J.D. Welch - User Experience Design

Alfred Jensen : Concordance

dia center for the arts, February 2002

con-cor-dance (k@n-k^or'dns) n 1: a harmonious state; congruity of parts with one another and with the whole [syn: harmony, concord]

Not unlike the outsider artist working in his garage on a monumental tinfoil altar, Alfred Jensen painted pictures that stem from a complex, individualized conception of the universe, using the tools of the modern painter to convey his'autodidactic' messages. Different from the lonely craftsman, however, Jensen was significantly more sensitive to the'legitimate' art institution. Settling in New York in 1951, he became friends with younger Abstract Expressionists Rothko and Klein, and his conception of abstraction is somewhat in line with the Modernist theory of painting.

exhibition view

Jensen's works are based in formalism and rely on a basic, bold and somewhat simplistic use of the painter's materials to create didactic and/or visual effects. The most striking feature of the pieces in Concordance is the paint surface itself: pure color is applied straight from the tube, with a small brush, or with a palette knife. This exceedingly heavy impasto gives the paintings the look of cakes smeared with festive frosting (yet not in the literal manner expressed by Thiebaud); the 'painterly' brushstroke is taken almost to the point of parody.

Jensen's reduction of painting to basic elements (color, texture, line) recalls Modernist technique, but his unique conception of painting is divergent from the more serious, existentialist work of the color field painters. Dubuffet "praised Jensen's work for its absence of taste (Cooke) 1 ," and indeed, his work ignores conventional (aesthetically pleasing) ways of using color, instead relying on predetermined systems to derive color harmonies through chance or mathematical procedures. By rendering color using a complicated "system," Jensen mechanicalizes his painting, minimizing expressive quality (in conventional modes of expression anyway) and encourages speculation about what constitutes beauty or harmony in his universe, who's cosmology based on myriad sources, from Mayan calendars to the I Ching. Given this almost fantastical stance, even for the many references to the physical, and for that matter spiritual, world, any sense of objective reality is subsumed and nearly drowned by the vivid, hypnotic, almost psychedelic paint.

The Ten Thousand Things(1972) shows Jensen's remarkable precision, given his rather 'sloppy' technique. The (very close to) ten thousand squares are grouped into triangular patterns, marked with repetitive color combinations, for example a group of white squares, each adorned with a simple red dot and line. As one steps back from the painting, the contrasting colors blend, in their dissonant harmony, to create an intricate texture.

Likewise, standing before Das Bild der Sonne: The Square's Duality, Progression and Growth and Squaring the 360 Day Calendar(1966), the tense relationship between the sloppy impasto and sophisticated color handling is apparent. It is a monumental piece, twenty-eight feet long, broken up into four large square canvasses (each seven feet square) mounted next to each other. The composition of two panels, hung on the far left and right of this dominating work, are based on a checkerboard-like grid, with alternating reddish and yellowish squares. The grid's color is arranged, however, so that staring into the center of each panel makes the grid appear to shift in an almost spiral pattern. Somewhat like Rothko's color that seems to float forward from the canvas, this work is a veritable "magic eye" of vibrating illusion.

This work is paired nicely with Where the Gods Reside, Per I - PerVIII(1968) ("per" meaning "panel"), a piece of similar scale and hung on the opposite wall, which presents a more obvious optical pattern. Progressively smaller rectangles of alternating yellow, green, violet and/or blue are set within one another giving a standard, one-point perspective illusion of infinite depth. The changing sizes of the box and repetition of the same coloring for each box make the surface more flat, but the eye cannot help but reconcile the shapes in terms of three-dimensional space. At the center of these panels, the lines of the boxes are created with only a dot or two of color, making the gesture of squeezing the paint tube obvious, and despite the precise, mechanically-drawn lines, lend a trace of the artist's action to the paint film.

These "optical" pieces could challenge the classification of Jensen as an Abstract Expressionist and place him more in line with Vasarelly and other Op artists, or perhaps even Josef Albers, with his deceptively simple 'homages to the square,' although, as we've seen, Jensen is much less subtle in his use of color theory.

