PRINT April 1978

Alfred Jensen: Systems Mystagogue

THE PAINT’S VERY THICK in these pictures, and the systems have their own kind of density, even though some of them are familiar. But the issue is not whether Alfred Jensen’s painted systems are cryptic or commonplace, for the convention behind them all easily becomes clear with a little effort. They’re all decipherable, although cosmic in their implications: and maybe the fact that they are readily decipherable means they’re simplistic—that they oversimplify the cosmos. Rather, the issue is the way even the most intellectually and esthetically engaging paintings seem pointless. Whatever complication results from their coordination of number, word, color and form seems to carry arbitrarily dense meaning.

Jensen wants to make us, in Emerson’s fine phrase, “intimate with Unity.” But diagramming is not an intimate means to unity, even less the vast concordance of diagrams which Jensen typically offers us. Jensen overloads his relatively simple visual systems with intellectual meanings and cosmic intentions—this is especially true in the number pieces. This is a freight they not only cannot carry lightly, but which becomes a dead weight on the wisdom they mean to impart. In Jensen, it’s the simple visual systems that initiate us into the mysteries of cosmic truth, not the overlay of complex intellectual systems. On one level, then, Jensen is a taxidermist and collector of old, sometimes esoteric, systems of thought, of generalizing experience. He skins and stuffs them with his own enthusiasm and mock—or so it seems next to real erudition—pedantry, and hangs them from his pictorial system like so many trophies.

Yet, on another level, he creates a pictorial system which does transcend its own formal definition by the energy of its color, a color, in fact, which actually does what the intellectual overlay was meant to do—initiate us into the cosmic system, give us a cosmic consciousness. The intellectual overlay is to the force of the color as the dead Letter is to the living Spirit: it’s the latter that carries the former, not vice versa. Without the momentum of color, Jensen’s pictures would simply be schematic displays of pretended cosmic constancies. It is form for Jensen: he would certainly agree with Stanton MacDonald-Wright’s assertion that “a composition of form is an organization of color,” and his works in general seem like systematized, and at times pulverized, Synchromism. Even so, with color he overcomes the inertia and platitudinousness of the intellectual systems, and the pictorial congestion they create comes to seem playful and to suggest a certain elation of form. The meanings numb the pictures, but the impasto color restores their circulation. In fact the impasto, which was clumsy and tacky in the early works, and which was applied for technical reasons (Jensen thought normally applied oil paint would sink into the canvas with time and create a glassy surface), creates a heaviness which countermands the heaviness of the systems. So intent is Jensen in forcing “significance” upon us—so much does he barbarically make a fetish of profundity and proclaim the old war whoop of primordiality—that he neglects to realize that what he himself called, in the title of one of his works, “color magic” does all the work of meaning.

The meaning is obviously transcendental, and the color functions transcendentally, but not just because, as it sometimes seems from Jensen’s use, it cosmetically brightens the corpse of system, but because, as Emerson said of Transcendentalism, it signifies “the Saturnalia or excess of faith.” The color communicates Jensen’s childlike faith in cosmic order, his excitement at its perception, its important personal place in his life. Color makes the cosmic order—which it itself is a part of—resonant and immediate, tangible and urgent; it forces it upon us, as if, were it not forced upon us, we would miss something in ourselves. Jensen, then, is not a detached contemplator of an immutable cosmos, but the excited observer of a cosmos that builds change into its structure, a man finding in the cosmic dynamic an objective correlative for his own passion, and in this sense appropriating that dynamic for his own identity. This, to me, is one of the most striking, happy features of Jensen’s works: they are openly personal, as he tells us in the very first work of the show, My Oneness, a Universe of Colours, 1957. This superficially simple work is complicated by the primitive, self-conscious character of a circle of colors, labored, handwritten quotations, and finally—as though, along with the title, a clue to it all—the words Self-identity and Self-integration.

My Oneness is clearly a credo, as is A Film Ringed the Earth, 1961, dealing with the first space flight. That work, a composite of the New York Times article on the flight and crude diagrammatic articulations of some of the “visions” it produced, seems to have the status in Jensen’s oeuvre of the visionary text that Pascal kept tucked in his sleeve, where it was found at his death. This, Jensen’s visionary picture about vision, carefully dated (12-IV-1961) as if to confirm its momentous and personal importance, tells us a good deal about his attitude and ideas. The headline seems to tell us the one—“Gagarin Floated, Ate and Sang in Ecstasy on Trip into Space”—while the handwritten headlines seem to tell us the other: “In space the polarities separate and again unite when a boundary of darkness to light is crossed”; “First space-man sees color along the spherical shape of the earth”; “Gagarin seeing the horizon from the bright surface of the earth sees a delicate blue color. Gagarin emerging [sic] from the shadow of the earth sees the horizon a bright orange strip along it.” Color is pervasive, based on personal position, and ecstatically perceived, where ecstasy has the weight of its original etymological meaning, a standing-out: the perception of the dynamic in the static. Jensen as it were identifies with Gagarin and reconstitutes what is for Jensen the most essential aspect of his experience—the sheer lyricism of perception in space, a lyricism premised on the direct experience of color as an oscillation between poles, the direction of such movement determining the very nature of the color as well as its quality.

