PRINT October 1981


CERTAIN WORDS EXEMPLIFY THEIR OWN meanings—“undernourished” is not a slender word, but “thin” and “slim” are; “polysyllabic” is just that. Gary Stephan, Stephen Mueller, and Bill Jensen make images that contain what they refer to. They seek a unity of paint and image: the irregular surfaces and organic forms employed by all three painters encourage external associations, but first of all, they form icons of painted-ness. “Viscous,” “diaphanous,” “efflorescent,” “biomorphic,” and “vaporous” are applicable to the works of all three—these adjectives refer as readily to material states of paint and pigment as they do to certain states of metaphor and allusion.

The form of abstraction that Stephan, Mueller, and Jensen have brought to fruition over the last ten years almost fully subverts and reverses the tenets of abstract painting still prevalent in New York when they arrived there at the close of the ’60s. All three have opted for a centralized image and variegated surface arrayed in a panoply of color rather than a homogenized surface that seeks a unity and identity with its support. Their paintings give preference to image over object, to presence over process, to perception over conception—they are more referential than self-reflexive, and prefer the embrace of metaphor to the strictures and structures of methodology. Nevertheless, all three artists are knowing enough to paint the opposite without giving up the contrary. The emphatic frontality and physicality so important to abstract painting since the ’50s has not been rejected, but has been transformed. They paint real illusions.

The amount and intensity of associativeness varies from artist to artist. Stephan tends to restrain and shroud allusion in cloaks of lunar starkness. Mueller seduces allusiveness—a multiplicity of strokes simultaneously resolves and dissolves the image in an amoebic delirium of paint. Jensen’s forms bristle and pulsate to the point where image threatens to consume paint.

The formation of centralized imagery relates these three artists more to overtly figurative painters such as Michael Tetherow or Philip Guston in his late years than to the many younger abstractionists anxious to break through the surface plane but reluctant to relinquish its overallness. Their figuration resonates with natural references in a shallow space tolerant of illusion, and resembles works by Arshile Gorky and the early works of the Abstract Expressionists, as they sought to move from the personal fantasies of the Surrealists toward a more general and painterly penetration of the surface and the spirit. Although the early works of artists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock tend to remain horizon-bound and are frequently narrative, some of Barnett Newman’s drawings from 1945 are remarkably similar in their vortex-like imagery and flat space to ink-and-brush drawings done by Mueller several years ago. Conversely, Stephan Mueller, and Jensen will, on occasion, permit a greater illusion of depth than that which normally holds their upright images in tension with the plane of the surface. Jensen is not averse to making an actual landscape emblazoned with one of his totemic forms turned on its side.

If the return to an organic, abstract figuration relates to works by Joan Miró, Gorky, and the early works of the Abstract Expressionists, the physicality of surface that all three artists insist upon is mindful of abstract painting since the ’50s. Like the late work of Pollock himself, their images seem to metamorphose out of the materiality of paint.

Not just a physicality that punctuates the surface plane, but a physicality that openly acknowledges the hand and takes full responsibility for its acts, even takes pleasure in them. So much art since the mid-’50s has sought the transparency of logic and the irrefutability of an object and has abstained from the pleasures of the hand because they mystify rather than de-mystify. Stephan and Mueller and Jensen all have integrated a more traditional engagement with the senses—theirs is an art more of celebration than of cerebration. They have done this without defensiveness, avoiding chic pastiche, disjunctive quotations, and unnecessary “dumbness.” It is, after all, the development of the skills of the hand, most specifically, the thumb, which is one of the clearest marks of humankind’s evolutionary history. Acts of the hand may be indecipherable, but they need not be incomprehensible.

These three artists are not an amalgamated “neo-,” “post-,” or “-ism”—they are not interested in infecting us with a new strain of art virus. They share certain concerns with a number of other, younger abstract painters such as Robin Bruch, Terry Winters, and Tip Dunham, whose interest in figuration calls into question many of the accepted distinctions between “abstract” and “figurative.” An “abstract” torsolike shape that has frequently appeared in Stephan’s work bears a strong resemblance in form and surface to Michael Tetherow’s “figurative” visages.

