Bruce Richards: In Praise of Folly

4 January - 2 February 2024

Weather Report: On the Paintings of Bruce Richards

by Randy Kennedy


There’s a zone somewhere high over the Pacific Ocean near Los Angeles where the blank, open sky merges with the kindred imagined expanses of Tanguy and Magritte and Eilshemius. Sometimes it’s dusk; sometimes it’s dawn; sometimes it’s the dun midday nothing that only the West knows. This is the horizonless firmament in which the paintings of Bruce Richards take place, and against these backgrounds of nullity Wunderkammers of valent objects hover: the Venus of Willendorf, Plymouth Rock, burning tires, ruby slippers, human skulls, Jesus crucified on a horseshoe, a collection of bullets, a rabbit’s foot on a chain, a heart-shaped weathervane, a candy cane, a row of tipping dominoes, a Jefferson nickel facing West, a page from a book opened to display Ed Ruscha’s deadpan 1962 painting Oof.
Richards is a child of the 1960s California school of equivocal figuration that produced artists like Ruscha, Vija Celmins, Robert Bechtle, Wayne Thiebaud, Charles White and Raul Guerrero. Richards’ view of his subjects takes his own version of representation into a kind of ether between matter and language. “I’m dyslexic, and I’ve always put faith in objects,” he says, “whether those are good luck charms or talismans. Something that already has a story unto itself. We see it and it takes us to that safe place or that understanding or that belief.” In his work objects sit within no perspective or grounding and cast no shadows, bringing to mind Rothko’s description of Giotto’s shallow painterly space as “mucous” — “that of atmosphere containing objects.”
Of his objects, Richards says: “They’re just thoughts. And thoughts don’t have shadows. They’re floating in a space that’s gradated. It’s an air pocket.” His titles and associated objects suggest bridges across which viewers might assemble rebuses about American culture and history, art history and personal iconography.
While he moved from Los Angeles to New York more than two decades ago, Richards describes his “California bent” as deeply ingrained, perhaps helping to explain why his very first exhibition in New York is taking place only now. But even in his native state, Richards, an admired career academic, has often functioned as something of an artists’ artist, to his satisfaction—artists always having had a more embedded, encompassing view of their peers’ work and of art history as a whole.
“Billy Al Bengston always said we really all just make work for each other,” Richards says. “What’s constant is your community, your tribe.”
“When we were in school, between Barbara Rose and Greenberg and all the others, you really wanted to be on the point of the spear,” he says. “You wanted to be the next Stella, you wanted to follow Jasper Johns, and that’s no longer the case. And I think that’s a good thing. You’re getting a much more interesting, divergent supply of works that are more journalistic and more introspective. I rely upon art history a great, great deal, but at the same time, the whole point of art history is to expand upon it. And I think today’s work, as I see it, is going in that direction, and it makes me happy to be a part of it.” 
Installation Views