Punk Noise & Paint, Interview with Mark Dagley, by Don Voisine

Abstract artist and musician Mark Dagley has been working in New York and Europe for over twenty-five years. Drawing from various postwar art movements and developments: Op Art, Washington Color School, Monochrome Painting, as well as European modes of art making, such as Support/Surface and Radical Painting, Mark has created a diffuse, yet particularly American body of work.

Last spring Mark retrieved a group of paintings he had in storage at his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. Although dating from 1986-87, the paintings look to me as if they could have been done yesterday. The paintings do not look like historical pieces, reflective of a specific time, and they would not look out of place in a gallery today. I’ve found in them pop associations to video game, skate board, and surf cultures, though they still preserve a tie to the aforementioned precedents.

DV: Let’s go back a bit… Mark, you studied at the Corcoran in Washington, D.C. Did you study with any of the Washington Color people: Leon Berkowitz, Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Howard Mehring?

MD: I was at the Corcoran during spring and summer of 1975, taking night and weekend classes in color theory and painting, while still attending high school. Raymond Wilkins, my art instructor at Oakton H.S., suggested these classes, since my interest in painting and sculpture went beyond what he was teaching. So they let me in. Maybe he pulled some strings. I don’t know.

Ed Mcgowin
Ed McGowin, Children, 1969
Vacuum formed plexiglass, 10 modules, each 4 foot radius

I took classes with Ed McGowin, whose early vacuum form plastic pieces still look good, and with Lowell Nesbitt, when he was available. They pretty much let me do what I wanted after the first few weeks. I was painting geometrically, more or less, from the beginning f my studies. Not much has changed with my work since then.

I was very grateful–and relieved–that not only Wilkins but the Corcoran instructors had taken me seriously, even though I was only seventeen. They showed me a lot of valuable techniques and studio practice: from cleaning brushes to stretching large canvasses, to using masking tape and architectural templates and tools. Most importantly, I was taught how to apply acrylic and oils in different consistencies to get the effects I was seeing in the work of the D.C. color painters.

My teachers also pointed me to the essays, books and magazines that any young artist should be familiar with. I was brought up to speed fairly quickly, shown that this was a real profession with a living history.

Leon Berkowitz was chairman of the Corcoran’s painting department at that time. Gene Davis, who was quite a star then–about as big as a D.C. artist could be–was there too. Anne Truitt was still alive. Sam Gilliam and William De Looper were quite well known. Even as a student, it was clear to me that a great moment in painting had just passed in the city. Morris Louis had only died a dozen years previously. Color Field was still very much in the air. It was the official party line, so to speak.

Color Field Gallery, Smithsonian American Art Museum,
Washington D.C., Anne Truitt 17th Summer (left), Paul
Reed #1D (center), Gene Davis Wall Stripes No.3 (right)

P Street was still the center of the D.C. art world then. The Henri Gallery, located there, had a Thomas Downing or a Gene Davis on the walls up until its closing, in the mid-90s. It was run by an old school grand dame who called herself Henri, pronounced with a French accent, though she otherwise sounded–and most likely was–completely American. Things were still 60s cool then, or at least she was. She wore sunglasses and fabulous baubles at all times of the day. I finally introduced myself to her about fifteen years ago and told her about my teenage trips to her gallery. She ended up taking some of my paintings on consignment, but died shortly thereafter. She left her vintage glove collection to my wife, a fellow glamour gal for whom she’d developed a fondness.

DV: You also studied at the Boston Museum School. The Museum of Fine Arts regularly held major exhibitions of the Color Field artists. As an art student in Portland, Maine in the early 70s, I would come down to Boston on field trips and see Helen Frankenthaler, Morris Louis, Ken Noland, Jules Olitski, or Larry Poons at the MFA, as well as Joan Snyder’s stroke paintings and Katherine Porter’s early zigzags at the galleries.

MD: Yes, I did attend school there for a short while. I have to say that it was, in many ways, a grave error. The dialogue with working artists that I had experienced in D.C. was sorely lacking. While Professors Natalie Alpert and Sandi Sloan showed some enthusiasm for the dozen of so geometric paintings and the selection of wooden reliefs that my father had helped me transport in a U-Haul trailer, there was little other interest in Color Field or geometric painting at the Boston Museum School.

Mark Dagley
Planks, 1975
Wood, 23 X 38 inches

I couldn’t accept the school’s empty academic formalism. It seemed, in this environment, that painting as I had known it had been played out. Though I appreciated their positive feedback, I found Alpert’s paintings overly fussy and precious, and Sloan’s work at the time wasn’t very compelling to me. I missed the intrigue, the eccentricity, the cut and dry quality that is particular to the best of the D.C. painters.

Gene Davis
Red Dog, 1961

It was big news when visiting artists like Alan Sonfist or Nancy Holt would arrive on campus. The students were supposed to assist them with a project, get some hands-on with a “pro.” I was the only one who helped Alan make 8-foot-high compost heaps in the school courtyard out of wet autumn leaves, lunchroom garbage and dog shit. I don’t think he liked the Museum School much after that. Neither did I. Guess I should’ve enrolled in the course they called “Winning!”

Didn’t receive much, if anything, in terms of practical advice. After being told by instructors whose work was provincial at best, artists without any professional experience, that I would have to begin again–”Slow down a little, kid”–I went my own way, moved my art materials out of the student classrooms and started painting in my studio apartment. I never went back to the painting department, or showed anyone my geometric work again…until I moved to New York in 1979.

The winter of ’76 was so cold that the water in my toilet bowl actually froze. That’s when I started to plan my escape to the Big Apple.

DV: You are also very active as a musician. While in Boston, you were in an art rock post punk band, The Girls, which released a single produced by David Thomas on Pere Ubu’s own Hearthan label. Later, after you moved to New York, you formed a blues-based punk avant garde noise band, Hi Sheriffs of Blue, which also had an acclaimed underground reputation.

MD: Luckily the Museum School had a small electronic music studio with a few decent synthesizers and some other good gear. I hung out there with the other misfits, stoners and rock & rollers. At least they understood that the place was a total drag. I also discovered the photography and video studios, and the performance department, where all the cute arty girls were hanging out. That’s where I learned about Acconci, Beuys, Nauman, the Velvet Underground, Kraut Rock, Eno.

I started going to the New England Conservatory of Music whenever John Cage gave a talk, also to MIT, which had the best videography department in town. Between 1976 and 1979, I met many of the artists and musicians I would later run into in the East Village: Pat Hearn, Mark Dirt, David Bowes, Nan Goldin, Jack & Dan Walworth, John Miller, Peter Dayton.

We would check out parties and events over at Massachusetts College of Art, which was only a few blocks away. That seemed more like the Corcoran–you know, a real art school. I remember being impressed that you could buy art supplies right on campus. No such luck at the Museum School. And Mass Art had an actual stage, a sound system, lights–the whole works. Many of the instructors were professional artists, like Peter Campus and Don Burgy. We would take our videos over and do performances there. Peter Campus would show his latest work along with the students.

By 1976 punk rock had entered everyone’s radar. I had seen Daved Hild, a classmate in electronic music lab, perform at the Museum School in gessoed clothes and white sunglasses with a woman named Pseudo Carol. Since I played guitar, I asked if I could join them. They said yes, but our band days were quite shortlived. Pseudo Carol moved on, and, after playing out a while as a duo, Daved and I set out to find some artists who wanted to start a Captain Beefheart/Kraut Rock type of group. Robin Amos became both our synthesizer and bass player, which wasn’t terribly convenient. We realized we needed a fourth on bass. Daved mentioned a guy named George, who was bringing his guitar to the T-shirt factory they worked at: a really good classical guitarist, funny as hell. A few weeks later, George Condo was in. We chose the most awful name we could think of that still sounded punk: The Girls.

