For Artists, Grids Inspire Both Order and Rebellion
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.
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
Wright’s inclusion connected the grid to architecture, while Close employed the grid as a tool to translate a photographic image to canvas. 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.
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.
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.”
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
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”—
Some artists have used grid or graph paper as a readymade starting point. In a 1981 picture entitled Apartment House / Prison,
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
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,
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 is a Staff Writer at Artsy.