An essay by Ronnie Landfield
1. A Proposed Exhibition
Lyrical Abstraction...a Definition is an exhibition of important, exciting, beautiful and high quality abstract paintings. The artists included in this exhibition are Brice Marden and Ralph Humphrey whose quiet monochromatic paintings defined a new kind of Minimal Art in the late sixties, Frank Stella, Larry Poons and Ronald Davis whose boldly colorful works defined the move to geometric abstraction that characterized the sixties, and William Pettet, Ronnie Landfield, Dan Christensen and Peter Young whose intensely concentrated abstractions led the way back to expressionism. This exhibition will provide a new and definitive look at American abstract painting of the late sixties and how the aesthetic of those works set the standard for vanguard abstract painting of today.
This exhibition has immense educational importance. These artists began their careers in the sixties each producing a widely varied but high quality body of work. The spiritual and autobiographical content as well as the formal artistic qualities in this body of work interconnect in ways that have never been examined before. This exhibition proposes what has never been done and that is to understand and reexamine the work of artists to whom vastly different philosophies have been ascribed and yet whose works resonate together in visual conversation.
Including five or six major works by each of the nine artists the exhibition will require approximately 1200-1500 feet of exhibition wall space. All of these artists are represented in numerous important museum and university collections and participating institutions should be encouraged to consider adding works from their collections to the exhibition. Although Marden paintings have delicate surfaces that have to be carefully handled, the Ronald Davis resin paintings are easily chipped if set upon their edges or shipped without correct padding and many of the other works tend to be large, the transportation and installation of these works do not require any rigorous construction or rigging.
Many eminent critics and historians have expressed interest in contributing new essays and articles to the exhibition catalogue including Kermit Champa, Peter Schjeldahl, Hilton Kramer, Ellen Handy and Linda Nordin. A complete color catalogue with statements by each of the artists (circumstances permitting) will be accompanied by new essays by current authors and critical articles republished from the late sixties.
An exhibition of paintings from the late sixties - early seventies, by Dan Christensen, Ronald Davis, Ralph Humphrey, Ronnie Landfield, Brice Marden, William Pettet, Larry Poons, Frank Stella, and Peter Young.
This exhibition looks at the period when mainstream abstraction shifted away from Minimalism and turned to a new kind of Expressionism. What is Lyrical Abstraction? What is Colorfield Painting? What is Minimal Art? What is Abstract Expressionism? What is the difference between Lyrical Abstraction and Colorfield Painting? Why did so many painters change their work between 1965 and 1975? What is the relationship between separate generations and cultures and between individual artists? How specifically did these artists interact and how did the ideas in the works interrelate? Is there an American aesthetic or is painting like mathematics an international language? Finally, are these paintings relevant and what power and meaning do these works of art have?
A careful and truthful examination of the paintings produced by many of these artists in the late sixties and early seventies will answer the questions posed above. This exhibition will examine an explosive and fertile period of advanced American Art that is critically important today and terribly misunderstood. The works in this exhibition surely cannot change the world but the philosophy behind these works of art are a powerhouse of ideas and possibilities that just might.
Advanced American painting and sculpture by 1960 took a decided turn away from gesture and became increasingly Pop, Minimal and Colorfield oriented. Although many artists continued producing gestural works of high quality, the attention of the art world in general shifted away from Abstract Expressionism toward Pop Art, Hard-edge painting, Colorfield painting and Minimal Art.
A new sensibility and a new generation emerged and expanded the vocabulary of abstract painting and sculpture. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns were seen as a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art. Barnett Newman and Ad Reinhardt came into sharper focus in relationship to the younger painters. Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly. Larry Poons, Donald Judd, John Chamberlain, Anthony Caro, Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland, are a few whose works came into the limelight in the early sixties.
By 1965 advanced painting and sculpture had taken reduction almost as far as it could go. Post-Minimalism, Conceptual Art and Lyrical Abstraction were three movements that began to emerge in that period. By 1970 abstract painters were letting it all hang out again.
While scores of artists cleaned up their acts so to speak, and abandoned gestural abstraction, Cy Twombly, Sam Francis, Lee Krasner, Joan Mitchell and Helen Frankenthaler come immediately to mind as artists who stuck to their guns and continued to develop their gestural styles. James Brooks, Richard Diebenkorn, Friedel Dzubas, Sam Gilliam, John Griefen, Hans Hartung, John Hoyland, Hans Hofmann, Robert Motherwell, Barnett Newman, David Novros, Jules Olitski, Gerhardt Richter, Peter Reginato, Pierre Soulages, Joan Snyder, and Larry Stafford are a few artists who along with those listed in the previous sentence could also be included in this exhibition.
There is a gap in our understanding of the crossroads we faced at the end of the sixties. The avant-garde split into many different camps; radical academics took one road; and that road has turned many of them into successful entrepreneurs. Marginal elite who got rich. The art world has been co-opted in a giant paradox that turns the radical academics into totalitarians who control and contrive to control what did or did not happen. The petite politicians are everywhere in charge of the machinery - insuring that mediocrity rules. The collective memory is short and the time has come to straighten out what really happened.
What need is there for these works of art in a world of information superhighways, Internet's, international communication networks? The history has been written, rewritten, unwritten, washed out, washed up, revamped, revised, repainted, and released. A good friend of mine said to me recently - "Please don't tell me too much of this history stuff - I'm an art critic and so I don't need to know it". The problem is that there is a need to speak out on behalf of the power, force and meaning that these artworks have. These are our valuable treasures. The need for positive emotion in the world has never been greater than it is today. The genuineness and excellence of the works in this exhibition demand our attention again before it is too late.
Frankly the critical writings of Donald Judd in the early sixties and the market strategy and vision of a handful of American and German art dealers define for us today what we now call cutting edge and important advanced art. What a joke. While no-one paid particular attention or cared, the landscape of expression has been bought and sold twice over. The careerists are in control now, and conformity and fun is the name of the game. The real artists left a long time ago. Maybe they are all out racing motorcycles; or doing the Ghost Dance.
As we enter the last years of the final decade of this millennium the questions asked by Paul Gauguin in 1897:
"Where Are We Going?"
These questions are ones that we now need to answer for ourselves.
The time has come to rediscover our spiritual and humanistic roots, and reexamine our values with a look at where we have been, who we are, and where we are going.
I sense a spiritual vacuum....abstract art is in trouble. The art world is in trouble and the world is in trouble. The late sixties and early seventies was a turbulent period that may never be totally understood. I think that period holds answers that are vitally important to us in the nineties. A castle built on a foundation of sand will crumble, while a tower with its foundation deep in the earth can withstand any number of challenges. I believe a foundation based on truth will stand the test of time; unfortunately, the truth got twisted and the art worlds' tower is poised for a fall.
Advanced Art in the Twentieth-Century has traveled along two mainstreams. Via Matisse and Picasso: expressing beauty, sensuality, primitive power, art as the conveyor of emotion, art as the uplifting sensibility, art as a depiction of everyday life, and via Duchamp and Picasso: expressing beauty transformed, ugliness, primitive power, art as idea, art as found object, art as part of everyday life.
The forces of European Cubism, Dada, School of Paris and Surrealism gave way to American Abstract Expressionism by the late forties. The attention of the art world shifted from the School of Paris to the New York School. American painters arrived at center stage by the mid-century. By the end of the fifties, Abstract Expressionism had spawned a second generation.
The sixties ushered in an artistic revolution by a generation born in the twenties and early thirties. Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, and Frank Stella from the Matisse (Dionysian) mainstream, and John Cage, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol from the Duchamp (Apollonian) mainstream, were some influential leaders of that revolution.
In New York City, during the early sixties, the art of Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Marcel Duchamp, Joan Miro, and Piet Mondrian was regularly being seen, as well as the art of Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Hans Hofmann, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, Barnett Newman, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Adolph Gottlieb, Ad Reinhardt and David Smith.
By the mid-sixties the newer work of Carl Andre, Donald Judd, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Roy Lichtenstein, John Chamberlain, Claus Oldenburg, Robert Morris, Jim Rosenquist, Robert Smithson, Frank Stella, Tony Smith, Morris Louis, Jules Olitski, Ellsworth Kelly, Richard Diebenkorn, Al Held, Kenneth Noland, Larry Poons and Helen Frankenthaler were only some of the artists seen in the museums, galleries and in the leading art magazines.
The greatest art of the Twentieth-Century, flowing from every direction, came together in New York City and produced a vital and flowering artistic culture. By 1966, the focal point of the New York art scene shifted from the Cedar Bar to Max's Kansas City on Park Avenue and 17th Street. Max's became the hot spot and meeting ground of the important artists, writers, dealers, collectors, poets and musicians of the time. An intense exchange between Formalists, Minimalists, Conceptualists, intellectuals, the Warhol superstar faction and hangers on, raged nightly. I attended the opening of Max's and was a regular there throughout the sixties. I usually hung out up front with the painters and sculptors like myself.