The Girls, circa 1978
From left to right: Mark Dagley, George Condo,
David Hild, Robin Amos
Photo: Margie Politzer

David Thomas heard us perform about a year later and brought us to Cleveland, into the same studio Pere Ubu worked out of. He produced our only single, which he released on his Hearthan label in the spring of 1979. By November of that year, the band had dissolved.

George Condo and I left Boston for New York on an Amtrak train in late December with maybe $400 between us. After getting set up in the East Village, we started another group called Hi Sheriffs of Blue, modeled after the 1950s electric blues bands from Chicago and Detroit. We tried to play not only hard electric blues but punk, fake jazz, funk and rap. We were together for about three years.

DV: You continue to make original and uncompromising music today, often combining slide guitar and electronic effects with fractured rhythms. How does your music feed your visual art making and vice versa?

MD: I’ve been a musician since childhood. We always had a piano in the house, and music lessons were required from day one. I started playing the guitar when I was around eight years old. I was in garage and surf bands with my brothers in grade school, and then during high school in folk, rock and blues bands.

I try to keep whatever I’m involved with musically a little primitive, very clean and simple, but I don’t know if my art really informs it that much. The things I’m interested in doing with painting just don’t apply to my music. I have no problem with the formalist viewpoint: a separation of the arts may be a good thing.

DV: The paintings you are showing at MINUS SPACE were exhibited at Tony Shafrazi’s in 1987. What was going on in the art world at the time you made these? How do you think this body of work related to Neo-Geo or other painting trends going on in New York at the time? Can you tell us about when and where they were made and how you arrived at this particular look?

MD: Well, by 1981 or ’82 it was pretty clear to anyone living in the East Village that we were in the midst of some sort of art boom. Condo’s career took off, and by 1984 he was selling out shows with Pat Hearn, who we both knew from Boston. Soon after, he moved to Europe, where he enjoyed even greater success. Things were happening really fast, at least for him and many, many others.

As for me, it was difficult making contacts, meeting artists who did the sort of work I was interested in. I visited André Emmerich Gallery (which is where I thought I belonged) frequently, always with slides in tow, though I never had the nerve to show them to anyone. Finally, at an East Village exhibition, I saw a red monochrome painting by Olivier Mosset. It was tough and uncompromising, and it was one color. This I understood.

Olivier Mosset
Untitled, 1970
Acrylic on canvas, 100 x 100 cm

I introduced myself to Olivier, who then introduced me to Steven Parrino. I ended up sharing a studio space with Steven for seven years.

Around the same time–1985 or 1986–I met Alan Uglow, Li Trincere, Max Gimblett and Barry X Ball. We did a fine group show at The Mission Gallery in the East Village. Soon after that I was in another group show with Olivier and Bill Beckley at Tony Shafrazi’s gallery. Tony offered me a two-person exhibition with James Nares the same year. As he was doing brisk sales with my work, I guess he felt comfortable enough to offer me the entire gallery. I had my first solo exhibition there in September 1987.

While preparing for that show, I knew I would have to pull out all the stops, treat art like a full-time job. I was at the studio by 9 a.m. every day, building my own shaped canvases, working with enamel paints, fiberglass, stainless steel sheets and whatever scraps I could afford from the surplus shops on Canal Street.

I started to experiment with surfaces, polishes and varnishes. I tried buffing and sanding different types of paint, but had trouble achieving the desired result. I wanted to make something that had a surface like a custom car, a surfboard, or a piece of lacquered furniture. I craved a California fetish finish, like a John McCracken sculpture, but I wanted it on a painting. It also had to be a shaped canvas that was informed by classic geometric painting. Most importantly, it could not look the least bit cynical. This was a tall order.

My carpentry skills at the time were primitive at best, plus I had no real tools or workspace. I realized I needed to up the production level to get the results I envisioned. After a few weeks of material trials, I ended up finding the polymer resin material that restaurant and bar owners use to coat the tops of tables. It worked perfectly, drying to a sleek mirrored surface. I then found a good carpenter who could make the shapes exactly as I wanted, down to the smallest detail.

voisinedagley-pour

Mark Dagley, Work in process, 1987

I would plot the shapes out on graph paper, then make a small cardboard maquette. A few of the designs were anthropomorphic, but most were non-referential. Color decisions were sequential, sometimes random. I worked on the cardboard maquettes until the finished wooden structures returned from the carpenter.

After finishing three or four of these works, I realized I needed quite a bit more space. I ended up subletting William Burrough’s Bunker on the Bowery from John Giorno during the summer of 1987 and was able to complete the entire exhibition there.

 

Mark Dagley, Studio view, The Bunker, 222 Bowery, August, 1987
Photo: Beth Phillips

DV: Op Art has been getting a lot of renewed interest and visibility lately. Recent museum and gallery exhibitions have thoroughly surveyed the movement, from its quasi-scientific origins in the 60s, through its Post-Structural deconstruction in the 80s, to its current incarnation. You participated in Post-Hypnotic, a 1999 traveling exhibition exploring the resurgence of optical effects in the work of an international group of artists. When did you begin using Op phenomena as a model for making new paintings? How does it continue to generate new work?

MD: After the Shafrazi exhibition, I took a temporary studio in Cologne, Germany to prepare for an exhibition at the Hans Strelow Gallery in Düsseldorf. I painted stripes and dots on unprimed canvas, something I’d done a decade previously. I also started to make my own stretchers again.

Mark Dagley, No Title, 1989
Acrylic on unprimed canvas
Collection: Foundation Prini

I produced the dot paintings by standing on a ladder over the canvas, which was rolled out on the floor, and letting the thinned paint rain down on it: This produced an unintentional moiré effect. Though I found the results quite interesting, I never really pursued their implications, but I guess my involvement with Op Art started there.

After working through a series of eccentric handmade shaped canvases and a group of torqued monochromes (which I exhibited in New York, at Stephanie Theodore Gallery, following a second show with Strelow), I attempted to locate areas of surface and support that had been overlooked in painting. I wasn’t terribly excited by the properties of paint, as were many of the abstract and geometric artists I met in Germany. I had developed more of an affinity with Blinky Palermo, BMPT, the Zero Group and Concrete Art.

Mark Dagley, Radical Structures
Kunstverein St.Gallen, St. Gallen, Switzerland
21 August – 26 September 1993

The material qualities of the paint and its application became perfunctory for me. I really wanted that impersonal look, but, paradoxically, I wanted to achieve it painting by hand. Simultaneously–around 1990–I reduced my palette to red, yellow, blue, black and white. This was a little scary at first because, all the sudden, my work began to look like Mondrian knock-offs. But I could see ten or twenty paintings into the future, and I knew they’d never been done before, that this was unexplored territory.

I called these works Primary Sequences, as they were comprised of just that: a 12-inch red square, placed next to a 6-inch yellow square, then, next to that, a 3-inch square of blue, and so on. This led to a whole series of paintings based on sequences and systems. But one thing I felt was missing, or discarded from the foundation of 20th-century geometric art, was classical perspective, so I also started doing one-point perspective line paintings in primary colors. I immediately noticed that they had an optical effect. They reminded me of Raymond Loewy’s Shell logo and the shopping mall supergraphics I grew up with.

