For Artists, Grids Inspire Both Order and Rebellion

Alina Cohen
Jul 24, 2018 8:45PM
Betty Tompkins
Fuck Grid #20, 2005

Grids dictate the pattern of many 21st-century lives. When we decide whether or not to use technology, we’re either on the grid or off it. The grid controls energy consumption and stores information in its sexier, Keanu Reeves-evoking form: the matrix. Magazine art directors and graphic designers worship the grid as an organizing principle for print layouts, advertisements, and websites. Yet over the past century, visual artists have invoked the grid in pursuit of more abstract ends.

Check the dictionary, and definitions skew utilitarian. Merriam-Webster offers that “grid” is simply “a network of uniformly spaced horizontal and perpendicular lines (as for locating points on a map).” The grid is a predetermined, ordering structure which artists can choose to either follow or disrupt.

From Ad Reinhardt to Agnes Martin, Sol LeWitt, Michelle Grabner, and Lynne Golob Gelfman, artists have both used and subverted the grid, co-opting a decidedly left-brain structure for their right-brain endeavors. Despite the shared departure point, the diversity of their efforts suggest that the grid has almost limitless potential—inspiring meditations on color, spirituality, form, and the act of art-making itself. The grid is especially salient for painters. As a network of woven linen threads, the canvas they work on is already a grid; adding another grid on top lets painters comment on the act of painting itself.  

Sol LeWitt
Serial System using Lines and Color Composite, 1977
Alan Cristea Gallery

In a 1979 issue of October, Rosalind Krauss established a critical framework for understanding how artists use the grid, going so far as to write that it “functions to declare the modernity of modern art.” For centuries, artists used the grid mainly as a tool to achieve proportional accuracy. But only in the 20th century did the grid itself become the subject of artistic study and inquiry. Artists elevated the form from an invisible framework to a feature worthy of the spotlight. The grid’s flatness eliminated a sense of reality and narrative—a positive thing for mid-century artists following the austere dictates championed by critic Clement Greenberg.

At James Cohan in New York, senior director David Norr has mounted an exhibition entitled “Grids,” on view through July 27. The grid, he told Artsy, is “not a profound mechanism for parsing art’s biggest ideas, but it’s certainly a way of organizing, a framework for thinking about the pressures to construct and work against composition.”

Norr mentioned a 1978–79 exhibition organized by Pace Gallery, “The Grid: Format and Image in Twentieth Century Art,” as a major predecessor of his own project. That show united work by Frank Lloyd Wright, Paul Klee, and Piet Mondrian with that of Martin, Chuck Close, Jasper Johns, Louise Nevelson, and others.

Wright’s inclusion connected the grid to architecture, while Close employed the grid as a tool to translate a photographic image to canvas. Betty Tompkins’s paintings from the same era followed a similar strategy, one that she continues to employ through the current day: The artist enlarges explicit photographs on a massive, painterly scale. Sometimes, particularly in her drawings, she left the gridded framework visible. Tompkins portrays process—both sexual and artistic—with a pervasive honesty.

Lynne Golob Gelfman
thru pink/green, 1977
Tile Blush

Yet the grid can also give way to greater freedom in more obscure ways. When Grabner made her gingham-patterned Untitled (2016) (now on view in the James Cohan show), she was a working mother; she didn’t have the liberty to spend uninterrupted hours in the studio. Instead, she developed a gridded system of painting that allowed her to start and stop production at will: The constraints she developed offered a path for continued mark-making.

The grid offers very different possibilities for artists working with unusual media. Elias Sime uses this basic, accessible structure to organize panels overlaid with found materials: braided, reclaimed electrical wires and components. From afar, the linked panels appear like colorful blocks in a painting; closer inspection reveals the prosaic parts. Simon Evans uses yoga mats as canvas, transforming the exercise and meditation aids into backdrops for meticulous gridded mazes of black ink and white-out.

This otherworldliness extends beyond the ecumenical; Martin’s work, simply comprised of delicately drawn grids, connected the canvas to nature. “When I first made a grid I happened to be thinking of the innocence of trees,” she once said, “and then this grid came into my mind and I thought it represented innocence.”

Pat Lipsky, French Painting, 1975. Courtesy of the artist.

