Dan Christensen: The Early Sprays, 1967-1969

On moving in the summer of 1965 from Kansas City, Missouri, to New York City, Dan Christensen [1942–2007] found himself amid a dynamic environment in which many stylistic crosscurrents were prevalent. Joining in the spirit of the time, he abandoned the figural work in the classical style that he had been creating and became part of a group of young artists who sought to experiment and engage in the dramatic changes taking place in the art scene. His friends included Walter Darby Bannard, Jack Bush, Robert Goodnough, Brice Marden, Kenneth Noland, Jules Olitski, Larry Poons, Peter Reginato,Michael Steiner, Peter Young, Larry Zox, and many others. Gathering in each other’s studios, congregating at Max’s Kansas City—the newly opened bar on Park Avenue South that was the nucleus of the New York avant-garde—and visiting galleries, the artists built on and encouraged each other’s discoveries. It was within this context that Christensen began to use a spray gun in his art. This was an era before the airbrush became a popular artist’s tool, and he purchased his spray gun from an auto-body retouch shop. He was among the first artists to explore this medium, setting precedents for others who subsequently would use it, including the graffiti painters of the 1980s.

      Christensen’s sprays of the late 1960s struck a nerve in the New York art world of the time, as the critics saw them as representing a much needed revitalization of painting, reversing the trend brought on by minimalism in which painting had often been reduced to a measured and staid mental exercise. The significance of these works in the era is demonstrated by the remarkable amount of attention they received. Between 1967 and 1969, they were not only featured in several solo exhibitions in New York galleries, but they were also included in annuals at the Whitney, Guggenheim, and Corcoran museums. In 1968, Christensen’s sprays were on view in a group show held at Galerie Ricke, Kassel, Germany, along with works by Noland and Morris Louis. In the following year, he was given a solo exhibition at Galerie Ricke, received a Theodoran Award from the Guggenheim Museum, and was represented in important exhibitions at the Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art, Ridgefield, Connecticut, the Saint Louis Art Museum, and Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis. In addition to coverage in many art journals, Christensen’s sprays were featured in articles in Newsweek, in 1968 and 1970, and Time, in 1969.

      Christensen had only a few precedents to rely on in his use of the spray gun. Among them were the spray paintings Olitski had begun to create in 1965 in which he covered his canvases with broad areas of color, seeking to produce works that looked like “nothing but some colors sprayed into the air and staying there.”1 However, Christensen delved more fully into the medium, seeking to discover the full range of its capacities for painting. His process involved first mixing his paints—he often explored the new colors of acrylic that were coming on the market at the time. On creating the color he desired, he strained the paint into a small-sized jar that he attached to his gun. Then, he could set the width of the spray gun’s end to anywhere from a tight opening that produced a pencil-thin line to a broader one, emitting a soft mist. He would pull the trigger to operate the gun, while its power was run from a compressor. To master a medium that was difficult to control, Christensen used a method of trial and error that paid off in the noted precision and vibrancy of his art.  

      In the period before he adopted the spray gun, Christensen created a series of paintings in a minimal mode in which he transferred designs featuring vertical and horizontal bars from graph paper onto canvas [image of Untitled Grid]. In a day when many artists held strictly to clearly defined modular, “one-image” designs—especially at the time of Systemic Painting, the large exhibition of minimalist art held at the Guggenheim Museum in the fall of 1966—Christensen did not feel an obligation to an exacting repetition-and-extension method.2 Instead, as seen in these works, he varied the intervals of the bars within them (and from one work to the next), so that these shapes create changing rhythms as in a musical composition, while they produce reflections and shadows mostly avoided in the hard-edge art of the time. In his initial use of the spray gun, Christensen continued to diverge from the limitations of an empirical approach. In Times Square of 1967, among his earliest sprays, he used a standard minimalist structure of a grid of squares on a square canvas. Yet, over this armature, he applied interweaving coils of spray in close-valued colors, producing an image that is carefully controlled, yet seems to shimmer due to a surface movement that keeps our eyes from being able to focus on the grid.