Raymond Loewy
Redesigned Shell logo, 1967

In 1995, after completing dozens of single-point perspective line paintings, I turned my attention to the dead center of a square canvas. My Corcoran training came in handy here. I began tracing dots in pencil with a circle template, as one long, spiral string. I started with the smallest hole that a pencil point would fit into, figuring I’d trace dots up to 1.5 inches. I don’t think I ever got that far.

It seemed that the drawing more or less made itself. After about a week, I had filled a 74 x 74 inch canvas completely. Then I painted the dots in: red, yellow, blue, red, yellow, blue… I knew from the start that there would have to be three of these paintings: one in primary colors, one in secondary, and one in black, white and gray. I still have to complete the one in secondary colors. Though they’re not difficult paintings to make, they’re extremely time-consuming.

Funny, I never set out to make Op Art. As far as my work is concerned, I much prefer the term systematic painting. The opticality is just the sexy part, the by-product of the real issue at hand, which is structure.

DV: Lastly, tell us about Abaton Book Company, which you run with your wife Lauri Bortz.

MD: I had my own record label, Tweet, for a brief time during the early 80s, and Lauri ran an independent film company and a small theater troupe in the late 80s, early 90s. We met in 1994, through George Condo, and launched Abaton Book Company in 1997, with a volume of Lauri’s one-act plays.

I’d always wanted to produce limited editions and artist books. Knowing so many interesting artists made it a natural move. We released a boxed set of twenty-five artist booklets called The Five and Dime, in celebration of the new millennium. Titles by Alix Lambert, Judith Fleishman, H.D. Martinez, Steven Parrino and me followed.

We expanded Abaton, adding a record label in 1999, which features singer/songwriters Marianne Nowottny, Julia Vorontsova, and Corbi Wright; jazz chanteuse Devorah Day; Indian classical singer/musician Veena Sahasrabuddhe; punk bands Shell, The Girls and Fuzzy Wuz She.

In 2003, we converted our garage into an art gallery, aptly titled Abaton Garage. We’ll be launching season five with a photo exhibition by Alix Lambert. There’s usually live music at Abaton Garage openings, mostly by artists on our label. And lots of food. Lauri always cooks up a storm.

Don Voisine is a Brooklyn-based painter.

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ONoffON

 An interview with Roger Miller by Mark Dagley

This article was originally published in the December 2004 issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope magazine. http://www.terrascope.co.uk/home/History.htm

Originally published in the Winter 2004/05 issue of Ptolemaic Terrascope.
 

 

 

MoB rules! And they could have had it all, being true monarchs of the kingdom of alt-rock. But they abdicated the thrown to their siblings Sonic Youth and took up in a haunted mansion on a hill of beans.

 Boston, Massachusetts, a.k.a. Beantown, home to these Burmese (guitarist Roger Miller, drummer Peter Prescott, bassist Clint Conley, and sound manipulator Martin Swope), was better known in the late ‘70s for the pomp and swagger of groups like its namesake Boston, Aerosmith, and the J.Giles Band, than it was for any protopunk squalling. But, like most major cities across the U.S., Boston had a thriving underground music scene. It existed in a parallel universe of performance venues (38 Thayer Street ), art spaces (Punk/Data Gallery), and the remains of a previous generation’s dirty watering holes (The Rathskeller, The Club and The Bird Cage). The original Modern Lovers were still fresh in the memories of many, and anyone with an ESP-Disk was considered an enlightened being. It was in this environment that Mission of Burma flourished, creating intricate melodies that maintained complex structure beneath pulsing tug-o-war rhythms. In 1980 they produced a regional hit single, “Academy Fight Song/ Max Ernst” and became the city’s predominate artband.

 And then, after three more years, and just as many releases (the others being a single, “When I Reach for My Revolver,” an EP, Signals, Calls and Marches, and an album, Vs.), guitarist Roger Miller’s tinnitus, which he’d developed as a young punk in Michigan, worsened, forcing the high volume MoB to disband. Miller embarked on a quieter solo career, also recording with Maximum Electric Piano, Alloy Orchestra, The Binary System, Birdsongs of the Mesozoic with Swope, and Wrong Pipe with Conley, who produced and played on Yo La Tengo’s debut album and then formed his own group, Consonant.  Prescott went on to lead Volcano Suns, Kustomized, and Peer Group. All of these bands achieved a more than modest success.

 Several Mission of Burma compilations and a posthumous live album were released in the late ‘80s, and though their music continued to receive kudos throughout that decade and the next, it wasn’t until 2001 that the band chose to reunite, but without the pleasure of Martin Swope’s company. ONoffON, released in 2004, is the fruit of their extended space odyssey, a trip taken with Bob Weston of Shellac. Here’s Roger Miller with a sprinkling of the moondust that’s been hidden under the rug. (P.S. Roger’s hair is for real)

                                                                                                                                                                                          

MD: I read somewhere that the Burma reunion is the most well-planned since Fleetwood Mac’s.

RM: As for best-planned, I can only say that we had no plan and still really don’t know what we’re doing.

MD: My first impression of ONoffON was late ‘60s/early ‘70s Quicksilver Messenger Service, or Ten Years After and other headshop rock. And I mean this in a good way! I forgot how damn melodic you guys can be! Did you guys poo-poo all that stuff in the Ann Arbor daze? What where you listening to back then?

RM: Actually, never cared for Quicksilver or Ten Years After. I didn’t dislike those two bands; they just didn’t hit me much (lesser versions of Airplane/Country Joe/Dead). My personal influences were more UK: Pink Floyd ala Syd; first Soft Machine disc. Per USA, Beefheart’s Strictly Personal and the MC5, who I saw 20 or more times in AA.

MD: I think my brother brought some of those records back from the P.X. in ‘Nam.

RM: I was given Ten Years After’s Shhhh for Christmas. Kept it for about half a year, then sold it. It wasn’t horrible, just not good enough. Had no influence on me. However, this is my favorite Ten Years After story: Burma was playing the Peppermint Lounge or Danceteria (they blurred together) in the early ’80s. When we got there, some person affiliated with the club was rehearsing for his solo performance at some disco: it was a solo guitar/vox version of “I’d Love to Change the World, but I Don’t Know Who I Am” from the aforementioned disc. Truly terrifying! We were all wondering what planet he actually was from.

What I consider my “band influence” lineage: Beatles/Kinks/Yardbirds; Love/Elevators; Pink Floyd (early band only)/Beefheart/Silver Apples/Soft Machine (1st only). After that, I started Sproton Layer, found my voice, so influences after that point became more minimal. Eno encouraged me a lot. The Ramones straightened my overindulgent ass right out. Wire made things clearer for Burma.

MD: Have you seen the MC5 documentary yet?

RM: Yes. The first half was such a trip down memory lane – pretty whacked, but a lot of it captured exactly what I felt at that time. I was really glad I saw this part. Very A-OK. Of course, the second half is totally depressing (the band no longer interested me at that time period, but still it’s horrible to see things spiral down into hell). I left before the film was over because I didn’t want to get any more depressed than I was.

MD: Did you ever see Blue Cheer perform?