Eventually, by 1969 the art scene began to drift south, toward Lower Broadway, and Soho, to the St. Adrian's Bar. The mixing of the older with the younger generations changed the history of art. To this day a proper study of that period, compelling, mysterious and misunderstood remains to be done.
Formalist Abstract Art in the sixties was reductive. Minimal Art as exemplified by Carl Andre, Robert Morris, and Donald Judd's serial theories reduced painting and sculpture to their basic structure. Object like, non-illusionistic, with industrial qualities and non-referential color were typical characteristics of Minimal Art.
Colorfield Painting as exemplified by Morris Louis, Kenneth Noland and Jules Olitski, in accordance with Clement Greenberg's analysis of Jackson Pollock, also reduced painting to its bare essentials. These essentials were flatness, non-illusion, all over drawing, color as structure and self referentially. Frank Stella commanded a strong position in both camps. It should be noted that in the mid-sixties painterliness, looseness, expressivity, ambiguity, and subject matter of any kind that was not literal was generally considered old fashioned.
Ideological differences irreconcilably broke the two Formalist philosophies apart. Minimal Art allied with Conceptual Art, Pop Art and other movements, and formed the basis of what became known as Anti-Formalism. Formalism, with Clement Greenberg as its chief spokesman forged ahead alone on its elitist path. In accordance with the duality of mainstream Twentieth-Century art this break in abstraction was Apollonian and Dionysian in nature.
Advanced art by the 1970's was dominated by Pop, Formalism as espoused by Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried and Anti-Formalism as exemplified by Robert Morris and Donald Judd. A philosophical battle ensued, politely ( in reality this struggle was anything but polite) described as the uplifting sensibility versus the challenging intellect. Formalism and its narrow doctrines became unpopular and anything associated with it suffered by proximity. Formalism ruled with Stalinist intolerance and fell by its own infertility by 1973. Formalism gave us standards of quality - however flawed and limited - those standards of quality were but its repudiation came about primarily because the art didn't deliver on its exclusive claim to high quality and taste. The art world became unbalanced in favor of Anti-Formalism. Anti- Formalism ruled with a totalitarian nazi-like iron hand, a grip on the throat of the media. Anti-Formalism gave us freedom and license but no standards of quality and rehashed historical junk prevailed.
Minimal and Conceptual Art delivered on their promises and that is the problem. Now we have an endless supply of empty steel boxes, blank walls, empty plates on the floor, doorways to nowhere. The brink of the void - without the courage or the clarity to fill it, cartoons, political slogans, clever words, videos, neon body parts, billboards and holes in the ground, ad infinitum. These supposedly ascetic and esthetic social critics have scored big and still benefit from their pioneering advertising and marketing techniques. At least Arte Povera cannot claim poverty anymore.
Pop Art also delivered on its initial promise of social and esthetic criticism. It generated glamour and widened the audience for contemporary art. Whether that audience was interested in the merits of the art or its accompanying hoopla remains to be seen. The DuChampian fervor that permeated and dominated the art world had been carefully nurtured. It made making the case for something else difficult to make.
Where did this leave the rest of us? After a decade of minimal and conceptual language system, the 1980's brought us a decade of unprecedented materialism, fun and market strategy. Great art does not come from phony market strategies. The art world has been deluded by semantics...so what happened to great painting and sculpture? Gauguin went halfway around the world staking his life on the feelings within his soul and he died in poverty and despair. Who among us is willing to speak out and take such great risks for painting and sculpture? The art world needs a new spiritual base.
Painting and sculpture have waited patiently at the gate, while the naked Emperor and his entourage slowly parade across the field. The naked Emperor decides to close the gate. Across the field the entourage debates if painting is dead, the entourage debates if painting is over, the entourage debates if painting has anything left to say - they want to close the gate. They have convinced themselves that the Emperor wears splendid attire and that painting and sculpture is naked and wants to inhabit the ancient lands of legend and myth. The times have changed, the triumph of bad over good has come and gone and a new beginning is here.
It would be presumptuous of me to damn with faint praise art criticism of the last twenty years, so I won§t even try. If art writing could match the chaos of creation seen in the studios of artists across the world, there probably would be no need for art. Nicholas Wilder said in 1988, "Criticism offered by the philosophers of art seem to act out some semantic need - a need to put art and the entire framework for art, in terms of language and language system. This comes as a surprise to me because art seems to be clearly visual, nonverbal and asemantic."
The battle between Formalism and Anti-Formalism, and its aftermath, obscured the realization that an important new generation and sensibility in American abstraction was coming of age in the late sixties. Larry Aldrich recognized this coming of age and called it Lyrical Abstraction. My use of the term Lyrical Abstraction is not meant to refer to Larry Aldrich's maligned exhibition at the Whitney Museum, but to the new sensibility and phenomenon of what Aldrich actually observed in the artist studios that he visited in the late sixties. This new sensibility was painterly, additive, combined different styles, was spiritual and expressed deep human values. Artists in their studios knew that reduction was no longer necessary for advanced art and that style did not necessarily determine quality or meaning. Lyrical Abstraction was painterly, loose, expressive, ambiguous, landscape oriented and generally everything that Minimal Art and Greenbergian Formalism of the mid-sixties was not.
Larry Aldrich's trendy exhibition unfortunately left out too many important artists, and was largely limp and wishy washy. His show should have included Ronald Davis, Larry Poons, Sam Gilliam, David Novros, Tom Holland, Peter Young, Alan Shields, Joan Snyder, John Seery, and several others. The criticism was that Lyrical Abstraction was easy, crowd pleasing, decorative and commercial. In fact, if seen today most of the art of that period will probably hold up very well. Those artists that have continued to develop their work have proven that their visions are anything but easy, crowd pleasing and commercial. The exhibition was blasted and ridiculed by the press and proved to be a perfect example of how destructive that kind of trendiness can be. I was included in the Aldrich show and I have always felt uncomfortable about it.
This coming of age produced the most complex tangle of art styles, false starts and movements that had been seen since Paris in the first decade and a half of this century when Impressionism, Postimpressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Dada and Surrealism collided. In the late sixties and early seventies art shattered into many directions: Conceptual Art, Earth Art, Lyrical Abstraction, Minimal Art, and the continuation of Abstract Expressionism, Colorfield Painting and Pop Art. It is a challenge to unravel the complex tangle of the late sixties and early seventies - a startling and sometimes troubling time.
Another significant development in New York was the birth of the gallery scene in Soho. It signaled the enormous financial growth of the art world. Suddenly there were waves of new galleries and collectors. The appetite for the acquisition of the new was voracious. For a short time the artist's life was no longer based on the idea of suffering and struggle. The baby boom generation ushered in a new phenomenon of instant success, driven by the expanding demand for art in the galleries. The museums rushed in for fear of missing something new.
Materialistic values overshadowed spiritual and esthetic values. A political and unspoken game of esthetic one-upmanship was played by artists, collectors, critics, curators and dealers competing for media attention. The prophets of the age were those whose voices were most often heard. There was an endless quest for novelty, an obsession with all things radical, the choosing up of sides in a game of avant-garde chicken. The art world careened down a dead-end street. In retrospect it seems to me like a mad flight from reason, reality and sanity.
Great Art reaches us simply and directly. It is not always popular in it§s own time . Does it matter if Giorgione was popular or if someone else was more popular? What matters are the universal truths that Giorgione had the power to communicate to us through his work. Painting is visual, you have to look at it and see it with your eyes. It's hard to talk about because it isn't about propaganda, it's just clear. Do we believe what we see? Too often we only see what we believe. If we do not recognize what is real and what is of value, our spiritual and collective soul will wither and die and that is what§s happening to us today.
Sometime around 1965 artists born in the late thirties and forties began rethinking the issues of reduction, shape, surface, feeling, meaning, color, tradition and style. They were Modernists, many evolving out of the Colorfield and Minimal styles of the day. Some of the qualities explored were a conscious shift to complexity, content, mystical, psychological and pictorial relationships , asymmetrical composition, expressive color, feeling and a depiction of the landscape of the mind. Often combining different styles like Abstract Expressionism, Minimal Art and Surrealism, it permanently transformed the traditional view of painting and sculpture. Briefly and publicly this phenomenon was recognized as the movement that it was, and called Lyrical Abstraction. Personally I prefer a new term, Direct Abstraction, to describe the movement.
