Rigor and Elan in Flat Out: Works on Paper, 1960–2000

Mana Contemporary
Jan 24, 2019 9:57PM

Minimalism and Conceptualism are sometimes seen as monolithic movements founded on rigorous, even rigid ideas. Their leading figures—Donald Judd, Frank Stella, Sol Lewitt, and a handful of others—are known not only for their art, but also for pithy and programmatic writings in which they challenge the values of expression and emotion in art and stress the importance of the physical properties of objects, the literal value of materials and space, and the need for set rules and predetermined processes.

Often lost in the theoretical shuffle, however, is the playfulness, wit, and sheer whimsicality of their art, however mechanically or “objectively” produced it may be. These qualities are amply evident in the nearly thirty drawings on view in Mana Contemporary’s Flat Out: Works on Paper, 1960–2000. Curated by Karline Moeller and Ysabel Pinyol, this selection of works offers a great chance to consider the tension between theoretical rigor and individual elan in smaller works by leading figures in Minimal and Conceptual practice.

Installation view: Flat Out: Works on Paper, 1960–2000, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2018. Photo: John Berens. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary

The 1960s and ’70s were the great decades of grids, graphs, lines, and diagrams, and there’s no shortage of these in Flat Out. The show begins with Donald Judd’s Untitled (1961–75), a pair of black-and-white woodblock studies on Japanese paper. There’s also a graph paper sketch (with handwritten notes) by Dan Flavin detailing one of his signature fluorescent tube sculptures, and a set of colorful etchings by Sol Lewitt, Wavy Irregular Forms #1, #2, and #3, which testify to the artist’s late-career passion for color, rhythm, repetition, and curvilinear form.

There’s also a Mel Bochner wall piece, Smudge (1968), which walks a similar line between the expressive and the rulebound, the subjective and the objective. In dispensing with both traditional supports and the frame, Bochner’s arc of powdery sky blue has both a gauzy ethereality and a tonic clarity of purpose. Considered alongside Bochner’s work, Dorothea Rockburne’s snaking folded paper study, Copal VIII (1979) offers an object lesson in the way a generation of artists used an economy of means to achieve both high levels of definition and a simplicity of form.

Installation view: Flat Out: Works on Paper, 1960–2000, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2018. Photo: John Berens. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary

Among the joys of the show are several surprises from artists whose work you thought you knew. Into this category falls a drawing by Judy Chicago, whose best-known work is the feminist classic The Dinner Party (1974–79). Here, we find a crisp little color study, Optical Shapes #10 (1969), which juxtaposes red, blue, yellow, and green, and plays with the illusion of setting them in motion. And notably haunting is a tiny black Marilyn by Andy Warhol dating from 1978–79. One tends to think of this particular image in its lustrous gold or ’60s Pop-art pink-and-yellow versions. In black, the subject becomes something more sinister and difficult.

One of Flat Out’s most unexpected moments is a small Flavin charcoal drawing, Untitled (Sailboat) (1988), which depicts a sailboat that looks like it’s under attack by a whale. Executed with quick, impulsive strokes, the sketch displays a Romantic use of the artist’s hand and an insouciance that is anathema to Minimalist theory. In doing so, however, the drawing also reminds us that artists are perfectly capable of garnering inspiration from traditions or methods they reject or refuse.

The exhibition also includes terrific works from less immediately identifiable artists, including two by Marian Zazeela, an artist and designer who was married to Minimalist composer La Monte Young. There’s a black-on-black drawing in graphite set in a matte black frame and a similar white-on-white drawing in a white frame. From tight, swirling motions, Zazeela weaves a dense, variegated surface of tremendous activity and energy without introducing color.

Installation view: Flat Out: Works on Paper, 1960–2000, Mana Contemporary, Jersey City, 2018. Photo: John Berens. Courtesy of Mana Contemporary

Striking too is a large drawing by Lauretta Vinciarelli, an architect associated with the Paper Architecture group that included Lebbeus Woods, John Hejduk, and Aldo Rossi. Vinciarelli taught at Princeton, Pratt, and other schools in the US, and was known for speculative and hypothetical drawings that have some of the auratic and optical distortions one finds in the work of James Turrell. In Incandescent Frame (Study 1), Vinciarelli uses subtle tonal shifts to blur the distinction between line and color. The drawing resembles an illuminated diorama, one that shifts between flatness and a suggestion of recessive, deep, contemplative space.

In a catalogue essay for the Museum of Modern Art’s 1976 exhibition Drawing Now, Bernice Rose notes that “in contemporary drawing, the generation of the autonomous line, the use of non-descriptive lines as modular units, and the compression of gesture are all formal devices inherent in these prior uses of gesture and line.” Flat Out reminds us that these basic building blocks of Minimalism and Conceptualism can lead to works that are highly individual, even unique.

—Saul Anton

Mana Contemporary