New York

Alfred Jensen

The Pace Gallery | 508 W 25th Street

For Alfred Jensen the world was reducible to systems of numbers, which is why they were magical and mysterious to him—full of archaic charge and unsystematic sensing. Via an eccentrically dense painterliness, Jensen made numerical systems sensuous—turning mind into sensuous matter—in a poignant metaphor of hope for the reconciliation of science and art.

This golden dream animates one of his late works, Between Times in Art and Science, 1980, one of four studies for his Changes and Communication mural of the same year. A colorful grid of obscure signs hovers in a limbo of indecipherable meaning. The script has the hocus-pocus quasi-hieroglyphic look of scientific notation; indeed, Jensen exploits its obscure look to the scientifically unlearned. His is an esoteric script, in the manner of so-called Kufic writing, and with the same exotic point. There is a summarizing impulse in Jensen, a compulsion to cryptic grand statement in laconic form. A World In Itself, Per I-VI, 1961, celebrates scientists—and one artist-scientist, Goethe—who made incisive, comprehensive statements of basic principle that seemed true to sense experience, confirming its inherent intensity rather than dismissing it as a trivial illusion. Jensen, then, does not want to illustrate mathematical precepts, but to show how they inform physical reality. For him numbers are sensuous in themselves, and they correlate with every kind of vital reality. Thus, in Seeking to Unravel the Shape of an Enzyme, 1977 (represented in the catalogue but not in the show), he gives gender shape, speaking of the Female Rectangle and the Male Square.

Without their mathematical mysticism, Jensen’s paintings have a quirky, decorative character. Indeed, their numerology adds to the decorative effect. No doubt some will regard Jensen as a proto-pattern painter by reason of his signature checkerboards. Even his interest in Mayan culture—in so-called primitive pattern—seems marvelously prescient. However, Jensen—who was born in Guatemala, and, to a certain extent, identified with its archaic Indian culture—did not merely intend to reaffirm the neglected decorative aspect of abstraction. Rather, for him decorative pattern was a meditative device, signaling a higher, universal intelligibility. He had a cultist attitude to these designs; he was submitting to a form that had the power to transform him. Painting then was a visual mode of chanting and self-hypnosis, fueled by the hope of self- and world-transcendence. In other words, his practice was meant to be a kind of ritual purification of the mind and of the senses; science was Jensen’s professed religion and dogma, obscuring its practical cleansing purpose.

Jensen restored transcendental intention to abstraction. Just as there is a residue of landscape in Wassily Kandinsky and a trace of figuration in Mark Rothko, so there is a residue of science in Jensen’s work. These sediments, however, are not the essences of the intentions of these artists, as all too many interpretations of abstraction have implied, but the ash left by their passion for transcendence.

Donald Kuspit

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