This movement depended on the synthesis of the emotional, the revelatory, the intuitive, the sensual, the idea as inspiration and succeeded when tapping the root from which all great art emanates. Ancient Chinese scrolls, Japanese Calligraphy, Italian painting and sculpture from the Fifteenth and Sixteenth- Century, Renaissance perspective, Medieval stained glass, Seventeenth-Century Dutch and Flemish painting, Barbizon, Impressionist, Hudson River School, Post-Impressionist, Fauvist, Cubist, Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist painting are some of its sources of inspiration.
It is interesting to observe the phenomenon that so many reductive artists of the early sixties returned to expressionism in the late sixties. It is staggering that no one has ever asked why, or figured out that it was in the late sixties and early seventies that nearly all the new movements that exist today began. The fact that so many established, reductive, Minimal and Formalist painters changed their work at this time should tell us that something new was added to the picture of contemporary art. A new element that provided the path to freedom through lyricism and rebellion and led advanced painting away from the restrictive dogma of the art of the early sixties.
The new element in the late sixties was the coming of age of the diverse first wave of the baby boom generation of artists born between 1937 and 1950. Lyrical Abstraction as perceived in the media of the late sixties was largely misunderstood because of several factors. The Aldrich show was one factor, another was because none of the established or younger critics could really get a handle on what was going on. A generation without an Emile Zola, producing works of high energy art, in need of a spokesperson that unfortunately did not exist, until now. The true test of any art is time and the time has come to see how well Lyrical Abstraction holds up today.
The totality of the art of the late sixties was diverse, revolutionary and spontaneous. Like the music of the late sixties, the art did not conform to any safe historical standard or context. It flew in the face of Minimal and Formalist criticism and it was not easy to articulate into words. Ironically, so many Formalist and Minimalist artists just simply got it.
The market strategy and political power structure of the careerist philosophers and star-makers leaves no room for non-conformity. I believe that it is the very unwillingness to acknowledge and recognize the existence and contribution of the Lyrical Abstractionists that undermines the foundation and topples the tower in which modern and post modern art history reside.
Indeed, it is hindsight that shows us that the Formalist critics of the early sixties, under the cover of Post Painterly Abstraction, distanced themselves from the stigma of the term Second Generation. Colorfield Paintings' triumph partially succeeded because of the perception in the public mind of a new and separate generation from the Abstract Expressionists. They publicly disavowed themselves from the painterly qualities of those older artists and in effect - killed their fathers.
Hindsight also shows that in the late sixties and early seventies, the younger Lyrical Abstractionist generation led the way to a return to painterly abstraction. In the wake of the initial popularity of Lyrical Abstraction, the older Colorfield painters also returned to painterly abstraction. What should have been seen as two distinctly separate generations interacting was erroneously seen as one larger Colorfield generation, expanding.
The erroneous impression was created by the press. In the public mind the younger artists were misperceived and the creation of the stigma of a second generation of Colorfield Painting was formed. Conveniently the maligned notion of Lyrical Abstraction lent fuel to the flames and the misperception stuck. In effect this - killed the sons and the daughters.
Philosophers, critics and dealers who profited, promoted and benefited, obviously remained silent. Many critics didn't understand, didn't care, and changed their dogma to suit the times. In fact many critical voices turned away from Colorfield painting altogether in the early seventies. As Anti-Formalism in general dominated the critical dialogue Lyrical Abstraction grew increasingly passe.
The public was persuaded that Lyrical Abstraction did not exist. In fact the Lyrical Abstractionists became invisible, unmentionable and untouchable, and no one spoke out. The reaction to the mere mention of the name Lyrical Abstraction is like the reaction to Tuberculosis in the thirties or the reaction to AIDS today. A generation of abstract artists whose powerful works in the late sixties forever changed the face of contemporary art have been condemned by history to wander the desert of obscurity.
Both the Formalists and the Anti-Formalists covered up Lyrical Abstraction. Everywhere I turn I see work today that was influenced by Lyrical Abstraction and still they keep it covered up, ignore it, deny its contribution, deny its existence. And now the audience has lost their money and the people are turned off, alienated by both sides, and now is the time for Lyrical Abstraction to emerge from the political dungeons and head for the light.
The truth about the censorship and suppression of Lyrical Abstraction needs to be told and straightened out. The disgraceful game of ignoring and denying history is exposed. It is no wonder the art world is in trouble. These are critical times. I§ve seen the best artists of my generation misunderstood, ignored and nearly decimated by this misperception and willful ignorance and disdain.
Marshall McLuhan wrote about hot and cool in his book Extensions of Man / Understanding Media. These opposing temperatures are perfect metaphors for understanding the two mainstreams of Modern Art of the last two centuries. The hot aesthetic in painting and sculpture is inspired by tradition, the realities of modern life and spiritual revelation. Modernist painting and sculpture is primarily visual and felt. Heat, violence, passion, tenderness, the quietude of love, harmony, the heartfelt, the intuitive, command of higher aesthetics, the poetic, and the beautiful, are expressions that reflect the hot aesthetic. Using as sources the unconscious, the real world and plastic space, the hot aesthetic risks alienating its audience. The hot aesthetic in the early years of the Twentieth-Century is characterized by artists as diverse as Matisse, Picasso and Mondrian. Fauvism, early Cubism, Surrealism, Abstract Expressionism, Colorfield Painting, Lyrical Abstraction and Neo-Expressionism are hot.
The cool aesthetic depends on irony to create a mental and conceptual statement. It is primarily a means to convey socio-political and economic information. Using multi-media, the shocking, the intimidating and the concept of anti-art, the cool aesthetic intends to alienate the audience and titillate the appetite of the avant-garde. The roots of the cool aesthetic in the early years of the Twentieth-Century are seen in the works of Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and the Dada Movement. Analytic Cubism, aspects of Surrealism especially Salvador Dali, and popular trends such as Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Multi-Media Installations and several new avenues and branches that those philosophies have spawned are cool.
The dominant climate in Contemporary Art today is the cool, and the highly charged assault of the politically correct. Exclusive and disturbing domination of cool art pervades the important museums, commercial galleries, alternative spaces for emerging talent and the media. The politically correct proves to be incorrect when it censors, suppresses and fears those ideas that do not line up with its own agenda. The Art World ultimately weakens itself when the dominating value proves to be market strategy and commodity exchange in place of aesthetics. The cool and the collected cling by their fingertips to the waning remnants of their power, losing their grip, stuck and lost in the very irony and cynicism they created.
An ideal world allows all views, all sides have a fair hearing, the public mind decides for itself. There have been times when both sides stood in equal light on the world stage. In the sixties the art of the hot and the cool were equal in world stature. However, since the mid-seventies, the public view and the potential appreciation of the hot aesthetic in visual art has to a large degree been suppressed. As Bob Dylan said, "But I care nothing for their game, where beauty goes unrecognized, all I feel is heat and flame and all I see are dark eyes."
Thirty odd galleries, several museums, foundations and alternative spaces constitute today what was referred to in the Nineteenth-Century as the Salon. While the Salon of the 1800's was sponsored by the French Government, the Salon of today is privately sponsored. The power of the Salon was so great that an artist who was included and thus sanctioned, had an easier time finding a supportive audience for his or her work. An artist who was excluded suffered great difficulties finding a supportive audience. Most of the greatest artists of the past 150 years were excluded from the Salon at one time or another.
The most famous alternative to the Salon was the gallery created by the painters who came to be known as the Impressionists. In 1874, tired of being rejected by the Salon, a group of young unknown and slightly known artists got together and rented their own space for an exhibition of paintings and drawings timed to coincide with the official Salon. The resulting show was publicly and critically important enough to convince them to continue with yearly group exhibitions. Eventually many of these artists established an enormous audience for their work. The unbelievable popularity and success of Cezanne, Degas, Monet, Pissarro, Manet, Sisley, Morisot, Renoir and the others is staggering in the light of the rejection and ridicule delivered to them by the official art circles of their time.
Perhaps the Impressionists were inspired by the success of two other famous artists who prospered artistically in the wake of their rejections by the Salon.
Gustave Courbet, approaching the height of his promise as one of France's leading painters was rejected by the Salon of 1855. Not to be denied exhibiting his important masterpiece, The Studio, and other works, Courbet with the help of his patrons opened a large exhibition tent in a public park near the location of the official Salon. Ridicule and scorn in the press persuaded the public to stay away, and the show was sparsely and skeptically attended. His dreams of commercial success through huge audience attendance were denied. The leading painter Delacroix, and many admiring younger artists made the effort to see his work, and the exhibition proved to be an important artistic milestone of legendary proportions.
In 1863, the jury for the Salon rejected so many works, that a storm of protest persuaded Napolean III to look into the matter himself. He commanded that an exhibition be held outside the Salon to show the rejected works and let the public decide for itself. The show came to be known as the famous Salon des Refuses. Thousands of people flocked to the show mostly to ridicule and deride these rejected works. The most shocking works were Edouard Manet's paintings, especially Le Dejeuner sur L'Herbe, which scandalized the public and mobilized and inspired the growing avant-garde. Manet's paintings achieved a notoriety and attention that magnified his importance and might not have occurred were it not for this show.
