Allan McCollum, If Love Had Wings: A Perpetual Canon, 1972, canvas, lacquer stain, varnish, silicone adhesive, caulking, 9' 1 1⁄4" × 27' 6 1⁄2". From the series “Constructed Paintings,” 1969–ca. 1974.

Allan McCollum, If Love Had Wings: A Perpetual Canon, 1972, canvas, lacquer stain, varnish, silicone adhesive, caulking, 9' 1 1⁄4" × 27' 6 1⁄2". From the series “Constructed Paintings,” 1969–ca. 1974.

Allan McCollum

Begun in 1969 and completed around 1974, Allan McCollum’s “Constructed Paintings” issued from intelligible systems of repetition. The series predates McCollum’s critically influential and institutionally embraced cast “Plaster Surrogates,” 1982, by a decade. The unstretched paintings are assembled from many small square or rectangular pieces of canvas, joined with rubberized caulking into orderly and rhythmic abstract patterns—evoking references that range from architectural tile work to Helen Frankenthaler’s abstract compositions.

The largest piece in “Works 1970–73,” an exhibition drawn from five “Constructed Paintings,” was If Love Had Wings: A Perpetual Canon, 1972, a grid configuration of sweeping horizontality, formed of more than a thousand squares of canvas. Half of each cotton-duck square has been washed out along the diagonal; McCollum then arranged these units to create an allover field of pale chevrons. Pushing pattern and sequencing further, McCollum organized the chevron patterns into concentrated color groupings to produce seven tapered shapes arching from the bottom edge to the top. These abstract forms suggest pulsing waves of light or sound vibrating in a washy, gridded matrix. Yet the painterly qualities in this work are in striking contradiction to the materiality of its physical makeup. Strands of cotton thread and lines of hardened caulking populate each overlapping edge; optical patterning is shown to be a by-product of physical construction. McCollum’s piecework approach to painting is as much a quilting technique as a design stratagem.

Object Lesson, 1973, with its unambiguous interlocking-design motif, features purple squares faced in glitter, off-white squares coated in sand-mixed paint, and dyed-orange squares filled with diagonal scribbles, applied by hand but quite regular. Gray and white silicone piping fringes each edge, while long untrimmed threads cling to the rough, coruscating surfaces in random twists and loops. Stapled to the wall adjacent to the boldly ornamental Object Lesson was Deep Connections, 1973, featuring fifty-six cruciform units pieced together. Thick impasto bands of acrylic fill each cross motif as tinted canvas underneath illuminates the thin space between these figures, creating a reverse stained-glass effect while domesticating the powerful subjectivities of Abstract Expressionist art.

For more than fifty years, McCollum has evolved a studio practice that is surprisingly idiosyncratic, given his passionate dedication to seriality, sameness, replication, and unoriginality. Informed by Pattern and Decoration and by the stark geometries and mundane materials of Minimalism, his early paintings and their preoccupation with repetition also evoke Simon Hantaï’s automatism-inspired use of folding techniques to suppress the singular mark of the artist’s hand. Though McCollum has always simultaneously evoked and challenged the shifting assessments that determine art’s cultural value, these early paintings blithely synthesize styles, materials, and techniques that emerged from liberation politics of the era. His formal and material language, with its emphasis on repetition’s predictability and knowable systems of patternmaking, is as urgent now as it was a half century ago.

Concurrent with McCollum’s exhibition, at nearby Sprüth Magers Berlin, Sterling Ruby showed two-story-high irregular patchwork quilts that towered over visitors like vertical billboards. Working at the intersection of textiles and painting as McCollum did fifty years ago, Ruby is one of many contemporary artists who enthusiastically embrace the haptic qualities of textiles. Yet Ruby and his peers tend to neglect a basic tenet of fiber-based work: that warp and weft are a repeatable and stable design system, a principle McCollum unabashedly embraced in his “Constructed Paintings” as he was critically challenging the idea of expression in midcentury art.