Suzanne P. Hudson, author of Agnes Martin: Night Sea (2016), describes the artist’s grid as a “slow achievement”: She only arrived at the format in middle age. Though Martin aimed at rationalism and idealism, she made the structure subjective and deeply personal. “Despite the attempt at recapitulating some kind of perfect geometric order,” said Hudson, “the lapses and the bodily imprint” of her grids—their apparent imperfections—are what’s truly exciting.

If Martin’s grids are quiet and meditative, other painters have used the form for bolder, more vibrant work. “The grid is a tremendous opportunity for color relations and moving color around,” painter Pat Lipsky said. At the beginning of her nearly five decade-long career, she created colorful, mosaic-like compositions. In the 1990s, she at times reduced her palette and just painted black grids. She tilted the canvases like diamonds and propped them on the floor rather than hanging them. Lipsky based her earliest paintings on logarithmic progressions, dividing the canvas into different segments of color based on rigorous numerical principles. “My father had been an engineer. I just thought like this,” she said.

The grid doesn’t always inform the painting, though; sometimes, it comes later. For Untitled (#01-18) (2018)—now on view at Bortolami in “Condo New York 2018: Corbett vs. Dempsey, Chicago”—Rebecca Morris first painted an expanse of canvas purple, then stretched it, then laid down a silver, edgeless grid over the mass of color. “I wanted a grid on top of that purple field because it’s very washy and expansive and ethereal and neverending,” Morris said. “The grid immediately fixes it and freezes the amorphous quality of the purple.”

Rebecca Morris, Untitled (#04-18) at Bortolami, New York, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Corbett vs. Dempsey.

Penelope Umbrico
Out of Order: Bad Display / eBay (052918), 2018
Postmasters Gallery

Some artists have used grid or graph paper as a readymade starting point. In a 1981 picture entitled Apartment House / Prison, Peter Halley equated the cells of the grid to the strictures of urban architecture. With graphite and marker ink, Halley drew two rectangular buildings of the same dimensions, labeling one “Apartment House” and the other “Prison.” (The similarity is uncanny.) In contrast, Frank Stella subverted the grid format to achieve more surprising shapes. Drawing with felt tip pen outside the lines of the grid, he overrode predetermined lines with his own.

If using the grid is a choice for artists, it’s long been an imperative for designers. Throughout the early 1950s and 1960s, Swiss designer Josef Müller-Brockmann refined the field of graphic design as he promoted a grid-based system that simplified presentation and eliminated extraneous marks. “The grid is an organisational system that makes it easier to read the message,” he said. The form allowed designers to manipulate many of the same rules of perception and ratio that also concern artists.

Today, both artists and designers contend with an ever-more ubiquitous grid: the screen. Highly organized pixels form the surfaces of our phones, computers, televisions and many other devices. An exhibition on view at Postmasters Gallery, entitled “Screenscapes,” features a sculptural installation by Penelope Umbrico that unites discarded LCD screens. Tapestries by Rafaël Rozendaal transform the gridded designs of websites into structured Jacquard weavings, connecting the underlying structures of craft and the digital realm. “I was thinking about the screen as being a carrier of content but also a very formal device,” said gallerist and curator Magda Sawon.

Rafaël Rozendaal
Abstract Browsing 17 03 09 (Livedoor), 2017
Postmasters Gallery

Margaux Ogden, The Dance (1), 2017. Courtesy of the artist.

Hunter Braithwaite, curator of an exhibition at Memphis’s Tops Gallery called “Screen Door,” believes that today’s most interesting artwork engages both the screen and its analog counterpart. “The relationship between a grid (a structuring principle whereby lines intersect to create a bunch of little squares) and a screen (used in the sense of digital mediation, a slick, shiny window onto the world) seems to be one of the central concerns of painting throughout history,” he told Artsy via email.

One of the artists in Braithwaite’s show, Margaux Ogden, pointed out that the idea of a grid can be further simplified. Throughout her paintings, colorful lines tangle and flow against more sharply structured borders and patches of flat, even hues. “A grid is just intersecting lines,” she told Artsy via email. Both grid and line are “ways to organize space, color, and time in a painting,” dictating “how the viewer’s eye moves throughout the composition.”

Working inside or outside the shared structural parameters of the grid, artists make a series of aesthetic choices that lead to personal, deeply individual statements. 21st-century artists use the grid as an organizational tool or the subject of an artwork itself. They follow or rebel against the form, pushing their medium forward by employing an age-old system.

Alina Cohen