RM: The only time I saw Blue Cheer was on television – some afternoon pop/rock show in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Their hit “Summertime Blues” had just come out. Two things struck me – their hair was so long and thick that you could not see either the bass player or guitarist’s face: the microphones just went into this thick mop. That was pretty cool in my book (10th grade?). On the other hand, they struck me as a Jimi Hendrix knock-off: the feedback wasn’t as good, the leads were actually comprehensible, etc. However, I still dug them. I owned, or was near, the first two LPs. Enjoyed them, but they weren’t top of my list. In Latin class, we spent some time trying to make sense out of Vincebus Eruptum, but the fact is, it doesn’t make sense in Latin.

Never took any Blue Cheer – did take some Orange Wedge.

MD: I’ve heard that you tuned Glenn Gould’s piano? Did you ever meet him?

RM: A nice concept, but, no. I never had any direct dealings with Gould. Never met him, never tuned. Saw the G. G. documentary. Didn’t realize until later that it was made after his death, and that the guy was an actor. Still, a pretty good flick.

MD: You grew up, as I did, during the last gasp of 1950s cool.  Were you interested in science fiction, monster movies and hot rods?

RM: The ’50s didn’t do much for me (born 1952). In the world of cars, I did take quite an interest in a certain direction. My older brother (by 6 years) Gifford and I were totally into car design between 1958 and 1962. Because of this, every one of those four years we’d hit all the new car shops when the new cars came out in the fall: Giff would engage the salesmen, claiming that his parents were interested. I would gather up two copies of every folder I could get. (I still have a very complete collection of 1961s and 1962s, with a smattering of other years). Note that at this time I was between 6 and 10, and he was the appropriate 6 years older. We were primarily interested in the body designs – those were the greatest years for Amercian car innovation. I began to lose my interest when I got into rock music via the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Anyways, US car design began to lose its edge, and look where the fuck it is now. Our best adventure was the following: Giff had scoped out where the new Chevys were stored before they were placed in the showrooms (’60 or ’61). So of course we snuck into the lot, and Giff took some pictures. As we left, we were followed by a plainclothesman for a few blocks. Pretty exciting for a 10-year-old. Every corner we were at, waiting for the light, he was at the opposite corner!

Didn’t care for monster movies or hot rods (as in Big Daddy Roth) all that much. Appreciated the monster/auto mix (Digger, the Wayout Dragster), but it wasn’t really my bag. I got into Science Fiction in junior high. Preferred, actually, psychedelia when that hit.

MD: Did you enjoy pop culture growing up? I mean the real garbage stuff, like Hogan’s Heroes, for example, or was it of no interest to you?

RM: It didn’t interest me much until the early/mid ’60s. I was a big fan of The Man from UNCLE, The Munsters, Gilligan’s Island, etc.. Star Trek (round #1) interested me for a while. But when I started smoking pot, around 1968, I lost interest in television. Also, I think the quality of American TV went down around then. I don’t watch television at all now, and I have huge gaping holes in my awareness of American culture since around 1970.

1969 was when I finally “found my voice” in Sproton Layer with my brothers Laurence and Benjamin. I was in 11th/12th grade, they were in 9th/10th. So from then on, I generated my own culture and only touched base with the outside world when something grabbed my attention.

MD: What about the idea of volume as a Rock & Roll signifier?

RM: I think that the high volume is a direct reaction to the high volume of the modern environment. Things have ramped up like crazy outside (sirens, car alarms, traffic, density of humans and dogs, etc.), so the natural reaction is to ramp it up to compete. There is an interesting, somewhat over the top rap by Roger McGuinn on the back of the first Byrds LP, where he defines the “new sound of rock” as sounding like “ROOOOOAAAAAAARRRRRRRR!,” which he says is imitating the new predominance of jet planes. There’s something to that.

MD: Did you ever consider doing anything outside of music?

RM: Basically, once I saw the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, rock music became the most important thing in my life. As far as doing anything else outside of music, when I was in junior high I thought I’d study lizards – my dad was a professor of ichthyology (fish specialist). Even my Mom knew that wasn’t going to happen! I was a pretty good writer of poetry/stories in high school. My creative writing teacher thought I’d be a really good kids’ writer, if I’d just drop the weed references. I was kind of working the Barrett-esque psychedelic fairytale thing, which crosses from fairy tales into dreams and nightmares of a more personal nature. I have always written (lyrics, odd very short stories, poesy), and I have always drawn. Recently, my drawing took a turn for the much more interesting, such that I have been in some local shows, a gallery, and have sold a couple of my drawings. I use the Max Ernst “Frottage” technique, and basically collage the surfaces of whatever environment I’m in. This is great for downtime on the road. I can keep all my drawing supplies and paper (always 9×12) in the shoulder bag I carry, so whenever I get the urge, out come the graphites. Tree bark, wooden stairs, salt, etc. For more info on the frottage thing, go to www.funworldmusic.com and click on the frottage page halfway down.

MD: Thanks, Roger.

RM: OK. I hope this is useful and/or amusing.

 

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The Infinite Divisibility of Jackie Meier

smokestackssharp“Infinite divisibility” must then be understood not as “being divisible into an infinite number of parts,”… but rather as “being forever divisible” or “being divisible without end.” In other words, what is infinite about infinite divisibility is not the number of parts you get, but the process of dividing…
Michael Taber
Assistant Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies
St. Mary‘s College of Maryland

Jackie Meier paints in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This site, which once served a very particular purpose, has recently been converted into a multi-use industrial complex. Its website declares “the Brooklyn Navy Yard… represents a variety of industries, like construction, theatrical set design, computer and office supplies…the Navy Yard is capable of handling any type of business.” Contemporary real estate pitch aside, the conveyer belts of the Sweet and Low factory still cycle around endlessly, as they have since 1957. The gigantic chimneys of the Navy Yard Cogeneration facility still belch out voluminous clouds of gray steam, which block out huge swaths of sky, turning the sun’s rays into a dank yellow haze. On a winter’s day, an atmosphere of somber beauty encompasses this landscape. The warehouses and abandoned heavy machinery sit in dramatic relief against the fluid horizon of the waterways and the dry docks, the bridges and the skyline of New York City.

JackieMeorer_finalstudio#2

In Meier’s newest work, this industrial landscape finds its artistic analogy. By osmosis, the painter has absorbed, but more importantly eclipsed, the abstracted atmosphere of industrial production which surrounds her studio. Since her first solo exhibition in 2005, Meier has been consistently, patiently, and, yes, industriously practicing a very subtle form of abstract painting. The first picture to catch my eye was constructed of interlocking crescent shards of a waxing moon, shapes that bound the picture plane taut. Low keyed in color and diminutive in size, it had a remote but alluring effect. Meier has expanded upon such attempts to present the viewer with seemingly uncertain visual abstract paths and unusual spatial trajectories. She has also added a few new components to her pictures, which significantly increase their overall success: size of format, expanded color harmonies, and a dynamic certainty of constructivist composition.

Jackie Meier, Danger, 2013, Oil on canvas, 60x60

Jackie Meier, Danger, 2013, Oil on canvas, 60″ x 60″

All of this is clearly apparent in her most recent work, entitled Danger, (2013, oil on canvas, 60” x 60”). The palette is skewed toward cooler blues, moss greens and coral flesh tones, which augment these newfound tendencies well. The sightlines of this picture focus solely on a precise center vanishing point, where it shatters into a centrifugal freeplay of optical proportions. The force surrendered by this outward kineticism illuminates the painting with a transcendental radiance.