In his essay on “Experience” Emerson wrote that “all good conversation, manners and action come from a spontaneity which forgets usages and makes the moment great.” With Jensen, the spontaneity of perception generates standard usages, and the great moments in art do not—cannot—forget these usages, but renew and restore their spontaneity. Part of this comes from personalizing these usages—in the case of Jensen, recovering what MacDonald-Wright calls the “emotional space” of each color. Jensen does this when he sees the circle of colors as the circle of his own ego—not simply an emblem of it, but as though it were actually structured that way, much as—as Jensen himself notes writing about his Mayan calendar pictures—the Mayans meant their temples to be a literal transposition of the structure of heavenly movement. For Jensen, it is only in an ecstatic state that one can see the equivalence. In Jensen, the old idea that the perception of facts interferes with our wonder at their sheer givenness does not work: the perception and the wonder mutually ground each other. The fact of color in his art has both operational and ontological status. Ecstatic wonder is the very instrument of color perception.

Jensen’s calculatedly childlike wonder at such primary phenomena as color and time, and their correlation, as well as at the cosmic verities in general and the rhythmic way they unfold, pulsing in a polarized construction, suggests a larger naiveté. He is not only methodologically naive, like a systems buff recalculating systems the way the Douanier Rousseau “recalculated” reality, as if it were impossible to lose hold of it by taking it step by step, but he is also culturally naive. It is not only that the modular units become color corpuscles, as if we could thereby intensify universality, but that the systems are meant to signify a return to first principles, a provincial missionary zeal leading us out of our civilized wilderness. Jensen is one of those marvelous, ingenuous types our country seems regularly to produce: transcendentalists who spring us from the trap of our civilized preoccupations, who remind us of the eternal in the midst of the transient, and who make the eternal seem more of an adventure than the domestic preoccupations of our everyday lives. They remind us of our original freshness,as it were, the freshness before our fall to the banal, and of the grace we had before we were concerned about the ordinary. Emerson’s concluding paragraph puts the whole situation very well:

Amidst the downward tendency and proneness of things, when every voice is raised for a new road or another statute or a subscription of stock; for an improvement in dress, or in dentistry; for a new house or a larger business; for a political party, or the division of an estate;—will you not tolerate one or two solitary voices in the land, speaking for thoughts and principles not marketable or perishable? Soon these improvements and mechanical inventions will be superseded; these modes of living lost out of memory; these cities rotted, ruined by war, by new inventions, by new seats of trade, or the geologic changes:—all gone, like the shells which sprinkle the sea-beach with a white colony today, forever renewed to be forever destroyed. But the thoughts which these few hermits strove to proclaim by silence as well as by speech, not only by what they did, but by what they forbore to do, shall abide in beauty and strength, to reorganize themselves in nature, to invest themselves anew in other, perhaps higher endowed and happier mixed clay than ours, in fuller union with the surrounding system.

Jensen does mean to have a “fuller union with the surrounding system,” and he is one of those solitary, hermit voices bespeaking first principles and cosmic thoughts hardly heard in this country. Now in his 70s, he has never had a major retrospective before, despite the enthusiastic endorsement of his work by Allan Kaprow and Donald Judd. Only in Europe has he had major recognition—like Tobey, another artist with a cosmic bent, and like Poe, also romantically obsessed with systems, to the point of nervous breakdown. Europe, for all its presumed over-civilization, still seems to have a place for artists who make an emotional return to cosmic essentials, who emotionally invest in the transcendentally abstract and thereby make it concrete. To take the transcendental personally has become a mistake in today’s cool abstraction, with its presumably redeeming crudity (which is mild and innate to the material) of surface. But in Jensen the systems are like artifacts uncovered during a dig into the depths of emotion, and the surface, an aroused encrustation signaling the upheaval caused by the dig and its discoveries.

