Ellen Banks


Ellen Banks’ most recent exploration of contemporary synesthesia consists of a series of “Improvisations” (all works 1990) in the form of minimalist grids derived from the piano and vocal scores of Johannes Brahms. Three small mixed-media works on paper, entitled “Waltzes,” feature horizontal grids of acrylic, the color and geometric structure of which are derived from Brahms’ Opus 39. Two artist’s books, or “Songbooks” containing 12 and 25 pages are based respectively on Brahams’ songs “Dein blaues Auge” (Your blue eye) and “Bei dir sind meine Gedanken” (My thoughts are with you). Each handmade paper page of the songbooks, built up of layers of iridescent acrylic resembling the mystical gemstones turquoise, amber, and amethyst, refers to a specific measure of Brahms’ vocal scores.

For the last decade, Banks, who studied music and painting, has adapted the scores of major composers into linear and tonal patterns in her minimalist abstractions. She uses colors in a prismatic sequence to denote musical keys—for example red is A, orange is B, and yellow is C—and designs her grid according to the notes on selected measures of sheet music. The artist, who no longer listens to the music, but instead uses the scores as a means of structuring her compositions, was originally inspired by Piet Mondrian. Earlier works were energized by colors distinguishing the treble and bass staffs of scores. These latest works, especially the canvases, are softer and more monochromatic. Here, only the base colors of the grids are derived from the key; the ground color is subjective and improvised.

Improvisation 76/2BR is the most ambitious painting both in scale and content. Its cryptic title refers to Brahms’ piano piece Opus 76, Capriccio 2. Its cadmium orange ground visually corresponds in terms of the color spectrum to the key of B in Brahms’ composition. The visual play of the parallel horizontal bars and tumbling vertical equivalents for notes is enhanced by the chromatic harmonies created by the further buildup of layered acrylic pigment. Hues ranging from copper and gold to metallic purple are superimposed over an orange base coat covering 16 sheets of handmade paper glued to the canvas and primed with liquid starch. Banks initially pencils in her grids, covers them with masking tape, and then pulls the tape off. The translucent pigment is lush and textured, and its chipped and flaked surface lends it an antique veneer.

Improvisation 39/10BR, a delicate work on handmade paper, is one of three “waltzes” included in this exhibition. Here the grids, composed of acrylic, watercolor, and wax are allowed to bleed into the ground. The visual cadences of these small waltzes transcend the mathematics of Brahms’ written score and pay subtle homage to his music.

The two songbook folios entreat the viewer to handle each separate page; the delicacy of the actual paper is enhanced by its spectral colors and texture. Like metaphysical hieroglyphs, Banks’ bars and spaces dance across the pages.

Francine A. Koslow