PRINT November 1977

Issues in Pattern Painting

PATTERN PAINTING IS NON-MINIMALIST, non-sexist, historically conscious, sensuous, romantic, rational, decorative. Its methods, motifs, and referents cross cultural and class lines. Virtually everyone takes some delight in patterning, the modernist taboo against the decorative notwithstanding. As a new painting style, pattern painting, like patterning itself, is two-dimensional, nonhierarchical, allover, a-centric, and aniconic. It has its roots in modernist art, but contradicts some of the basic tenets of the faith, attempting to assimilate aspects of Western and non-Western culture not previously allowed into the realms of high art.

Pattern painting does not necessarily obviate or preempt other possibilities. It does, however, seem to be the most vital of several new directions for painting at this time.1 An artist-generated movement that presents serious critical problems, it may signal a major change in taste. Naked surfaces are being filled in; lifeless redundancy is being replaced by lively fields that engage the eye as well as the mind. The grids of Minimal-type painting are being transformed into nets or lattices for the drawing out of patterns that are sensuous and that have content that goes beyond self-reference and the immediate art context, although including both. As a structure and a process, patterning allows a greater complexity of visual experience than most non-realist, advanced painting of the recent past.

It is helpful to see a new artistic style in terms of both continuity and discontinuity with other styles, not simply, as some would have it, in terms either of tradition or revolt. New art exists within history, because it both continues the past and breaks with it; also because it is made within a contemporary context and by individuals who themselves exist within history. Cultural need contributes to a new style as well, providing its ground. For some time some have felt that what we need is an art that will acknowledge Third World art and/or those forms traditionally thought of as women’s work: an art that will enliven a sterile environment, an art that offers direct meaning without sacrificing visual sophistication, an art that will express something other than withdrawal, scientism, or solipsism. It can be claimed with considerable justification that pattern painting is precisely that kind of art.

Pattern painting, although it violates standard modernist taste—and that violation is the major form of its historical discontinuity—did not appear from nowhere. It has many sources, not the least of which are what has been called systemic painting, grid painting, Minimalist painting. In terms of continuity, pattern painting can be seen as a logical outgrowth of allover painting (Jackson Pollock) and grid painting (Agnes Martin), both of which broke with relational composition (Picasso, Mondrian)—grid painting itself being a rationalized, geometric extrapolation from allover painting and/or an analysis of its substructure. On the other hand, it is perfectly possible for some to continue to see pattern painting as a betrayal of this line of thought. That it is antipuritanical, that it has direct referents and therefore direct content, and that it is not rigidly self-referring represent important obstacles for some who might otherwise be able to see pattern painting adding remarkable possibilities for art. But these very “obstacles” are why pattern painting is necessary and generative. Like what was once touted as Lyrical Abstraction, pattern painting is allover painting and to some extent a kind of color field painting. Yet, unlike Lyrical Abstraction, it has structure. It also has content: it refers to patterning in the world. And for many it is even a feminist or pro-feminist statement, thanks to associations with decorative art. Furthermore, pattern painting is unashamedly decorative.

Whether painterly (Robert Zakanitch, Cynthia Carlson) or non-painterly (Valerie Jaudon, Mario Yrisarry), floral (Zakanitch, Robert Kushner, Kim MacConnel) or totally abstract (Jaudon, Yrissary, Joyce Kozloff), pattern painting challenges accepted notions of the division between fine art and the decorative arts. Whether quoted from, or at least based upon, historical patterning systems (Kozloff)—Islamic, Far Eastern, Celtic, Native American, et al.—or invented (Kendall Shaw, Jerry Clapsaddle), the use of patterning acknowledges, usually intentionally, the decorative function of art. That is a use of art that even Minimal/Conceptual art does not entirely manage to circumvent, since the empty canvas, the typed document, or the photo-joke still ends up over someone’s sofa. Performances and video art are the only nondecorative—and nonobject—art modes, but it remains to be seen if their limits can be transcended, given a limited public and the ephemeral nature of both types of art. For the decorative qualities of works of art ironically assist their longevity and their preservation as much as they court the vicissitudes (and boredom) of fashions.