This effect is repeated successfully, though in reverse, it seems, with a larger work called Interlope (2013, oil on canvas, 72” x 72”). Here vortex lines of substantial force bounce back and forth visually within a pictorial field. From the four quadrants of the picture plane to the circumference of this canvas, the structural interplay of color, symmetry and order continually explodes and regenerates itself in artistic perpetual motion.

Jackie Meier, "Interlope" 2012, Oil on canvas, 72x72

Jackie Meier, Interlope, 2012, Oil on canvas, 72″ x 72″

Jackie Meier’s painting procedure is as simple and direct as her no-nonsense approach to the underlying drawing and paint application. Because all of her work is drawn with such a fragility of intent, it deserves close observation. Every issue is held together in a delicate balancing act, an apparent demonstration of will and empathic concern for the viewer beyond herself. She is essentially creating 21st-century humanistic icons.

Jackie Meier, Belgian Fence, 2012, Oil on 9 canvases, 108x108

Jackie Meier, Belgian Fence, 2012, Oil on nine canvases, 108″ x 108″

Reflecting Meier’s surrounding environment most clearly is the work The Belgian Fence (2012, oil on canvas, 108” x 108”). This huge painting represents a transitional moment in her oeuvre. Consisting of nine separate panels or modular units, not unlike interchangeable parts, all are painted with similar but different compositional configurations. Its overall mosaic field of arcs, diamonds and triangles produces a kaleidoscopic wall of visual intensity. It’s an organic geometrical matrix, warm and woven in feeling.

Jackir Meeier, Boogie, 2013, Oil on canvas, 48x48

Jackie Meier, Boogie, 2013, Oil on canvas, 48″ x 48″

Contrasting with this is the acid-colored Boogie (2013, oil on canvas, 48” x 48”), a complex multi-layered painting that is obviously an answer to Piet Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie. However, Boogie is quite a different dance. This painting could only exist today, in the informational space of computer technology. Meier employs a scorched earth policy that has deliberately canceled out any hint of the Dutch artist’s interest in urban cartography, primary colors and right angles. A kind of digital virus is affecting this painting, which, unlike those viruses affecting our home computers, is exciting to discover. Clashing multi-dimensional chevrons enter from both sides of the painting and abut dead center of the canvas. These two shapes overlay a Hakenkreuz, which breaks down into closely collaborated colored planes, further animating an awesome and hyper-real pictorial machine.

Jackie Meier, Still, 2012, Oil on canvas 51”x51”

Jackie Meier, Still, 2012, Oil on canvas, 36” x 36”

A group of smaller works, all from 2012 and 36 x 36 inches, oil on canvas, with titles such as Tumble, Still, Button Up and Dredging, emphasize X’s, chevrons and cruciform shapes directly, with a take-no-prisoners attitude only hinted at in other pieces. This suite of paintings explores sign and symbol, while treating the eye to puzzle-like visual riddles, which contradict their hard-won meditative stillness.

Jackie Meier, work in progress,  January 2013

Jackie Meier, work in progress, January 2013

Jackie Meier’s new paintings engage us directly and thoughtfully with the current issues of geometric abstraction. Thirty years ago, no one would have guessed that abstract painting would be so widely practiced today. At this moment, hundreds of artists, almost all entirely New York-based, are creating abstraction in either its formal (geometric or reductive) or its informal (casual or otherwise) mode, with varying degrees of success. Regardless of the genre’s popularity, the call of tradition insists upon continuous renewal of quality. Artists are required to break free from the commonality of the herd, as quantity of cause is never enough. If abstract painting is to continue as a challenging idiom and a valid conveyer of meaning, the arcane conditions of its existence must be addressed. Jackie Meier confronts these conditions with absolute honesty and complete integrity.

Mark Dagley
January, 2013

Jackir Meier, works in progress,  January 2013

Jackie Meier, works in progress, January 2013

 This text originally appeared as a catalog essay for the Jackie Meier solo exhibition, Razzmatazz at the Nancy Margolis Gallery from March 28 – May 4, 2013

http://nancymargolisgallery.com/

Photographs of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and the artist in her studio by the author.

The Dog-Eared Paintings of Dan Yellow Kuhne

In the February 1973 edition of Art International, placed between an article by Karen Wilkin on Stephen Greene, and a London Letter round-up by Bernard Denvir featuring the psycho-hysterical cat drawings of Louis Wain, I first discovered the work of Dan Yellow Kuhne. Somehow, in the decades that had passed since this magazine was released, I’d gone without knowing Kuhne’s work, or even his name. My Washington D.C. upbringing had lured me to page 20, where David Bourdon’s Washington Letter covered the district’s Color Abstraction exhibitions. Among them were museum shows of works by Augustus Vincent Tack, Sam Francis and Sonia Delaunay, as well as gallery shows by Sam Gilliam, Thomas Downing, Louis Comtois, Gene Davis and a “promising newcomer whose name is Dan Yellow Kuhne.”

Rather ironically, there were black and white images accompanying the four-page profile, so I was able to see a small reproduction of Kuhne’s large (74” x 87” inches) 1972 The Dog-eared painting.

The painting seemed to be a sort of square format Morris Louis veil, finely combed out and downward with what must have been a 70-inch fan brush, until its split-end pony hairs emptied onto a Ray Parker flat-tire of a black splotch, smeared with a little white paint. Additionally, crude splashes and drips of paint peppered both sides of the work, in some sort of feigned gesture of spontaneity. But, contrarily, the painting appeared to be totally purposeful in intent, concise and controlled in execution. Tacked to the top left and right sides, perpendicular to the gravitational pull of the painting, stood the painting’s titular detail: a collection of brushstrokes mirroring the undeniable image of folded dog ears.

Reading through Washington Letter, I learned that the artist was 30 years old at the time and a former student of Gene Davis. After expressing concern for Kuhne’s “dependency on Morris Louis’ veils and certain works of Helen Frankenthaler,” Bourdon stated that Kuhne’s first solo exhibition “provides evidence of real talent and a genuine flair for color.”

I googled Dan Yellow Kuhne to see if I could find further information, more images, but my search revealed nothing more than a recent blurry landscape and a serigraph in the Smithsonian. After a little sleuth work, I contacted Kuhne through his wife, Charlotte Barry, who is also an artist. He agreed to send me a selection of slides from the Dog-eared series, and to answer a few questions about his life and his early work.

Kuhne was born in 1942, Oneida, NY. In 1949, his family moved to Baltimore, Maryland and he has remained in Maryland ever since. While Kuhne was growing up, he lived within a few blocks of the Baltimore Museum, which he visited frequently. In his early 20s, he says he was “floored” by an exhibition of German Expressionism. He also stated that he first understood the rhapsodic nature of painting itself at 23, while attending Turner: Imagination and Reality at the Museum of Modern Art.  This controversial exhibition of thirty-seven late oil paintings and two early works presented Turner as a precursor to modern painters, particularly those “whose principle means of expression is color and light,” as Lawrence Gowing wrote in the show’s catalog essay. It was a ground breaking event because the paintings were hung sans historical frames, in a calculated effect of contemporaneous artistic achievement.

Kuhne exclaimed that Turner hit him “with the impact of a locomotive bursting out of the mists.” The late Turner paintings revealed to the young artist the vast grounds a painter could cover, that art could be intimate while conversely soaring in dimensionless, incalculable space.

Shortly thereafter, a friend christened Kuhne Daniello, but the artist heard this as “Dan Yellow.” Seeing as he’d always loved yellow, feeling it to be the most ethereal of colors, he maintained the moniker, which reminded him of a 19th century caricature of Turner with a bucket of yellow varnish, using a mop for a paintbrush.

