Essay by Stephen Westfall from the catalogue for the exhibition, Dan Christensen, held at Spanierman Modern, New York, January 9-February 17, 2007.
This essay was written a short time before the artist’s death on January 20, 2007.
Over the last forty years, Dan Christensen has explored the limits, range, and possibilities of paint and pictorial form, pursuing a unique path within the trajectory of American abstract painting. Although his art belongs within the category defined by the critic Clement Greenberg as Color Field or Post-Painterly Abstraction, he has both carried on the legacy of this approach while stepping outside of it, through drawing from a wide variety of Modernist sources, using many idiosyncratic techniques, and employing methods more commonly associated with the action painting techniques of Abstract Expressionism. The result is a distinctive body of work that is original, surprising, and filled with joy, exuberance, and pleasure in the act of painting.
Created near the beginning of his career, Christensen’s spray paintings from the late 1960s and early 1970s are emblematic of a period and scene characterized by exuberant experimentation with materials and processes, when painters were stretching the definition of painting in the direction of sculpture and performance. Much of that work was somewhat short on memorable images, but not Christensen’s. The earliest of his paintings in which winding vapor trails of color curl into circles and are arrayed in grid patterns, as in Times Square (1967), are a holdover from his prior work, in which he spread gridded dashes across rectangular fields of damped-down color. He went on to loop the sprayed line into canvas-filling columns, as in Conjugate (1967)—these have been called “loop paintings”—and, later, he bent and overlapped them against more saturated fields of color in images that are like much faster premonitions of the curving lines of color that have become the principal syntactical element in Brice Marden’s paintings. Christensen produced many of his best spray paintings on a white or off-white ground that was tinted by the overall build-up of the hazy edges of his color bands. The visual organization of these works invoked Minimalism, and their color typified that of Color Field painting, but their gesturalism retained the valorization of the handmade and the artist’s fresh take on color in an industrial strength, material grain was something new.
Jules Olitski’s heavy veils of sprayed color preceded Christensen’s paintings by a couple of years, but Christensen focused the spray down to its characteristically sooty line. It was Jackson Pollock, of course, who first contrived a methodology of letting paint fly from the hand through the end of the brush. For Pollock this leap of material across space was a natural, if painful and halting, evolution of the Surrealist automatism he had practiced for several years. Christensen’s air-compressed line, on the other hand, was a garage brainstorm: as if attaching a booster rocket to Pollock’s gesture, from which multicolored trails blazed, Christensen produced works that appeared as if created from the residue from a polychrome blowtorch wielded by a demonic handwriting teacher. Christensen’s own indebtedness to, and affinity for, both Surrealist automatism and totemism would only be revealed later, but were present in these works. The only near contemporary equivalents in abstraction were the somewhat earlier Canto Indento paintings created by Billy Al Bengston in Los Angeles, consisting of spray painted chevrons on dented and bent metal. It’s also worth remembering that Christensen was wielding his spray gun only a short time before Gordon Matta Clark started carving architecture with his chainsaw.
Some painters develop a practiced eye for the cultural field they are sending their work into and setting it against. The conception of their work as a coherent body, or “set,” helps consolidate it as a figure against this cultural ground. Thus, almost every abstract painter has worked modularly, with a group of elements that evolve gradually through repetition and reconfiguration. Christensen works this way with an extremely important, and obvious, exception: he makes huge iconographic leaps, or breaks, between sets. About 1970 he began to desire the plane more than the line and let go of what he had established him only a few years before in his mid-twenties as a singular and significant abstract painter. His resulting geometric paintings have been called “plaids,” a term that was also applied to Kenneth Noland’s series of 1971-74 that displayed a similar, though more complicated iconography (they really were plaids). Christensen’s rectilinear planes of color in post and lintel configurations of perpendicular angles are more iconic, stripped down in such a way that what is readable as the field behind the figured segmented planes is more nearly equal to those planes in area and surface treatment. Pictorial space is flattened a bit more even as the compositions themselves are more traditionally asymmetrical, closer to Piet Mondrian’s “dynamic equilibrium” than the near Minimalist regularity of Color Field compositions. Christensen’s colors in these paintings feel both earthier and less predictable than the chromatic range in contemporaneous Color Field painting. Their earthier light could find a home in early twentieth-century American abstraction and in that of European artists who were part of the Société Anonyme.
