Josh Smith’s Paintings: A Ranking

A Josh Smith painting in “Josh Smith: Emo Jungle” at David Zwirner in New York.


When it comes to the painter Josh Smith, that classic line from sportscaster Dan Patrick applies: “You can’t stop him, you can only hope to contain him.”

Of course, efforts to contain him have been less than successful. Smith is a relentless, seemingly indefatigable painter—a machine, brushing the same few motifs onto canvas over and over and over again. Is he an unashamed nihilist, giving collectors easy eye candy, or is he a committed romantic, reanimating an old medium? As I once heard a guy proudly announce on an airplane, when asked by a flight attendant whether he wanted red or white wine with dinner: Yes. (Writing of his contradictions, Roberta Smith recently tagged him, memorably, as a “passionate cynic.”)

At the moment, Smith is showing more than 100 paintings at David Zwirner’s 19th Street space in Chelsea. There are some of his well-worn subjects, like palm trees and grim reapers, and also new series: creepy four-legged figures that resemble bat-spider-human hybrids (they’re called “Human animals,” per Zwirner), as well as wildly colorful turtles (which look somewhat vicious).

With Smith’s show on view, through June 15, it seems like a fine time to survey the artist’s body of work and reflect. Below, a ranking of his series. (Note that I have left off a few major ones—like the collage paintings, the announcement paintings, the poster paintings, and the abstract paintings—either because their component works are too varied, or because they involve some amount of silkscreening or collage, and this ranking is all about paint, paint, paint.)

12. Monochromes
Too cynical. A one-liner that missed.

11. Skeletons
Never quite cohered but pointed the way for the reapers.

10. Watermelons
Extremely charming if you have never seen a Mose Tolliver, as an anonymous Instagram account and Rachel Corbett have noted.

9. Human animals
Maybe too self-consciously quirky, but there’s potential here. Too soon to say.

8. Reapers
The best ones are the ones where the frame is ornate and the sickle’s a little droopy.

7. Devils
Irresistible but a touch too obvious. Jury’s also still out on these.

6. Stop signs
A curveball—mysterious, quiet oddities that make all the other work more interesting.

5. Turtles
Want your children to become artists? Show them these jam-packed jamborees of paint.

4. Palm trees
Perhaps his most divisive work, but I think they have aged well: depending on your mood, they’re kitschy or moving, silly or filled with pathos.

3. Leaves
Nature in all its uncanny majesty, a mask that is coming to life.

2. Fishes
Unforgettable, menacing tours de force. So much personality. Kill that fish before it kills you!

1. Josh Smith signatures
The definitive work.

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