New York

Alfred Jensen

You cannot simply glance at one of Alfred Jensen’s diagrammatic works and then proceed to the next. One could argue that a large group of his works is almost impossible to fathom because each painting can be so seductive and bewildering that it leaves the viewer in a state of strangely satisfied frustration. No other artist’s work cajoles, pleases, and loses me the way Jensen’s does. He was skillful, erudite, arcane, obsessive, eccentric, and original. A late Modernist, his ideas didn’t gel until the early ’50s, when he was in his late ’40s. Everything he did up to that time can be regarded as the product of a meandering, seemingly unambitious apprenticeship, containing almost no clues about what would happen later.

Jensen’s paintings are completely predetermined and spin out of his conflation of science and art. They are complex diagrams referring to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Theory of Colors (1840), magic squares, the Mayan calendar, the I Ching, Pythagoras, astronomy, physics, and biology. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

The crystallizing force behind all these arcane researches—and I do think of Jensen as a “re-searcher”—is Goethe’s dense, obscure treatise on color. Taking his cues from Goethe, Jensen restricted his palette to prismatic hues (red, yellow, green, blue, and violet) and black and white. They were not, however, just colors for him: they were spiritually charged emanations. Among other things, the artist was preoccupied with the interrelationship between cyclical time and infinity. Through Goethe’s treatise, Jensen found a way to structure his inquiries.

Many of Jensen’s compositions are broken up into a checkerboard of intense hues and blacks and whites. Mathematical signs and specific sequences of numbers are repeatedly employed. In his attempt to confront the viewer with units of palpable light, the artist squeezed paint directly from the tube and never modulated his color. Consequently, his intensely colored, impastoed compositions convey no illusion of space. They are impenetrable walls of faceted color, in which each unit of the surface is made to carry some thought, idea, or belief. At times, we feel as if we are looking at a giant game board whose cosmic rules will forever elude us.

Jensen yearned after universal truths, and each of his paintings is a discrete summarization of immutable patterns or forces. This retrospective served as an excellent introduction to one of this century’s most difficult artists.

John Yau