In Paris, during the late 1880's and early 1890's a group of young unknown painters formed the Society of Independants. Reminiscent of the Impressionists anonymous society of the 1870's and 1880's, this group found a space and had annual exhibitions. Among those artists who exhibited were Bonnard, Seurat, Signac, Toulouse Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh.
Historical examples of the successful creation of alternative exhibitions are many and varied. The New York Armory Show of 1913, offered the public a blend of hot and cool art, side by side, the overall purpose being the promotion of Modern Art in general. The exhibition brought together the work of the European cubists and avant-garde artists with the work of vanguard American artists. For the first time the New York public had the opportunity to see Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Leger, Duchamp, Kandinsky, Derain, Brancusi, Bonnard, Delauney, Munch and many others along side such Americans as Marin, Ryder, Sheeler, Stuart Davis, Hartley, Feininger etc. The result was a surprised, shocked and stunned public and the international success of Modern Art.
In New York City during the 1950's, the avant-garde was a blend of hot and cool art. The Tenth Street cooperative galleries were formed mostly by young artists of both types seeking a place to show their work. The cooperative galleries served as an alternative to the conservative 57th Street and uptown Madison Avenue galleries that dominated the art scene.
During the early to mid-sixties a group of young artists formed the Park Place Gallery. Pioneering Soho, Park Place Gallery showed many important young artists often for the first time. The original members included Mark di Suvero, Frosty Myers, Robert Grosvenor, Ed Ruda, Dean Fleming, Leo Valledor, Peter Forakis, Tamara Melcher, Tony Magar and later David Novros, John Baldwin and Gay Glading. Attracting funding from the Lannan Foundation and private collectors and with John Gibson and later Paula Cooper as director, Park Place became a lightning rod of attention for the downtown art scene. With experimental ideas and invitational exhibitions, Park Place Gallery served as a forum for both hot and cool art. It became a center for the downtown avant-garde as well, with weekly poetry readings, concerts by new electronic composers, and openings that always drew large crowds of young artists.
Since the eighties we have had alternative spaces such as White Columns, the Dia Foundation spaces , P.S. 1, Artist Space, Exit Art and the list grows. Cool art pervades these spaces and this exclusive aesthetic point of view, happens to be the same point of view seen in the Salon of the galleries and museums. These spaces are the breeding ground for the major league commercial gallery system. This academic, corporate, conformism has nothing to do with the ideals of any real artistic avant-garde. The avant-garde is not synonymous with the Salon - a ridiculous and total contradiction in terms.
As the Nineties point to the next century, the need begins to grow for a genuine and powerfully united avant-garde to step forward. Hot and cool ideas feed each other. The artistic community worldwide suffers when suppression and censorship define what kind of art is seen on the world stage.
Ralph Humphrey (1932-1988), had a single minded ability to concentrate into his paintings quiet color with simple drawing formats that resulted in a sensual, deep and rich body of work. In 1964, he made a series of hard-edge border paintings using gray, orange, salmon and other soft and felt color relationships. At first glance the paintings appear to be Minimal but as Humphrey developed during the sixties his work grew to be more painterly and expressionistic.
In 1966 he painted a group of soft toned colored fields often broken by three parallel horizontal lines of approximately two inches in width, floating or stacked on the surface. Each of the lines are painted in a different color and loose manner, their tones and values adjusted to each other and tuned to the ground on which they float. The paintings bring to mind Barnett Newman§s 1949 painting Dionysius, and Robert Irwin's line paintings of the early sixties.
By 1967-1968, Humphrey began staining in shrill and garish colors on convex shapes with slightly rounded corners. These paintings also had several parallel lines painted in loose fashion across the surface. In these paintings the lines are more plentiful and most of the time vertical. This series had an unsettling effect on the viewer. The pictures have an inevitability to them as though they have always existed; but they are shocking as well. Clearly moving along an expressionist and painterly track during the seventies Humphrey took his paintings further and further into the physical aspects of relief with his paint surfaces and shapes. In many of his paintings there is a dichotomy of tight geometric formats and rich colors painted on expressive painterly surfaces.
Frank Stella (born in 1936), has been the embodiment of nearly all the important Modernist styles since 1958. He revolutionized painting in 1959 and 1960 with his stripe paintings and later his shaped canvasses. Enormous and serious critical attention was paid to Stella's work during the sixties and his influence on other painters both younger and older was profound - to say the least.
Perhaps more than any other artist of our time Stella has enjoyed the consent of the world wide audience for contemporary art to explore his ambitious vision of abstraction. His work has always conveyed tremendous power and energy. In the early seventies he revolutionized his work again with his wall reliefs. In the eighties his expressive, sculptural paintings defied categorization. He continues to re-invent his own style.
What exactly prompted Frank Stella to change his work as he did in the early seventies was perhaps a response to the wide spread dissatisfaction with reductive, flat, assertive color as a sole means to expression. Stella returned to the language of plastic painting; expanding it all the while. His literal use of space and his return to painterly methods, (albeit on exotic materials) in the mid - seventies is the period of his work on which this exhibition is focused.
Ronald Davis produced many brilliant series of hard-edge paintings in the sixties. His fiberglass paintings of the late sixties forever laid to rest the demand that important painting not be illusionary. Colored planes of splattered and solid resin were painted under the actual surfaces of the pictures, that depicted deep space often inspired by Renaissance perspective. His mastery of the language of color, space and his virtuoso paint handling lend profound poetry to his work. The genius of Ronald Davis is a blend of paint handling, a brilliantly original and clear mind and a spirit that accepts radical change. His work can convey extreme sensitivity and at the same time a no-holds barred toughness. The high quality of his paintings makes him a rare and articulate artist with a true sense of poetry and humanity. His paintings are a complex of paradoxes. Barbara Rose said in 1989, "These paintings represent a unique synthesis of the diverse concerns of the artists of his generation, (he was born in 1937) in sustaining modernist painting as a viable vehicle for experiment and innovation". His work of the late sixties predicts the far-reaching possibilities that computer technology offers painting in the nineties.
Influence of Ronald Davis' splattered paintings of the late sixties can be seen everywhere in today's art world. Combining new technology with ferocious Jackson Pollock-like freedom, Davis brings to reality the beginning of a new age of painterly possibilities. He continues to break new ground with his geometric paintings.
Larry Poons (born in 1937), in the early sixties made some of the most memorable and striking Colorfield paintings of the time. He sky-rocketed to international success with his eerie, optical dot paintings. The after images of the dots on the field stay in your minds eye - reminiscent of the experience of staring at a light bulb, then looking away and seeing little floating lights that aren§t really there. The paintings also have the uncanny effect of making you see dots of different colors that prove not to be there physically but are compliments of the colors that actually are there.
By the mid-sixties Poons began to move away from the optical, scientific aspect of his work in a poetic and painterly direction. His dots and ellipses began to be adjusted and hand painted and his expressive color sense asserted itself in some of the most interesting and beautiful paintings of the decade. His dots and ellipses took on an identity, like a familiar voice in a song or a character in literature. The paintings perfectly embody the painter§s artistic soul.
In his large ellipse paintings of 1967 Poons made dramatic pictorial and compositional changes that moved away from his all over dot paintings. When Poons, always a great colorist, stained over his ellipse paintings in 1968 he achieved some of the most beautiful, free spirited and innovative abstractions of the decade. The artistic character that Poons had developed in his pictures had achieved a nirvana of expressive lyricism.
I think Poons changed his work in 1969 - 1970 because of his physical and literal awareness of space and materials, his conscious philosophy of the unknown as well as his desire to paint great paintings. His new work pioneers the physical property of surface and space.
Brice Marden (born in 1938), synthesized the Minimal esthetic in the sixties with Abstract Expressionism, solving a conflict between challenging intellect and uplifting sensibility. It is how well Marden paints and not so much what he paints that determines the quality of his work. A superb and masterful colorist his work has enormous emotional range. His early monochromatic paintings with drips on the bottom and his multi-colored panel paintings of the late sixties distinguish themselves with an exquisitely articulated surface quality that ambiguously insists upon being neither object nor picture. Perhaps more than any other abstract painter (besides Frank Stella) Marden enjoys enormous audience consent for his various personal explorations of color, surface, drawing and expression. His new paintings using drawing and calligraphy have become even more direct and articulate, while retaining his subtle and refined touch. Was Marden ever really a Minimalist painter? I think it is clear that aesthetically his work is a unique synthesis of Minimalism and the felt painterly tradition of Abstract Expressionism .
