Paul O’Keeffe studied with modernist master Anthony Caro at St. Martin’s School of Art in London and his practice infuses the simplified forms and bold, flat colors characteristic of postwar abstract sculpture with narrative, biography, and affect, subverting its vaunted claims to autonomy. His sculptures here are part of a larger body of work, developed for FRONT 2022 and presented across multiple venues, that grapples with the untimely passing of his teenage son Christian, an aspiring poet who took his own life ten years ago.
These works incorporated texts by Christian as well as the motif of shoes or boots, in his son’s size thirteen, to both remember the loss and yet also suggest Christian’s continued presence. They all possess a striking blue color that identifies them as a set. In Memoriam (I Wanna Be Pure), previously shown in the FRONT Preview Exhibition, includes an aerosol-spray drawing by his son that quotes the author Jim Carroll: “I wanna be pure.” The overall form of the sculpture relates to funereal stones in Lakeview Cemetery, near the artist’s home.
The embodied act of art making can help to integrate conflicting emotions and process an experience of loss by creating something new. As an accomplished artist and teacher, O’Keeffe adapts his visual vocabulary to produce a powerful response to a tragic situation. While his sculpture specifically memorializes Christian through the latter’s poetry, its abstraction invited us all to mourn alongside him, for both his and our own tragic losses.
Commissioned by FRONT International: Cleveland Triennial for Contemporary Art.