San Francisco

David Simpson

Despite the widespread identification of Bay Area painting with expressive figuration, many artists work in Constructivist-, Suprematist-, and de Stijl-inspired modes. Of the painters, David Simpson is among the strongest. His investigations of precise balances between the visual weights of a few razor-edged rectangles judiciously deployed around large square fields of uniform color began in the early ’70s after a decade of more painterly compositions of horizontal or arced stripes and stains. Here, he showed work in one of his three ongoing formats, that of thin rectangles or bars usually perpendicular to the edges of the paintings and projecting in various lengths toward the centers. (Other compositional types include bars conterminous with the perimeter and large discrete squares.)

A fundamental basis for all of these formats is a balance between spare arrangements of rectangles and rich, saturated hues. The artist could be termed a colorist as much as a Suprematist in his sources because of his discriminating combinations of clear and muted colors. In January Sunbelt, 1983, a brilliant royal blue square with a few narrow bars in orange, kelly green, navy, and light blue, the sobriety of the severely pared-down structure against the radiance of the subtly mixed color creates a dynamic tension which keeps the composition from flattening into decorative good design. These abstractions can be seen to be about pure space and light, but a formalist viewpoint is not only insufficient but would render Simpson’s approach retardataire. A revived Suprematist perspective is more appropriate, the aim being to convey pure feeling or consciousness through non-objective geometry. The broad fields of these paintings suggest mental as well as visual space—an inner clarity impinged upon by only a few forms meticulously placed (almost always by sight and intuition rather than by measurement). This metaphoric interpretation then elicits a humanistic identification for the single slender bar that in several paintings extends toward the middle from the center of the top or bottom edge. The vertical becomes a sign for an upright being, centered and vibrantly colored but vulnerably narrow in the large field.

Simpson’s most affecting paintings are in darker tones which suggest an introspective mood. A rare bright palette such as that of Theme Two #6—Triple System, 1981, appears disjunctively whimsical for its rigorous composition, and emotionally thin. In comparison, Sendero Luminoso, 1983, was the best painting in the show for its apparent juxtaposition of reflective black bars against a mat charcoal/black field; scrutiny reveals that the blacks are actually a deep purple green. Four narrow bars, one from each side, project toward the center in disparate lengths forming a circular rhythm. The dramatic reduction to the contrast of shiny and absorbent blackness, and the long centered vertical extending more than three quarters of the length down from the top, create a mesmerizing image.

Suzaan Boettger