by David M. Roth
Few artistic developments of the past century have endured as persistently as geometric abstraction. Though it’s flown under various banners — Suprematism, Neoplasticism, Minimalism, Color Field, Op Art, Light and Space, Hard-Edge and Post-Painterly Abstraction — its methods have remained consistent: reduce painting to its core components (light, line, space and color) and banish real-world referents. On that basis, it’s tempting to think of it as an austere enterprise, which to some degree it is, depending on what time period we’re talking about.
Break + Bleed, a group exhibition at the San José Museum of Art curated by Rory Padeken, casts a wide net. It pulls from the above categories and offers paintings by 27 artists who, in varying degrees, have either adhered to, modified or in some way, broken with non-objective abstraction’s original mandates. The result is a show rooted in Europe and America and populated most memorably by LA-area artists whose innovations, whether decades-old or relatively new, issue visual provocations and perceptual challenges. While Padeken’s net hauls in some unnecessary by-catch (i.e., a few too many look-alike paintings and some that seem out-of-place), the exhibition’s hit-to-miss ratio exceeds that of most summer group shows and includes artists who will likely be eye-openers for Bay Area audiences.
Several well-known stalwarts, including Josef Albers (1888-1976), anchor the show historically and point to the long shadow cast by two of the genre’s leading progenitors, Kazmir Malevich and Piet Mondrian. The latter’s innovations echo in two works from Ilya Bolotowsky (1907-1981), one of three European-born artists represented. More than anything else, these untitled silkscreens — composed of pale lines, triangles and irregular geometric shapes set against white grounds — evoke the era in which non-objective abstraction arose. It matters not that the works date to 1970, eleven years before the artist’s death; they remind us of the aesthetic sensibilities operating in Russia after the Soviet revolution. The point at which they arrived on these shores and began to morph — and migrate — is where Break + Bleed takes flight.
The masterstroke of the exhibition, almost all of which comes from the museum’s permanent collection, is the inclusion of a Southern California contingent whose members (John McLaughlin, Karl Benjamin, Tony DeLap and Helen Lundeberg) helped define geometric abstraction for about two decades, starting in the mid-1950s. Why an art form born in Europe took root in LA after first establishing a beached in New York is a question for another day. What’s significant is that two members of this group, McLaughlin (1898-1976) and Benjamin (1925-2012), formed the core of a landmark 1959 show mounted by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) called Four Abstract Classicists. Lundeberg (1908-99) wasn’t in it, but she should have been. (Her husband Lorser Feitelson was included, as was Frederick Hammersley, another leading figure.) Lundeberg’s appearance here is important because it seems to bridge the gap between the “pure” abstraction practiced by the emigres who fled Europe for New York and the two post-war movements that followed: Minimalism and Light and Space.
Her piece from 1970, Untitled (Thin Red Line), features an hourglass shape set diagonally on a square canvas filled end-to-end with what appears to be an elongated figure, framed at the top and bottom by yawning voids. Sensuous is not a word I usually apply to work of this sort, but it applies to this as well to much of Lundberg’s late-in-life output. Benjamin’s entry, Totem Group IV (1957), calls to mind the oft-cited kinship between abstract painting and jazz – or, in this case, Latin jazz. Its interlocking shapes animate the otherwise stolid tribal forms, jangling the optic nerve and setting up rhythms that practically shout “Mambo!”
John M. Miller (1939-2016), another Angelino, deals in rhythm, too, but of the minimalist/Philip Glass variety. Untitled (110 M), his 1992 canvas, is covered with closely spaced identical marks, half burgundy, half black. Stare at it for a few seconds, and the surface roils gently before upshifting to an insistent thrum. Vertical Swoop Fold #2 (2008) by Linda Besemer (b. 1957), another LA artist, breathes new life into Op. It consists of an aluminum rod draped with a sheet of layered paint onto which the artist applied pinstriping. The resulting warped grid defines a cavernous interior space whose curved perimeters appear to push inward and outward simultaneously. Brooklyn artist Don Voisine’s (b. 1952) work involves spatial reckoning, too. The irregular geometric shapes that comprise Blue Chill (2018) create a cantilevering effect, which, along with swoon-inducing close-value blues, recalls the chromatic approach Albers took in his Homage to the Square series, two variants of which are on view in the same room, both from the mid-1960s.
No exhibition of this type would be complete without shaped multi-panel canvases, and this one carries a full complement. The problem is, few artists put this device to good use, and as a consequence, it became, like the wah-wah pedal in rock, a tired cliche. Break + Bleed includes several such works, including one made by a true master of the form, Tony DeLap (1927-19). It’s a circular 1977 piece with a triangular notch cut into the bottom whose shape resembles the Pac Man droid. The painting contains none of the artist’s hyperbolic (i.e., backward-curving) edges, yet it produces the same sleight-of-hand sensations for which DeLap is justly famous. Patrick Wilson (b. 1970), another LA painter, makes modular architectural constructions built of multiple layers of acrylic paint on canvas that give the illusion of discrete three-dimensional spaces co-existing within a unitary whole. Poetry of Construction (2008), the work at hand, faintly evokes Mondrian’s iconic color palette; but instead of pointing, as Mondrian did, to what might lay beyond the frame, Wilson keeps the eye trained on what’s within through a combination of textures, implied lines (seams, really), and most of all, varying opacities, such as the rectangle at the top that appears to emit light through a scrim.
Bleed? By this, Rory Padeken, the curator, means the incursion of painterly methods into the otherwise staid realm of hard-edge painting. Take, for example, Feelings are Facts (2009) by Amy Trachtenberg (b. 1955). At first glance, it looks, as several works in the show do, like a conventional stripe painting. Close inspection reveals a wealth of painterly artifacts: stains, brushstrokes, pours, squeegee pulls and bits of craquelure arrayed in narrow vertical bands — any one of which could constitute a successful painting if it were widened and decoupled from its neighbors. The one work in the show that really does appear to bleed is Sienna (1991-2001) by Sonia Getchoff (1926-2018). It began as a painting of vertical columns, but over a decade, the artist overlaid weeping stains, giving it the look of a city overrun by jungle. Mary Corse (b. 1945), a Light and Space artist, is represented by an all-black work resembling slabs of rough asphalt.
Rather than perform optical tricks, the piece mainly asserts itself as a weighty object. However, when you view it from different angles, embedded glass microspheres catch and reflect light, spreading what looks like powdery dust across the uneven surface. Lastly, there’s the trio of Sam Francis (1923-94) works on paper from the 1970s tucked into a back corner of the main gallery. Each is populated with paint spatters overlaid by various shapes, some geometric, some not. Bleeding? Not exactly, but close enough to bolster Padeken’s case, that geometric abstraction continues to chart the future by both engaging with the past and breaking from it.
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“Break + Bleed” @ San José Museum of Art through April 3, 2022.
The exhibition also includes work by Joachim Bandau, Naomi Boretz, Guy John Cavalli, Nicole Phungrasamee Fein, Stephen French, Amy Kaufman, Eamon Ore-Giron, Patsy Krebs, Richard Lodwig, Brice Marden, Winston Roeth, David Simpson, Frederick Spratt, Ted Stamm, Frank Stella, Leo Valledor and Robert Yasuda.
Cover image: Karl Benjamin, Totem Group IV, 1957, oil on canvas, 40 x 50 inches.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.