PRINT May 1974

Just Another Rectangle Painter

The art world will simply not accept
another rectangle painter.

—a New York artist

HE'D LAY DOWN THE FIRST GRID with masking tape, hit the surface with stainy acrylic, lay down more tape, paint into that, lay down more tape, more paint, and so on. When at last he peeled an almost solid sheet of masking tape from the canvas, there it was: a 36-part grid with nuances of edge, layer, and bleed. But it occurred to Joel Bass that just four parts—the elemental grid—could function as well as three dozen; so he narrowed it down and, in 1969–70, arrived at his “trademark” colored grid. Bass had been a well-off kid before art school, who drove a ’58 Thunderbird to high school in 1958, tramped up and down the California coast eating five-for-a-dollar hamburgers, peeing in trash cans, and lying in wait on his balsa spear for the next big wave; he was not the guy who came in from the boondocks and hit six figures a year for turning out replicas of the compendium ’60s painting. For better and worse, Bass doesn’t have the art-killer instinct.

That youthful anxiety about knocking off the top guy, and what’s Ron Cooper doing and how much money does he have, or what’re the Dill brothers doing, and how much money are they getting for their work, or who’s getting what notoriety, are all irrelevant. You learn about what you don’t want to do, you find out that being young and strenuous about your own individuality is a hollow victory, that it’s no victory at all.

Painters and sculptors are in a bind these days because both polar alternatives seem lousy: manufacturing brand-name, au courant art objects (consistent within sets, but model changes each show) with monotonous regularity/detachment, or responding to issues and tailoring the art to a constant flow of usurped linguistics, structural anthropology, science history, experimental psychology, or political cant. By 1970 Bass was “insulted” by what he’d done to himself. “Was I going to orient my art,” he says, “to the cultural phenomenon—object making—and do, say, another group of ‘color paintings?’ Was I going to tag myself to an ‘issue’ and become, say, fourth in line in the ‘color problem?’ ” He tried “black” paintings, in which good old-fashioned Cubist volume is got by shifting a couple of rectangles and connecting them diagonally, and lead collages which attempted to deny the “floating” quality of the preceding paintings by a) relating to sculpture and “thingness,” b) being self-adjusting and concrete (thin sheet lead goes down nondirectionally and “telegraphs” whatever’s underneath). These were, however, only partial (formal) solutions, and the whole enterprise (abstract painting) is, in Bass’ mind, still troubled by the nagging presence of “issues,” of painting’s position vis-à-vis the dialectical hopscotch. Nonobject-makers tell him that he’s back in the 19th century (or earlier), that he’s stuck with an albatross of precious materialism. He thinks they haven’t really broken with painting, operating, for instance, from where somebody decided Pollock’s behavior could be interpreted in dance. But it isn’t the issue of “issues,” it’s the style in which a frenetic and self-important art world seizes them. Philosophical/morphological changes in politics or physics trickle down to civil-rights bills or technology; the face of the landscape outside the immediate disciplines is altered: jobs, lives, costs, health, etc. Conversely, the art world, in spite of a 180° shift in its product (e.g., Kienholz to Maria Nordman, Noland to Charles Simonds), looks unnervingly the same—rich people and professional decoders prattling to each other about the novelties conjured up by minimally subsidized, poorer, younger people. It’s hard to see just what’s at stake, beside staffing, careers, and auctions, and it’s hard not to see “issues” as mere opportunities for appropriating novelty territory. Art “issues” are generated by the art world, like oil companies generate the energy “crisis.”

“Is it possible at this time, with the kind of intellectual information we have,” Bass asks, “to really paint anymore?” There seems to be, at least in my case, a visceral confirmation of the veracity of painting in front of almost any really good one. Recently, I saw a Clyfford Still in a collector’s home near Seattle (fancy houses, table talk, and great pictures being owned are circumstances I’m uncomfortable in) and the picture just had it—whatever mysterious combination brings tears to your eye or saliva to your mouth. Subsequently, I went to the Los Angeles County Museum to see its video show (the enticing press release still in my pocket and the museum accommodatingly empty on a weekday—good circumstances). It turned out to be simply television—either strident German Expressionist CRT color twistings, or attenuated, from Rauschenberg-on time/image conundrums. Where the video was so much less than the combined weight of its public relations and tools, the painting was so much more. Or am I (is Bass?) merely programmed by a sentimental, twilight of the object-art education into wringing every last phantom virtue from a moribund art form? Southern California certainly doesn’t have the heroes (who else after McLaughlin, Altoon, Diebenkorn, Francis, or Moses?) or the system (where can you see one of the above, week in and week out?) to sustain a militant tradition of abstract painting. But to Bass, New York, where “my take on the younger painters is that they’re beating themselves with a provincial stick,” isn’t much better. The kind of information necessary to keep going, Bass thinks, comes from “the changing terminology of your own painting.”

Bass’ terminology is a defense of painting, and an attempt to get around formalism (problem-solving) from the inside. “On the surface of it, the art object seems like the most overrated phenomenon possible, but the ‘hook-up’ with other artists through the formalized residue of a visual process is an incredible experience.” I asked him if—since one of the more common paeans to painting is its supposed “timelessness” (i.e., the most efficient but sophisticated way of making stationary images)—he doesn’t paint rectangles because they look “timeless” (profound). True, but they’re also open containers, “that can be filled with anything.” Bass fills them up with a painting substance made from the slag-iron residue of an industrial process and a binder. Hoping to exorcise the “pictorial” (French, paint-ed, floating) space, he screens it on in layered rectangles. The result is a surface articulated by an “X-ray” unit (a physical opacity revealing a succession of pictorial rectangles), which functions as a kind of quarry. Lately, he uses colored ink soluble in metallic ground. Where the canvas is still raw, or open, the ink sinks into the surface and leaves the metallic powder on top; where it’s already sealed or painted, the ink floats over the powder and the area is comparatively highly colored. Thus, the whole painting becomes an instant, but complicated, history of rectangle application—units derived from the simple structure of a painting (relentlessly “normal” stretched canvases)—weaving, crossing, connecting, overlapping, and, in the end, simply covering.

Is that enough? Well, to point out “quality” in a set of art objects nominally no different from thousands like it (abstract painting of other abstract painters—bigger, smaller, tougher, more exotic, more colorful, more technically innovative) is, in fact, to defend the quality hierarchy itself—a task surely harder than defending the specific pictures. Bass’ pictures are austere, subtle, economical, and knowledgeable, but, in their openness, they admit to the slipperiness of the whole problem of the worth of “straight” abstract painting. “Painting is more than about problem-solving, or how to exist vis-à-vis a particular art community like New York or L. A. You just have to keep at it, and hope to get lucky enough to expand the experience.” And hope that the art world can accept another rectangle painter.

––Peter Plagens