PRINT November 1966

“Systemic” Painting

THE WORK OF TWENTY-EIGHT ARTISTS of purist, reduc­tive or “cool” tendencies has opened at the Gug­genheim Museum. Organized by its curator, Lawrence Alloway, the exhibition is of an amazingly high quality—a kind of pyrotechnical display prior to Alloway’s separation from the institution. There are very few “stars” and even fewer duds, for rea­sons having to do with the diffuse, yet intellectually stringent esthetic which Alloway has chosen to consolidate and baptize, somewhat non-euphoni­cally, “Systemic.”

Not that any of the participants are exactly un­known. Many, in fact, have considerable reputations (Youngerman, Kelly, Poons, Stella, Held, Martin). Among the remaining, even those who skirt the margin of virtual anonymity, there are figures who either have had recent successes in New York gal­leries (Huot, Mangold, Zox) or who enjoy subter­ranean renown as dauphins of a new classicism (Gourfain, Navros). Largely, they have been spon­sored either by private entrepreneurs or the mete­oric Park Place Gallery which for a season now has been the gallery most single-mindedly appended to a movement, as Alloway points out, more than a decade old.

Alloway’s exhibition has been made even more insightful by its accompanying catalog, a seriously argued historical précis and well-documented work. His essay begins with a discussion of the events connected with the breakdown of the Ab­stract Expressionist front, about 1954. Referring to Pollock as the archetypal Abstract Expressionist, Alloway observes (as many others already have) how the “all-over distribution of emphasis and the consequent pulverizing of hierarchic form relates Pollock to Still, Newman, and Rothko,” that is, to figures in Abstract Expressionism whose oeuvre displays characteristics common to Systemic Paint­ers. Alloway credits the Abstract Expressionist epi­sode, normally associated with dynamic, directional brushwork and an anxiety focus, with the creation of three conditions necessary to the present mode: it sheltered the work of field painters; promoted, in its later stages “the development of stained as opposed to brushed techniques,” and displayed a “mounting interest in symmetrical as opposed to amorphous formats, clear color as opposed to dirty, hard edges as opposed to dragged ones.” It goes without saying that these issues are central to Systemic Painting. Selecting Barnett Newman as a protean Systemic artist avant la lettre Alloway falls into a digression which, in part, reads as an apol­ogy for the insipidities served up at the recent, much-disputed presentation at the Guggenheim Museum of Newman’s Stations of the Cross (again under Alloway’s tutelage).

Newman, an artist “ahead of his time,” is said to have “a complex relation with subsequent his­tory. On the one hand he has created his own audience and influenced younger artists; on the other, his art was waited for.” In part, this is an evasion similar to saying, like a secretary describing the fellow who picked her up at a discothèque, that “he was tall but short, handsome but plain, dark but light.” The coincidentia oppositorum is more veil than clarification. This partisan imbal­ance in favor of Newman seems as wrong as Allo­way’s neglect of the influence of Albers, whose pertinence to the square format favored by Sys­temic Painters is more than obvious.

Continuing his survey, Alloway accepts Clement Greenberg’s premise that Newman’s stripes “paro­died” the frame—a truism ultimately applicable to classicistically composed works of practically any era—and reminds the reader that this notion was reused in Michael Fried’s defense of Frank Stella’s work. The importance of Stella, it seems to me, can hardly be underestimated. His painting remains critical for Systemic art, both in the early phase, now affectionately referred to as “pin­stripe” Stella, in which the principle of diagram­matic inevitability is wholly and vividly expressed, as well as later Stella, in which the perimeter of a shaped canvas no longer acquiesces to the sculp­tural impulse of refulgent color—a principle seen at work in canvases by Neil Williams and Robert Huot.

