Kansas City

Dan Christensen

Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art

Whether delicately hushed or eye-poppingly intense, Dan Christensen’s abstractions unfailingly offer an ever-changing mix of incandescent colors, looping lines, giant dots, frothy patches, and loose calligraphies.

Christensen, who died in 2007, belonged to a group of painters who persisted in the legacy of postwar abstraction long after Conceptualism, video art, and other currents gained dominance in the 1960s and ’70s. And though the New York–based artist attracted the support of important critics, Clement Greenberg among them, and his paintings have joined the collections of more than thirty museums across the country, Christensen has only recently begun to attain the broad recognition his rich, multifaceted work deserves. Making a strong case for such heightened appreciation is “Dan Christensen: Forty Years of Painting,” a handsome memorial retrospective organized by the Kemper’s director, Rachael Blackburn Cozad. The show, which traveled to the Sheldon Museum of Art in Lincoln, Nebraska, last month, features thirty-three paintings and a drawing, offering a compact yet comprehensive overview of the artist’s lively career.

A Nebraska native who attended the Kansas City Art Institute, Christensen moved to New York in 1965 after a one-year stopover at Indiana University. He quickly fell in with the celebrated Max’s Kansas City crowd, where he met art dealer Richard Bellamy, who offered to represent him. Originally a figurative painter, Christensen switched to abstraction shortly after his arrival in Manhattan, trying his hand first at Minimalism and then soon coming under the sway of the Color Field painters. But instead of staining the canvas, he seized upon the idea of painting with a spray gun, with which he could achieve shimmering, floating effects. Indeed, as Max Kozloff put it in a 1968 article in these pages, Christensen (and artist Ralph Humphrey) could aptly be described as “a species of abstract luminists.”

At first Christensen’s use of the spray gun was highly controlled, as evidenced in PR, 1967, with its carefully coiled, oscillating swirls of color. But his work quickly gained the relaxed, improvisatorial quality so wonderfully evident in Mallee, 1968, a big, breezy painting with seemingly aimless, curving lines of color on a white field. This approach climaxed in Serpens, 1968, an electric, roughly nine-by-fourteen-foot canvas in which bright loops are emblazoned on a shifting background of vivid orange and turquoise.

Christensen returned to spray-painting in the 1980s, creating such dazzling works as 5 or 6 P.M., 1994, with its gleaming orbs and effusive jolts of color, and the technique remains the best-known aspect of his output. But over the decades, his style and technique underwent a series of transformations, from the so-called plaid paintings, with their rigid portioning of color blocks (High Barrier, 1969), to the light, sometimes wispy pieces of the ’70s (Ridge, 1976), to his scrape paintings (Line Bind, 1987), where he cut into thick strata of acrylic, revealing colorful layers beneath. Experimenting constantly, Christensen tried out a range of unconventional paint applicators along the way, which, as the artist’s longtime gallerist Douglas Drake remarks, included “blasters, rollers, rakes, squeegees, industrial brushes, brooms, and weed-sprayers.”

At the same time, Christensen was clearly influenced by the painters he admired; he echoes, for example, Kenneth Noland’s targetlike forms in pieces such as Triton, 1989, and Adolph Gottlieb’s “bursts” in Coaxed Red, 1994. Christensen’s work was also marked, as catalogue essayist Karen Wilkin points out, by the energy, colors, and unpredictability of urban life. But no matter their source, such bits of inspiration were just fodder for further invention and exploration. Throughout his forty-year adventure in abstraction, Christensen’s aesthetic remained unmistakably his own.

Kyle MacMillan