      In the period that followed, Christensen widened his inquiry into the spray gun’s potential for various optical effects. In a few small-scale works, he used muted colors that challenge our perception in a way that invokes op art. As we try to bring these images into focus, we are unsure if the patterns we see are actually present or a result of our mental effort. Other works of 1968 reveal Christensen’s use of his medium in a way that was both fluid and controlled. In Pale Rumor, a lithe vertical spiral appears to be in motion, and it is only on studying this work that we realize the many colors of spray that Christensen used to create it, going over the spiral’s movement each time with the same lightness and speed in his handling. In Bosco, the latticed horizontals that fill the composition are not stripes, but individual shapes, almost cloudlike, that seem to rest lightly against the surface. In PR (1967, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Gift of Philip Johnson), Christensen used the spray gun with great athleticism, the multi-colored ribbons of spray seeming to spew at a great speed from the edge to an invisible barrier at the center of the canvas.

     In this painting, as well as others including Pale Rumor and Bosco, the edge was a significant issue for Christensen, as the line of spray would react against it like a ball in a pinball game. The impact of the spray would determine its trajectory, giving shape to a composition. However, eventually the way that the edge dictated a compositional structure began to feel restricting to Christensen, and at some point in 1968, he began to work on unstretched canvases, cropping them in a final stage that he called “editing.” He related this phase of his work to that of a writer on a manuscript, in which editing is not merely fixing errors, but making the decisions that are integral and critical to a work. His approach may be seen in Pavo and O and in which he used the spray gun to create long lines that sweep off the edge of the canvas. Like blown-up giant doodles, the lines maintain the feeling and fluency with which they were created, a quality accentuated by the white background. In Chevade, Christensen combined various spray methods, creating some lines that trail into mist, and others that dance across the surface. His new approach was acknowledged in an article in Newsweek in 1968. The authors of the article noted that while Christensen had at first created “stacked modules of close-valued colors,” he had now “opened up,” producing “swirling, glittering arcs across huge canvases.” Relating Christensen’s method to that of action painting, the authors observed: “he sprays vast, helter-skelter daubs of vibrant color, like fighter shadow-boxing.” Quoted in the article, Christensen stated: “I’m trying to work without imposing compositional devices. . . . Theoretically, each time I’d like to do something I don’t know about in advance.”3

      In a number of works of 1968 and 1969, Christensen followed this objective, blending a variety of the spray gun methods he had explored previously into individual works, resulting in some of his most vibrant and exuberant paintings. Often laying large canvases on the floor, he now created colored backgrounds using staining or spraying. In this aspect of his art, he evoked Morris Louis’s Florals, as he allowed the paint to soak into the surface. He then hung his canvases on his studio walls, and setting up a series of ladders, he arranged a kind of obstacle course that he swung amongst to create looping linear patterns. In these, he explored the rhythmic and counterpoint relationships of the moving spray. He felt a connection between painting and music, and it is not surprising that he often listened to jazz while working. He would later describe his work overall as expressing “the harmonious turbulence of the universe,” a mantra that fits the feeling in his freeform sprays of a metaphysical experience of the movements of celestial forces.4 John Gruen wrote of these looped sprays in 1969 in an article in New York Magazine entitled “The Whoosh Is the Work.” He stated: “Christensen’s bands of light seem to move in an aura of soft and diffuse atmospheric space. The sense of motion is abetted by the subtle modulation of color, while the over-all feeling of airiness and suspension gives the created patterns a sense of endlessness and continuity.”5 In an article in Art in America in 1969, Grace Glueck noted that Christensen had cited Matisse as one possibility for his derivation, a source that can be readily seen in the joy of line and color in these paintings.6

    In canvases such as Serpens, among Christensen’s largest, the lines play against the surface while zones of color convey a sense of translucency. This illusion of depth was not necessarily intended by Christensen; at the same time, he did not feel a commitment to eradicate or exploit it just to make a point, as what he sought primarily in his art was a midpoint between his own vision and the spontaneity that occurred as he worked. As Marjorie Welish wrote in a review of his solo show of May 1969 at André Emmerich Gallery: “The appeal of Christensen’s work is in the delicacy of perception which hovers between the sensuous and the formal in the control of lighted color, slightly offbeat in harmony.”7 Chino may be one of Christensen’s most recombinatory works, as he doubled back to the vertical bars of the previous year but made them float like hallucinations against emulsions of hazy spray that have an optical ambiguity.

