New York

Pat Johanson

In a recent article in this journal (Scale and the Future of Modernism, October, 1967) suggested that one of the major problems confronting abstractionist painting was the problem of shape, or rather, the lack of shape. Abstract Expressionism’s assault on the contour matured finally in the openness of color painting, the sheer visual breadth of which swept the pictorial surface clear of those “abstract” shapes that had become a staple of all post-Cubist abstractionism. Color painting so generalized mass that the function of drawing was assigned to the edge of the canvas itself, thereby paving the way for the “shaped canvas.” But for painters who did not wish to become sculptors and who wished to adhere to the traditional pictorial format, the question raised by reductionist art was, “Is structure possible without shape?” And as color had become part of the abstractionist field, a correlative question was, “How is shape to be brought back into painting without contradicting the functional presence of color?” Both questions assume a sense of structure based on symbolic shape and line as fundamentally different from a structure based on color, but they also assume that the presence of color affects the nature of shape and they therefore postulate a new kind of depicted “abstract” shape.

This new kind of painted shape, a recent exhibition proposes, need barely be a shape at all in the conventional sense of the word. Technically, in fact, it can be a line and a thin one at that. Nevertheless I am convinced enough by it to suggest that the problem of shape rather than color is presently the major problem in abstractionist painting (the “shaped canvas” is something else, akin to collage), and that in this context “minimalist” sensibility constitutes either a reaction against the generalness of post-painterly abstraction or suggests another alternative to the problems raised by the decline of Abstract Expressionism, which amounts to the same thing. We now have, in effect, essentially Rubeniste (colorist) and Poussiniste (minimalist) solutions to the problems of abstractionist painting in the sixties. A post-color or, rather, anti-color abstraction is with us.

These at least are the conclusions I draw from the not entirely satisfactory but nonetheless provocative debut of Pat Johanson at the Tibor de Nagy Gallery.

Miss Johanson’s paintings consist entirely of lines stained into unsized canvas: single monochrome lines; single lines in segments of two colors; two lines in segments of red and green, red and blue, blue and yellow, and so forth. The double lines are spaced widely and symmetrically while the single monochrome lines bisect the plane from the top or one side of the canvas, neither edge of which it touches as it traverses half the width of the picture plane, attempting to evoke with one line the symmetry which is more obviously but more effectively achieved with two widely spaced ones. In addition, in her recent exhibition there was a single canvas, 28 feet long and 8 1/2 feet high, with an almost as lengthy strip of blue that was perhaps four inches wide, as opposed to her normal quarter or three-eighths inch. widths. It was the dominant work in the exhibition, as it was intended to be, but it was also the most unsuccessful work. The much smaller pictures, with a single exception, consisted of compositions of a single monochrome line and these were not successful either. All but one of the best paintings—those with color-segmented lines—were in the gallery racks but fortunately I was shown them.

Yet it is the failures which prove that in her successful works the lines are actually shapes. The most obvious proof is to be found in the large painting where the blue stripe becomes a line only as it traverses, while the eye follows, a picture plane that is too large to be taken in at a glance. It also has the additional vice of the smaller pictures which are failures because the single color (a red or blue) functions only as a value (a dark) which emphasizes the linear aspect; whereas the two-color lines offer a contrast of color within themselves, affirming the line as area on, as well as in, the surface.

What Miss Johanson is doing, I think, is bringing the pressure of line to bear on color while using a minimum of color to thicken line. The color functions as the detail of a most minimal kind of shape which demands a reduction of color in order to be consistent with its own “liney-ness”.

The symmetry and/or centeredness of the compositions are also important. They elicit a sense of opposition and relationship particularly associated with shapes, whereas “line” is ordinarily descriptive, and symbolic shape is what it usually describes. Furthermore, shapes are composed within and in relation to the picture frame.

Finally, Miss Johanson’s paintings suggest a solution to the problem of scale. In my aforementioned previous article, I also said that the problem of shape dramatized a problem of scale. Specifically, without shape it seemed impossible for abstractionist paintings to get any larger than they were. The evidence of Miss Johanson’s paintings suggest that the future of scale in abstraction may be towards smaller rather than larger pictures. Monumentality will not necessarily be lost; it will simply be of a minimal kind. For minimalism is the curiously withdrawn alternative between Jackson Pollock’s predominant linearity and the all but unrestrained openness of color abstraction. The effect of this alternative on scale is obvious. The best of Miss Johanson’s pictures are no larger than easily transportable easel paintings.

Sidney Tillim