By Matt Mullen

When, in mid-March, people all across New York started retreating into their homes, Josh Smith began venturing out of his. The pandemic was terrifying but for once the streets were empty and Smith, who spends most of his time inside his combination live-work space, a big building in a desolate stretch of East Williamsburg, decided to walk around and explore his neighborhood. With the streets largely devoid of people, Smith noticed things he never noticed before: the buildings set against the skyline, the way certain roads bend around them, and the way the air looks above them. When he returned to his studio each day, he painted what he saw.

In May, with the city still under fairly restrictive lockdown, Smith showed a selection of these paintings on his roof and called it “High As Fuck.” David Zwirner hosted the show online and Smith and his wife made an accompanying walkthrough video. The paintings are barren streetscapes. Gestural and alive with color, though, they capture the strangeness of New York at that moment—eerily empty, but also serenely beautiful.

The latest works in this series are now on view in “Spectre,” which opened earlier this month and is running at both David Zwirner’s uptown space and their London gallery. The new paintings are bigger than before at 7-by-6-feet but mostly continue what he started in the spring, to great effect. The buildings are rendered in jewel tones and each window is illuminated. The skies in some look like sherbert. The streets are clean.

Smith, 44, is a prolific artist and tends to work in series like this. Since the mid-2000s, he’s made loosely abstract paintings of grim reapers, fish, palm trees, stop signs, leaves, planes of color, and—early in his career, and most famously—his name, scrawled across the canvas, over and over again. Smith says he never thought to paint streetscapes until now. If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that everything has a before and after.

MATT MULLEN: One thing I like about these paintings is that they feel ambiguous to me. How were you feeling when you made them?

JOSH SMITH: The first few weeks I felt really good. The paintings were easy to make. I wasn’t intending for them to feel a certain way or even planning on showing them. I would just go outside and walk around and come back and paint something. New York looked so good, you know? You could see it. You weren’t focused on moving through the streets. What you were looking at was an empty street with cool buildings. In my neighborhood it’s all these 19th century and industrial ones.

MULLEN: Maybe it’s me projecting how unsettled I felt walking around back then, but I get a somewhat haunted vibe when I look at the paintings.

SMITH: As the paintings developed I started to think they look strange. But I never focused on the moods. It was more about the formal stuff, and how new that was. Layering squares on the flat plane and all that.

The paintings came out good, that’s what pulled them along. One kind of fed another one, and with the time we all suddenly had, I felt really happy to have something to do. Of course I was scared about the pandemic and scared for other people and scared about the whole thing, but just within my studio I was happy to have this exercise I could do. 

MULLEN: At some point did something change?

SMITH: My whole mood changed. I did that rooftop show, first of all. That seemed like a good place to stop, but I had already started more paintings. My feelings changed as the pandemic changed. I went from feeling good working to feeling more uncomfortable, and then just bad. Feeling bad. You can see it in the work.

MULLEN: Bad about what?

SMITH: I was tired. I had been working the whole time. Working was how I dealt with everything. My neighborhood changed, too.

MULLEN: These paintings seem less abstract and more figurative than previous series. Was that a conscious choice?

SMITH: I’ve sort of been moving towards figuration for the past few years. As abstraction has become more prevalent I started to question if it was a good thing to keep digging into. But these were the first type of figurative paintings where I was rendering something that literally existed; painting something that was concrete, that I didn’t have to bring totally out of my own head. I could just look at this thing and put it down. These buildings, the whole reason I painted them was that I didn’t understand them. I’d never dealt with architecture before.

MULLEN: Did you photograph the buildings?

SMITH: I did take photos on my phone of the buildings, just to remember them. But I didn’t project them. I actually tried that and they looked super canned.

MULLEN: You never depict people in your work. Why is that?

SMITH: I just don’t want to open that can of worms. I feel like it puts a half-life on the artwork. It dates it. And it makes it harder for the viewer to crawl into the painting when there’s already somebody in there.

I did try lots of things in these new paintings, putting in this or that. Street signs, fire hydrants, manhole covers, all that shit—and each thing I added took something away that I liked initially. A few have flowerpots in them but that’s it. Because they’re not something you normally notice. A lot of storekeepers keep flower pots. You don’t notice that, but then with everything out you see them. People would be way too much.

MULLEN: How much of your imagination and inner world influences your art versus what you see in the outside world? Broadly speaking.

SMITH: A lot comes from my inner world. Too much. At the beginning of this it felt really good to be able to go outside. It’s sad, but I generally don’t go outside. Before the pandemic I might have been out three or four times this year. And yet there I was, every morning I’d get up and go for a long walk. As the pandemic went on the outside became too crowded. It was packed with people, everyone had these new dogs. People were jogging. People were having COVID parties. It became too much for me again. The paintings started to become based on themselves. The later ones were. I did try to go outside, but it felt so different. Everything comes from inside of me. It’s all output, no input. That’s how it’s been the past ten years.

MULLEN: How do you recharge?

SMITH: I don’t know how to recharge. You start to develop a codependent relationship with working, you know? It’s a physical activity and it’s a mental activity. When I work I can listen to tons and tons of books, which I don’t have time to read in real life. I have one of these jobs—perhaps one of the only ones except for maybe a long-distance trucker—where I can just listen to a 12-hour book in one day. That’s how I cope with things, by working.

MULLEN: What do you think the legacy of COVID will be on art? 100 years from now, will people be able to point to this period in contemporary art and say, “That was during the pandemic?”

SMITH: I think people will travel less, for one thing. There was a lot of unnecessary travel, people just blowing around the world. And many of those people are probably itching for it to go back to being the way it was. So the art world, it’s going to contract. Culturally, I hope it gets sharper again. We all know about the ‘60s and ‘70s and ‘80s and the actions that developed out of that period, the legends. Funky things. Claes Oldenburg’s store, or Gordon Matta-Clark, or dances on rooftops.

I expected more from people during all this. I may be old and out of touch, though. I don’t do Instagram, but I hope that people are being innovative with social media. I think some artists are going to go back to what they were doing, and some artists are going to make little leaps. No one dies with art, you know? It’s the place people should take chances and try new things.

Published: September 28, 2020

Spectre” was on view at David Zwirner, 69th Street, through October 24, 2020, and David Zwirner, London through October 31, 2020.

Photo of Josh Smith in Brooklyn, April 2020. © Josh Smith. Courtesy the artist and David Zwirner.