San Francisco

David Simpson

David Simpson has been a Bay Area resident since graduating from the San Francisco Art Institute in 1950 (formerly California School of Fine Arts) and receiving a Master of Arts degree from San Francisco State. A ten-year retrospective of his work recently closed at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Simpson’s work begins within a tradition of landscape. His early paintings combine the now familiar horizontal stripes with variegated spots and strokes of pigment, setting up an all-over diversity of directions with the picture plane. In the early work Simpson had already subordinated the particulars of any single feature of a specific landscape in favor of a generalized scheme within which he could test the formal properties of shape, color-density, paint application and so on. The search for a general scheme naturally led to an increasingly abstract configuration as his paintings developed into the early sixties.

This particular period in Simpson’s development, spanning roughly from 1960 to 1965, is the most problematical and least rewarding period in his career. Compare for example Red/White and Blue Stripes, with its roughly parallel arrangement of stripes traveling from the top of the six foot canvas to the bottom, with Blue/Grey/Stripes painted one year earlier in 1958. The earlier work foretells Simpson’s use of turpentine washes, bleeding stripes and landscape space that occurs in the years 1960, 1961, and at least part of 1962. In these years Simpson produced paintings of suave elegance, using his painting skill to force a marriage of autonomous stripes with a space-in-depth landscape painting technique. The resultant pictures of those years look like rather slick landscapes with arbitrary stripes applied gratuitously. In the catalog of the exhibition Simpson, in a rather pugnacious quote, says, “My work has always used elements, as freely as I feel like using them, of late Cubism, as well as ‘color field’ painting; tonal as well as ‘chromatic’ structure; flat formality as well as color steps which provide illusions. After all, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca, to name only two, were ‘supposed’ to have structured their compositions tonally—since they were Renaissance Artists—but sometimes painted chromatically in spite of that fact. And Kenneth Noland, Gene Davis, as well as Frank Stella occasionally have painted tonal structure and Cubist stepping as well as their supposedly ‘purer’ color organizations. Only those who fail to see (or perhaps do not wish to—maybe because of some established posture), bother to claim otherwise.”

Simpson has, as he claims in the above statement, every right to use as many elements in his paintings as he wishes. The problem he faces, and he seems cognizant of it in his most recent paintings, is whether he can handle the various manners in a single painting. The contemporary painters he mentions—Gene Davis, Frank Stella and Kenneth Noland—have used tonal approaches as well as chromatic approaches in single works. Stella in particular employed tonal variations in his early stripe paintings and the variations were crucial in these pictures. The point seems to be that Stella reduced tonality to an absolute minimum, and in doing so, among other things, took the implied tonal modeling out of advanced abstract painting. This does not mean that every abstract artist must follow suit, but what it does mean is that the spatial ambiguity prevalent in Abstract Expressionism in the late fifties and early sixties began to look like a prepared dish that was literally “cooked-up.” In all honesty it must be added that Simpson’s paintings of the time looked like the worst of the variety, with ribbons of paint making a valiant effort to hold the space intact.

As this phase in Simpson’s career ended in 1962, he began to concentrate on a more strictly abstract for-mat, incorporating the stripe motif in tondos and cross-shaped canvas, as well as the now familiar high vertical supports. His color remained analogous, suggesting the mood of specific locales, rather than a strictly abstract configuration. This series culminated in 1965, with one of the strongest paintings in the entire show, Red Wave, now in the collection of the La Jolla Museum of Art. From the bottom edge of the square support vertical, rather than horizontal bands of various widths, run parallel to the framing edge until at the upper third of the painting the color bands turn sharply outward forming a flower shape caught in the act of growth. The color in this painting is strongly polyphonic and much stronger in carrying power than was evident in early works. The relative dissonance within the color shapes takes on a heretofore unseen resolution.

From Red Wave to the works produced in 1966 the bent band of color is used to produce floating arcs and truncated arc shapes, as well as arc-shaped canvas. Simpson, in the recent works, uses co-polymer paint to best advantage. The lingering landscape has disappeared and the intensity of the plastic paint is exploited to produce optical bounce within some of the paintings. The new works offer more promise than the older paintings. The stringent formality forces Simpson to see through his pictures without the easy resolutions of the earlier paintings.

––James Monte