So, what about the 'harmony and congruity'? In Jensen's work they are not initially obvious, yet the work has a (seemingly) playful, elemental quality which is delightful and fascinating even as his compositions are rather "tasteless." The color is "dissonant and unfamiliar"; the paint handling is matter-of-fact, "without flair or finesse (Cooke)", but the works make sense because the strongly individual technique makes the paintings relate to one other, each as a sort of illustration of some greater point Jensen is trying to make, not unlike a series of cave paintings, carvings on stone tablets, or other ancient/primitive/elemental communicative media.

2: an index of all main words in a book along with their immediate contexts

Jensen uses cosmology, communication and metaphysics as modes of expressing 'subject matter'. He deploys calendars, tables of numbers, and primitive symbols so esoteric that they become abstracted and turn back upon themselves until they become (possibly) meaningless surface decoration. When viewing these works, the spectator is constantly going back and forth between admiring the color/pattern and trying to figure out what each work 'means.'

In contrast to the optical tricks of Where the Gods Reside, The Sun Rises Twice, Per I- Per IV (1973), is a more fantastical (and flat in the painting-as-object sense) work in the form of a calendar. Ringed with symbols, each of its two large (eight feet square) panels look like a fairly legitimate record of a system for keeping time, based upon many sources including the planisphere, the sundial and the geomancer's compass (see Perrin)2. Similarly, Twelve Events in a Dual Universe (1978) pairs quotes from the Tao Te Ching with matrices of numbers, related to the phrases, in a bewildering array of forms showing cursive text pared with esoteric number patterns. The World as It Really Is(1977) does much the same thing, this time using simple mathematical statements, like "7 x 7 = 49" as the headers for each number matrix. Again, the correspondence between the (text) expression and the numerical pattern is mysterious. This piece made me chuckle, as it looks like an elementary school multiplication table, only the tables, while visually and organizationally similar, are populated with gibberish(?) data.

Physical Optics(1975) shows four circles, filled with concentric rings of color, each ring divided between areas of contrasting color. Arrows and curved lines mark up the 'diagrams' like chalk on a blackboard. While there is no text on this piece, it us clearly understood as a tool for teaching principles of optics, but, again, the spectator can forget all that and just explore its complex color harmony.

With this concordance of colors, shapes, symbols and text, the basic elements of communication for Jensen, the spectator can wander the exhibition and make their own decisions about what Jensen is trying to explain and show. One theory: do the optical pieces give us a window into enlightened spiritual reality, leaving the more diagrammatic pieces with their traces of 'civilization' to merely confuse us? Or: like approaching a Rothko/Newman/Still, these works may have something of a religious quality, so perhaps Jensen has given us a history of the world, from the creation of light and dark through modern forms of timekeeping and communication.

The Great Pyramid(1980) was Jensen's last monumental work and is balanced between the two stances I have set up: optics/color theory and diagramming traces of civilization. The long work is a series of rectangles within square panels, each filled with smaller rectangles of varying color. Upon the color fields, primitive markings fill the space: an inverted U shape first alone, then doubled, then with a small line, etc. Progressing in complexity from left to right, the piece could be readable in some sense. The Great Pyramid was Jensen's last work, and clarify's the 'hallmarks' of his work.

This show inspires many sensory experiences: the pulsating, vibrating relationships of one color to another, the extraordinary level of detail Jensen was able to achieve with simple tools, the mental exercise of trying to pick out recognizable patterns or symbols from the jumbled framework of each piece, and finally trying to see what elements unite the works into some sort of whole. So much thought has been put into the work, that we'd like to think that we've been given the tools to understand it all: the concordance of the universe, according to Alfred Jensen.


1 Cooke, Lynne. forthcoming. Alfred Jensen: Concordance New York: Dia Center for the Arts. Texts by David Anfam, Lynne Cooke, and Michael Newman.
2 Perrin goes into wonderfully complex detail about the sources for this and other works and this article is worth having a look at : Perrin, Peter. 1979. "All the Beautiful Systems: Alfred Jensen," artscanada, May/June 1979 pp. 40-49.