Part of the difference in color can be explained by his use of oil-based enamel paints, sometimes used in conjunction with acrylics, rather than acrylic studio paints. The enamels have a slightly warmer cast. These geometric paintings remain linked to Color Field painting chiefly through the means and scale of their production. Christensen made them on the floor of his studio with rollers and jars and buckets of pre-mixed color. Though some of these paintings are fairly modest in size, they could be much bigger than a standard easel painting, and the narrow formats in many of them bridge the figural rectangle of Barnet Newman’s skinnier paintings with the shaped canvases of the Post–minimalists, such as Ron Gorchov, David Novros, Elizabeth Murray, and Mary Heilmann.
By this point, having left the spray paintings behind (temporarily, as it turns out), Christensen had indeed embarked on a restless series of procedural shifts involving changes of tools and consistencies of paint. Each shift in procedure was to produce a distinct imagery and, again, the comparison with Color Field painting is instructive. Christensen’s allover layering produced by knife and squeegee that succeeded his geometric paintings recalls similar techniques practiced by Olitski at the same time. Both painters (and others, including Kenneth Noland and Walter Darby Bannard) were exploiting new acrylic gels to create opulent color-over-color effects and textural directionalities that flouted the prevailing monochromes and literalized the objecthood of Minimalism. Christensen’s paint-scraping gestures seem more agitated than those of his somewhat older counterparts, as though he was reveling in the athleticism of what he was doing. The fast drying of the acrylic provided its own urgency. Hotter colors smolder underneath a film of what seems like ice in the off-white paintings such as Sandu (1972), and like a dirty windowpane in the paintings where the top layer is a translucent near-black, as in Sleepy Hollow (1974). These scraped paintings are one signal of the end of “Post-Painterly Abstraction,” as Greenberg termed the break between Color Field painting and Abstract Expressionism. Obviously, Christensen’s and Olitski’s paintings are utterly painterly, to the point of recalling the chromatic and material weathers of J. M. W. Turner’s late seascapes, along with the diagonals and crescents of Baroque painting. Christensen’s paintings are also at the apogee of the achievements of this “late” style Post-Painterly Abstraction. They have aged as well as Olitski’s paintings from the same period and prompt a reconsideration of the vitality of late Color Field painting as a whole.
In the mid- to late 1970s Christensen’s paintings took a curious and marvelous turn away from the unitary field altogether. If he had already begun a spatial re-separation of color with the scraped paintings, those paintings were still unified in their allover tactile impact. However, by the late seventies Christensen instigated a fresh break between field and mark, a break that is also a deep return, for it shoots past the unified structures of Color Field Painting to the “action” mark of Abstract Expressionism, which was concurrent with a formative period for the artist, but one in which he was then too young to participate. Paintings from 1979 to 1981 depict squarish trapezoids of color nested inside ragged dark lines, which angle off a floating vertical axis in configurations that possess the post and lintel memory of the artist’s geometric paintings from the beginning of the seventies. Other linear elements float within the gravitational field of the anchoring vertical on its flip side. The ground in these paintings is a deep flat color that shifts from canvas to canvas, and the drawing of shifting colors on top is in a fluid splatter that recalls Pollock’s attack combined with the floating geometries of Robert Motherwell’s Open series (mid-1960s) in a hybrid of spontaneity and premeditation. The axis line proves to be important as it provides an initiating structure in much of the apparently spontaneous drawing with paint that Christensen has engaged in over the ensuing quarter century.
