Reception: Friday, July 31, 5:30 - 7:30
Dan Christensen, who died in 2007, is thought of today as one of the greatest post-minimal color abstractionists in the history of American painting. With a place in art history firmly established by his pioneering explorations and refinements of the possibilities of paint on canvas, his work is included in many of the most important American museum collections. The late great critic, Clement Greenberg, once famously declared: "Dan Christensen is one of the painters on whom the course of American art depends.
Dan Christensen: Lyrical Spray Canvases, 1960s to the 1990s goes on view at LewAllen's new and architecturally forward gallery in Santa Fe's historic Railyard art district from July 31 to September 13. It is an extraordinary exhibition comprised of more than 40 paintings all made using the spray technique that brought Christensen his original critical success in the 1960s and which he revisited in later years as one among various techniques he explored in the use of paint. The paintings in this exhibition were some of Christensen's personal favorite work. Long put away and surfacing now from his estate, many are on public iew for the first time. All of these spray paintings exemplify his exuberant joy in developing new processes for paint application.
Christensen's work includes some of the finest painting of post-war America. His virtuosity and never-ending experimentation put him at the center of many of the 20th century's most significant developments and innovations in abstract painting. Greenberg heralded him as one of the foremost examplars of what he called "post-painterly abstraction," a new form of painting that he saw as providing purifying relief from an ego-engorged era of abstract expressionism.
Using spray guns, Christensen refined the use of mechanical precision to create paintings that represented a huge leap toward the "pure art" that Greenberg envisioned as the ultimate progress of Modernist aesthetic. His modulated but joyous sprayed stacks, loops, orbs and lines epitomized the elimination of subject matter, spatial illusion and individual expression revealing the "truthfulness" of paint on canvas. The technique attracted favorable international attention including critical praise in the art press as well as in broadly read publications such as Time Magazine, Newsweek and New York Magazine.
Jackson Pollack became renowned for temporarily killing off the brush as a painter's principal instrument for art-making, flinging paint from the end of a stick or pouring it directly from a can. Beginning in 1967, Christensen refined the idea using the innovative possibilities of mechanical spray guns to project paint onto canvas. Spray guns compress air to atomize paint and spray its particles through the air in ways an artist can control to far greater extent than through manual projection. Their use does not "fling" so much as it permits mastery and domination over materials.
Christensen's exploration of the paradoxical possibilities of spray paint - which allows for both soft focus and precision in application - differentiate his work from the earlier all-over, atmospheric paintings by Jules Olitski, who famously stated his wish to create paintings of pure color, that is, to achieve the effect of "a spray of paint in the air that would just stay there, not lose its shape." The control that can be achieved with a spray gun enables an artist to produce either finely modulated atmospheric clouds and fields of color (as in Olitski's paintings) or more or less focused and/or softly diffused lines and hard-edged shapes (with the use of tape or stencils), a range of effects not possible through Pollack's drips and pours.
Of course it would be incorrect to emphasize Christensen's facility to make "pure art" at the expense of recognizing the significant degree to which is painting always included a substantial component of personal expression. Indeed the spray gun enabled Christensen to "draw" on canvas with enhanced refinement but new lyrical power. The pneumatic spray extended his reach and the articulation of his hand casting gestural threads of color pulses. It allowed harmonious orchestrations of color field that together with the note-like rhythms suggested from the calligraphy of his lines and loops impart a meditative sense of musicality to his sprayed works. Christensen said of his work that it was always about the sense of pleasure, like listening to music.
Christensen achieved spectacular success at an early age - he was in two Whitney Biennials before the age of 26 - and each turn in his singular creative path drew the attention of reviewers such as Peter Plagens in Artforum, Grace Glueck and Lily Wei in Art in America, Carter Ratcliff in ARTnews and Phyllis Braff, Roberta Smith and Holland Cotter in The New York Times.
Christensen's earliest work was of a minimalist geometric style. He made the leap to lyrical abstraction in 1967, using a spray gun in large, sweeping gestures to draw "ribbons" and "loops" in delicious candy hues on bare canvas or brightly colored fields. These colorful, lyrical paintings were amont the most original paintings of the decade and brought him both critical recognition and commercial success. Nevertheless, in 1969 he abruptly changed course, put down the spray gun and continued his innovative explorations of painting tools and techniques. He returned to spray painting 16 years later, in 1985, now combining sprayed areas with other techniques in his expansive repertoire.
By 1991, he had settled on a circular or centering motif, with brightly colored circles whose sprayed edges melted into the surrounding space. These "circle" paintings were among the most celebrated of his career and brought fresh critical acclaim.
Phyllis Braff wrote in The New York Times, "The most extraordinary physical response to light and color occurs in three very successful paintings...each circle vibrates according to the degree of luminosity and built-in radiance" (16 June 1991).
For Art in America, Lily Wei described the best of these paintings as "handsome, adept, resplendently colored variations on a theme: the '60s hold their own into the '90s as Christensen attempts to put the aura back into painting in this age of electronic reproduction"
New York Times' reviewer Holland Cotter described one painting in 1994 as "a little poem of hazy planetlike globes floating in what looks like galactic space" and summed up the viewer's experience as "pure pleasure, rare these days" (22 July 1994).
In 2001, at the time of a major museum retrospective of Christensen's career at the Butler Institute of American Art, museum director Louis A. Zona opined that Christensen "stands as a reminder of what great and timeless art has been and will remain."
Christensen was born in Cozad, Nebraska, in 1942. He received his BFA in 1964 from the Kansas City Art Institute, and in 1966 began exhibiting his paintings in New York. His work has appeared in more than 60 solo exhibitions and in group shows all over the world. He won numerous awards including the National Endowment Grant in 1968 and the Guggenheim Fellowship Theodora Award in 1969 and was in two Whitney biennials before the age of 26.
The esteem for his work by the art world is evidenced by the inclusion of his work in the collections of such premier institutions as the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, NY; the Hirshhorn Museum of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC; the Butler Institute of American art in Youngstown, OH; the Chicago Art Institute; the Houston Museum of Fine Arts; the Seattle Art Museum; and the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, among many others.
Christensen died too young, at home in East Hampton, New York, on January 20, 2007.