Alfred Jensen: Concordance

by Donald Goddard

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Alfred Jensen did a lot of painting between the 1920s and the 1950s, but I haven't seen any of it and I'm not sure it has been shown. As a very young man working on a chicken farm in California, he did a mural of chickens and was delighted with the differences among them. He studied art in San Diego (1924-25), Munich (1926-27, with Hans Hofmann), and Paris (1929). He copied old masters. He traveled for many years in Europe and North Africa with Sadie May, a wealthy fellow student from his Munich days, helping her form an art collection and visiting the studios of Picasso, Giacometti, Dubuffet, and others. He was 48 when he settled in New York City in 1951 and there became friends with several mostly younger contemporaries, including Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, and Alfred Leslie. It is from this period, when he relentlessly delved into one cosmic system after another, that we know his work. The exhibition at DIA begins in 1960, with A Quadrilateral Oriented Vision, Per I-Per VI.

Sun Rises Twice
Installation View with
The Sun Rises Twice, per I - per IV
, 1973 (on right side)
Oil on canvas, 96" x 192".

Collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. Joseph H. Hirshhorn Purchase Fund, 1990.

Installation view, Alfred Jensen: "Concordance" Dia Center for the Arts, 548 West 22nd Street, New York City September 2001-June 2002 Photo: Bill Jacobson Courtesy Dia Center for the Arts

Jensen is, from this view, the ultimate abstract painter. Objective reality, as in someone much younger like Frank Stella, seems far away. But his work is, in fact, full of figures and full of space. He is, perhaps, the most material of all painters, more so even than Jackson Pollock or Willem de Kooning, for both of whom the surface is an extraordinarily eventful place. For Jensen it is the place where everything happens and everything is figured out, and it is literally constructed of strokes of paint, often directly from the tube. It is the first level of Jensen's reality; the painting and the world it represents exist only in the totality created by paint. All other realities--cosmological, textual, formal, spatial, metaphorical, mathematical, narrative--depend on the basic medium being there. It represents the presence of the artist. These paintings would not work, or have effect, simply as diagrams. They emanate from their sensuality of being.

Physical Objects
Physical Objects
, 1975.
Oil on canvas, 86" x 153".
Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York.
Alfred Jensen, Physical Optics, 1975

From the exhibition "Concordance" at Dia Center for the Arts 548 West 22nd Street, New York City September 2001-June 2002 Courtesy PaceWildenstein, New York

In that respect Jensen's paintings are like (and even look like) rugs or blankets from any number of cultures in which the weaving itself is commensurate with the imagery and ideological system being woven. The painting is a map of the universe containing everything--time, space, light, color, change--from every perspective, or without perspective (Jensen's "aperspective") in the strictly mathematical sense. It is the material of which the universe itself is made, composed of units which in turn are composed of units. Every grain, every atom, every molecule is presumably accounted for, at least symbolically, first in the laying in of paint itself and then in the proliferation of squares into squares. One painting is called The Ten Thousand Things, and there seem to be about 10,000 squares (I counted, but not one by one) in the area from "Heaven" to "Earth," the words written along the lower edge. But, of course, knowing so much is essentially a distraction. The reference is to the first chapter of Lao Tsu's teachings of the 6th century B.C. in the Tao Te Ching: "The nameless is the beginning of heaven and earth. The named is the mother of ten thousand things."

One (the painter, the viewer) is turned into the calculator of one's own existence. "Moments observed from an airplane, when I saw a landscape from many sides at once," are compared by Jensen to "planetary time counts, experienced . . . in the various landscapes of Central America." Ancient architecture--Mayan, but also Greek and other--becomes a reference to the organization of the universe through the sequence of light, color, shape, and number. Jensen uses these as well as symbols (the I Ching and others) and language (Chinese characters, English phrases and words)--in other words, all human means of expression and communication, what humans are capable of--to describe the frame in which all things live, the "atmospheric dome of nature." It is immensely complicated and mystifyingly simple, impossible to understand, except, perhaps, that there is a frame. There is a black mirror and a white mirror and between them emerges a prismatic, checkerboard structure of color (from Goethe). This is the basis for realizing the dual universe, and from this duality (light and dark, night and day, winter and summer) emerges an interlocking accounting that results in, for instance, a 360-day year and a polar cycle of 25,190 years. For all its complexity, and the basic ambiguity of its dualism, there is absolute clarity in Jensen's vision.

Donald Goddard © 2001

The exhibition was shown at DIA Center for the Arts, New York, NY 10011.

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