The personal note is struck repeatedly in Jensen, perhaps most climactically in The Family Portrait, 1975. What we seem to have here explicitly, and elsewhere implicitly, is the use of system as a sanctuary away from the banal world. To commit oneself to system is to escape from the smaller to a larger world, while at the same time affirming the intimate systems that are of value to one, that permit one to preserve oneself, in the smaller world, and that thus have a larger significance which links up with that of the larger world. Transcendence to the cosmos thus becomes an intimate act, continuous with one’s important intimacies in the common world. And the creation and firm establishment of intimacy is the ecstatic acknowledgment of unity for Jensen, so that in a sense the psychic reaching out to cosmic unity becomes an apotheosis of intimacy, as much as it does an affirming of absolute values. If we conceive of Jensen’s work as involving, to use an old term, a participation mystique in cosmic unity, we can say that the first step toward unity is intellectual participation in the system, with the second and final step emotional participation in the color—which gives the system its momentum, its mystique. The sheer physicality of the color lifts the intellectual system into cosmic place. The color generates personal empathy for the abstract system, while at the same time demonstrating its concreteness.

Jensen’s belief in the continuity between individual and cosmos is reified in his field conception of painting, and in his acknowledgment of Faraday as the source of this conception (See Mr. Faraday’s Diagram 1975). Faraday was indeed the inventor of the field concept. He wrote: “I do not perceive in any part of space, whether (to use the common phrase) vacant or filled with matter, anything but forces and the lines in which they are exerted.” (He originated also the concept of lines of force; in Maxwell these become vectors.) Einstein and Infeld, using Faraday’s conception, assert that “the properties of the field alone appear to be essential for the description of phenomena; the differences in source do not matter.” This has been taken, in some quarters, as an argument for the priority of energy over matter, indeed, for the nonexistence of matter. It simply becomes a certain density of energy, which is already structured (polarized). It has thus been said that an object is simply a sign of energy, in a certain configuration, and “at a position called the surface” of the object the field changes, while continuing within the object.

That Jensen is aware of these ideas is shown by the uniformity of the color field he establishes, and its clear articulation as a field of energy (much systemic art does not show its grid explicitly energized) and by the way, as in Men and Horses, 1963, he uses objects to register changes in the force of the field, almost as if they were seismographs. It is not simply that he gives us vibrating color, which French art has been interested in from early Impressionism to late Cezanne, but that he gives it to us systematically—more so than Seurat—and as a sign of universal energy. In Seurat color is not altogether candid because it is still representational. In Jensen it is simultaneously representational and abstract, but what it represents is the “objectivity” of the field of universal energy, and its abstractness is simply the presentational mode of this objectivity. It is not, as in Seurat, the source of any illusion of nature, but the ultimate reality of nature. Color is the ultimate reification of energy, and the system of color the ultimate reification of the field. The idea of the systematic continuum of the field is crucial for Jensen, and his treatment of its inner surfaces—its structure is often like a Chinese box system for him—as so many tensions within an uninterrupted flow of energy shows the inherent “expressivity” of the field. That is, as it extends it charges whatever object it encounters with its own momentum, so that the object appears to emerge from the field—appears as a series of inner surfaces “empathetically” involved in the field, rather than as an independent entity. The object becomes a contingent moment within an eternal field, and as such is altogether absorbed. In Jensen’s latest works the field is present without qualification.

Marcia Tucker’s catalogue essay tries hard to depict Jensen’s work as a fusion of art and science, in the manner of Leonardo. This just doesn’t come off. Jensen’s observations are minimal compared to Leonardo’s and his pictures are not, as Leonardo’s in a sense were, testable theories. Jensen’s work has more to do with religion than science, in the sense in which William James wrote of religion in the Varieties of Religious Experience (on which, incidentally, Varieties of Artistic Experience could easily be modeled). There, extending Pierce’s principle of pragmatism, James argues that the attainment of belief is of pragmatic importance for the individual involved. It gives him the integrity, the integration—“selfidentity,” “self-integration” or “unity” of self, as Jensen called it—necessary to act. It gives him, one might say, using James’s term, the “active habit” of self. Jensen’s mandalalike images are clearly meant to be self-images as well as cosmic images: the mandala form traditionally codifies both, articulating their simultaneity. The fundamentality and simplicity of the form stands for the fundamentality and simplicity of the self, once achieved, once precipitated out of the life process—the cosmic process. In this sense, the self and the cosmos can be “deduced” from one another. Once again, ecstatic art is used to reinforce—“enforce”—belief and self-belief, its impulsiveness absorbed in a system which confirms the dignity of the self .

Donald B. Kuspit is professor of art history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The Alfred Jensen retrospective, which opened at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, in January, will be on view at the New Museum, New York, from March 18 to April 21. From there it will travel to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; the Museum of Contemporary Art, La Jolla: the University of Colorado Museum, Boulder; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.