Foreword from Joan Watts (Radius Books)

by Louis Grachos
director, Albright-Knox Art Gallery

I first met the painter Joan Watts on a visit to her Santa Fe studio in 2000. Hanging on the walls of her pristine, light-filled studio was a series of twelve-inch square perfectly placed white canvases. The effect was mesmerizing. Each canvas filled the viewer's perceptual space and, at the same time, defined a cerebral zone for contemplation. The delicately nuanced surfaces of these paintings are evidence of an artist whose subject matter is light and whose understanding of translating both light and space into the simple format of paint on canvas was profound.

Joan Watts has never been swayed by the trends of the art market and while her early works bear a superficial resemblance to those of Robert Ryman and other Minimalist painters of the 1970s, she does not share their concerns with the essential nature of painting. Rather, her intent is more closely allied with the atmospheric wall divide installations of James Turrell, the meditative grid paintings of Agnes Martin, and Robert Irwin's scrim and light works. Turrell and Martin share Watts' love of the light and landscape of the American West, and the process of translating those elements into a work of art. Like Robert Irwin, Watts attempts to capture the ephemeral qualities of light and perception — not in three dimensions, but in the two dimensions of a painting's surface.

Since 2000, Watts' career has been devoted to fine-tuning her focus. Her newest series builds upon the experiments and explorations of her career, but also represents an important next step. These canvases are infused with brilliant color, which is a marked departure, and are characterized by an acute subtlety and refinement of technique. It is undeniable that the environment and the light of the New Mexico landscape now emanate from every work.

Watts' career-spanning obsession with capturing these effects of light is so evident in this more recent work (see Series X and Channel Series, pages 250–283). The natural tones and delicate surfaces she creates remain concentrated on portraying the essential qualities of light. Larger in scale than those works I first experienced in her studio seven years ago, these paintings address the viewer simultaneously on a cerebral and a physical level, since the dimensions and scale of these canvases reference the human body.

The remarkable 40-year development that this retrospective publication demonstrates — from the early mixed-media work to the current canvases — shows the careful progress of an extremely thoughtful and dedicated artist.

Excerpt from “First Light: The Paintings of Joan Watts” from Joan Watts (Radius Books)

by Lilly Wei

Watts' elegant serializations—with their honed formal syntax that is surprisingly sensuous—function like a mantra of hypnotic, accumulating potency, each painting an invocation of sorts, a prayer. Watts has long been involved with Buddhism and it is to the condition of attentiveness or Buddhist mindfulness that she offers her practice. For her, painting is a way of life, an uncharted journey in which she relies greatly on intuition, an endeavor that she keeps apart from the more commercial necessities of the art world. Ultimately, in Watts' approach, painting is more fastidious and disinterested than that. It is matter-of-factly evidential yet connected to the spiritual, to creation myths and both the conscious and unconscious, to darkness that gives way to light and the tumbled forces of the universe. It depicts things seen and unseen and, at its best, is indisputably miraculous.

Excerpt from “Joan Watts”

by Michaela Khan

Light filled space. It is difficult to attempt any description of the work of Joan Watts without mediating on the nature of light — the wait makes color, creates volume, and interacts with space. The way it illuminates and creates the world we know.

Watts has painted for fifty years and this time spent mastering her art has led to reduction and refinement, a stripping away of figures and referents. Although she has often been aligned with Modernist and Minimalist artists, a better clue to the source of her work is her two decades of meditation practice. She brings a meditative focus to her painting which shows through in its persistently contemplative qualities. Watts works systematically, using canvas as her light trap — a way to study color, light, and volume in their bare essentials.

The current Untitled series was inspired by an experience Watts had while on retreat neat Muir Beach, California. In the early morning hours of her first night in residence in a small isolated cottage overlooking the sea, Watts was awoken by the light of the full moon, streaming in her windows. She spent that morning, and the nights following, watching the bright disc of the moon rise and set over the pacific. When she returned home she was inspired to return to the circle (a form she had spent years exploring in the past) in her paintings. However this time the circle is partial, a fragment emerging from the side or corner of the canvas. Watts found the use of the partial circle new ground and particularly intriguing.

The paintings in this exhibition utilize a 24 x 24 square format — a particularly harmonious pairing of square with circle. The forms of partial circle exist within the ground of Watts' modulated color-light field. There are subtle undulations within the white light areas of the canvas which reach out, interact and engage with the partial circle in a quiet dialog. These quiet and meditative pieces at once contain stillness and movement, color and no-color, form and formlessness.

It is temping to look for parable in these pieces: the fragment of the circle contains the whole, light is experienced when nuanced with shade. That the moon itself would be invisible if not for the light of sun reflected off its surface and bounced to earth. There are a myriad of metaphors to be extracted from these ideas, However, although each of these concepts may be apt the true genius of these works is that they must be experienced, not theorized. These is something so singular in their quiet shift from color to white that they demand not thought or even just a casual perusal — they require patient, attentive experience. Watts' canvases become not just works of art, or records of the meditative act of painting, but mediations in themselves for the viewer to contemplate and engage.