Aa Artist’s Odyssey
(University of Minnesota Press, 2012)
Christof Trepesch’s chapter in Denise Green: An Artist’s Odyssey, a collection of essays on the career of the eponymous Australian-born, New York-based painter, opens with an emphatic assertion on the importance of color in the artist’s work. Trepesch states: “its rich spectrum and diversity permeates her entire oeuvre and informs the compositions of her paintings in a transcendent way.” Green’s use of color is indeed a striking part of her largely abstract, New Imagist paintings. So it’s surprising that, save for an occasional black-and-white reproduction, images of the work are scarce. It would stand to reason if this book were based around contextual and conceptual themes. But Green, despite having had quite a presence in the Lower Manhattan art scene during the 1970s and 1980s, and having made a concerted and successful effort to constantly exhibit in Australia, is largely absent from mention in either of these recent histories. So taken altogether this book attempts a big stretch, acting as a chronicle of her career, theoretical examination, and introduction all at once.
This odyssey features biographical essays and formal analyses contributed by art historians, critics, and curators. Though it’s Green’s writing that is the most engaging, frankly cataloguing the progression of her career since its advent in the late 1960s. Born in Melbourne in 1946 and raised in Brisbane (the city where I also was raised and perhaps the reason I’m more familiar with her work), Green left Australia at age 17, her career aims veering towards secretarial—certainly not artistic—and with adventure first on her mind.
Green points to her professional and personal influences in three chapters. The influence of Mark Rothko and Robert Motherwell while studying under them at Hunter College, a broken marriage, representation by Max Protetch Gallery and association with Lotringer’s Semiotext(e) are all given due credit for their effect on her work. She is candid about the struggle of overcoming a natural reticence and lack of business training to secure her own funding for museum shows in the U.S., Australia, and Europe, as well as her fight for the place of narrative and emotional content in an era dominated by Greenbergian theory. Like showing “how the sausage is made,” it’s these insights that are of most interest. Knowing the history behind her work helps to better understand what led to a shift away from her minimalist, object based imagery painted with very little differentiation in hue, towards abstraction and a vocabulary of symbolism—the shape of a fan, a vessel, the constant repetition of lines, with quick, visible strokes and wide spectrum of colors in one canvas.
This is where An Artist’s Odyssey excels: in providing an account of the career behind the art, in doing so bringing meaning to the work itself. Green makes it clear that she doesn’t consider her paintings “pure form and color,” the view that Clement Greenberg championed. Though her style has changed, her intention has remained that the work to be seen surrounded by the world in which it exists. Not only what came before, but what came after—how viewers have interpreted it, what it preceded in the evolution of her practice, who bought it and how it feels to live with, to have it hanging on the wall.
This question she posed to Australian mega-collector Kerry Stokes, who holds “Chair” (1976), “Summer Heat” (1982), and “Re-witnessing” (2001) in his preeminent collection. But readers are, unfortunately, not afforded the opportunity to see “Chair” and its subtle tonal shifts in burnt-orange, at once so still and yet vibrating with the energy of the color. So as such, An Artist’s Odyssey isn’t an apt introduction for those unfamiliar with Green’s work. But it could encourage the best introduction available: seeing it for themselves. The absence of images made me want to return to her canvasses. To reconsider her simplified, solitary objects, quietly alluding to her personal and cultural experiences. If readers choose to seek out her work they’ll face it armed with knowledge of its history and a plethora of different frames through which to consider it.