Alloway’s retracing of group and one-man shows, the didactic exhibitions organized by partisan crit­ics, carries us at length to the single most striking trait of Systemic art, namely its dependence, by and large, on One Image. Alloway’s claims for One Image art are considerable. “Here form becomes meaningful, not because of ingenuity or surprise, but because of repetition and extension.” Alloway admits the possibility of great variety to One Image art depending on whether or not the artist is inter­ested, say, in the permutations of swastika forma­tion, as is the case with Insley and Zox, or Poons’ grid theory, or Martin’s modular arrangements. “In One Image art we look for variety within conspicu­ous unity. The run of the image constitutes a sys­tem, with limits set up by the artist himself, which we learn empirically by seeing enough of the work. Thus the system is the means by which we ap­proach the work of art.” Naturally, Alloway’s con­ception of Systemic art is larger than just One Image art which is but one kind of system.

However grandiose Alloway’s claims for One Image art are, they are certainly justified histori­cally. Much of the art of the 20th century has tended toward the reduction of elements. In a sense there is no great difference between Male­vitch’s White on White, painted early in the cen­tury, and Yves Klein’s monochrome paintings of the late fifties. Likewise, the forgotten monochro­matic exercises of Jim Dine might be remembered in this connection (with the provision that even though uniformly red or blue these small canvases were worked with the passionate desperation of a young Abstract Expressionist hand). Even less surprising, therefore, is the jump from the white­-on-white squares of Malevitch (and of Albers) to the white square itself. As Alloway points out, never before in the century has the square, the well-crafted, well-stretched square canvas, enjoyed such prestige.

There is, of course, a sensuous argument in favor of reductive art. Even a straight line drawn across a plane divides that plane into separate shapes (comparison), has impulse (rhythm and speed), and spatial location. A single element, then, for the responsive viewer, reveals artistic personality. As Edwin Ruda states in the catalog, “Simplification is not synonymous with boredom but on the con­trary demands visual acuity.”

What, then, are some of the Systemic solutions afforded by adherents of this tendency? First there are the fundamentalists devoted to a time-honored sanctity of the white square, and their close kin, those who work in arrangements of primary panels. Robert Ryman is represented by a bland white painting called Allied, seventy-five inches square. Of even larger dimensions is Al Held’s The Big End, an acrylic work of considerably more extreme posi­tion than is usually associated with this veteran abstractionist. On Held’s richly porous surface the tips of two centrally-placed dark triangles float away from one another. Mallarmé has already been used as a means of explaining certain non-formal features of Stella’s work. Likewise Held’s canvas reminds me of Antonioni’s movie The Eclipse which reported on the period in a young woman’s life that passed between affairs. Held’s two tiny blades also seem to focus on the time before or after encounter.

Ellsworth Kelly shows five particularly uncom­promising panels of Blue, Green, Yellow, Orange, Red. Tadaaki Kuwayama, in an untitled work, like Kelly, also sets out a kind of vast industrial color sample, two acrylic panels of rose and blue, separated by neat chrome stripping. The colors, lightly silvered, suggest a more speculative and literary sensibility than Kelly’s. (An iridescence also shim­mers across Robert Mangold’s Gray-Orange Curved Area, unusually shaped like a chasuble.)

Jo Baer takes something from both groups. Her unit of three squares, Primary Light Group: Red, Green, Blue, presents canvases which, for the most part are white except along the edge, which is black, and additionally tipped with a thin line of red, green and blue.

Agnes Martin modestly subdivides her square into a network similar in appearance to graph paper. Yet her touch is so deft that one feels, de­spite the rigidity of her conception, that one is faced with an exquisite artistic personality. The effect, so to speak, runs counter to the economy of the means. The same thing happens, with more clues given, in the work of Peter Gourfain, whose deep mauve painting, Whale-Road, is, like Martin’s, consistently modular. Gourfain’s canvas has been divided into two horizontal registers aligning thirty­ four capsule shapes to each. These in turn have internal modifications of color within quadrant divisions. The resonating field is evocative in a way analogous to Ad Reinhardt’s glowing, closely-valued abstract icons.