      Christensen’s role in the forefront of a new direction in art was given widespread recognition in the press of the day. An article of May 1969 in Time Magazine entitled “Painting: To See, to Feel” featured Christensen and the artist Ralph Humphrey. It began by stating: “Abstract art is losing some of its edge—or edges. Dozens of abstract painters have traded in their rulers for spray guns, mops and brushes. Similarly, some of the most severe minimalists indulged in a spot of color.” The author of the article labeled the new group of painters, “romantic minimalists,” identifying Humphrey and Christensen as artists who had progressed to more radiant styles. Finding that the term “minimal” no longer applied, the author felt that the new work reflected back to the romantic tradition.8 In an article in Art in America in 1969, Larry Aldrich included Christensen along with Poons, Bannard, and David Diao as painters who “had moved away from the geometric, hard-edge, minimal, toward lyrical, sensuous, romantic abstractions in color which are softer and more vibrant.” Aldrich stated: “painters are creating in significant numbers, works that are visually ‘beautiful’—up to now, in the art world of the sixties, a dirty word.”9

      Overall, Christensen’s sprays of the late 1960s can be been summed up as demonstrating a controlled gesturalism, fusing a conceptual approach with the spontaneity of action painting. As such they evoke the legacy of Jackson Pollock. Indeed, Pollock was an important inspiration for Christensen, especially after he visited the influential Pollock retrospective held in the spring of 1967 at the Museum of Modern Art. However, in keeping with a color Weld approach, Christensen’s sprays diverge from the personal dimension of Pollock’s art and the angst and hubris of abstract expressionism. Reflective of an artist’s endeavor to be fully engaged in his medium, they express Christensen’s respect for the spray gun’s capacities and demonstrate the challenge he felt in guiding the spray to achieve his desired aesthetic results without too forcefully imposing his own will on it, so that he could enjoy the surprise and adventure that occurred along the way.

      Christensen would move away from the spray gun in the years ahead as he pursued other inquiries with an equal passion. When he returned to it in the 1980s, he set new goals for himself, creating yet another original body of work that is characteristic of an artist’s artist, whose motivation came from within.
Catalogue text by Lisa N. Peters from the exhibition held at Spanierman Modern, New York, November 15, 2012–January 5, 2013     
The author would like to thank the artist’s widow, Elaine Grove, and his brother, Don Christensen, for providing recollections and consultation on this essay.

1. Cited in Benjamin Genocchio, “Jules Olitski, 84, American Abstract Painter, Dies,” New York Times, February 5, 2007.
2. The principles of systemic painting were discussed in the catalogue by the show’s curator Lawrence Alloway. See Alloway, “Systemic Painting,” in Gregory Battcock, ed., Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1968), 37–60.
3. Ann Ray Martin and Howard Junker, “The New Art: It’s Way, Way Out,” Newsweek 29 ( July 1968), 62.4.
4. Cited in Douglas Drake, “Remembrances of Dan,” in Dan Christensen: Forty Years of Painting, exh. cat. (Kansas City, Mo.: Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, 2009), 25.
5. John Gruen, “Art in New York: The Whoosh Is the Work,” New York Magazine ( June 9, 1969), 57.
6. Grace Glueck, “Like a Beginning,” Art in America (May–June 1969), 119.
7. Marjorie Welish, “Art,” Manhattan East, May 23, 1969, 2.
8. “To See, To Feel, Painting–Dervish Loops,” Time Magazine (May 30, 1969), 64.
9. Larry Aldrich, “Young Lyrical Painters,” Art in America (November–December 1969), 104.

© Spanierman Modern, New York