A recent exhibition at Blackston on the Lower East Side offered one of those rare opportunities to see accomplished work by an older artist you’ve never heard of, yet who is not an “outsider” in the classic sense of the word. Wayne Herpich (b. 1944) earned his MFA at Yale in 1969. After a few years of struggles and just-misses in New York City, he moved to Connecticut, raised five children and worked full-time at factory jobs until retiring. There were no shows of any significance between the 1970s and now. Clearly, though, Herpich was working steadily in private; abstractions like these—seven medium-scale (mostly 44 by 43 inches) multi-hued canvases and three small grisailles, all dated to the past two years—simply do not spring miraculously from nowhere.
Mesmerizing in their formal strategies and virtuosic in execution, the paintings reward slow and repeated viewing. Some of the marks have vague affinities with those of a younger generation of artists, including Pia Fries and Fabian Marcaccio, but they carry a whiff of authority from an era that did not constantly critique the validity of abstraction. In the color canvases, the artist builds up dense, allover compositions from small, ragged-edged blocks of striated, contrasting hues executed as zigzags. To call the result a grid—even an irregular one—is to summon too stable a concept. At first the lively, saturated components look almost like the torn bits of posters used in affichiste collage, but they are all paint, often applied in a thick, toothpastelike impasto. In places—this was especially notable in the festive Olivia’s for Pie—Herpich leaves patches of the primed canvas visible, which provides some opening and light. Mainly, though, these paintings abhor a vacuum; their breath and life come from the incessant movement across the wavy blocks of paint, compounding into a restless surface with no egress. The small (a fraction over 11 by 12 inches), rather stunning, looser grisailles are ostensibly “portraits,” with heads and eyes suggested—but just barely—within aggressively brushed or scraped surfaces and eddying paint.
Subtle strategies knit the compositions into coherent wholes. Some form of repetition unfolds in an irregular staccato pattern within each work. In the most recent painting in the show (Untitled, 2014), this takes the form of loosely columnar stacks of yellow, cartoonishly articulated in a narrow white and blue zigzag, that here and there anchor the incessant movement. In Baby Villon the unifier is more calmly striped ribbons that thread through the overall bumpy warp-and-weft horizontally; halated blue-purple mounds and jagged blacks dominate a more nocturnal work, The Haas Halo. One senses a steady rigor behind the sheer unquantifiable abundance of the paintings, a quality that is, however, secondary to their main, freewheeling effect. The title of one eye-popping work, The Candy Store, says it all.
Who knows what was going on all those years? The press release, clearly informed by the artist directly, refers to a “life-size tree painting,” “large enamel on duck paintings made in a field, perhaps an homage to Pollock and Louis,” “rope sculptures” and a “15-year-long series of flower scroll photographs.” One can’t help but be curious—but if paintings like those at Blackston are all we get from now on, that will be plenty.