Tuesday, October 27th, 2009

Dan Christensen (1942-2007): The Plaid Paintings at Spanierman Modern

13 October– 14 November, 2009
53 East 58th Street
New York City, 212 832 1400

Dan Christensen, Dark Tulip 1970. Enamel and acrylic on canvas , 71 x 130 inches. Courtesy of Spanierman Modern
Dan Christensen, Dark Tulip 1970. Enamel and acrylic on canvas , 71 x 130 inches. Courtesy of Spanierman Modern

Aged sixty-four, Dan Christensen died in 2007 of heart failure due to polymyositis,  a  muscle disease from which he’d suffered for years, but he left a large, diverse body of work. I’d followed his career since the 60s, when he created a stir with the raw vitality of his tightly-coiled “spray paintings.”  As art writer for Time, I saw to it that Time reproduce one of these paintings in color in 1969 (I later learned that Newsweek had featured Christensen in 1968).

I always thought the spray paintings were Christensen’s best, but the “plaid paintings” offer a truly worthy sequel.  Painted between 1969 and 1971, they lack the energy of the spray paintings, but offer a wonderful calm and serenity instead.

“Plaid” is a bit of a misnomer, for these paintings are not characterized by many narrow crisscrossed bands of color.  Rather, they incorporate broad, simple bands of color and/or rectangles–sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, only sometimes overlaid to create a “plaid” effect.  Facture is neither painterly nor hard-edged geometric, but in between–straight edges that nonetheless exude life.

By using different colors and canvas shapes, Christensen conveyed different moods.  Baze(1969) is a fairly narrow vertical with a crimson field. From top to bottom, it is bisected by a narrow vertical band of hot pink, behind which, about three-fifths of the way down the canvas, is a horizontal band of scarlet. On either side are vertical bands of chartreuse and peach, hanging most of the way down but cut off at the bottom by another horizontal band, of brown. Overall, the mood is cheerful, bright and merry.

Dark Tulip (1970), another winner, is a large horizontal, with a broad charcoal gray band across the bottom, atop which stand two vertical bands of color and three vertical rectangles of it.  Left to right, the order of these shapes and colors is blue-green (band), night purple (rectangle), brown (rectangle), Kelly green (band) and forest green (rectangle).   The mood is solemn, majestic, dignified.

Untitled (1970) falls in the middle range between these extremes. A moderate vertical rectangle, on the right from top to bottom is a broad vertical band of deep red (separated from the edge of the canvas by a narrow band of pale black that turns into a small area of whitish-lemon near the bottom). On the left is a shorter vertical rectangle of bright orange, with a smaller area of bright green beneath it.  A narrow horizontal strip of bright yellow separates the orange from the green, and the gray from the whitish-lemon.  The mood is solid, sturdy, workmanlike.