Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974 – 1989

Charles Gaines, “Shadows II, Set 1,” 1980. From the Shadows series, 1978 – 80. Photographs, ink on paper, Four parts: 20 × 16 ̋ each; 24 1/2 × 72 ̋ (overall framed). Private collection. Courtesy Kent Fine Art, New York.


The interpretation of “a system” versus “the system” is polarized, depending on context—a flaw in communication that implies discrepancies within language. Is no structure sacred? Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974 – 1989 at The Studio Museum in Harlem, a seminal exhibition of the artist’s earliest work, theorizes so and reveals the disadvantages of the deification of structure.

Born in 1944, Gaines grew up in Newark, New Jersey, attended college in Jersey City, and graduate school in Rochester, all by 1967. His painting practice was uprooted upon discovering John Cage and Steve Reich, incited by concepts of change through repetition and compositions building toward transcendence. Objective, quantitative components allowed Gaines to explore the fluidity of fact and the complications of representation, revealing the simultaneous richness and uniformity of language.1

Gaines was a teacher at Fresno State in California, where he’d reside through 1990, when he began working with hand-drawn grids. The sterile skeleton, keeping visual theatrics at bay throughout the exhibition, emerged in the Regression series from 1973. Sparked by a triangle composed of numbers in sequence within the grid, Gaines defined parameters for 28 drawings based on this triangle: each image would follow from the drawing done directly before it, columns of numbers were added to devise the next schema, and division would allow the numbers to adjust to the physical confines of the grid and page. Hung in rows slightly above eye-level, the display highlights Gaines’s disregard for welcoming the viewer into his system—the parameters for creation are defined for the first time in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition.

Gaines was interested in “the excess of language,”2 terms that were simultaneously obvious and instructive yet impenetrable, hinging to a degree on the interpretation of the viewer. The Calculations series, created immediately after Regression in 1975, divulges the complicated equations Gaines utilized for each grid. Even so, the numbers are nearly indecipherable on the page, depicting repetitive shapes despite the proof that terms are in flux. Comically, for a man who was never particularly interested in mathematics, Gaines lulls the viewer into a false sense of structure, of understanding with algebra.3

Gaines’s utilization of the grid and seriality were “not just a technique but a concept and image unto itself, carrying meaning.”4 The suggested totality of these strategies bloomed as his focus redirected to cataloguing universally understood subjects, namely the human face and trees. The Walnut Tree Orchard series appears in 1975 and is Gaines’s first work to feature photography. He is pursuing form like a hound after a hare: a documentary photograph of a walnut tree discovered in Fresno is followed by a simple descriptive drawing of the tree and completed by a numbered grid depicting the tree in question and any other tree that came before it in the series. Over the course of 26 triptychs, one observes the indeterminacy of fact outside of context and the chaos of consolidated simplifications. Faces (1978 – 79), the most overtly political series in the exhibition, implants human faces into a system practically identical to the Walnut Tree series—discernible facial characteristics are extracted from a photograph then these outlines are recombined in the final drawing of each triptych. These swollen stereotypes insinuate the issue with imposing “empirical categorization” upon individuals, in turn simplifying identity and race to a visual rather than conceptual rubric.5 Gaines mocks the dogmatic representation of entities established by social harmony, at the mercy of relevance to the time in which they exist—human beings and larger systems such as education, authority, and religion included. By quantifying these entities we restrain our understanding of them.

Gaines’s systems of representation turned direct in 1978 with the Incomplete Text series, his first manipulating text. The triptychs mimic those mentioned thus far: a page from a seasoned whale watching manual has every other letter extracted; those free radicals are placed on a grid for the second drawing. The last drawing is a poem of “false words” culled from the prior drawings, created from letters in close proximity to one another. The poem is freed from its instructional source, attaining legibility through the metaphorical rigidity of like-appearances that dissolves into toothless blabber.

Motion: Trisha Brown Dance (1980 – 81) provides perhaps the best summary for Gaines’s struggles with representation and the counterintuitive constraints on our absorption of the world by systems. Each piece contains four large images: two photographs of Trisha Brown in motion in her studio and two plotted numerical drawings that depict composite shadows from these photographs. Above these two pairs are 24 smaller grid drawings that randomly layer silhouettes from 20 photographs—one photograph taken every three seconds for one minute. The choreography dissolves and only the body, its weight and shape, remains. If this exploration of Gaines’s early work can teach us anything, it’s that seemingly authoritarian systems can contrive languages of deception.

Despite being contrived from facts, Gaines’s visual metonyms counteract the Theory of Mind—an understanding that due to unique intentions, knowledge, and beliefs, disparate understandings of the world are unavoidable; congealed generalizations manifest an incomplete picture. Despite constantly seeking order to quell chaos, time is kind to those who supplant the unstable, even at times arbitrary, facts with flexibility of the mind. We can no longer afford to lazily rely on statistics, allowing data to dictate our social progression—to do so is a psychic pitfall on the route to implosion.


  1. “The Golden Age Is in Us: Noam Chomsky interviewed by Alexander Cockburn,” www.chomsky.info/interviews/19940622.htm.
  2. Charles Gaines, “Five Will Get You Ten,” in Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, ed. Naima J. Keith [New York City: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014], 35.
  3. Howard Singerman, “Charles Gaines’ Fresno,” in Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, ed. Naima J. Keith [New York City: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014], 95.
  4. Charles Gaines, “Five Will Get You Ten,” 37.
  5. Ellen Tani, “The Face Is a Politics,” in Charles Gaines: Gridwork 1974–1989, ed. Naima J. Keith [New York City: The Studio Museum in Harlem, 2014], 60.


Lynn Maliszewski