PRINT January 1965

Thing, Act, Place

RON DAVIS’S PAINTINGS are diagrams of form. In one case he began with a flat hexagonal shaped canvas; lines proceeding from three of the six corners meeting in the center, define an isometric pro­jection of a cube; within the cube, but indicated by the planes of color meeting at a straight edge rather than by lines, and which proceed from the other three corners, is an oblique triangle; where the edges of the triangle intersect the lines of the cube, another form, a pyramid, finds its points of origin. From this ordered process of finding forms within forms the artist arrives at an object with volume, or a “thing,” a formulation with the regularity of a faceted gem. But not a picture of a thing in an environment—the thing itself from the very edges of the canvas. The colors of the facets defy any attempt to localize a source of light. As with a cut gem, the light is made to appear to be radiating from within, as though from reflections forth and back which resolve the parts into a single unit.

The lines and divisions in the paintings of Gil Fulton also have an implacable regularity; indeed they repeat endlessly, but they are not established as projections from the shape of the canvas. The most random part of the paintings is the edge, where the pattern marches in and out of the picture. This arbitrary cropping of a pattern which apparently continues, gives the eye an urgency to resolve the small differences, and in concert with the vibrant colors, the pattern is set in motion, and the more the eye tries to halt this motion, the more active it becomes. Thus the painting does not suggest a “thing,” but performs an “act.” Where space is indicated the part will move either way, abstractly, but is usually flat. Bars of color enter the ends of one of his canvases. As they enter and leave they are cut in half. The painting is mostly red, but sharp points of blue enter from the top and bottom giving the background red between them a violet cast, whereas the red tends to appear more orange in the center where it is in relation to the brownish red bars. The pattern may remind one of the pattern left by the tread of a tire. The allusion to a tire print is not arbitrary: the speed and static friction expressed by the painting is intense. In another painting the tempo is modified, the vibrant colors more subdued, the act more meditative, but the machinations of the illusion are generated from similar factors.

A third painter, Jack Carrigg, did not arrive at his Hard Edge vertical stripes abruptly, but found it a useful form because he had been using paint very freely, and it dripped and ran, and the vertical bands of color were not destroyed by the straying neighbor colors. Originally, his primary concern was color, but with the realization that vibrancy could be obtained by inventive relationships of a geometric sort, he combined the two, and achieved a greater dynamism. These stripes vary from broad planes of color to narrow stripes, often slightly thicker at one end than the other, and, thus, slightly out of line with their nearest parallel. These variations set up rela­tionships which the viewer’s eye must adjust back to true. To particularize from a specific painting, two dark lines are disposed across a red field. On both sides of the red field are narrower fields of blue. None of these parts are exact, measured repeti­tions of their counterparts, and each part suggests but defies the tendency toward symmetry. The blue is electric as it approaches the red, appears to go behind the red, seems modeled as it gets further from the red. The red plane acts as a sounding board for the dance of the two frontal stripes. The changes which the eye must make to adjust these variations are infinite, and the appearing and disap­pearing after-images are in a constant state of change, performing a visual melody in which the relation­ships of the parts, or things, give the painting a sense of something acting, but also, by virtue of this relativity, a sense of “place,” or an environment where action is taking place.

The thing, the act, and the place were often quite separate preoccupations, and formed something ap­proaching separate schools within the post-war Ex­pressionist movement, and as we move into an age where the artist is holding up his mirror to an archi­tectured, machined, and man-made nature, these elements separate and reassert themselves again. The Expressionist variations on the theme can be explored, in retrospect, as emotional and romantic in nature. Gorky’s surreal, organic things; Pollock’s tangled patterns might be said to be what such a thing might do; and Still’s Wagnerian spacescape might be the place where it would happen. These tendencies were often so separate and disparate that the single title, Expressionism, seems a mis­nomer, artificially combining three movements, al­lied only by the free, automatic application of paint.

Carrigg, Fulton and Davis were schooled in Ex­pressionism; in all three cases they have fairly re­cently turned their attention to planned and con­sidered geometric painting. The earlier Expressionist paintings of the three clearly illustrate their individual preoccupation with the elements which we discover in their recent work. Carrigg’s studio is still decorated with an earlier painting of the western sense-of-place type, Fulton’s studio with a painting of energetic whorls of color and impasto paint, and Davis’s with large canvases containing suggestions of the organic.

Expressionism was an emotional and psychologi­cal purge after the tragedy of war, depression and dislocation; it was a return to interior search and defensive rebellion which had been mostly absent from American painting since the period of Ryder and Blakelock. The idealism of Mondrian and the international style in architecture had suffered from the demoralized state of the corollary sciences and mechanical dynamics which had been used and abused for evil purposes. But the world proceeded, regained momentum, if not stability. And the artist has found catharsis, has found the physical world around him exciting and interesting, and has re­turned to the mainstream of modernism. He is re­flecting in abstract and symbolic ways, the culture and the world in which he lives. With the close cross reference with architecture, industrial design, ad layouts, the focus of the eye on TV, etc., all of which are bending toward the symmetrical, hypnotic, and gestalt formulations which are essential to this sort of painting, there seems to be good reason to ex­pect that the form of art which these three artists forcefully represent, will continue in consonant pace with the development of modernism, and may well become a truly integral part of everyone’s under­standing. The paintings work: they have a visual magic which is seen and known even if the mind is thinking about other matters. The image is simple and direct and is remembered with the ease of re­membering a succinct trademark. Since they act directly and vividly on the senses and require no literary reverie or special knowledge they will have an appeal to the popular mind. It is not obscure. Barring catastrophe, we may come to a cultural art after all.

––Knute Stiles