JOHN O’CONNOR’s 2005 RETROSPECTIVE by William Zimmer

The late William Zimmer, an art critic for the New York Times, New York City, wrote this review in 2005.

Butterfly, Acrylic on Sintra, 2005, 60″ x 120″

More than most artists John O’Connor is comfortable with contradiction. It’s the dynamic of his career. Some of his major paintings are exemplary specimens of trompe l’oeil that required the discipline and attentiveness of a monk copying a manuscript. Narrowness is far from all, however. For example, as a teacher he introduced the first courses in performance art in an American college.

He recently had a full retrospective of his career at two venues in Gainesville, Florida. They brought out major shifts but the road he was on was far from bumpy. There’s a logic to O’Connor’s moves, much of it based on the simple facts of his life. Early paintings influenced by the renown Bay Area Figurative Movement, whose major artists he knew, including Richard Diebenkorn and Paul Wonner, vividly portray a fine domestic. Paintings feature his wife and young son and also chronicle the rock vibrant music scene that helped make San Francisco a radical culture capital in the 1960s.

But O’Connor has never been one to slavishly follow a major style, and he found it hard to resist the influence of William T. Wiley who was teaching at the University of California at Davis with O’Connor. It is perhaps due to Wiley and his sense of the absurd that has been likened to that of a Zen master. O’Connor’s keen observation and that skill came to the fore in a kind of absurd way in the trompe l’oeil paintings that followed. The new focus of O’Connor’s paintings became the sky. To be able to imitate the stuff of life in a painting, like 19th century painters such as Harnett and Peto did, is a kind of feat. In their manner, O’Connor could make it look like a real piece of cellophane tape was holding down the objects, admission tickets and crumpled receipts from daily life which he copied, making them look astonishingly real.

The next enthusiasm is widely considered to have engendered O’Connor’s most important work, the Blackboards, which began in the 1980s. In a way they are directly related to the trompe l’oeil paintings; both feature flat surfaces covered with information, momentous or not. But the power of trompe l’oeil is that it presents its ephemera as lasting for eternity, while blackboards are erased leaving palimpsests. Such traces of time keep the paintings fluid. They can hold any kind of content even the absurd kind, as they implicitly state that they are records of the transient nature of thought and ideas.

O’Connor rightly sees Jasper Johns as the immediate source of the Blackboards. Early on, Johns postulated a blackboard when he created his mutable numbers and letters. He has always favored gray, which hints at gravity and deep thought, even though what may appear is finally incomprehensible Dada. O’Connor also makes great use of the stencil, which is practically a Johns trademark. Stenciled writing signals something profound and lasting. Whatever O’Connor’s myriad influences, he openly acknowledges them, but he also digests them, along with what has been imparted over the years, to create an art that is fully his own.

The most recent paintings have ascended into grandness. First of all they are very large and polyptychs have appeared. If rock and roll was the impulse for some of the 60s paintings, Opera is now. Mozart’s “Idomeneo” was summoned up in a large black painting, and in 2003 O’Connor paid lavish homage to Strauss’s “Arabella.” Butterflies have gotten their majestic due on a large canvas replete with them. Although they might resemble pinned-down specimens, the butterflies might be a symbol of O’Connor’s mutableness, and above all, freedom.