Jensen’s development as an artist has been quite solitary, although he and Mueller share a marked predilection for spiraling configurations and a varied palette that favors hothouse harmonies. Stephan and Mueller have had a more direct exchange over the last five years, which has occasioned the simultaneous appearance of related forms and strokes in the work of each. All three arrived from divergent paths.

Of the three artists, Gary Stephan is the least tolerant of allusions—he speaks of events rather than images, and of his quest for a general language of painting containing normal shapes. His figures of paint are often more like models of metaphors than metaphors themselves, and his analytical bent restrains the referential potential of his organic forms and hard-won painterliness. Stephan’s early work, from 1968 to 1973, reflects his interest in late Matisse cutouts and Cubist collage. He rejected field painting and the “toughness” of much American art, but integrated a desire for objectlike clarity into his increasingly simplified topographical constructions incorporating the wall in multiple reversals of figure and ground. One of the last of these works is constructed from a rectangular sheet of plywood that has a section of a circle cut from the right side, painted, and joined to the left side, out of which a small rectangle has been cut, painted, and shifted, in order to abut the center of the missing right edge. The simplicity of the operations encourages the viewer to reconstruct the original rectangle and to complete, on the wall, the geometric shapes implied by the cutouts. Simultaneously, the work strives to resolve itself into an image—it almost locks into a bulletlike emblem.

Tension between image and construction is characteristic of all of Stephan’s work since 1973. As the work has become increasingly painterly, form has become more assertive, but the full resolution of a unified image is always frustrated by a multiplicity of conflicting depth cues. In 1973 Stephan started to work on linen and canvas, using a variety of shaped supports of hybrid geometric forms that hold their interior figures in geometric interdependence—rather like a mathematical Miró. After 1975 geometry increasingly dissolved in paint and the figure congealed into a more resonant and intuitive presence on a conventional rectangular support—alchemical titles mark the shift to the realm of liquid transformation. By 1977 the figure approached an actual figure and acquired a purely metaphorical relationship to the support. A number of paintings employ a torsolike form swinging into the canvas from an arm(ature) parallel to the vertical edge of the support. The shape and proportion of the figure are almost like a distorted perspectival reflection of the support itself. The clear contour of the figure encourages a gestalt, but this is almost immediately denied by an amalgam of interior contradictions. The edge that reads the most distant perspectivally is forced forward by a crusty edge of paint, the central flatness of the torso flows into a volumetric cone, and the space between the arm and the torso has a denser physicality than the torso itself. The figure is eroded by space and dissolved by paint. This liquid ambiguity has been continually refined since ’77—edges have more bite, transitions flow more smoothly, color and light have become more intense. The physicality of the paint that was earlier often overstated and too indebted to Ralph Humphrey became more integral to the painting. The increasing sophistication of the handling of paint and the radical shifts of ground into surface owe something to Manet, as well as to El Greco and Tintoretto. The density and clarity of color was partially catalyzed by the quattrocento Florentines.

The torsolike figure that began to appear in 1977 approaches the general form that Stephan intends. Although its residual content cannot be denied, it is emblematic—more a vessel for paint than for emotions. The paintings of ’78 and ’79 began to splay and flay the torso back toward the crucifixion, and a number of paintings vibrate with floral and insect associations—flowers and insects whose structure is printed like circuitry on their surface. The most recent work is considerably cooler, receding into cerulean and indigo blues of the night, and turning the spaces that previously eroded the figure into the figure itself, only for it, in turn, to be eroded. The paintings possess a clunky clarity and illusion of volume that relate them to the proto-Cubist landscapes Georges Braque did at L’Estaque, but their lunar clarity and swiveling stalks allude to an otherworldly terrain. In Schools, 1981, three shafts that might previously have formed negative erosions in a torso now appropriate volume only to be dissolved by the intensity of the light and the physicality of the blue ground. In Bells and Thought, 1980, form and space entwine in a unity that sublimates and internalizes illusion and allusion in a dignity of paint.

If Gary Stephan inhibits and hones allusion, Stephen Mueller brazenly encourages it. His work acknowledges the temptation of vision and sumptuousness; he has converted a natural facility for painting into an asset that has pushed style into beauty.

