PRINT December 1966

Michael Egan’s Modular Paintings

FOR THE PAST THREE YEARS, J. Michael Egan has worked toward the point where he can concentrate upon two major formal issues: object painting and structure. Both problems pervade the series of ten works completed in 1965–66 which currently make up his first one-man show on the West Coast, at the Mills College Art Gallery.

Of the ten paintings, Sistine Super Starr and the six canvases composed of triangular units pointedly raise the question of the painting-as-object. In these, the object quality is achieved in the conception of each total configuration and by the use of modular units. In Sistine Super Starr, four identical elements are combined. Each displays three color bands, and they are joined so that a vacant square of raw canvas is left in the center of the composition. Since the bands wrap around the framing edge, they extend neither into lateral space, nor into the space against which the picture is hung. The bands literally contain the canvases, very much like bands of ribbon enclosing gift packages. The joining method—with color toward the periphery rather than the core of the work—also prohibits our imagining that the painting could be enlarged by modular addition. To do so would produce another kind of painting, rather than an extension of the elements in view. Through the painting of the units and their joining, then, the work becomes a self-contained object. Its internal character keeps us from relating it to anything beyond itself.

Compared to Sistine Super Starr, the six paintings employing triangular canvases constitute a serial analysis of the object problem. Three of them—Sarah, Deb and Robe—use a dynamically symmetrical configuration that seems visually contained and resistant to added modules. The sense of containment is enhanced by the serial relation between the three, since the progression from one to the next is simply achieved by “spinning” each part 120 degrees, as if their centers were pinned to the wall. No modules have to be added. The other three works —Venus, Mage and Distane—rupture the closed configuration and, with lateral symmetry, seem to invite additional modules. With any of them, however, any imaginary addition is rigorously controlled by what already exists in the painting itself.

The relation of one module to another brings in the problem of structure, a concern that becomes paramount in reverse proportion to Egan’s interest in the object nexus. In Sistine Super Starr, for instance, structure is ambivalently stated as a cross between rectangular units and an overall implied square that is reflected in the picture’s vacant center. Further, the color bands appear additive rather than functionally conditioning that square. In other words, the rectangular modules would seemingly be fitted together as they are, without any stripes at all. With the six triangular paintings, however, the relation between painted image and physical structure changes. The canvases in this group could be joined at a variety of points without disturbing the symmetry of the total configuration. They could, that is, if the canvases were unpainted. But the position of the color bands determines the relation of one canvas to another: there they begin, or end, or coincide with identical points on another module. The color bands, then, assume a logically functional role in determining the picture’s structure.

In the most recent work, Egan discards the module and its symmetrical orientation. But at the same time, his statements regarding structure assume a new freedom and spontaneity. This is especially apparent in Glaser which seems to vault, almost capriciously, into space—not only laterally, but on an implied perspective diagonal as well. This sensation of dual movement is still achieved, however, in terms of the structure of the work—that is, with the configuration of the picture supports rather than what is painted on the surface.

Intimately connected with the structural and object concerns of these works is the more general, but equally pervasive tendency to minimize any situations that require arbitrary decisions. Through all of the statements, for instance, color is relegated to the role of an unchanging constant, just as the module serves as a common denominator in all of the triangle-oriented paintings. Having made such selections, Egan consistently follows a system of critical thinking with regard to how the modules will look and compose the final works. The use of “constants” simply enables him to give clearer emphasis to other problems. The method is risky, however, because if the statements about the chosen problems fail, there are few diversions to fall back on. This is a tough-minded approach to picture making, involving a minimal vocabulary and some carefully restricted and self-imposed limitations. Work that follows such a course takes the chance of becoming intellectualized, even to a point of dryness, but Egan’s paintings surmount this risk and provide vital esthetic experiences that go far beyond the conscious artistic “problems” which are, nevertheless, so important to them.

Carl I. Belz