In the early sixties in New York City, Peter Young (born in 1940), painted a series of grids and a series of grid-dot paintings. By 1965 he was trying to reconcile the Expressionist, Minimal and Conceptual elements of his work.
By 1967, with a stunning series of star-dot paintings, Young merged the simplicity of Minimalism with a conscious inclusion of content. The paintings simultaneously read as both deep space-night skies (stars) and dots on a canvas.
That same year Peter Young painted a series of large abstract paintings that were tight clusters of primary colored dots on white fields. He also painted a related series with secondary colored dots on white fields, and a smaller group with gray dots on white fields. These are attempts to paint light ; the paintings have a molecular nature, and are reminiscent of Seurat's pointillism . In the case of the gray paintings and some other works of Peter Young§s there is a Zen meditative quality to them.
By the end of the sixties Young also painted several series of multi-colored dot paintings and a strong and compelling series of line paintings - generally in two colors, sometimes with numbers, always strangely lyrical and poetic. Peter Young's work expresses his crystal clear mentality and is a mixture of the primitive and the sophisticated. His early work is reminiscent of Adolph Gottlieb's Pictographs, his dot paintings resemble Aboriginal paintings and in his Costa Rica Paintings the sense of Tribal Art is unmistakable.
Dan Christensen (born in 1942), gifted with a virtuoso ability to handle paint in color and line in almost any manner of his choice has produced many series of abstract paintings of the highest quality. In 1967 Christensen began using spray guns to draw colorful stacks, loops and lines in paintings that were among the most original abstract paintings of the decade. Having a unique mastery of the language of abstract painting - color, line, surface and a confident and gifted touch, Christensen has used his ability to produce a varied and high quality body of work.
By 1968, Christensen made a group of paintings that were colored rectangles and bars floating in a sprayed atmosphere of lyrical, multi-colored space. That year he also began his important series of loop, spray paintings. Resembling colored pencil or ball point pen doodles on a note pad, made on a giant scale by a giant hand, these paintings are astonishingly primal and liberating. Painted mostly in thin sweeping lines of sprayed primary color on neutral canvas colored grounds these paintings are a remarkable achievement. He followed those paintings with another series of sprayed line paintings that were thick, thin, twisting, serpentine, lines and arcs painted on richly colored fields.
Christensen's lucid and articulate ability to paint has led his fertile imagination into several radically different series. He has a willingness to change and grow and he has often altered his painting methods and his style. In the early seventies he made paintings with squeegees that were solid blocks of perpendicular color of different surfaces. By the mid-seventies his paintings had a decidedly expressionist range and his work continues to change.
William Pettet (born in 1942), by 1967 in Los Angeles, was painting minimal, square, monochromatic paintings with meticulously layered and sprayed, acrylic surfaces. His color was expressive and personal in a way that brings Rothko and Reinhardt to mind. His pictures had more of a quality of atmosphere and deep space than the character of an impersonal object.
By 1968, Pettet widened his range of interest and radically changed his painting methods. He extended his scale, worked unstretched on the floor and the wall and began using his spray guns and air compressors to vary the surfaces of his pictures. He began to paint large, lyrical, free spirited, Monet-like, sprayed acrylic stain paintings. Many of the pictures maintained a sense of monochromatic color but the range of surface and value created by his use of his spray guns lent tremendous expression to the paintings through drawing. These were Pettet§s first Lyrical Abstractions; and he painted with astonishing lucidity. When Pettet moved to New York City in 1969 his work grew more direct as he brushed and drew large flowing shapes into his stained and sprayed surfaces.
Throughout the 70's Pettet made beautiful abstract paintings with knives, squeegees, and stains. He has a particular ability to juxtapose odd colors together and make them work. Many of his paintings recall the great English Landscape painter Turner. I can't see the ironical Lyrical Abstraction of Gerhardt Richter of the last few years, without immediately thinking of William Pettet, although Pettet predates Richter by more than a decade.
By 1967 Ronnie Landfield , (born in 1947), had been painting Minimal, hard edge, border paintings with solid colored centers for several years. I was invited that year to exhibit my work in the Whitney Annual. I sent the Howl of Terror, through which my Surrealist and Abstract Expressionist roots re-asserted themselves. Although idiomatically the painting resembles Minimalism, it clearly remains ferociously expressive and painterly. Minimal Art was boring, false, failed to express the times and failed to fill the void. I was searching for a more personal, lucid, vivid and vital way to express what I was feeling.
I rebelled against reduction in painting. My paintings were singular (non-serial) and highly expressive. In my work of 1967-1968 using colored lines across thick, rolled colored fields, and painterly abstractions with allusions to nature I articulated where I thought advanced painting should go. My paintings have always expressed concentration, my sense of quality and historical direction. In St. Augustine, I painted an asymmetrical, emotionally intense, abstraction that combined several styles and expressions in one picture; hard edge borders, hard edge lines, stacks of painterly brushed smears, on a deep red field.
Many of my paintings of 1969 were like Surrealist dreamscapes, while others of 1969-1972 were inspired by Sung Dynasty Chinese Landscape Painting. In 1969 I began a continuing series of stain paintings combining stained surfaces, with hard edged colored bands, painted in different sizes across the bottom (some of which had abstract writing in them) and later, colored bands of different lengths and widths on the edges. The theme of landscape, flatness, the technique of staining, bands, calligraphy and articulate use of color have been streams of consistent interest in this continuing series of my work.
In Cheat River Landscape, my intention was to answer paintings' nemesis - Donald Judd, who maintained that because of illusion, painting was dead. Cheat River, is not only illusionistic intentionally; but it is a criticism of criticism; it reintroduces subject matter when subject matter was taking a beating from Judd, Fried and Greenberg.
Cheat River Landscape, addresses another issue which is at the central core of Lyrical Abstraction, and that issue was that advanced painting pay attention and express what was going on in the culture of the late sixties. The political climate in the late sixties demanded an art of rebellion and the paradox was that the truly rebellious art maintained its context with tradition. Unfortunately, the more obvious metaphor of de-construction captivated the avant-garde power structure, especially in Germany. It opened the gates to the dead end of politically led art movements that choke the breath from the art of today. The Anti-Formalists, the de-constructionists and the political art makers have achieved anything but a climate of creative freedom; let alone the silencing of any and all positive emotion.
Other artists that constitute a paradigm for study include: Chuck Arnoldi, Dennis Ashbaugh, Edward Avedisian, Darby Bannard, Frances Barth, Jake Berthot, Natvar Bhavsar, Frank Bowling, Stanley Boxer, Peter Bradley, James Brooks, David Budd, Jack Bush, Anthony Caro, Alan Cote, David Diao, Laddie Dill, Richard Diebenkorn, Friedel Dzubas, Sherron Francis, Sam Francis, Helen Frankenthaler, Sam Gilliam, Carl Gliko, Michael Goldberg, Robert Goodnough, Adolph Gottlieb, John Griefen, Nancy Graves, Phillip Guston, Allen Hacklin, Hans Hartung, Michael Heizer, Al Held, Howard Hodgkin, Hans Hofmann, Tom Holland, John Hoyland, Ron Janowich, Neil Jenney, Franz Kline, Willem de Kooning, Lee Krasner, Al Loving, Morris Louis, Sylvia Mangold, Joan Mitchell, Ed Moses, Robert Motherwell, Stephen Mueller, Clark Murray, Forrest Myers, Barnett Newman, David Novros, Kenneth Noland, Doug Ohlson, Kenzo Okada, Jules Olitski, I. Rice Pereira, Joel Perlman, Peter Plagens, Jackson Pollock, Joanna Poussette-Dart, Richard Pousette-Dart, David Prentice, Harvey Quaytman, Peter Reginato, Gerhardt Richter, Mark Rothko, Ed Ruda, Kikuo Saito, Sean Scully, John Seery, Alan Shields, David Smith, Joan Snyder, Pierre Soulages, Albert Stadler, Nicolas De Sta‘l, Lawrence Stafford, Theodore Stamos, Pat Steir, Gary Stephan, Clifford Still, Edwins Strautmanis, Pat Lipsky-Sutton, Mark di Suvero, Bradley Walker Tomlin, John Torreano, Cy Twombly, Esteban Vincente, John Walker, Joyce Weinstein, Jack Whitten, Neil Williams, Thornton Willis, Isaac Witkin, Phillip Wofford, Larry Zox and at least a couple of dozen more. The fact that these artists work in a wide variety of techniques and styles should not deter us from seeing the connection between them.
I think the late sixties - early seventies provide new answers that can fill this spiritual vacuum. An exhibition, re-evaluation, another look and real understanding of the art of the late sixties - early seventies, may be all that is required.