After attending the University of Maryland, College Park on and off between 1960 and 1973, Kuhne began teaching primary drawing at the Anne Arundel Community College. He also took some classes with Gene Davis, who Kuhne writes “was careful to defend his accomplishments as a D.C. color painter and to mark his territory. The main idea that I thank him for immensely was that each artist should find the vortex….you came to him with your work and he’d respond, he was not a formal teacher. Defensive!”   And, like all D.C. artists, Kuhne looked hard at the holding of the Phillips Collection and the National Gallery of Art: Van Gogh, Delacroix, Ryder, Gorky, Pollock, and, of course, Morris Louis.

Dan Yellow Kuhne in 1973

By the time Morris Louis died in 1962, his critical champion Clement Greenberg had established him as a “serious candidate[s] for Major status,” as stated in his 1960 Art International article Louis and Noland. The article not only positioned Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland on the frontline of color abstraction but also put Washington D.C.’s burgeoning art scene on the map. As a result many local artists, such as Leon Berkowitz, James Hilleary, Anne Truitt, Howard Mehring, Alma Thomas, Willem de Looper and Paul Reed became forces to be reckoned with, forces that greatly influenced Kuhne.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Dan Kuhne’s Dog Eared series was created between 1970 and 1974. It is comprised of approximately 45 canvases, most of which are around 6’x7’, plus a couple hundred smaller versions on paper. These works introduce the modern viewer to a young artist not just proficient at assimilating style, as Bourdon’s review implies, but also interested in the structural and behavioral elements of paint, elements particularly located in a series of paintings by Morris Louis now known as the triadic veils.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Molton Molt, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

One of the main anomalies found in the Louis’ triadic veils, the one for which they’ve been named, seems to have informed and generated Kuhne’s early paintings. Louis incorporated the shrouded imprints produced by the manipulation of liquid paint over wooden stretcher bars, creating a form of triptych in his compositions. These perspicuous vertical divisions within the color space, which produced a structural framework for Louis veils, can be seen clearly in 1958-1959 canvases such as Blue Veil, Turning and Dalet Aleph.

Morris Louis Blue Veil, 1958-59, 8’ 4 ½  x 12’ 5”, acrylic resin on canvas, The Fogg Art Museum

Morris Louis, Turning, 1958, 7’ 8 1/4” x 14’ 10 1/4”, acrylic resin on canvas, private collection

Morris Louis, Dalet Aleph, 1958, 7’ 6 1/2 ” x 12’ 6”, acrylic resin on canvas, private collection

By dividing the canvas this way, Louis was able to successfully address issues of asymmetry, allowing a structural pinning down of his color improvisations to the vertical edges of the canvas. These edges appear to be internalized and repeated, almost as a memory within the transparencies of color.  Such vertical divisions of space are not the basis of Kuhne’s paintings, which are clearly bisymmetrical and almost static, but their extension of Louis’ interest is obvious.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 5’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

As a side note relating to both artists’ work, I came upon an odd ­­­suburban feature near Morris Louis’ home in Northwest D.C. It’s quite possible Louis took notice of this wishboned walkway on the corner of 42nd  St. NW and Military Road. This mirroring, or Rorschach like folding, of pictorial space is one device that both Kuhne and Louis­ use successfully in their paintings.

Little information on Louis’ visual source material can be found: Some, however, has been implied. In Narrating a Proto-Minimalist Misfire. Or Noland’s Largeness…, Shepard Steiner wrote that [a Morris Louis] “… very often seem to be sopping wet from a recent downpour.”  To a close observer, the residual effect of rainwater on the pedestals of the abundant public statuary in Washington D.C. can be viewed in great detail.  Witness an example below, in a photo of the Liberty Statue in front of The National Archives after a downpour.

Here rivulets of descending and evaporating water upon the fold of the reed molding and around the corner die of the pedestal produce similar pictorial effects to the mirroring found in many of Louis’ triadic veils. One can easily imagine Louis taking in this particular effect in relation to his painting, possibly even attempting to reproduce it.

When questioning Kuhne about his compositions, I asked if “the pleating and imprints that produce the structural vertical divisions within the space of the triadic veils inform your use of bisymmetrical composition.” In commenting about the cropping and pooling of paint at the bottom of many of Louis’ canvases, I queried: “How important was this to you when making your paintings?  You seem to have taken this almost literally, creating fountains in response to his pooling.”

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Kuhne replied: “These pictures, although abstract, took on a highly suggestive effect: mesas, WWI airplanes, fountains, valleys. I was working very intuitively. I’d start by wetting the paper or canvas, then I’d spread beads of watercolor from the tube, or acrylic bands on the canvas, irrigating and eroding them with H20 or washes. I was thinking of color and imagery…”

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Untitled, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

Surprisingly, Kunhe worked on the Dog Eared paintings without ever discussing them  with his fellow artists. He confronted the pictorial legacy of Morris Louis and the overarching influence of Washington Color School alone. The paintings were included in several exhibitions, including a prominent 1973 show of works on paper at The Phillips Collection. Then they were rolled up and placed in storage, where they remain to this day.

Dan Yellow Kuhne, Chief, 6’ x 7’ 1972, acrylic on canvas, collection of the artist

In a form of radical regionalism common in different degrees to many of the D.C. color painters, Dan Kuhne has never shown his work outside of the Baltimore/D.C. area.  This is a profound loss to artists and art enthusiasts living elsewhere, as even in reproduction, these 40-year old paintings can generate great excitement. For those who’ve wondered what sort of challenges young artists working in the direct shadow of the Washington Color School faced, the Dog Eared paintings by Dan Kuhne provide some beautiful clues.

Mark Dagley, 2012

Paul Reed ~ Natural Mystic

Paul Reed

Paul Reed, April 2011

At 92 years of age Paul Reed is the last surviving participant of the Washington Color Painters exhibition, a pivotal event in the annals of the Washington, D.C. art scene. This traveling museum show, curated by Gerald Nordland, included a group of artists–Gene Davis, Thomas Downing, Morris Louis, Howard Mehring, Kenneth Noland, and Paul Reed–who would come to be collectively known as the Washington Color School. It opened on June 25th 1965, at the now defunct Washington Gallery of Modern Art, and continued on to the University of Texas, the University of California, and the Rose Art Galleries at Brandeis University, ending its run at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis.

Of all the Washington Color Painters, Reed employed the most non-programmatic approach to painting. His work is enigmatically structured and unabashedly chromatic. He always seemed to be separated aesthetically from his pack. Reed created some of the most confounding geometric color field paintings with his aerial view series, works that view extreme close up floral or mandala patterns through a field of color and wedges of geometry, as if seen from a great height.  He was, and still is, the only original member of the Color Painters to continually use Nature itself as a referent in his work (Reed’s daily walks on the Potomac River provide him endless inspiration). His preference for painting plein air when the weather permits would likely be antithetical to his contemporaries, were they still among the living. This experience imbues Reed’s work with “a precise blending of intellectual and sensual experiences,” as David Gariff, Senior Lecturer of the National Gallery of Art, describes it.

Paul Reed, Number 17, 1964, 67x67 inches

On April 25th of this year, a warm, sunny spring day, I visited Paul Reed in Arlington, Virginia, at the quiet suburban home he shares with his wife Esther. The house, a modest dwelling surrounded by flowering bushes, trees and a well kept lawn, is a stones’ throw from the Potomac River and about 10 miles from Fairfax County, where I spent my entire childhood, where my parents live to this day.