Will Insley and Lawrence Zox compose their squares according to patterns derived from swas­tika formations, that is, organizations which, while referring to a single central point, are also indica­tive of potential centripetal energy. Zox, in the present instance, places two such units side by side on a single canvas, which modifies the swas­tika in favor of a strong central diagonal bias which forms, in turn, an oblique parallelogram, a shape adopted by several Systemic painters.

Dean Fleming’s three canvases are blocks of pri­mary colors built around a central white parallelo­gram. In his work this shape takes on a strong optical deformation—like seeing the corner of a block. Fleming’s statement, reproduced with those of several other artists, affirms a mystical predispo­sition germane to the history of reductive art as a whole, but quite foreign to the feelings of most other present-day exponents. “A deeply experi­enced participation with the work can yield a sense of transcension and can create an intense light which contains no color.” Did one not know that one was reading Fleming one might easily imagine Malevitch. Or, “Like Music, this work can be best received in silence.” This time as easily Kandinsky as Fleming. This mystical bias, a belief in the fluid continuousness of all experience is refuted in the blunt empiricism of most of the other statements published. Indeed, spiritualization, on the whole, seems entirely at odds with the dogged pragmatism of Systemic method and practice.

The parallelogram provides the shape of Kenneth Noland’s Par Transit, the stripes of which run paral­lel to the canvas’s diagonal edges, of Thomas Downing’s Reds Escalator and of Edwin Ruda’s Here to Tucumari. The parallelogram is, in part, a reaction to the poised vertical-horizontal stasis of squares and rectangles. Of course, this is only a kind of complaisant self-deception based on a comparatively infrequent usage, since, in the end, the so-called “diamond shape” is subject to the same vertical-horizontal points of reference as the square.

Perhaps the most interesting system is based on grid structure. In a sense Agnes Martin’s graph image is a kind of grid, but the module is so small as to make one more aware of the whole surface, the field, rather than the compositional means. Larry Poons’ grid compositions are easily the most rewarding, not only because of the luminous op­tical activity of his color, which is beautiful in itself, but also because there exists in his grid theory the possibility of greater compositional in­terplay than most. In his painting, in this instance the magnificent Mary, Queen of Scots, the surface is first subdivided into comparatively large square units. Poons then moves from box to box placing a circle or pellet in each as if he was playing a game in which he was designated “dealer.” The actual placement of the circle or pellet, however, is motivated, at least in these early stages, by artis­tic impulse rather than by fixed rule. Ultimately, say at the third time around the boxes, the need for tonal adjustments of the ground and the previ­ously distributed discs becomes more and more pressing and Poons’ highly expressive painting is begun. At length, the initial grid may even be blotted out, thereby further disguising the con­trolled “plays” which lay behind the composition.

A last system of interest is the one chosen by David Navros. Each element in his work is identical and congruent. Packaged together, so to speak, the final arrangement of the units are revealed in an accompanying blueprint which describes the pat­terns desired by the artist to be formed out of his pre-fabricated elements.

A few artists seem out of place in Alloway’s important exhibition. Nicolas Krushenick’s Tel Aviv Hippy, with its dependence on “cartoonish” and thick contours bespeaks an organic and Pop sensi­bility, out of key with the extreme control of this exhibition. Similarly Leon Smith’s Correspondence Orange-Blue also appears uncomfortable, even though Alloway indicated that Smith’s studies of the stitching of soccer balls from the mid-fifties served as a lead-in to the current anti-expression­ism. Jack Youngerman’s Blue, White, Red parody of a torn-paper collage, although handsome, lacks the intellectual inflexibility of the other exhibitors. Al Brunelle’s Jayne humorously (a human element notoriously lacking from Systemic art) bridges the gap between the reductive and Pop modes. This nine-panel group arranged in triangle formation on the wall glows a vulgar Mansfield pink and tawdrily scintillates with neatly set rhinestones.

––Robert Pincus-Witten