Reflections on Alfred Jensen
Born in 1903, Alfred Jensen belongs to the heroic generation of Barnett Newman (1905 - 1970), Jackson Pollock (1912 - 1956), Mark Rothko (1903 - 1970), Myron Stout (1908 - 1986), and Forrest Bess (1911 - 1977). Jensen is one of the greatest abstract painters of his or any other generation. It’s a continuing mystery as to why he has never received anything like the attention he deserves. Now fourteen large paintings are on view at the Dia Foundation on West 22nd street until June of 2002, and an exhibit of smaller paintings is at the Max Protech Gallery from November 13 to December 22. Do not miss these shows.
Alfred Jensen was an eccentric citizen of the world who had traveled everywhere, spoke five language, and personally knew many of the giants of modernism. He studied with Hans Hoffman in Germany and Despiau and Dufresne in France, had a studio upstairs from Mondrian in Paris, was friends with Dubuffet, Rothko, Miro, Duchamp, Breton, and Allan Kaprow. He was a Byzantine primitive, an anonymous Peruvian carpet maker, an Egyptian high priest, a Chinese sage, a crazy autodidactic living in Glenn Ridge, New Jersey.
Actually, to call Alfred Jensen an abstract painter is misleading, because the paintings are so concrete. They don’t just illustrate or describe ideas; they contain a tremendous amount of concrete information. The paintings may allude to a complex web of ideas, but they are almost absurdly specific. Nothing in these paintings is anything other than itself.
The mature paintings are flat patterns mapping a wide range of numerical and philosophical systems. Each square inch is carefully plotted out and composed. Many paintings are covered with numbers, including Arabic, Mayan, Chinese, and other ancient counting systems. Some paintings include symbols from the I-Ching, Mayan calendars, and scientific diagrams. Other paintings are completely abstract, subtle checkerboards structured with an eccentric but absolutely particular logic. Many paintings include written notations, headings, titles, and quotations in large, loopy script. The paintings are dense, condensed, and impacted with ideas, theories, symbols, and grand schemes.
They are painted with pure color oil paint squeezed straight out of the tube and spread over the surface with a palette knife. The paint is presented as actual colored dirt sitting on the surface. Jensen is never asking the paint to be something other than itself, like a nose, or the sky, or deep space, or atmosphere, or almost any kind of space. Jensen lays the paint like a Byzantine artist seeing mosaic tiles. Each square inch of paint is dabbed on thickly and the light glistens and bounces off the paint, revealing each tiny section distinctly and separately.
Jensen knew everyone, but remained alone, an outsider in the middle of the art world. He avoided attachments to any school or movement. He developed later as a mature artist than his contemporaries the Abstract Expressionists and was never fully accepted by many of them. He was a major influence on some conceptual and minimal artists, but declined to be included in their pivotal group shows in the early 1960s. He has been pigeonholed as a bridge between generations, as a mystic, an eccentric, a difficult artist.
Why exactly is Jensen considered such a difficult artist? Because we feel that we are supposed to understand the complex and sometimes arcane traditions and logics underlying the paintings; we are supposed to think, and that is a burden. Perhaps we feel guilty to just sit back and look at the work and enjoy its eye-popping color rhythms. Peter Schjeldal, in his brilliant essay “Jensen’s Difficulty”, calls it a pure difficulty. “The ultimate coherence, if any, of Jensen’s teeming systems has eluded his most informed and patient students. This is not to say that studying those systems is pointless: pleasure and instruction reward any effort to understand Jensen, and great pleasure and instruction reward a great effort.”
I personally find myself drawn into the structure of the paintings, counting little color squares or following odd and even numbers along with the artist. Watching the paintings for any length of time I am aware of watching myself think as the mind courses along numbered pathways and around arcane symbols. Jensen’s paintings are not intellectual puzzles which need to be solved, and which, once solved, can then be digested or forgotten about. Their ideas reward one’s interest, as Schjeldal points out, but their deeper significance and pleasure are more complex, or perhaps much more simple than that.
The paintings literally blaze. The first time I walked into the Dia show and caught sight of the colors, I found myself saying “Holy Shit!” out loud. Jensen’s color light is so fierce that it is almost abrasive. It seems so impersonal, yet a Jensen painting can be recognized a block away. This color light is intense not just because the paint is squeezed right out of the tube. Would that it were so easy! No, the light emerges as a result of the specific ordering of thought in the mind. Jensen plugs his color theory into the rhythms of all these systems— counting systems, calendars, magic squares, temple proportions— and the result is light. Jensen is never putting a blue in the corner because he thinks it will look good. Color is never wielded as a matter of taste. If a section is colored blue, it’s because that is its necessary placement as part of a larger conceptual reality. Jensen’s light is the light of truth— not taste.
Jensen’s story is incredible. Born and raised in Guatemala and nursed by Mayan Indian women, he was sent back to Denmark upon the death of his mother, at age seven, and at age fourteen he ran away to sea and wandered the globe. He returned to Guatemala to run a chicken farm, and at 20 he began studying painting in California, then in Germany and France. In the twenties and thirties, he traveled with his patron and companion Sadie May, collecting art from the major artists of the day. He lived in New York in the forties and fifties, and finally, at age 54, he found his voice as an artist; from then on the paintings poured from him one after another.
