Spanierman Modern is pleased to announce the opening on June 12, 2008 of Present Tense, an exhibition curated by the noted artists Don Christensen and Mary Heilmann, consisting of abstract works by fourteen contemporary artists. The works were selected on the basis of their ability to produce instant and visceral responses in the viewer, without the necessity of contextualization. The artists included share a preoccupation with eccentric structures and tend toward the use of unexpected materials and techniques. Working in the abstract formalist tradition, they seek new vocabulary and materials, redefining their boundaries, even to the degree of leaving the confines of the canvas altogether.
Polly Apfelbaum has clustered colored spots onto used yard-sale cotton pillowcases. The diptych, Two Blue, recalls the sixties, perhaps referring to an autobiographic moment. Apfelbaum’s work references the logical structures of the minimal, evoking the art of Donald Judd, but it also speaks to the “domestic arts,” such as tie dying, quilting, even housekeeping.
Emery Blagdon, who died in 1986, spent the Depression years as a hobo. While working during the 1950s as a subsistence farmer in his native Nebraska, he began to produce a network of “Healing Machines.” The objects’ reflective, kinetic, and color properties were intended to resonate and release an electromagnetic force to combat physical and psychic pain (Blagdon’s parents and three of his five younger siblings were lost to cancer.) Blagdon is represented in the exhibition by paintings that use linear geometric space, an approach carried forward by Christensen.
Also from Nebraska, Don Christensen was the son of a farmer and truck driver. Arriving in New York during the 1960s, he met the leading figures in Color Field painting through his older brother Dan (1942-2007), a central figure in the movement. Christensen was part of the “No Wave” music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. He was inspired to focus on painting after meeting Emery Blagdon, whose work he helped rescue from oblivion after Blagdon’s death. Since, Christensen has gained renown for vivid works that share a sense of elusive geometrical encoding with those of Blagdon. Christensen’s use of found building material endows his art with a feeling of moving into timeless space and of mathematical relativity.
John Duff has been one of the most intellectually experimental artists in New York since the 1970s. Remaining outside the art world’s materialistic mainstream, he works independently, channeling the mathematical and philosophical truths of topology and symbolic logic to produce an art of uncanny power. His concern with the spiritual and Eastern thought is revealed in his use of geometry, line, and scale.
Hermine Ford, who spends a third of her time in Rome, finds inspiration in Italy’s mosaic tile work. She gives still, geometric wall pieces a sense of motion and a filmic quality. Standing before her work evokes a feeling of moving along a passage, even through centuries of time.
Fabric is the catalyst in the work of Joe Fyfe. The artist channels Russian Constructivism into a moving intimacy, which references the female with a provocative male attitude.
Inspired by Japanese ceramics and tea ceremonies, Mary Heilmann became concerned with institutional critique, even before this concept was recognized. While in school in the 1960s, she applied her views first to sculpture in a traditional New York School mode and then to the paintings she began to create at the end of the decade. Her bright, primary colors, often unmixed or mediated, are often seen as signs of color—Heilmann has said that her inspiration comes from looking at parrots. She uses abstraction to move from the specifics of her life to more general concerns. “What I am looking for in my work,” Heilmann notes, is a sense of time and place, and each painting is intended to evoke memory and premonition at once.”
Like the work of many of the other artists in the exhibition, Chris Martin’s recent paintings are informed by the geometric. He uses form in a free way that evokes subway graffiti, childhood, and crafts. The artist has said: “I wanted to bring in all of the artists’ images and junk that have inspired me, to break down the boundaries between high art, kids’ art, and sidewalk art.”
Owing mostly to annual visits to archeological sites in Mexico and Central America, Steve Keister has amassed an authoritative knowledge of Olmec, Mayan, and Toltec sculpture. He uses castings from consumer-product packaging, information from his field work, and digital photographic notes to produce works that “establish a strange limbo of suspended signifiers.” Works such as Skyband reconfigure the impulses and images of Mayan culture that he has visually and psychically experienced.
Stephen Mueller’s inspiration comes from a combination of different types of music (from Pop, Techno, and Disco, to the Ragas of the South Asian diaspora) as well as from Indian visual imagery. His flawless craft and intense, meditative focus produce a spiritually transporting topology.
Arlene Shechet’s ceramic sculptures channel hollow pottery form, while evoking the tradition of “sculpture on a pedestal.” Even, Perhaps, Especially is about attempting to grasp the transitional, trying to hold on to an idea as it shifts and changes.
Taro Suzuki describes his work as Minimal Action Painting. Using a handmade rubber notched rake, he pulls successive layers of process colors (cyan, yellow, and magenta) across the canvas, without knowing the results of the lines and what patterns are revealed underneath until the process is completed. His works are artifacts of the moment of creation.
Steven Westfall, who comes from a modernist tradition of colorful abstraction, is now producing more complex and eccentric work. He is represented in this exhibition by paintings featuring double overlapping geometry, radically bright color, and a romantic errant line.
Stanley Whitney’s vividly colored paintings span many cultures. They reference the art of Donald Judd and Frank Stella, while evoking the quilts of Gee’s Bend.
Diverse in the methods by which they were created, the works in Present Tense reveal the boundless potential now associated with abstraction and demand our immediate engagement with the objects before us.