The artists in this exhibition are highly developed individuals. They are not part of any group or movement. Yet, there is a profound inter-relationship in the work and a profound interaction occurring between them. The road taken by the artists in this exhibition leads the way to the future. Faith is the key that unlocks the gate and allows what has been misunderstood and in some instances suppressed to be seen and to light the way into the next millennium. The paintings need to be discussed, and the paintings need to be seen.
One of the reasons that I believe it is important to see these works now is that there is a positive feeling in these paintings that connects quickly and immediately to the viewer. Collective and positive emotional force emanates from this collection of paintings and can be absorbed directly by the receptive viewer capable of suspending disbelief. These artists were engaged in a personal, spiritual search, the traces of which exist in these paintings. When seen together by the thoughtful viewer a plethora of visual information and an articulated language of color, composition and paint, creates a dialogue between the works that resonates with meaning and power which if nothing else will illuminate many of the mysteries of late Twentieth-Century abstraction.
There are many connections between the artists in this exhibition; personal, artistic and philosophical. There is a lot of divergence, disagreement and difference as well. Marden and Humphrey both showed at the Bykert Gallery, Stella and Poons showed at Castelli. Davis showed his first resin paintings in New York at Tibor de Nagy in 1966, joined Castelli in 1968, then left Castelli for BlumHelman in 1979. Landfield and Pettet showed at David Whitney and Christensen and Young with Dick Bellamy. Nicholas Wilder showed all of them in Los Angeles except Landfield, Humphrey and Marden. Pettet and Davis were friends in Los Angeles and Pettet, Poons, Landfield, Christensen and Young were friends in New York. Davis was friends with Stella and Poons, and Marden knew everybody.
The artists in this exhibition were familiar to each other and with each other's work. The only artist in this exhibition that I don't know is Frank Stella, but I knew his work, and Ralph Humphrey was an artist that I met a few times. The remaining six artists I count among my friends to this day.
The connection between Frank Stella and Larry Poons in the early sixties went beyond the fact that they were both young artists of approximately the same age showing their work at the Leo Castelli Gallery. They created a new kind of painting that was hard-edge, geometric, brightly colored or monochromatic, packing an immediate punch. Both artists appealed to the critical dialectic of the time which purged abstract painting of gesture and subjectivity. Poons painted dots, Stella painted stripes and they both were apparently reacting against the Abstract Expressionist generation of relational painters. Although Stella's work became increasingly colorful, shaped canvasses, the literal support of his paintings became his major preoccupation. Poons became increasingly pictorial as his color and composition developed along a romantic and decidedly subjective path. The divergence of their work widened as each artist got better at what they were doing.
Larry Poons ' work of the late sixties depended on the emotional resonance of his colorfields with his floating ovals, circles and flying ellipses. The color and the compositional structure of his pictures became increasingly subjective. Relying on his intuitive pictorial sensibility, his decisions determining scale, placement and color became paramount to the quality and success of his paintings. In his hands abstract painting began reasserting its potential for pictorial newness. By following his intuitive sensibility he made radical decisions that placed him at the crossroads at the end of the sixties. Poons followed a path that led him increasingly away from the familiar into unknown and uncharted waters.
The radical academics could not or would not allow Poons the faith and consent he needed to expand the diameters of his picture-making as they became increasingly dense and thicker. The critical dialectic forced Poons to the edges of the page. He threatened the intellectual rationale the radical academics clung to when he dared to change. Poons in no uncertain terms risked everything when he threw it all away in order to make great art. The radicalness of Poons' reliance and faith in his sensibility was too much for an increasingly invested critical academia to take. Radical academics, the marginal elite were incapable of understanding or trusting the language of color and surface, nor were they prepared to trust artists. Poons had been invested with consent and free license in his quest for beauty and as his paintings grew increasingly ugly they balked. Ironically this is the same audience that demands toughness and ugliness from most artists, it seems, except Larry Poons.
Frank Stella fared much better then Poons with the radical academics at the end of the sixties. His work had served as the battleground for much of the mainstream avant-garde critical dialogue of the sixties. The Minimalists claimed him, the Formalists claimed him and volumes of unreadable intellectual argument was written about his work. The discussion proving why he did or didnt relate to Jackson Pollock was largely a matter of academic jockeying for position and power. The fact that his paintings at first purged abstraction of superfluous rhetoric and then grew increasingly rhetorical was beside the point. However powerful and provocative his late sixties paintings were he arrived at the crossroads at a dead end.
His big, bright, bold emblematic protractor and circle paintings became an embarrassing symbol of American International Imperialism. In an art world where somehow Anti-Formalism became synonymous with the Anti-War movement artists were supposed to tear down the tradition of painting and sculpture as a metaphor for being anti-government. The philosophy of de-construction became the art world's politically correct equivalent of being anti-war. The paradox of Frank Stella was that he had deconstructed the tradition of painting and sculpture so successfully that he became a new symbol for it at the end of the sixties.
To Frank Stella's credit during the early seventies he searched for a new road for his art to take. I believe that he was encouraged and perhaps inspired by the work of his embattled colleagues Larry Poons and Ronald Davis. Poons and Davis had both turned to the tradition of subjective picture making in the late sixties and both had been friends with Stella. Stella had been occupied with shape and pictorial and literal space since the early sixties and he used color in a bold and powerful way. When I saw his architectonic relief paintings of the early seventies with new materials like wood, felt, and different levels, slopes, and planes they struck me by their relationship to Picasso's Synthetic Cubism and Picasso's Cubist sculpture and Jackson Pollocks' cut out paintings like Out of the Web. When in 1974 and 1975 Stella turned to gesture and the language of plastic paint albeit on exotic metals, he liberated himself from radical academic rhetoric by doubling back on history and touching base with tradition, pushing it as far as he could. In the mid seventies he came to a similar conclusion about doubling back to tradition that his colleagues Poons and Davis had made by the late sixties. Stella's conclusions like Poons and Davis' are uniquely his own.
In an epiphany of renewed ambition he resurrected Caravaggio for himself and demanded his ambitious abstract painting assert its potential for drama and expression. Embarked on what has become his ambitious quest for an abstract art of unlimited spatial and expressive breadth he continues to explore materials, sculpture, architecture and paint in new forms.
Ronald Davis emerged from Los Angeles as an important artist in the mid-sixties. The same age as Frank Stella and Larry Poons he also showed his work in the sixties at the Leo Castelli Gallery. At a disadvantage from the beginning with the New York critics because he was from the West Coast, Ronald Davis produced some of the most brilliantly conceived paintings of the decade. Using bright color, hard edges and shaped fiberglass supports his paintings were reminiscent of Stellas shaped canvasses. But it was Ronald Davis' pictorial innovations that made his paintings so important and so difficult for the radical academics to accept. Verging on Duchampian irreverence for theory, and with an awareness of Duchamp's The Large Glass his paintings were totally new. Containing shapes in perspective and in relationship to each other and the ambiguous picture plane, the paintings created a surrealist pictorial language with a Renaissance rendering of space that defiantly reintroduced illusion into advanced abstraction.
By the late sixties Ronald Davis began the series of multi-faceted paintings of fiberglass that are perhaps his most remarkable achievement. The paintings contain a masterful use of color and drawing and embody a sophisticated awareness of the most advanced pictorial sensibility. The pictures are like a cross section of life-a slice of life, revolving like giant turning wheels containing everything possible in the universe. They are intense, beautiful and are as visionary as an abstract William Blake, Hieronymous Bosch, Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock all at once. Simultaneously they rely on tradition and create something altogether unique.
Ronald Davis had begun at the San Francisco Art Institute as a talented young Abstract Expressionist painter. By the early sixties, Davis was making hard edge acrylic paintings on canvas. His early hard edge paintings were technically flawless, with repetitious shapes, patterning in the form of stripes and checkerboards, and a lot of red, green and blue. He knew about pink and he knew about salmon, I could tell. I remember seeing his work for the first time in 1964 and being struck by his awareness of de Kooning's Hans Hoffman's and Sam Francis' color. This came as a surprise to me because most San Francisco painters were coming out of Still and Frank Lobdell which meant an emphasis on large fields of muddy black or acid yellow. Clyfford Still had left a considerable mark on the San Francisco Art Institute and his influence was still profound when I left the school in 1965.
Nicholas Wilder was a young, extremely bright, visionary Los Angeles gallery owner who was the first to show Ronald Davis. Davis introduced him to William Pettet , a young painter with whom he had become friends. Wilder brought Pettet into his gallery and their friendship continued until Pettet left Los Angeles for New York in 1969. Pettet was interested in advanced abstract painting. He had made square monochromatic acrylic paintings that flirted with Minimalism and although he worked on canvas, Ronald Davis had found in him a kindred spirit. Los Angeles was not an encouraging milieu for serious painting. With an emphasis on hype, flashy, shocking materials and highly technical ideas the typically serious painter was often advised to go to New York.