There is a recombinant sense to Christensen’s painterly operations beginning in the 1980s. He is painter confident in his tools and materials, with a deep library of experience as to what works and what does not. So, his paintings from the mid-1980s narrow and combine the scraping techniques of Sandu with “automatic drawing” in an axial configuration that can be along a diagonal, as in New Harmony (1984); in a vertical, as in the deep red and blue Mayan Mist (1986); or in a horizontal, such as the one positioned at the top of the yolky yellow Love Attic (1986). By this time Christensen had once again picked up the airbrush to add a truly graffiti-like jolt to the color field surface. The wonderful complication of figure/ground in these paintings can be described as follows: where the ground color was beneath the surface drawing in the previous paintings (and even in the first spray paintings), it now exists on top of the color revealed by most of the mark, making actions, which are scored down to a prior color optically revealed now as lines against the top color. Although the spray lines are of an obviously shallower surface than the pudding thickness of the scored field, they are themselves; nevertheless, they are observably on top yet again. A painting such as Love Attic sandwiches the pudding-thick field between two sets of lines (figures), those scored down below and those sprayed on top. The scores are of one consistent color, while the color of each sprayed line is different. There is a confetti, party-like atmosphere to these paintings that, along with their opulent physicality, might delay the reading of their Surrealist animism, wherein each mark has the character of a flying or coiling living thing.
Christensen was still picking up new tools in the late 1980s. In the vertical canvas, Line Bind (1987), he combed through the blue surface down to the warm yellow underneath with a rake-like tool. The more complicated Past Time (1988) captures a moment when he put all his wares on display in a painting that nevertheless asserts an iconic straightforwardness. There is the rake, the scraping knife, and the spray nozzle, all functioning, but every distinguishing mark is also at the service of the compositional whole and every color shift is subtle and proportionate. The triangular center form in Past Time, like the smaller floating rectangular blocks of Mayan Mist and Love Attic, speak of a yearning for a visual stopper, the emblematic image of the Abstract Expressionists that becomes an indelible marker of “self.” For Christensen, these first emblems became structural pivot points in larger compositions, but by the late 1980s he would fill an entire canvas with an emblematic circle, with the soft focus boundaries that result from the return of the spray gun as the overall vehicle for paint delivery.
The circle paintings are mesmerizing mandalas of color and line, where each band of color is wide enough to possess its own soft-edged interiority. The overall effect is a dazzling visual throb, verging on the psychedelic, just one of the feelings invoked by the title Beyond the Summer of Love (1988).
By the early nineties, Christensen’s woozy orbs of color were separating into iconically aligned stacks, as in Conquistador (1993), and then proliferating and morphing into ovals, a shape which, combined with surrounding light halos of chromatic overtones, imbue the flat colors with an startling sense of volume. In the late 1990s, Christensen relegated the spray gun to being one tool among many, but he was still using it to provide the centering visual “targets” in the center of a brushy “X,” as in Sleeper (1998) and Vanilla Blue (1998).
In the first few years of the new millennium Christensen returned to a drizzle mark against a flat field of color, in the manner of his mid-eighties paintings. In a painting such as the gorgeous Blue Sage (2003), however, his line is more languorous and elastic, as it wanders and rises from its base like a spreading plant, while keeping the speed of a Zen calligraphic master. There is definitely an eastward bent in much of Christensen’s work, since the circle paintings. His work is also reminiscent of the characteristically American pragmatic optimism in David Smith’s automatic drawing in his sculpture and drawings. Here is the larger point to be made about Christensen’s remarkable journey: his iconographic restlessness is at the service of ever-greater degrees of assimilation of his cultural reach. He is not an artist pursuing a strain of logical elaboration, but one who moves with his enthusiasms among color (above all), Greenbergian aesthetics, paint materiality, Abstract Expressionism, Asian art, and the culture of painting itself. When we are able to look back on a career of a painter whose work has gone through so many shifts in image and technique and find that it all makes an engaging sense, then we are in the presence of a distinct and important sensibility, and someone who makes painting look like the fun that is.
© Spanierman Modern, New York