Inventory in Context: Modern Mystics
INVENTORY IN CONTEXT aims to creatively contextualize works from our gallery collection, both historical and contemporary. Please look forward to a new installment each month.
With the rise of abstraction in the twentieth century, artists were forced to turn to stimuli other than that of the visible world to fuel their work. Abstractionists investigated the emotional impact of color, the geometric implications of the fourth dimension, the symbolic language of dreams, as well as the formal expressions of their own inner psyches. A concern that is related to but distinct from these is an interest in mystical forces, either drawn directly from existing philosophies, intuited from the artist’s inner self, or a combination of the two. The three artists collected here all sought to convey a sense of universal order through these symbolic structures, each alighting upon a highly personal style of mystical abstraction.
Scottish painter, poet, jazz musician, and jewelry designer Alan Davie was a spiritual polymath. He rose to international prominence in the 1950s and '60s for his paintings that explored cosmic themes through a combination of symbols gleaned from cultures around the world. Executed with a bold gestural sensibility that was very of its moment, these canvases incorporate elements of visual culture from diverse sources, including Navajo, Aboriginal Australian, Coptic, Inuit, Carib, and Jain traditions, in an effort to reach an underlying universal meaning.
The Studio No. 37 (1975) features bold areas of flat color alongside energetic passages of expressionistic line and text. Though his referents are not always clear, Davie never fully abandons figuration, and here the central stack of geometric shapes has a distinct figural presence. His combination of styles and symbols taps into the power of cross-cultural symbolic traditions, transforming its subject into a modern meditation on the persistent and universal qualities of myth.
Davie’s appreciation for elemental forces and interest in Jungian psychology made him sympathetic to the artists of the New York School, including Richard Pousette-Dart. Like Davie, Pousette-Dart was a student of world philosophy and mythology. Building upon these foundational ideas, he created transcendental all-over paintings of extraordinary depth. Culling the collective unconscious and using mythic symbols as conveyors of meaning to represent private truths, Pousette-Dart saw each painting as a journey into creative meditation. He created highly expressive imagery that takes viewers on an uncharted journey deep into the layers of the unconscious.
Rather than finding the hard edge or soft edge in painting, Pousette-Dart sought to achieve what has been referred to as the “living edge.” He orchestrated his work with a keen sensitivity to the complex relationship between empiricism and metaphysicality — the connection between mind and matter. Ideas of transcendence, radiance, and meditation, as well as questions about the cosmos underscore his range of expression. His composition is rendered in pure free color and focuses on the process of painting. It offers an infinite space and celebrates the vibrancy of universal forces. With this work, Pousette-Dart frees himself from conventional pictorial space in favor of something more expansive.
Alfred Jensen fuses the meditative transcendence of Pousette-Dart with the more opaque symbolism of Davie in enigmatic works that embody the artist’s very personal methodology. His various geometric and numeric systems reference sources in ancient mythology and philosophy, but they have been translated into the distinctive idiom of the artist. The resulting work is often difficult but always rewarding.
In the late 1960s, Jensen worked with ideas based in planetary and mathematical structures. These abstract scientific concepts manifest on Jensen’s canvases as brightly colored bands, bars, and checkers, onto which he applied paint directly from the tube. Jensen also meditated on the nature of dichotomy throughout his career, imbuing the oppositions of black and white, odd and even, left and right, up and down with particular importance. Black and white mingle side by side to create the central cross shape in both Saturn and Mars, representing the joining of heavens (white) and earth (black).
Though disparate in execution, these three artists offer a glimpse of common metaphysical underpinnings that run through the story of twentieth century art.