Upon entering Reed’s home, my eyes were drawn to the windows, which are covered by muslin “canvasses” painted with translucent washes of color, amplifying the incoming light like stained glass and transforming the room into a diaphanous spectrum. Only after extended viewing did I realize that these paintings are views of tree trunks, leaves and branches, as seen through those very same windows. I soon came to understand that Reed’s interests lie far beyond the formalities and martial scheme of reductive color geometries, or even color field painting (which he has a right to lay claim to), and purely in color itself, apart from the materiality of paint, color in its most allusive but observable property, that of illumination.

Throughout the rooms of his house, more than a half century of dedication to Reed’s ideal of color painting can be found hung on the walls, or in the process of being photographed and archived. Additionally, downstairs in what Reed called Monet’s Tomb, is a large cabinet holding hundreds upon hundreds of his works, carefully rolled up like rare Chinese scrolls, a treasure chest awaiting revelation to future art historians.

Like the original progenitors of abstraction, whose works were conceived in an altered state of occult contemplation, Paul Reed demonstrates again and again that such principles can provide an ideal ecosystem for germination. His introverted approach to life and painting has served him well, keeping his own discoveries peculiarly eccentric and, even today, shrouded in mysticism.

Mark Dagley, June 9, 2011

The author & Paul Reed

www.http://youtu.be/DvX78YQ5EHs

°Degree

This is the “zero degree” of painting. The total integration of content and form. The pre-renaissance artist understood this, that painting is a visual and architectural presentation, a structural concern.

Giotto, in his cycle of murals at the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi, demonstrates this, the demands placed on the painted surface when forced into a confrontation with structural situations. Each scene of the life of Saint Francis reorganizes the structural dynamic of the interior. A conception of painting that dissolves and obliterates its architectural/structural limitations. Or do they? This coupling may be seen as seamless.


Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi, Assisi, Italy


I lose sight of the fact that my paintings are on canvas…If the visual act taking place is strong enough, I don’t get a very strong sense of the material quality of the canvas, it sort of disappears. (Frank Stella)

When ever I travel to Madrid, I always return to the Prado Museum to view the Painting by Roger Van Der Weyden, “Descent from the Cross”. I always see this painting as a shaped canvas; it is and it isn’t. Its shallow space and crowed composition is suspended figuratively and literally in a situation of intense and felt passion. A  self-contained structural fact. As with the St. Francis cycle, this work is able to conform to, while obliterating its own format. It seems to be accomplished by an unprecedented attention to it’s internal narrative and external shape, a format dictated by the architectural niche and/or frame where the painting would be placed.


Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross (c.1435) Oil on oak panel, 220 x 262 cm, Prado

This coition of formal concerns, interior/exterior, is resolved by the artist placing on an equal conceptual level, the narrative of the Christ Passion and the elongated (and upside down) “T”- shaped cross format of the support. In other words, the external shape of the painting, a cross exists equally with the internal compositional subject matter, the descent from the cross.

The absoluteness of integration in the Van der Weyden is complete and radical.

This close correlation of painted support and structural shape is what I would like to address. What I want to avoid is a judgmental position of issues or formal analysis of structure versus color, picture versus frame, etc. I propose a more ecological fusion of the two, similar to the Van der Weyden or to the massive altarpiece The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico now housed in the Louvre Museum.


Fra Angelico ~ The Coronation of the Virgin (c.1430- 35) 2.94 x 2.10 cm,  Louvre


Mark Dagley ~ Ambient Accumulation, 1988, 104 x 118 inches, acrylic and mixed mediums on canvas.

The two issues exist but they absorb each other.

This third position, total integration is, in a way, the “zero degree” of  radical structure. One cannot exist without the other. These arguments for a unification of internal and external pictorial space is one of meta-integration, where two levels of visual dynamics acknowledge the completion of a given work.

One concern is not more or less important than the other, this is their radical nature.

I prefer to view the making of a painting as a situation which develops. In addition, I understand the construction of space to be a situation that is more fixed and unchanging. This dichotomy is a given, inherent to the nature of painting and structure making. It is not necessary that the viewer be bound to preconceived metaphysical condition when viewing these paintings. By the same token, as Barnett Newman would say, “aesthetics is for me like ornithology must be for the birds”. The painting/structures should be left free to live their own inborn condition of being.

One could say that “itself” is a quality of metaphysics, the nature of oneself perhaps, but these are works of fine art, not consciousness itself, but rather it’s mirror, a projection or optical illusion of consciousness. These works are a meditation on the innate qualities of a given structure (form) and content (color). A personal, intimate metaphysics of being.

Mark Dagley 1991

First published by the Kunstverein St Gallen, 1991. Republished in Rogue Magazine #20 in June 1993.

Kenneth Noland 1924 -2010

Kenneth Noland

 

1924 -2010

 

I’ve followed other artists gratefully and I hope I’ve also followed my own path…. sometimes along side other artists. I’ve also been willing to share any help that I could give to any other artist. I love art and I love the life of art and I only wish that the real life of art could affect social change in a good way and that the invasion of commercialism in art and the invasion of entertainment into all areas of our lives hadn’t brought some of the worst features of our culture into the realm of art.

 Kenneth Noland

“The Bennington Years” symposium, University of Hartford, March, 1988

I heard of Kenneth Noland’s death through a text message from my friend and fellow painter Don Voisine: Kenneth Noland RIP. This isn’t the sort of thing artists kid about, not Don’s idea of a practical joke; still, I clung to a small shred of doubt. Moments later, I googled Don’s exact words and found that Noland had indeed passed away. Well, I figured, at least he made it to his 85th year. Not a bad run, not a bad run at all. But it’s difficult to fathom: One of the last great colorists of the 20th century is no more.

A week has passed, and that text message remains on my cell phone. My last link, I suppose, to a lifelong hero.

I never met Kenneth Noland, but as a teenaged artist in the Washington D.C. area during the 1970s, I couldn’t help but be heavily influenced by him and the rest of the Color Field painters. Their work surrounded me, in the museums and the art galleries, even on the asphalt of the streets (Okay, that was in Philly, but I saw it on TV). I watched these artists, who’d ascended the heights in my infancy, tower mightily above, only to be knocked back down years later, but in my eyes they were never anything less than Great.

When I arrived in New York City, winter of ’79, at the ripe old age of 21, I felt like the last surviving admirer of what I’d come to know as post-painterly abstraction. It seemed the world had moved on, and nobody had bothered to tell me. None of the young artists I met found Kenneth Noland the least bit interesting, let alone a master painter. I didn’t even mention The Washington Color School to my newly acquired colleagues. “What the hell is that, some kind of kindergarten?” would have been their likely response.

But several decades and plenty of stupid trends have passed. Post and Neo no longer apply as current art world terms. A place has been made for almost everything, and everyone, under the sun. Kenneth Noland has claimed his corner fairly, squarely.

Noland was born on April 10, 1924, in Asheville, North Carolina to an amateur musician mother and a father who’d studied art. In his early teens, he visited Washington D.C. with his father and was inspired by the astonishing holdings of the National Gallery, most notably their Impressionist collection. Shortly thereafter, he began his pursuit of painting.