Pattern painting is part of a larger tendency that could be labeled “The New Decorativeness.” Some artists, starting with an interest in patterning, have come to accept the decorative aspect of the results of their interest. Other artists, primarily interested in challenging the decorative taboo, have quite naturally employed patterning as a means toward effecting that challenge, since patterning is an almost universal decorative device.

Patterning shares one important characteristic with recent abstract painting: in whatever form it takes it is flat. Pictorial space is at a minimum. Now a great deal of the anti-decorative bias has nothing at all to do with a defense of seriousness, but is an effort to claim a uniqueness for “mainstream” abstraction in regard to flatness, dogmatically disassociating it from its roots in the decorative arts.2 But there is obviously no good reason why a painting cannot be both decorative and meaningful. The decorative is not necessarily the ornamental, and it may indeed have content. In the case of Islamic patterning, the content is often of a high religious and philosophical order that is unmatched by all but very few works of modernist abstraction.

In the past, within Western high art, artists have used pattern as one of many elements in a painting. Portraiture has been particularly rich in this regard, since the socio-economic status of the subject could be demonstrated by the representation of expensive garments and possessions, many of which were patterned in fashionable, intricate and/or exotic ways. Pattern painting brings this and other uses and depictions of pattern into renewed consciousness.

Modern art itself has not been immune. Patterning in the works of Gauguin and Klimt, and in many works of Matisse, is used as visual texture and for the evocation of luxury, voluptuousness, or the foreign. There is, furthermore, the hint of visual rhyme between the woven cloth that is the canvas itself and the patterned fabric that is depicted upon that cloth. The descriptive and semi-descriptive use of patterning within modernism thus often plays with flatness and provides the tension of a flirtation with decorativeness.

In the realm of present-day realism, Philip Pearlstein often portrays his studio nudes positioned on patterned rugs; Sylvia Sleigh displays a fondness for William Morris wallpaper and for patterns of all kinds, lovingly presented. One could provide countless examples of the use of patterns in painting, but in most instances pattern is only one element among many, and usually not the most important one. What is different about pattern painting is that it offers patterning itself.

What makes the use of patterning in pattern painting different from patterning in what is usually referred to as the useful arts—weaving, mosaic, and so on—and especially in the art of non-Western cultures, is in part the use of pigment on canvas, but also, and more importantly, intention and context. The intention is to make a high-art or fine-art statement within a contemporary context by referring to, and utilizing, what to many still remains within the world of non-art.

Actually, pattern painting presents a non-art look that is startling. Is it a fabric design or a painting? This non-art quality can be associated with the “startlingness” of new art in general, which may be as good a definition of what used to be called “avant-garde” as any other. One way that art proceeds—it does not progress—is by the inclusion of methods, materials, systems, attitudes, or even subjects previously thought of as non-artistic. The new art that is going to add something to the already overloaded accumulation of art experiences, art objects, and art history usually does not look like the art we are already used to. When first seen it causes a double-take.

The double-take effect begins with the Readymades of Marcel Duchamp. It depends a great deal upon context. A bottle-rack would have little or no effect in a junk shop, but placed in an art context and considered as art, it reverberates; and by questioning, art becomes art. Its presence is a dislocation of expectations, so the first response is one of doubt. Since Duchamp this doubt has been provoked over and over again—by Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimal Art, Conceptual Art, Photo-Realism, and now pattern painting. The double-take effect has to do with cognitive readjustment—the time it takes to convert one “set” into another, the shift from seeing something as non-art to seeing it as art. Pattern painting does indeed look like wallpaper, at first.

Nevertheless, pattern painting comes in many shapes, sizes, and formats. The materials are also various. Cynthia Carlson favors impasto. In her Wallpaper Pieces she has abandoned the canvas altogether, affixing the thick acrylic motifs directly to the wall. Robert Kushner paints robes that are sometimes worn in fashion show performances before they are hung, unstretched, as “paintings” or decorations. Miriam Shapiro uses collage materials.3 Tina Girouard, who quite early exhibited an unorthodox interest in commercial patterning with her linoleum floor pieces, uses stencils in her recent paintings, employing literal “patterns” (stencils) to make pattern paintings. Mario Yrissary for many years has deftly wielded the air-brush to create large and technically daring expanses of sensuous variations on the grid. Kim MacConnel often paints patterns on chunky used furniture. What connects all these artists, and many others, is the use of patterning.

