In the retrospective of Dan Christensen’s work currently on display at the Berry Campbell Gallery in New York one is confronted with an artist whose paintings revel in the sheer joy of the fusion of light, movement and color. Spanning his career from the early spray paintings to the final pieces completed just prior to his death in 2007, the exhibition underscores Christensen’s masterful ability to manipulate the canvas in myriad manners, which, as Karen Wilkin described in Art in America, were always “executed with consummate assurance and a fluid hand”.
Further, this was accomplished despite his violating one of the cardinal rules within the art world which allows that while it’s ok to display a measure of interest about different approaches to the surface, it is perceived as paramount that the artist maintains a stylistic rigidity thereby allowing the work to forever be easily categorized or pigeonholed. For Christensen, this was a violation of his own restless inquisitiveness of the possibilities that are perpetually inherent in the creative process itself. Constantly searching and experimenting, Christensen allowed himself the freedom of exploration and gave his mind and hand free rein to push the boundaries beyond the obvious and always in search of new ways to express the mysterious tones and rhythms that echoes in his work from one decade to the next.
At the same time, regardless of any superficial dissimilarities that arise as his paintings evolved over time, one can nevertheless easily discern subtle though perceptible connections that tie the works together. This is apparent whether the works are from the early spray paintings of the 1960’s, through what he called his ‘Plaid’ and later ‘Stain periods and stretching to the later examples from the early 2000’s (when, in fact, he seemed to be moving towards an attempt at amalgamating elements from many of the various phases that came before).
Having moved to New York after receiving a BFA from the Kansas City Art Institute, Christensen found himself in an art scene where Minimalism, Color Field, and Pop Art were dominating the conversations. This was reflected in his early works such as Untitled (acrylic on canvas, 1967) and Dorado (acrylic on canvas, 1968) which heralded Christensen’s use of a spray gun to create delicately choreographed loops of calligraphic color that whimsically dance across the surface with echoes of both Jackson Pollock and the gritty impact that graffiti art was beginning to have on New York artists in the late 1960’s.
As playful as his spray gun works were, the paintings from what he called his ‘Plaid’ period were much more somber and thoughtfully meditative. Using rollers and squeegees to apply the pigments, works such as SouthDelray Way (acrylic on canvas, 1970) and Alhera Bloom (acrylic on canvas, 1971) resonate with a subtle though resolute landscape sensibility that is gently reminiscent of Richard Diebenkorn’s later abstract series titled Ocean Park. Interestingly, despite their rather impressive size and scale, the works nevertheless feel distinctly intimate and the artist’s masterful use of color and geometric balance creates in entertaining dialogue between the viewer and the works themselves.
The works from the ‘Stain’ period return to the more free flowing compositional structure of his earlier works, particularly Breton Mist (acrylic on canvas, 1975) and Sandu (acrylic on canvas, 1972) in the manner the artist uses color to accentuate the dramatic impact of light conjured by the powerful presence of negative space.
Interestingly, Maricaibo (acrylic on canvas, 1974), by contrast, uses much darker tones to occupy much of the work’s surface while slashes of movement and color seem to visually ebb and flow within the painting’s physical composition. The effect moves the work in dramatically different directions from his usual approach during this period and conjures a dreamlike and surreal ambiance that is reminiscent at times of the Chilean Surrealist Roberto Matta.
By contrast, Queen of Hearts (acrylic on canvas, 1986), Golden Dream of Mexico and Festival de Samba (both acrylic on canvas, 1985) finds Christensen returning to a more geometric structuring of the compositional plane itself. Introducing playfully arranged imagery that is almost Kandinsky-like in their balance between colors and shapes, these seemingly dance across the surface while the artist introduces mysteriously airbrushed hues that ebb and flow in the background creating a decidedly musical and rhythmic sensibility.
Christensen further simplifies the picture plane in the Kenneth Noland influenced Rosa (acrylic on canvas, 1990) and Eliminator (acrylic on canvas, 1993) while both Bayez (acrylic on canvas, 1995) and Dolby (acrylic on canvas, 1998) pay homage to Adolph Gottlieb in their use of space and, in particularly the latter, the introduction of impasto brush strokes that provide dramatic juxtaposition to the airbrushed circular image at the work’s center.
In Green Glow (acrylic on canvas, 2004), Graceland and Regulator (both acrylic on canvas, 2006), the artist comes full circle as he returns to the sensuously looping circular motifs of his early works. In these pieces, however, Christensen tightens the composition and the geometric imagery becomes less calligraphic and more immediately rhythmic allowing unseen harmonies to orchestrate the organizational framework.
The retrospective of paintings by Dan Christensen continues through October 17. Berry Campbell Gallery is located in the heart of the Chelsea Arts District at 530 West 24 Street, Ground Floor, New York, NY 10011. www.berrycampbell.com. For information, please contact Christine Berry or Martha Campbell at 212.924.2178 or firstname.lastname@example.org.