Around 1968 Pettet's work began to change. He moved away from Minimalism toward a new painterly painting with seemingly unlimited possibilities. Pettet stained and soaked fields of acrylic color into which he sprayed and drew and pushed forms. Allowing the drawing and the color to merge and form pockets of shapes across the surfaces these flowing field paintings bore a superficial resemblance to the work of Jules Olitski. The paintings have a very tangible and distinctly natural air to them. They express nature-the landscape, atmosphere and psychological states of being. These are not works that serve any academic rhetoric. The tactile feel of Pettets work is pictorial, and compositional. He was getting at drama, playing with color and space and he was not interested in the overall non-illusionistic fields that Greenberg recommended.
Pettet's painting became highly expressive and he continued to push his work in a lyrical and painterly direction. The connection he made with Ronald Davis was mutually beneficial as these two Los Angeles artists and their mutual friends created a new force in Lyrical painting on the West Coast.
Around that time, in 1968, Nicholas Wilder gave an exhibition to Peter Young, introducing his work to Los Angeles for the first time. Peter Young was my friend and downstairs neighbor at 94 Bowery and he told me about Pettets work that he could see had a distinct relationship to the stain paintings that I was doing at the time.
Leaving Pomona College in 1960 Peter Young traveled to New York City and earned a degree in Art History from New York University. While working for the Pace Gallery in 1965 he began making an intense series of linear paintings with thin hand painted lines woven in tight plaid designs all over his mostly square canvasses. His colors were in a mixed secondary range that played down optical vibration in favor of quiet flatness. Young painted his first dot paintings in this period as well.
In 1966 he made a series of highly sophisticated line paintings. Painted on rectangles of sky blue with thin hard edge black lines describing simple yet complicated designs; a few of his sky blue paintings had black numbers stenciled on the surface corresponding to his own arcane system of height and width. Young also made a couple of sky blue paintings with white hard edge lines. One of the most interesting and witty paintings in this series is a large (6 x 10') white canvas with thin sky blue lines painted to resemble a brick wall. During the early summer of 1967 Peter Young made a startlingly beautiful series of star paintings that were small white and off-white dots on a field of black and Prussian blue with thin Pthalo blue and black borders. These pictures read as both abstractions -- dots on a flat canvas, and deep illusionistic paintings of the night sky. That year Young made a major series of colored dot paintings on white fields that skyrocketed him to international attention. When Young returned from Europe in 1968 he made a new series of black line paintings on sky blue fields that contained curved lines and circles instead of the straight lines of his previous series. That year he made new dot paintings on white fields that introduced an abstract and new compositional awareness to his dot paintings that emphasized the unique character of each picture. These paintings had a mosaic quality to them and it is not surprising that in the mid eighties Young made a series of large ceramic mosaic tile works.
Throughout 1969 Peter Young traveled. He lived in Costa Rica for four months and while there he made a series of abstract linear paintings that were stretched on supports he made from tree branches. When he returned to New York City in the Fall he made a new series of dot paintings on multi-colored fields. The accretion of brilliantly conceived and accumulated visual information that Young managed to pack into his work of the sixties is staggering. Peter Young didnt make more than a hundred paintings during this entire period but they all remain on a consistently high aesthetic level, a plateau of immense accomplishment.
After creating a colorful series of strands of carved abstract acrylic beads many of which he exhibited in New York and Germany, Peter Young left New York City. During the early seventies Young traveled extensively throughout the American Southwest and he lived for a while in Toledo, Spain and in Morocco. While traveling Young began his Folded Mandala Series. Since the early seventies Young has lived and worked in Southern Utah and Southern Arizona where he maintains his studio.
[Ronnie Landfield] After graduating from high school in 1963, and having made an accomplished body of work influenced by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning I turned down Cooper Union to attend the Kansas City Art Institute. I was given a scholarship and I prevailed upon the president of the Kansas City Art Institute Andrew Morgan, to also give a scholarship to my friend and classmate Michael Steiner. Michael and I arrived in Kansas City on a Saturday afternoon in early September. Within a few hours after our arrival in Kansas City we were both working in the large painting studio reserved for seniors. When school began a few days later and the other students arrived we kept our spots and shared the studio with Dan Christensen, and Larry Stafford. We soon all became friends. Steiner returned to New York City in October and took a loft on Bleeker Street and the Bowery and I followed him when I returned in early November 1963. Until I left for California in February 1964 I shared the studio on the Bowery with Steiner.
My work began to change during the late fall, early winter of 1963 when I was on the Bowery. I was seeing a lot of shows and I met Hans Hofmann one day in late 1963. His paintings and especially his use of color and geometry influenced my work. I wanted to express my feelings but I wanted my work to be my own, so I searched for my own style, independent from the look of Abstract Expressionism and Surrealism.
In March of 1964 I settled in Berkeley, California. I began a group of hard edge acrylic stripe paintings and I also began to write a long and intensely personal prose poem that I called the myth. By September 1964 I became a student at the San Francisco Art Institute and in early 1965 I was sharing a huge loft at 711 Tehama Street with my friend and classmate Peter Reginato. My paintings were large scale, hard edge and a bridge between Abstract Expressionism and hard edge painting. I was experimenting with psychedelics and I was reading everything from James Joyce and Aldous Huxley to William Burroughs and Edgar Rice Burroughs. Colin Wilsons The Outsider introduced me to the occult and I soon became entrenched in Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, I also searched in vain for an unabridged version of Nijinskys diary.
My paintings began to reflect my involvement in the mystical writings of Gurdjieff especially his book All and Everything. I was also reading Chinese philosophy and my work became more and more minimal. When I turned eighteen in January 1965 I completed writing the myth. I returned to New York City in June 1965 and made a series of simple and clear hard edge paintings that used symbolic color to represent the elements: yellow for sun, light and heat; sky-green for the void, daylight, and the answer; black for the night, the unknown and the question; and tan for flesh, being and the earth. I made a lot of hard edge paintings during that time and by the Fall of 1965 I finished a series of drawings of my next and really first series of mature paintings.
Each of the fifteen vertical paintings of the series were nine feet tall and six feet wide and when completed they were supposed to hang side by side in progression. The completed series was 9' high and approximately 140' long leaving space between each painting. Each painting was evenly brushed over a gessoed ground with a disregard for brush strokes, in other words a laissez-faire approach to surface. The first painting was nearly all black with a small hard edge vertical window or doorway of sky- green in the middle of the black field. Each of the next thirteen paintings were fields of sky -green with one or more four inch borders of tan, sky-green, yellow and black or a combination of them. In number 5 the field is black and the border is tan, the field is painted with brush marks which I left in because of its earthy and painterly nature. In number eight the outside border is black, then a border of sky-green, then a border of yellow, on a black field. The last painting, number fifteen, is a monochromatic sky-green field.
I met Peter Young during the summer of 1965 when he was sharing a studio with Michael Steiner at 500 Broadway. My circle of artist friends at that time included Steiner, Young, Dan Christensen and David Wagner who had come east with Dan that summer from school in Indiana and was sharing a studio with him on Great Jones Street. During the summer of 1965 I shared a loft on East Broadway with a friend of mine from Berkeley and occasionally it served as a crash pad for Teddy, another friend of mine whom I met in Berkeley. Teddy was a good spirit who was mired in his problems.
Before I began my fifteen series paintings, 9' x 6', large open fields with 4" borders I made a group of nine or ten large hard edge paintings in mostly primary colors and some smaller ones a few of which were in black and white. I was experimenting with panels, and I did a three part painting that was a large green rectangle, a large yellow rectangle with a large red triangle. Teddy remarked that my paintings reminded him of the work of his friend, whom he met in Boston, Brice Marden. Sometime after that I met Brice Marden and he showed me his work.
The similarities between Brice Marden 's work and mine were interesting to me but the differences were very apparent. I was into rectangles and I was coming out of Abstract Expressionism and as the feeling of his paint quality, the shapes of his paintings and the drips on the bottom indicated, so was he. When we met in 1965 Marden's colors were gray, tan and neutral and he was painting with oil, with carefully worked surfaces. My paintings were brighter, primary, I was painting in acrylics and I wasn't paying that much attention to surface. I remember liking him and his work but I didn't think we had that much in common. Our work was really very different. I felt that Brice was more committed to monochromatic painting than I was and he was also nine years older than me.
During the seventies as Brice Marden's work developed he expanded his painterly language considerably. In his Grove Series, and other groups of panel paintings his color became symbolic and landscape oriented. In later works he used brilliant primary color and in others he painted with mixed secondary and tertiary colors. His formats expanded as well. In the late eighties his calligraphic paintings inspired by Chinese Landscape Painting widened his range even more.