Mark Rothko stated that a major influence of his formal development was the childhood memory of huge rectangles in the earth— the mass graves of Jewish victims of Russian pogroms. Jensen stated that a major influence on his development was the childhood memory of his mother’s orange coffin being lowered into the earthen rectangle of her grave in Guatemala, the four silver angels at each corner of the coffin pointing in the four cardinal directions.
Jensen approached Rothko at the opening of the Fifteen Americans show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1952. They formed a close friendship, visiting each other’s studios and exchanging criticisms. Five years later, in 1957, it was Rothko who encouraged Jensen to let go of his more derivative Abstract Expressionist work, and start painting the diagrams and notes that he had pinned up everywhere in his studio. “I got rid of my expressionist paintings entirely,” Jensen stated, “and became a diagram painter— that’s the way it happened. I developed my study into a style. I considered these researches as studies. I had unconsciously done my style for ten years without using it.”
Jensen’s paintings from the mid-fifties on have the extraordinary quality of authentic revelation. Jensen knows he is breaking through to a deeper artistic identity. Squeezing the color directly onto the plotted forms, Jensen understands that he can paint the idea directly now — that paint is at the service of mind, that paint can be light. One is reminded of Paul Klee’s famous statement from his diaries in North Africa in 1914: “Color and I are One, I am a painter.”
In his essay on Jensen “In Pursuit of the Invisible”, John Yau writes “He understands light’s non-material existence and paint’s palpable presence to be interchangeable, that each can be transformed into the other. This understanding is for him visible evidence of one of the great, constant problems of metaphysics. He explains the invisible world in terms of the relationship of number and color, a most ambitious and ambiguous theory whose proof exists in this very painting, the accuracy of which, I might add, is not as important as the passion with which it was advanced.”
Polarities and dualities: Jensen understands that all life emerges from the great dualities. He opposes white and black, and sets complementary colors against each other, uses magnetic opposites, divides above and below. Forms are mirrored, repeated, and transposed. Paintings are organized according to positive or negative, female or male, hot or cold, warm and cool, unity and multiplicity, circle and square.
Jensen himself was a man of great dualities. He was an outsider who knew everyone. A school dropout at age 14 who became a tremendous autodidactic, the most well read man in the art world. He was a lifelong connoisseur of painting (he spent years copying old masters in the Prado in Madrid), yet his mature work is described as “primitive” and “without taste”. Jensen’s paintings are considered on the one hand to be rigorous, difficult, conceptually complex, yet their physical presence is exuberant and shockingly direct, with crudely slathered-on paint and childlike script.
In 1995, traveling with a friend in Ajiic Mexico, I woke up in a living room painted by Mayan Indiana. It was like waking up inside a Jensen painting. The ceiling was an intense blue-green, the eastern wall was a deep red, the western was black. To my right, the southern wall was a bright yellow, and opposite that the northern wall was white. The owners of the house explained to us that the ancient Maya mapped the four cardinal directions and the center with specific colors. Everything in the Mayan universe was assigned to this sacred diamond.
Jensen’s paintings are not illustrations of “mystical” ideas. He does not simply copy diagrams, the way in 1955 Jasper Johns “copied” the American flag. Nor is Jensen interested in the flatness or simple geometric properties of his paintings for their own sake, the way Frank Stella celebrated flatness and dumb design in his Black Paintings of 1959. The interest in flatness for it’s own sake, championed by Clement Greenberg and many others, led to a vast desert of empty tasteful abstractions. Jensen is actually figuring out his ideas in the process of diagramming them. He is capturing the essence of all these fantastic ideas, and his crude geometry of mapping is a transparent means to an end, never a formalist dead end.
Jensen read Goethe’s Farbelehre, his work on color theory, more than twenty times in the original German. Like Goethe, Jensen saw the metaphysical light inside of hard science. Matthew Deleget, in his unpublished thesis “Alfred Jensen — Sacred Geometer”, notes that “Goethe…needed nearly thirty years to research and write his book Farbelehre and Jensen similarly spent the majority of his thirty years in New York continually researching new cultures and systems of information that he encountered.”
Much of what Jensen is doing seems to involve correlating different systems. Maria Reidelbach, in her essay “Reading Alfred Jensen,” defines this as Isomorphism, “the mapping of one system of symbols over another so that the structures of each system correspond.” Jensen overlaps counting systems, for instance, with color ideas about oppositions and odd and even. Some colors are feminine, some colors are odd or even, black or white. In a similar way, Forrest Bess began assigning distinct meanings—masculine and feminine—to the different colors, lines, and forms that he was seeing inside his own eyelids. Bess believed that he was recovering archaic constants through his own unconscious.
Jensen was omnivorous. He consumed ancient Chinese calendars, the I-Ching and magic squares, alchemy, astronomy, Mayan calendars and counting systems, Egyptian temple design, physics, Inca ruins, Greek philosophy and Golden Sections, Pythagorus, Plato, Leonardo Da Vinci, Neil Armstrong, Goethe, Faradey…Jensen was wild and fancy-free in creating correlative systems. He mashes ideas together, transposes them, overlays them, cross-pollinates them, all to find common order, a deeper structure.
Ultimately these are paintings of Jensen himself in the process of thinking. Thought, filtered through the prism of Jensen’s graphing process, equals light. The paintings blaze with the light of a living investigation, and it is the quality of that investigation that reveals the sacred.
CHRIS MARTIN is an artist based in Brooklyn.