PRINT November 1976

Blythe Bohnen

BLYTHE BOHNEN’S WORK IS A treasury of human gesture. She sees the artist as “a particular kind of force that shapes matter.”1 The integrity of the link between the gesture of the artist as force and the work of art as shaped material is essential: continuity of gesture and image must be absolute in her work. To see what is involved in this consider the nature of her reservations about Franz Kline: “Kline elevates the scale of a few strokes to a new importance, but his work seems unable to resolve contradictory concepts of the stroke. Its scale thrusts it out of the size of the ‘hand-drawn,’ yet it insists on the artist’s action. The tension between the thrust of the stroke and the static shape formed by the contour often become uncomfortable to my eyes.” There is a delicate and prolonged relationship between the body’s gesture and the mark in Bohnen’s practice which is not present in Kline’s. Several critics who were reminded by Bohnen’s brushstroke paintings (1968–1972) of Roy Lichtenstein’s brushstrokes missed this fact. Lichtenstein’s paintings are depictions of somebody else’s brushstrokes; Bohnen’s brushstrokes are “insubordinate to everything but their self-definition.” She wants her work to be an accurate recording of human energy and decision-making. As such it is deeply characterized by the medium.

The graphite drawings (1973 to date) are accompanied by precise verbal summaries, such as Motion touching five points, overlapped by motion touching five points, 1975. This serves as both title and description. The words turn out to be no more prescriptive than Sol LeWitt’s verbal commands. On the contrary, Bohnen uses them as a measure of freedom. She refers in her notes to Pavlov’s conditioned reflexes, but adds: “not to learn a response, but to respond differently to the same stimulus. To defy determination with invention.” And in the drawing one can see not only the overlapping of the two motions, but their pairing in two separate images. (In the original the five points are clearly visible, incidentally, as well as variations in Bohnen’s touching of them.)

The systematic work procedure does not so much inhibit invention as reveal it more clearly. The comparison of the soft graduated flowing surfaces of the two images reveals completely different paths, different reactions to the same stimulus. What Bohnen achieves in these works is an unprecedented relationship between exactitude and sfumato. Even as one uses a word like sfumato for her tonal diffusion, one is aware, too, of the pinpoint accuracy of the cutting edge of the graphite. Her forms range from the organic to the rectangular, as in One horizontal motion left and right of center points, overlapped by two adjacent diagonal motions right, 1975. Here a Whistlerian delicacy of tone is combined with a deceptively reductive configuration. In a sense Bohnen is one of those artists who might have been abstract a few years ago, but whose concern with process and kinesthesia make the term “abstract” seem marginal now.

Her work procedure goes like this: with sanded sticks of graphite she works downward, applying pressure from above the paper. The surface of the graphite is so sensitive that it is necessary to use a pad of spongy newsprint as backing. Glass is too hard; it brings out irregularities in the paper. And smooth masonite conjures up unwanted cloudy patches. The exceptional responsiveness of the interface of paper and hand means that there can be no working over, no revisions. And of course the movement of hand, wrist, and arm, backed up by the body’s weight as the artist leans across the paper, is kinesthetic. The path of the graphite at its sharpest edge or in its most voluminous curve is characterized by pressures that are allusive to body movement. To quote the artist: “Shifts in body weight create tone,” thus physicalizing the work process.

Bohnen affirms the human origin of the mark in motion. In her notes she refers to “laws of motion that make similar patterns in clouds, marble, cream in coffee.” And: “My marks are as interesting as cloud patterns, cream swirls in coffee, or raindrop intersections, oil spills.” This sense of morphological law, rather than of “pure” form, no less than her kinesiology, separates her drawings from abstract art. Human origin and physical law are present as content.

Though Bohnen’s interest in the stroke as the constituent unit of art is constant, her development has been marked by a passage from wet to dry. She made a series of gestural brushstroke paintings which rested securely on a measured procedure. Using a full brush loaded with even, fairly creamy paint, she created forms that were literally brushstrokes. The directional flow of the paint is clearly given and can be seen turning into textural patches where the brush is lifted or turned. The stroke dried unevenly, according to variations in the thickness of the paint. Bohnen rinsed the strokes with water before they were fully dry, qualifying gestural directness by a kind of archaeological excavation of the paint deposit. The dousing increases one’s sense of constituent matter, as it emphasizes the furrows of the brush-hairs and reveals the dried threads of adhesive paint. It will be seen that Bohnen is not passive in the least in her handling of materials, but she is scrupulous in maintaining a two-way connection between material and mark. By comparison Kline, with his big-brushed images, amended by small-brushed touches, is only approximating a gesturally based art.

A few of the brushstroke paintings carried forms scattered over the surface, but Bohnen usually set them in rows. No grid is drawn or painted, but one is implied by the regular placing of similarly sized strokes. She felt constrained by the rectangularity of the traditional picture format compared to the materiality of her concerns, but paradoxically an implied grid, the negative space between forms, released her from the problem. Each stroke had its own center and its own legible sequence of steps in its formation. As Bohnen put it: “I use just the number of units that implies multiplicity but encourages concentrated analysis of each form. I don’t use a field in which a seemingly infinite number transcend themselves.” She continues to use paired forms and modular layouts in her graphite drawings where the regularity of measure clarifies the differentiation of forms. In the brushstrokes the process of gesture is, so to speak, arrested and savored. There is a sense of interruption. In the graphite drawings, however, there is no distinction possible between gesture and image. Strokes may be fast or slow and hence more or less dense or grainy, but a single envelope contains both the initiating gesture and the entity of the work. Her materially engendered forms have absorbed fully her decision-making process.

Lawrence Alloway



1. All quotations are from unpublished notes by the artist, 1969–1976.