In 1942, Noland was conscripted. He served four years in the U.S. Air Force. After WWII, he and his brothers, Harry and Neil, enrolled in Black Mountain College. Among Kenneth’s teachers were Ilya Bolotowski, John Cage and Peter Grippe. He also spent a semester under the tutelage of Joseph Albers. After two years at Black Mountain, Kenneth departed for Paris, where he continued his studies with Ossip Zadkine. In spring of ’49, he had his first solo exhibition at Gallery Creuze.

By 1950 Noland was back in the United States and living in Washington D.C., where he taught at the now defunct Institute of Contemporary Art and at Catholic University. He returned to Black Mountain College that year to attend summer courses. There he met his first critical champion, Clement Greenberg, who exposed him to recent developments in Abstract Expressionism.

Noland continued teaching in D.C., adding night classes at the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts to his busy schedule. Morris Louis was also working there as an instructor. Inevitably, they became good friends.

On April 3rd, 1953, Kenneth Noland, Morris Louis and Clement Greenburg visited the New York studio of 24-year-old Helen Frankenthaler. They saw her recent painting Mountains and Sea, which expanded on the implications suggested by Pollock’s 1951 black enamel works. Energized and inspired, Noland and Louis returned to D.C., where they began months of experimentation with unprimed canvas and paint thinned to the consistency of watercolor. Often, the two artists worked together on the same canvas. Unfortunately, none of their four-handed paintings have survived.

What has remained are Louis’ first “veils” and “florals” and Noland’s “proto – circles,”   living proof of unprecedented artistic breakthroughs in the late 1950s. Noland soon arrived at his definitive concentric circle configuration. Fifteen of these works were shown at French and Co. in 1959. With this exhibition, Noland’s reputation was firmly established.

His “circles” are often incorrectly described as targets. They are, in actuality, purely abstract, intuitive color extrapolations. Noland had little interest, at least at this time, in the geometry of the circle, but he managed to explore most of its other aspects. The catalogue for a 1994 exhibit at The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston entitled “The Circle Paintings, 1956 – 1963” mentioned 175 known circle paintings, the smallest being only 13 inches square, the largest, 117.

At the 32nd Venice Biennial in 1964, Noland and Louis were two of eight artists representing the United States. This biennial introduced the world at large to Pop Art, with Robert Rauschenberg bringing home the Golden Lion. It took another two years for Color Field painting to fully surface worldwide. In the 33rd Venice biennial, works by Jules Olitski and Helen Frankenthaler were included.

Back in the U.S. Noland and Louis joined forces with Gene Davis, Paul Reed and two of Noland’s C.U. students, Thomas Downing and Howard Mehring, to create The Washington Color School, named for an exhibition, The Washington Color Painters, which took place at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1965. Many of these artists and newer adherents, such as Sam Gillian, Alma Thomas, Anne Truitt and Leon Berkowitz, exhibited their work at the Jefferson Place Gallery, cementing the strong identification with Washington as the home of color painting.

Noland pushed on like a juggernaut with a solo exhibition at the Jewish Museum in 1965. A few years later, he was so commercially successful that Piri Halasz wrote in the April 18th, 1969 issue of TIME:

 His latest work, marked by a softer, subtler spectrum of colors, and currently on view at Manhattan‘s Lawrence Rubin Gallery, is so much in demand that the gallery is charging up to $28,500 per painting. The artist himself and his svelte wife Stephanie can afford to divide their time between a farm in Vermont and Manhattan, where he recently bought and is renovating a flophouse on the Bowery. (It should be noted that in 1969 $28,500 had about the same buying power as $168,776 does in 2010).

In spite of this enormous success, Noland maintained doubts about his own work, frequently destroying paintings that didn’t meet his lofty standards, stopping short with at least one series that was critically acclaimed. An example of this can be found in the catalogue text for Noland’s Jewish Museum show. Michael Fried remarks: “after having executed no more than a few large-scale asymmetrical chevron paintings, Noland gave up the solution—one which a lesser painter would have spent a lifetime repeating, if he could have made his way to it in the first place—because it was no longer true to his feelings,…

One can only surmise what Noland really felt about his asymmetrical chevrons. They seem to have been made in response to Louis’ “Unfurleds,” of which, by 1961, there were over 120 variations. Noland’s chevrons are large not only dimensionally but also experientially. They are ambitious paintings, a throwing down of the gauntlet at the feet of his elders: Pollock, Newman, Rothko and his buddy Louis.

The work Bend Sinister, 1964, found in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum, clocks in at a respectable 92 ½ x 162 ½. Bend Sinister is an off-axis, five color chevron consisting of two different values of blue: a chilly cobalt and a lighter cerulean, stacked on top of a lemon yellow and bordering a warm orange. Then, in a move worthy of atonal musical composition, Noland concludes with a jump to an odd gray-green, an effect which fellow Washingtonian Gene Davis would go on to exploit to full effect.

But in the midst of these halcyon days, trouble was brewing. Consensus amongst a new critical establishment concluded that the framework constructed around painting had become unsustainable. Painting was now considered retrograde, artistically bankrupt, its principles undefendable. Color Field painting was easy prey.

Michael Fried, who had written so eloquently of Noland’s early career, abandoned the sinking ship of high modernist painting, while Rosalind Krauss launched articulate attacks on the notion on modernist criticism itself in Artforum and October magazines.

Things were looking so bleak for painters in 1969 that Joseph Kosuth, in a footnote to his landmark text “Art after Philosophy,” concluded “the conceptual level of the work of Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Morris Louis, Ron Davis, Anthony Caro, John Hoyland, Dan Christiansen et al. is so dismally low, that any that is there is supplied by the critics promoting it…”

By 1974 Donald Judd was quoted as saying “It looks like painting is finished.” It would be almost 40 years before the funeral celebration came to an end.

Nonetheless, Noland’s career proved to be unshakeable. Throughout the 70s, he exhibited at some of the world’s finest art galleries. A solo show at the Guggenheim Museum opened on April 15th, 1977.

During the 1980s, Noland ransacked the storehouse of newly available iridescent acrylic paints, extenders, textured gels and mediums. In a move seemingly inspired by the postmodernist quotation that was very much in vogue at the time, he brought back his chevron and diamond motifs for a surprising second act. Noland pressed forward into the 90s with a renewed sense of urgency, as he squeegeed and pushed paint relentlessly across the modularity of his “door” and “flair” series of shapes.

By the turn of the century, Noland had returned to his most recognizable emblem: the concentric circle, this time, on a much smaller scale. He instilled his signature motif with mysterious mandala-like spiritual and cosmological references. The sixty-year-plus career of this great American color painter ended with the artist absorbed in deep meditation on the nature of paint as a carrier of transcendental light.

At the time of his passing, Noland’s final exhibition was still on view at Lesley Feely Fine Art. The show consisted of twelve eccentrically shaped paintings from the early 80s that were selected by the artist from his personal collection. The orientation of these works, derogatorily referred to as the “surfboard” series, appears to be up for grabs. Two of the paintings were previously reproduced in a major publication as horizontals, while at Lesley Feley, the works, except for one, were installed vertically, at the artist’s request, giving them the look of contorted full-length figure paintings, an allusion Noland must have perversely enjoyed. Completed 30 years ago, these pieces seem surprising fresh and of the moment. They are sleek shards, informational bits of some unknown technological stuff, floating, nay, surfing in slow motion CGI animation, self-critically probing the edges of paintings’ existence.

 Mark Dagley

First published in the Brooklyn Rail February 2010