In December 1965 I shared a studio with Steiner on Broadway between Spring and Broome Streets. By the end of the year I had two series paintings finished, several other large hard edge paintings, many smaller ones, works on paper, and a few sculptures. When the building burned down in February 1966 and I lost almost everything I was briefly in a state of shock.
I moved into my girlfriend's apartment on East Eleventh Street. Dan Christensen and David Wagner stored the work that I could salvage while I tried to get back on my feet. I took a job in an advertising agency doing commercial art and I continued working in the apartment on paper. I also made small pieces of sculpture. During the Spring of 1966, David Wagner returned home to Iowa because of the tragic death of his father and I began sharing the Great Jones Street studio with Dan.
Dan Christensen s work had impressed me when I first saw it in Kansas City in 1963.
By 1965 he was working mostly in oil with interlocking geometric shapes in rich colors and complex patterns. Sometime in 1966 he switched to acrylic paint. During the summer of 1966 Dan began his series of 100" square, bar paintings that were generally in two colors; fields of rich earthy colors and bars which were usually green, black, brown or gray. I finished my series of fifteen hard edge border paintings (colored borders around the void) in August 1966. That season I made several other border paintings as well.
In the fall of 1966 I went looking for a gallery. I showed my slides to Johnny Myers who was director of the Tibor de Nagy Gallery, and Myers showed me some of Ralph Humphrey's border paintings of 1964-1965. This was the first time I saw Ralph Humphrey's work, and the connection to my border paintings surprised me. Myers declined interest in my work because of my similarity to Humphreys paintings.
I met and befriended Dorothy Herzka, the director of the Bianchini Gallery on 57th Street, in the fall of1966. Dorothy suggested to me that she curate a group exhibition of young painters whose works I admired. I suggested she include Dan Christensen, Peter Young and Kenneth Showell. Dorothy also invited Peter Gourfain and she included a new painting of mine. In February 1967 the exhibition opened. Eventually we were all invited to participate in the 1967 Whitney Annual on the strength of that show.
In January 1967, I moved out of Great Jones Street and I briefly shared Peter Reginatos studio with him on Greene Street. In July 1967 I took a studio on the top floor of 94 Bowery at the suggestion of my friend Peter Young who lived on the ground floor. Sometime in 1968 my old friend from Kansas City Larry Stafford moved into the building at 94 Bowery and began his lyrical spray paintings. On the Bowery I made drawings for word-poem paintings that never got made and I began a series of 8' square border paintings with fields painted with rollers. In December 1967, I made Heaven and Earth, an abstract landscape with symbolic colored bands and borders. Throughout 1968 I made paintings with rollers, stains, hard edge borders and lines across intense colored fields. I also made a few abstract landscapes. My paintings of mid1967 through 1969 were intensely concentrated and very diverse. I made line paintings, pour paintings and by mid 1969 I began my stained landscape paintings with bands that were partially inspired by Chinese Landscape Painting.
Throughout most of1968 I worked on stretched canvasses. I began making stain paintings unstretched on the floor around November 1968. In early 1968 I met and became friends with Larry Poons partially because our paintings were hung opposite each other at the Whitney Annual, and an intense exchange ensued between us. Larry Poons introduced me to the technique of painting on raw canvas unstretched on the floor. I knew that Jackson Pollock painted that way and it was appealing to me because it was so much more immediate than working on stretchers. Ive found in the nearly thirty years of working on the floor an accessible and direct way of putting paint on canvas.
When Peter Young told me about William Pettet's paintings in 1968 I decided to go to Los Angeles. I knew Pettet's work from the Whitney Annual and I saw his exhibition at the Robert Elkon Gallery but my curiosity was piqued and I decided to go to California to see the new work for myself. I was working that year for The Something Else Press, I had been awarded a grant from the Copley Foundation, I had been included in several exhibitions, a Newsweek magazine article, an Esquire magazine article and I had begun to sell my paintings to important collectors. I had also made friends with Larry Poons and I was sometimes teaching a painting class at Bennington College in Vermont.
In the early days of January 1969 I visited California. I had a large painting from 1968, North Star, hanging in the Stanford Museum which I visited and then I went to Los Angeles and visited William Pettet's studio for the first time. I was delighted to see the work and we had a very important exchange in which I think we recognized in each other a kindred spirit. Pettet took me to Ronald Davis' studio and I saw his masterful works of the late sixties for the first time. I was thunderstruck. Ill never forget this small painting with primary colored borders and a sky-green and blue center that said it all to me. The image of colored borders around the void echoed like thunder. I returned to New York with renewed faith in the art of painting.
The artistic interaction between many of the artists in this exhibition increased as the sixties drew to a close. Brice Marden began showing his work at Bykert Gallery in the fall of 1966 and he met Ralph Humphrey who also exhibited his paintings at Bykert Gallery. I didnt know Humphrey very well but one of the first opportunities that I had to exhibit my work in New York came to me when I exhibited my 1967 painting Heaven and Earth, in Klaus Kertess' backroom during Ralph Humphrey's exhibition in early 1968.
Ralph Humphrey did very interesting work in the sixties. His close valued earth colored border paintings with softly brushed surfaces are closer to Marden's work especially in touch than my border paintings were. Humphrey's border paintings connect to mine in format but where mine verge on literal depictions of the void his were much more painterly. His nice touch, close values and felt surfaces lend a sense of concentration to his work of this period. He also made a series of line paintings in 1966 that connect to Marden, Christensen, early Pettet and some of my work of 1966-1967. I think Humphrey is a vastly underrated painter. His stain paintings of 1967-1968 are amazingly lyrical and his shaped canvasses through 1971 are also boldly lyrical. As the seventies progressed his work got less pictorial and more object oriented which is a shame. Unfortunately I think the Formalist, Anti-Formalist rhetoric split Humphrey apart.
The paintings of Dan Christensen went through an enormous transformation in 1967. After completing his bar paintings of 1966, Christensen increased his technical repertoire with spray guns and an air compressor. Spraying allowed him to do things with color and surface that couldnt be done any other way. In 1967 he made a series of stacked loops on square canvasses that were among the most original works of the decade. In 1968 he made a series of colorful sprayed atmospheres across which he painted floating multi-colored bars and rectangles. As his work has developed over four decades he has created an enormous variety of series of abstract paintings in an articulate, elegant and personal language.
A clear example of the dialogue between the works in this collection comes from noting the visual and compositional connections between Dan Christensens 1968 painting Loo-ee , Larry Poons' 1968 painting Brown Sound, and the Ronnie Landfield painting For William Blake, of 1968-1969. In the Poons, his familiar ellipses form a unique and dramatic composition of interacting color and likewise in the Landfield and Christensen, using lines to form their dramatic compositions, all three intense works stem from an intuitive and psychological wellspring. Another interesting comparison to be drawn is between the Dan Christensen painting of 1968 Serpens, and the 1969 painting of mine Eternal Circle, both paintings exhibit an expansive and high spirited use of drawing in color across huge fields sprayed into the surface by Christensen and poured thick on top of the surface in my case.
The visual conversation that can be seen between these great abstract paintings is multi-faceted and complex. The close valued color fields of Marden, Humphrey and early Pettet relate to each other and to my early border paintings. My early border paintings of voids relate to Ralph Humphrey's border paintings and to some of the imagery in Ronald Davis' paintings. Ronald Davis' painted fiberglass shapes relate to Frank Stella's painted metal shapes. Many of Dan Christensens bar paintings relate to my line paintings of 1968-1969 which in turn relate to Peter Young's all over dot paintings which in turn relate to Larry Poons' all over dot paintings which also relate to Dan Christensen's line paintings whose close valued color fields relate to Marden, Pettet and Humphrey.
The great Dionysian mainstream of Twentieth-Century Art, inspired by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso runs hot through the works of the artists included in this exhibition. The optimistic, romantic, psychological and personal nature of their works leads to the realization that these are not Formalist or for that matter Colorfield painters. In fact there is an autobiographical undercurrent that unmistakably characterize them as a new direction in American Painting that developed in the late sixties and the early seventies.
Lyrical Abstraction developed as a reaction to Formalism and Anti-Formalism's denouncing of personal expression in favor of a critical dialectic. The dialectic is often antithetical to artistic intentions, except where those intentions further the dialectic, or in some cases where the dialectic furthers those artistic intentions. The utter absurdity of this situation led us to the disturbing crossroads American Art faced at the end of the sixties. The fact that the artists in this exhibition have had long and productive careers that extend way beyond the seventies indicates the ridiculous hypocrisy, ambiguity and indecisiveness that has existed in the art world since then.
There are many themes depicted in this complex and visually diverse body of work. The most important theme that emerges from the work in this exhibition is the search for spirituality and higher consciousness. The great era of Lyrical Abstraction was begun in artists' studios in the sixties and continues in artists' studios to this day.
© 1995 Ronnie Landfield