Spencer Sweeney's Liberated Masterworks at Gagosian / by Sam Abelow

Detail, “Self-Portrait at Larry’s” by Spencer Sweeney. Photographed at Gagosian Gallery by myself.

This December the Gagosian gallery, located on Park Ave. and 75th Street in New York City, presented about a half-dozen of Spencer Sweeney’s latest works. The figurative painter, who is also a DJ and club owner, has been a legend of the Downtown scene for two decades. Sweeney’s latest works exemplify his approach to life and art, now as ever before, as free, spontaneous and full of vibrant energy.

As mature as these works are, they emanate nonetheless from a youthful spirit. Sweeney, with seeming effortless, unselfconscious mastery, effectively “doodles,” casually drawing figures in these stunning works. A “doodle” is an unselfconscious act. These series of self-portraits are without pretense, or self-consciousness. The effort has a simple philosophy: firstly, to make something exciting, timelessly pleasing. So, as the “doodle” is executed with the finest skills — knowledge of paint and color, material —they become an exuberant expression of a completely liberated spirit.

“Self-Portrait at Larry’s,” Spencer Sweeney, 2018. Oil on linen, 66 x 42 inches, 2018.. Photographed at Gagosian Gallery by myself.

“Homme à la pipe,” Pablo Picasso, 1969. Oil on canvas, 76 ¾ x 51 1/8 inches.. Photograph via Christie’s.

The potent and powerful combination of masterful ability with paint and a child-like freedom of expression is reminiscent of Picasso’s late works (circa 1964 - 1969). Still, however, Sweeney’s work has all the more freedom, as it benefits from the Abstract Expressionist painters of the 1970s, such as Joan Mitchell. Vibrant, chunky paint, expressed with a primal urge adds a juicy touch to Sweeney’s surfaces.  However, this reference to late Picasso is primary and made explicit in a central work of the show, titled “Self Portrait at Larry’s.” The sombrero hat and collaged cigarette in Sweeney’s painting is a direct reference to the many “Musketeers” — men with tobacco pipes and hats — portrayed in Picasso’s late works.

But while Picasso was riffing off of Rembrandt, indicating a crucial, self-aware knowledge of his own contextual greatness, Sweeney references the great master of modernism in an impish, cheeky way. There is something provincial in Sweeney’s work, as it is without sophisticated reference and pretense. His works are reminiscent of the natural, simple and relaxed feeling of looking closely at someone who sits a certain way on a park bench, or lays on the beach. Sweeney’s figures have no hidden layer of meaning; they are simply an expression of the inclination that people have to look at an interesting face, body or posture.  

Sweeney repeats the figure of the reclining man, which often appears in his catalogue, once as a man holding pizza. In this show, thick brush strokes in blue and white render a man giving a “thumbs up” as he reclines, holding an apple. Another canvas, titled “Self-Portrait by Night,” portrays the lounging figure from the back. Thinly painted, rough brushstrokes of grayish-pink indicate a shadow, as expressionistic dashes of dark blue frame the negative space around the blocky figure.

Installation view, including “Self-Portrait by Night,” photographed at Gagosian Gallery by myself.

Most of the subjects — while ostensively Sweeney himself — are rendered non-specific and universal. The artist has an instinctive or purposeful desire to make ‘iconic’ paintings. The main canvases are all large — 6 feet or more — and feature a single figure, which is centrally placed. The utilization of primary colors — as Sweeney favors red, blue and yellow — and a full contrast of values — punctuating his works with black, white — make for memorable, affecting paintings.  

“Sensual Shade,” Spencer Sweeney. Oil and oil stick on linen, 66 x 42 inches, 2018.

“Self-Portrait with Towel,” Spencer Sweeney, 2018. Oil on linen, 66 x 42 inches. Photographed at Gagosian Gallery by myself.

His self-portrait as a woman, while reminiscent of Picasso’s “Les Demoiselles d'Avignon,” has a dark palette of rich brown, deep purple and blue, with a fiery strip of red wrapping around the mysterious woman’s face and centering the torso. Sweeney’s controlled, yet gestural brushwork and the full use of dynamic range of light and dark, thin paint and the heavy line work, surpasses even some of Picasso’s surfaces.

The, “Self-Portrait with Towel” is reminiscent of the contemporary painter, Peter Doig. This is not just because of the drippy, washing oil paint, but because of the red canoe in the background, which is a Doig hallmark. This painting also portrays Sweeney’s ability to work in layers and mix representation with gestural abstraction.

Spencer Sweeney’s free and instinctive approach to creativity is supported by his seemingly effortless understanding of color and line. The essence of these works is an adolescent vitality, rendered in hap-dash, extremely urgent brushwork. The resulting effect of this ability to paint are mysterious personalties. Beholding them, the viewer can indulge their voyeurism, finding much more than Sweeney himself, as the rich complexity of an individual is a population all of its own.