Mueller’s early work seems to be a reaction to a steady diet of Greenbergs. (He studied and taught at Bennington College.) A near chaotic rain of strokelike shapes and transparencies floods and disrupts the hallowed field that had been so punctiliously cleared. Behind this petulance lies a genuine desire for sensuous variety and form-giving not recently permitted to paint—form-giving that comes from the precise control of the hand rather than the distanced gesture of pouring or spraying. Mueller converts the field to his ground. To this day, he paints the surface for his images with a single modulated color of a powdery thinness reminiscent of the work of Jules Olitski before his surfaces grew so needlessly yeasty.

What seems chaotic (even bratty) in the early work has been steadily focused and developed over the last ten years, yielding an excess of sensations, but an elegant and intelligent one. The word “excess” is still not readily accepted in “serious” circles, except in negative terms. The tolerance of and praise for the increasing volume of Frank Stella’s exuberance is partially due to the obvious high-mindedness and spartan sobriety of his early work. Stella’s constructedness in the early ’70s and his continued distrust of the hand could not nourish Mueller. He turned instead to Asian Indian painting—although there is no direct influence, there are many parallels: highly saturated color: flat space (often a monochrome ground) containing a lavishness of imagery and lushness of floral detail; occasional savagery; and frequent erotic lyricism. The Indians of the Tantric sects believe sensory excess. rather than deprivation, to be one of the paths to knowledge—delectation and meditation become one. Matisse’s Moroccan paintings and Odilon Redon’s vaporous chimeras lay closer at hand, but Indian painting proved more catalytic.

Mueller’s paintings of the mid- and late ’70s move further and further away from facility toward frenetically charged images of paint. First, delicately drawn wing-and kitelike forms reposed on the surface in a lyric symbiosis of transparency and opacity. Then, the images gained speed and paint in an increasing variety of stroke and surface. The flat, well-defined shapes of a painting like Kite Lounge, 1974, began to erupt and gravitate toward the center in spirals of energized paint, or float on top of “cosmi-comic” mushroom clouds. The images become more chrysalis- and cloudlike, opening out to the movements of the brush—now airy and eerie like the rings of Saturn; now like bursting buds; now like mutant reptiles—the dandies, grandees, and drag queens of some primeval state. Since 1979, Mueller’s paintings accelerated in an increasing centripetal motion, which activated the field with thin, phantom strokes that began to emerge and spiral toward the center where a multitude of marks congeal into a congregation of forms and textures, some flat and opaque, some streaked and transparent, some thick and viscous, some glistening with pearlescence. His color is as varied as the strokes and surfaces. Mueller can risk the vulgarity of crimson, flaunt purple, brood in gray, or flutter to rest in peach. The images are never specific but are rich in association—the fat fruity forms of Sei Shonagon, 1978, seem to compose a cheerful intergalactic still life, whereas Jaipetto, 1980, takes melancholy pleasure in the efflorescence of putrescence vibrating on one side of an open, oysterlike shell. The most recent paintings are faster yet, with forms buried in the strokes that choreograph them. The two amorphous porpoiselike forms in Vain Servant, 1981, seem to be in some tribal, technicolor trance that celebrates the fierce fluctuations of the union of paint and image.

Bill Jensen’s paintings contain images more specific than either Mueller’s or Stephan’s; so specific that some of them might lapse into depictions of hermetic eccentricity or sci-fi flash if they were not redeemed by an obsessive intensity of paintedness. Their evolution is almost as mysterious as their presence.