Although most of us can recognize patterning when we see it, it is difficult to define. The usual definition is the most serviceable one, however. Pattern is the systematic repetition of a motif or motifs used to cover a surface uniformly. One recent critic insists that it is the intervals between the motifs that are the defining factor.4 There is some truth in this, particularly concerning the simple patterning of fabrics and wallpaper that involves the use of the “brick” or the “half-drop” grid and when the motifs are fairly well separated by a blank ground. But using the intervals between motifs as the defining factor is inadequate. The only virtue in that is that the term “interval” can then be used to associate patterning with music. Certainly there is a relationship, whether conscious or not, between pattern painting and the relatively tonal “avant-garde” music of such composers as Phil Glass, Steve Reich and Terry Riley, a music that involves degrees of repetition not usually permitted in Western music. This kind of music is sometimes referred to as “trance” music, or else as the aural equivalent of Minimal art, but it can just as easily be seen as the aural equivalent of pattern painting, particularly since its overall textural feeling approaches “prettiness” in a way that the music of John Cage does not.

Anyway, the spaces between motifs are either other motifs or are an integral part of the repeat. Furthermore, the interval theory is of little or no use in describing Islamic tessellation, interlocking motifs, vermiculation, interlacing, fretwork, or the kinds of patterns that can be derived from networks or lattices created by superimposing several grids.

Most texts on patterning, ranging from Islamic high art to the strictly commercial, identify the grid as the basis of all patterning. With the possible exception of the mandala (if indeed the mandala is a “pattern”), this is undoubtedly correct. Patterning may have begun with the marking out on bone or rock of astronomical phenomena, but it is more likely that weaving is its true source. The lines of warp and weft or of interwoven reeds make up the primordial square or block grid. This is what we usually mean when we speak of grids in contemporary art, ordinary graph paper being a ubiquitous example. The block grid in itself is not a pattern, but from it patterns can easily be derived—although Islamic tradition prefers the idea that patterns are discovered within grids rather than invented. Magic squares are sometimes the basis for elaborate patterns and motifs, but a simple process of counting will serve to illustrate: by coloring in every other square in a grid of squares, working continuously from left to right and top to bottom, if the number of squares in each row is odd, a checkerboard pattern will emerge, and if the number of squares in each row of squares is even, the result will be a series of stripes. From such simple procedures enormous systems are built.

Islamic patterning systems are probably the most complicated and most symbolic in the world. The approach is Pythagorean, neo-Platonic, and physiognomic. Regular polygons, for instance, have specific meanings that are seen as innate.5 Here it is interesting to note a connection between Islamic abstract patterning and the early theosophically influenced ideas about nonobjective art in the writings of both Mondrian and Kandinsky, the pioneers of totally abstract art in modernism.

In the Islamic theory of patterning there are only three basic grids: the block grid (squares), the isometric grid (equilateral triangles), and the hexagonal grid. These are made up of the only regular polygons that can be arranged to cover a flat surface completely. However, a further reduction can be obtained, since the hexagonal grid can be derived from the isometric grid. Grids are the basis of nets or lattices which in turn are the basis of artistic patterns. All lattices are themselves patterns. In terms of grids, only the block grid is not a pattern—but, even here, if the grid is rotated 45 degrees it immediately becomes a diamond pattern. A text on commercial patterns lists eight basic grids: square, brick, half-drop, diamond, triangle, ogee, hexagon, and scale.6 These can be reduced to the two basic grids of Islamic patterning quite easily.

Another text classifies patterns by motifs, listing eight categories: animals, enigmas, figures, florals, geometric, novelties, scenics, textures.7 There are certainly many more. One becomes aware of unusual motifs: a log being sawed (on pajamas), a moon landing complete with free-floating astronaut and earth-rise, a housedress patterned with pink chains on a yellow ground. The text already referred to illustrates not only “Bizarre Silks” made in early 18th-century Venice, but also patterns with the following motifs: dog heads, a man sowing grain, Gibson Girl faces, skeletons, and “paintings” showing Canadian scenes.

