually and installation work and land art but still having a connection to painting technique, the old masters and artists from art history.”
I THINK IT'S INTERESTING WHEN YOU HAVE LANDSCAPES THAT ARE MANIPULATED IN A WAY THAT IS NOT NATURALISM BUT USES NATURALISTIC ELEMENTS. I FEEL LIKE I'M MANIPULATING THE LANDSCAPES. BUT I DON'T HAVE THE ENVIRONMENTAL ACTIVISM IN MIND
Sometimes his borrowings will be direct, almost comically blunt, such as the way he has channeled a totemic Henry Moore image in Collector’s Ranch, plonked Picassoid shapes in two pieces, Skulpture and Still Life and takes on a controversial Allen Jones in Midnight at the Mini Golf.
Indeed, and in a time when so much supposedly radical art comes with a family tree almost visibly attached, it’s rather refreshing to be confronted with such normal-looking work that is so deeply different.
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
Noah Becker is an acclaimed oil painter with exhibitions at numerous international museums and galleries. Becker is a jazz saxophonist and the founding editor of Whitehot Magazine. Noah Becker is also a contributing writer for Art in America, Interview Magazine, Canadian Art, the Huffington Post and ARTVOICES. Becker lives and works in New York City.
To view more of Noah's work and images from A Landing Field: Selected Paintings 2019-2020 please visit his Viewing Room by clicking here