A Way to Be In the World: Douglas Witmer’s Fruitville and School Papers

Written by artist and educator Chris Ashley, this essay appears in the catalogue from the exhibition “Douglas Witmer — I Found A Reason,” which was mounted by the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Winter Park FL in 2011.
Catalogue PDF available here.

Barnett Newman wrote, “An artist paints so that he will have something to look at …” Motivations implied by this statement include to: make new something already known; convey a thought, feeling, or idea visually; make something not seen before. Presumably, the artist makes something for the viewer to look at, too. Besides the visual experience art makes possible, what does art do and tell us about our lives and the world? In the absence of subject matter warning us to avoid Hell and how to enter Heaven, or myths and narratives meant to examine and shape behavior, or rousing depictions of labor and bucolic living, what is art’s place?

Works from Douglas Witmer’s two bodies of work considered here, Fruitville and School Papers, provide an opportunity to explore these questions. Besides the sensitive and nuanced visual experience Witmer’s art provides, the materials he uses, the sizes of each piece, and the resulting imagery are evidence of a consistent and ethical artistic practice and conservationist attitude.

I Found A Reason at Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park FL
Well known for his widely-exhibited paintings of precisely-placed colored rectangles on casual yet skillful black-stained grounds, Witmer writes, “A painting is not a statement. It is the evidence of painting[1].” In other words, painting is a unique activity that is not intended to say anything; it is instead an activity with a visual result, and that visual result is a real thing with its own logic and structure. He continues, “I want to believe that the relationship of painting values inquiry over conclusion[2].”

Inquiry is a key word. Making a work of art is a process of inquiry during which an artist makes a series of decisions that can lead in various directions. And while looking at art is a form of inquiry, the artist is also interested in the process of inquiry continuing beyond one’s initial encounter with the artwork, including the thoughts and feelings that linger beyond the actual encounter itself. Naturally, the artist wants this inquiry to extend to the viewer who, with each encounter of an artwork, must re-engage in the process of observation. In the case of Witmer’s Fruitville and School Papers series, everything presented and seen counts, our active engagement with each work is encouraged, and what remains with us is memorable and useful.

The Fruitville pieces are small, many no more than four or five inches in any direction, made with single and combined pieces of found and scrap wood that have minimal but sensitive and explicit additions—one might even say interventions—of color in response to the wood’s surface and shape, usually made with paint, occasionally with graphite, and sometimes collage. Works consisting of a single piece of wood are hung flat on the wall as low relief, while other works comprising two or more pieces are stacked, aligned or counter-posed, or pedestal-like. Each work looks different; while some seem heavy and stable, others are light and precarious. All exert a kind compressed space that verges on the illusionistic but is suppressed by the object’s material presence and small size. They suggest an imaginary monumental scale that in reality can be cradled in one’s hand.

Each piece in the School Papers series is approximately 9 x 6 inches, made on lined writing paper originally sewn into pads intended for elementary classroom use, probably around the 1960’s, a limited supply of which Witmer’s father found and gave him. Most pieces are vertical, though some are horizontal. Edges of sheets might tear when separated from the pad or during the painting process. At a glance black and white seem to dominate, though other colors, often fairly high key, are used. The paper may be washed or stroked with paint, and rectangular areas are taped off and painted more solidly. Painted edges can be sharp or may bleed under the tape. While the resulting images are often centered bars or blocks on a contrasting field, there is never anything routine or regular within the series; each piece is a new encounter for the artist and the viewer, and feels conjured and nudged towards and accepted for its own sense of being and rightness.

Altogether somewhat rough and decidedly handmade, having remade something old or cast aside into something new, works from the Fruitville and School Papers series range from funky to noble, homely to statuesque, naked to well-attired. Some pieces have barely anything done to them. As in his paintings, where their making is evident, so too in these works Witmer hides nothing; there are no tricks—the skill is in the decisions and finding, the combining and positioning, the addition or intervention. There is beauty and rigor in the finished artworks, and there is also something beautiful and rigorous in how and why Witmer works.

An image or object depicts or represents, even if only itself. But beyond images and objects, art making is a process of inquiry and a way of living in the world. How one approaches making art, the materials one uses, and the sorts of images one may be after and settles on, tell us how the artist chooses to live and what he or she values. Not only do we experience the work visually, but we experience a model of choices and behavior. In Witmer’s work we see a model of honest and ethical engagement with the world around him. There are several aspects to this.

It is facile to call Witmer’s imagery geometric. Certainly, rectangles and bars are geometric, but his work is not programmatic or predetermined. While the use of geometrical imagery in art is often associated with purity of intention, this has become a Modernist cliché. There is nothing inherently pure—honest or ethical, spiritual or sacred—in geometry itself unless, like any imagery, it is well and carefully used. We cannot say that Witmer’s work is pure because of geometry. Instead, he arrives at clarity of vision—purity—through inquiry and the process of making, his openness and sense of play and discovery, his lightness of touch, and his encounters with incident and accident.

But is it an accident that both series under consideration use recycled materials: old paper and scrap wood? Neither material lends his work a sense of nostalgia or the antique. What does it say about an artist who chooses to create a large body of work over a decade, the fundamental materials of which are random, scarce, fugitive, non-standard, and inconsistent? Does this practice say something about what he takes from the environment, his footprint in the world, his willingness to work with what is overlooked and undervalued, and his ability to use and elevate those materials into objects of beauty and contemplation, intelligence and consequence?

Witmer has previously discussed his Mennonite background and the concept and practice of plain-ness, which is the opposite of showy or ostentatious and considered a virtue, and based on the belief that a person’s true worth is not found in their clothes, appearance, or possessions. He has said that, “the tendency towards plain-ness comes out of a desire for a mindset of purity and humility that is integrated in a way that is always guiding one’s thoughts and actions[3].”

In addition to its success as visual art, Witmer’s Fruitville and School Papers works are models of purity and humility integrated and realized as thought and action. To encounter and realize within an artwork an intended and good ethic is to learn from it a way to look at and be in the world. This is one of art’s functions, and perhaps why the painter paints, and the viewer views.

Chris Ashley
July 2011
Oakland, CA

1. Douglas Witmer: A Painting is Not a Statement. http://douglaswitmer.com/not-a-statement/
2. Ibid.
3. Chris Ashley: Interview with Douglas Witmer. 2005. http://www.minusspace.com/2005/12/interview-with-douglas-witmer-by-chris-ashley/