But patterning, even when using floral or other representational motifs, is usually nonillusionistic. The repetitions flatten out the space. Minor exceptions are Op art patterns, which, since they are impossible to look at for any length of time, are unsuccessful as patterns. Interlacing, in which “thickened lines” seem to move over and under each other in closed or open “knots” or elaborate “weaves:” might be seen as the major exception: if so, it only presents the slightest illusionism and one that constantly reaffirms the surface. Frank Stella’s “Protractor” series of paintings borrows this device (some of his paintings are patternlike, but they are not pattern painting, since the regular repetitions serve another end, that of underlining the objectness of the paintings).8 Among the pattern painters, a full-fledged interlacing is, however, used quite successfully, by Valerie Jaudon, whose invented patterns to some extent refer to Islamic and Celtic interlace. Jaudon’s paintings, like most other examples of pattern painting, have referents and therefore content.

Indeed, one of the most significant aspects of pattern painting is content. The usual resolution of the form-versus-content argument is to demonstrate that form is content, implying the physiognomic. That is quite in keeping with Islamic theory of patterning, but it is as a resolution far too often used at the expense of other kinds of meaning where content is the product of a relationship between a sign and its referent, and where intention and context must be taken into account. The extremely limited and limiting notion that art—or if not all art, then at least the best art—can only be defined, and should only be defended, in terms of its self-referring qualities (“formalism”) is virtually useless. The most vital art to emerge in the ’70s is no doubt in large part a reaction against formalistic views, and displays in one way or another a concern with content. Perhaps the apparent meaninglessness of the political events of the turn of the decade has provoked a desire for meaning in art? Social concern and feminism have had a strong impact. Pattern painting, like some socially aware concept art and like some new forms of realist art, is as concerned with meaning as it is with form.

That most patterning has always been abstract, examples of representational patterning notwithstanding, also means that once we get rid of our cultural bias against Third World art, “decorative” art, and traditional women’s art, we may be able to break down the superficial elitism of Western abstract art. Patterning could be more of an art of the people than most forms of social realism. One characteristic of significant new art is that it calls attention to aspects of the world previously invisible to, or not attended to by consciousness. Pattern painting does that. One becomes pattern-conscious.

John Perreault is curator of the exhibition “Pattern Painting,” which will be on view at Project Studios One, Long Island City, from November 13 through December 4, 1977.



1. Some of my thoughts on pattern painting were suggested by my work as guest curator of an exhibition at P.S. 1 entitled “Pattern Painting” (November 13 to December 4, 1977) featuring the work of over 20 artists. The exhibition might be subtitled “An Interim Survey.” It calls attention to individual accomplishment and documents the great range of possibilities within the pattern painting style.

2. See Joseph Masheck’s “The Carpet Paradigm: Critical Prolegomena to a Theory of Flatness,” Arts, September 1976, for a detailed discussion of flatness in terms of the “decorative” arts as genesis.

3. Jeff Perrone, in “Approaching the Decorative,” Artforum, December 1976, is struck several times by the collage analogy in a discussion that relates to the present one.

4. Amy Goldin, “Patterns, Grids, and Painting,”Artforum, September 1975. Amy Goldin is an early and sensitive supporter of the kind of art under discussion.

5. David Wade, Pattern in Islamic Art, 1976, is the best book I found on Islamic patterning, a complicated subject to say the least. In one instance, however, Plato’s symbolism of polyhedrons (Timaeus) is misquoted.

6. Richard M. Proctor, The Principles of Pattern, New York, 1969.

7. William Justema, Pattern: A Historical Point of View, Boston, 1976

8. Ibid. p.88: “Although none of these paintings by Frank Stella could be called formal pattern, the artist has employed such pattern devices as recurring intervals, element rotation, overlapping and symmetry.” Jean Lipman’s slim but amusing Provocative Parallels (New York, 1975) juxtaposes Stella’s Gran Cairo with a traditional pieced quilt, c. 1875. Solutions to different problems may produce similar results. Some pattern painters, such as Robin Lehrer, however, have gone directly to traditional patchwork quilt designs.