Jensen arrived in New York from Minneapolis in 1970, already conversant with such different artists as Robert Ryman, Richard Serra, Lynda Benglis, Robert Morris, and Barry Le Va, whose works were oriented toward process and materiality. The paintings shown in his first exhibition, in 1973, are large and bear the visual and literal weight of an extreme physicality. Oil paint, mixed with generous quantities of sand and dry pigment, was troweled onto the surface in a thick spiral or multiple-spiral configuration. Natural and metallic pigments were consumed by the insistent sandiness and the process of reforming the natural spiral configuration. The self-generating clarity of the spiral made it an ideal device for the procedural, self-reflexive concerns of many artists in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Robert Smithson, Mario Merz, Richard Long. . . Although Jensen’s early paintings are impressive, he buried his ability to draw in the sand. An illness caused by some of his materials forced him to stop painting for several months after his first show and then to seek new materials. His work changed radically, shrinking to dimensions no larger than two feet wide, retaining the rhythm but not the rationale of the spiral with swinging slow arabesques intertwining in leaflike ellipses. Although some of these paintings are well drawn, they tend to be more about what they are not than about what they could be. By 1975 the paintings contracted into an even more centralized, near-organic image, and in 1977 they burst forth with the dazzling ferocity of the works Jensen exhibited in 1980. Although still small, these paintings push density to the verge of implosion. They are diametrically opposed to the early works: process is replaced by iconic image; the trowel is traded for a palette knife and the precision of the hand; sandy suffusion gives way to jewellike radiance; the visual becomes visionary. With characteristic reticence, Jensen describes his sea change as a desire for “more light and color.”

Jensen’s images seems to grow out of a subterranean delirium. Some of his forms are not dissimilar to Redon’s more phantasmagoric paintings—indeed, he entitled one of his works Redon, 1976–77—but Jensen’s resistant surface is more compatible with the work of American artists like Marsden Hartley and Albert Pinkham Ryder than with the feathery atmospheric spaces of Redon. With Ryder, to whom he has also dedicated a painting, Jensen shares a kind of crusty, apocalyptic intimacy (a kinship more in spirit than in form). The central images of his paintings most resemble creatures of the deep—crustaceans, coral, and sponges. Like many varieties of coral, Jensen’s forms frequently have soft, intestinal shapes but hard, prickly surfaces. His paintings also radiate with the cathedral glow of light filtered through water. In point of fact, Jensen’s images are formed from more mundane reveries than seem to have occurred to Redon or that might be induced under water. The double pearlike shape in Silent Ages, 1980–81, with its lush lacquer still in formation, was generated by the form of a cow’s udder. A finely designed racing bike is transfigured in another work.

Jensen has developed a set of forms that reappear in various guises and combinations. A pointed ellipse figures most frequently—flat and sand-dollarlike as the center of Crown of Thorns, 1979; barely visible in the background of White Heat, 1978; as a flying saucer-sun in Family, 1980; as wings for a phalluslike shape in Mussels, 1977–78; or as four more volumetric podlike shapes encircling a fifth central one in Ryder’s Eye, 1979. The carrot shape that is so aggressively and sexually pink in Mussels is a ruby-encrusted blue, serenely recumbent in the inner curve of a cornucopia in White Heat. A pictographic bridgelike shape is a bridge in Bridge, 1976–77, and in Family, but becomes half of an angel when stood upright in Angel, 1977. The spiral, which was neutral in the first paintings, becomes more active, either as rays emanating from the background or as the central image in the fern-headlike form of Redon.

Jensen’s paintings are rich in associations and iconic intensity but seldom refer to any specific myth or religion. They are made believable by paint. Painstaking strokes of the palette knife are layered and layered and layered with obsessive deliberateness—sometimes like the tesserae of a mosaic, sometimes with a broader sweep that forms and follows the shape of the image; sometimes a pearly luster shimmers through thicknesses of paint, sometimes a broader mottled light beams through. The colors tend to be deep and dark, with a jeweled solemnity. The hardness of the surface is resistant to the eye, on occasion even hostile. Individual strokes crackle as they pull across the surface. The size of the strokes in relation to the size of the image gives the paintings a scale and power belied by their domestic size. They are grand illusions.

Pledging the hand in a new union of meaning and medium, as these three artists have done, is indicative of a broad shift in attitude assumed by many artists over the last decade—an attitude that opens out to reference and metaphor and openly acknowledges its debt to the past. To reflect and reintegrate more than to erase and to race—closer to Cézanne’s desire to “re-do Poussin. . . .” than to Rauschenberg’s erasure of de Kooning. The task is to make this attitude germane. Stephan, Mueller, and Jensen give ample proof that it is possible.

Klaus Kertess Writes fiction and art criticism.