Curator’s Essay

No Gridlock Here

The grid is a quintessential modernist form. Abstract and minimalist artists rely on grids to depersonalize and unify their compositions, to explore seriality, and to negate the illusion of space. The grid is an objective, ordered configuration; it is balanced and rational. In spite of its rigid structure, the grid also offers infinite aesthetic possibilities. “Underlying almost everything I’ve collected is the grid,” claims Kramarsky. “I am interested in how many things you can do with a grid….”1

Sculptor Joel Shapiro uses the grid literally in his Untitled work of 1969. Following the green lines on a sheet of graph paper, the artist stamped twenty-four columns of inked fingerprints. Such serial repetition is a common minimalist construct, yet Shapiro infuses it with his unique identifying mark. The fingerprints are different sizes and densities; some touch, others float, and a few drift out of the grid. Shapiro’s fingerprints are animated and expressive—the antithesis of minimalist art and the mathematical calculations typically found on graph paper. Robert Ryman, too, based Untitled on a grid, in this instance drawn in graphite to form an eight-by-eight-inch square. Ryman covered the grid in white gouache, creating a field of modulated color, the underlying structure barely detectable beneath the nuanced surface. Whether Ryman’s shaded columns, ethereal lines, and geometric shapes rest atop or under the paint is difficult to decipher.

Mel Bochner has explored grids since the early 1960s, and he continues to play with geometric abstraction and perspective in his large charcoal drawing Split Infinity of 1992-93. Here, multiple cubes tumble though space, leaving ghostly impressions and smoky contrails. Through the simple convergence of line, Bochner creates the impression of projecting edges and deep vertices. Ultimately the two central voids negate the vertiginous composition, canceling illusion and further confounding viewer perceptions. The title, too, is a linguistic conundrum: How does one split, or divide, something with no beginning or end?

There is no confusion in Jasper Johns’s graphite and wash drawing 0-9, one of the earliest works in the exhibition, dating from 1960. Johns’s series of stenciled numbers are displayed in a block of ten equal rectangles, arranged in two rows of five. This is a deadpan, ordered image of prosaic objects, yet their painterly representation—even the smudges on the paper’s white borders—bear all the hallmarks of an artistic creation. Win Knowlton also appropriates imagery from everyday life. At first glance, his nine small gouaches appear to be abstract explorations of form and color, systematically arranged in a three-by-three grid. The title, Cigar Ash Drawings, reveals their subject matter: the burnt ends of cigars. By focusing on a small section of a recognizable object, Knowlton effectively removes it from reality, transforming the smoldered cigar butts into geometric blocks of brown and gray.

Jill Baroff’s suite Autumnal Equinox 1-5 is comprised of five drawings, each representing the movement of water during one day in New York Harbor between September 9 and September 13, 2001. Baroff’s matrix was determined by tide table data that she plotted and drew onto thin sheets of Japanese gampi paper. Up close it is easy for the viewer to become “lost” in Baroff’s latticework of lines, which, when viewed from a distance, coalesce into beautiful, balanced geometries. The incredible accumulation of line represents the passage of time—the time between shifting tides and the time required of the artist to execute the complex drawing.

The element of time is also evident in the exquisite grid drawings of Hadi Tabatabai and Nicole Phungrasamee Fein, both of whom employ labor-intensive processes that necessitate exceptional concentration and control. Tabatabai paints on both sides of translucent drafting film so that the front and back of his composition are seen simultaneously. In DF-27, the dark gray field is painted on the reverse and the multiple white forms are on the front. The artist employs a 14:13 ratio so that the white blocks are nearly, but not quite, perfect squares. Their scale and shape are arrived at intuitively rather than mathematically, and close examination reveals that the structures are, remarkably, hand-painted. Fein’s watercolor #1042809 began with four small pencil points denoting the corners of a square, between which she painted sequential horizontal and vertical lines, incredibly without the aid of a straightedge. This arduous task was completed in a single sitting, and one mistake would mean starting over. Nevertheless, Fein’s layered network and limited tonal palette produce a sense of order and tranquility. Her watercolor is akin to a textile swatch, its smooth precision as perfect as woven fabric.

Although Teo González’s drawing measures only a few inches, it is crammed with thousands of delicate circular forms (2,500 to be exact). Their shapes vary from round to oblong, and several contain dark spots like the nuclei of cells. Indeed, González’s composition suggests strings of amoebae as they jockey for position in a confined space, their grid alignment dissolving and resurfacing. The artist focuses the viewer’s attention by concentrating his forms into a small square centered on a much larger—and otherwise empty—sheet of paper. Erwin Redl’s Untitled (Tumbling red, black) depicts four groupings of six geometric shapes (two squares and four rectangles). The drawing follows a simple conceptual framework: the “movement” of colors in a clockwise rotation so that when viewed from left to right, they “end” in the opposite arrangement from their “start” (black on top, red on bottom). The colors revolve from form to form, and the system is complete in three steps. Despite Redl’s reductive aesthetic and rigorous logic, he creates a lively geometric composition.

Lawrence Weiner drew Serpent Mounds Ohio after viewing the prehistoric earthen effigy from a small plane. As opposed to the meandering Great Serpent Mound and its neighboring burial knolls, Weiner’s drawing does not contain a single curved line or rounded form. Rather, his rectilinear composition depicts 20 geometric shapes arranged in a five-by-four grid. The forms follow a basic blueprint, with slight variations in size and silhouette. Corner notches and gradient horizontal bars add visual dynamism to the repetitious elements, as does an overlay of orange watercolor. Weiner regarded the Great Serpent Mound as a structural edifice, it having once had entrances and exits, and he responded with an abstract drawing that is equally architectonic.

In their compositions dating from the early 1970s, Richard Tuttle and Christopher Wilmarth paint multiple squares in a nearly identical vermilion watercolor, albeit with differing visual effects. In Step (#35), Tuttle’s small green blocks progress up the paper like notes on a music staff, full of energy and rhythm. It is easy to imagine that the squares, once arranged in a grid, have playfully broken free. By contrast Wilmarth’s six squares are quiet and stately, equal in size but dissimilar in form. They create a balanced horizontal composition, their “clearings” like mystic portals. This is one of the few works in the exhibition with an evocative title: Six Clearings for Hank Williams. Wilmarth was a country music lover and presumably made this work in tribute to the 20th anniversary of the country singer’s untimely death.

Doors and other domestic details are common motifs in Sylvia Plimack Mangold’s early paintings and drawings. In Untitled, dating from 1977, the artist delineated a white rectangle on a vertical green field, its arrangement evocative of a window and door. It is an austere, but not impersonal, composition. Watery brushstrokes in green acrylic reveal the artist’s touch, as does the single fingerprint impressed into the white paint. By combining her gestural marks with the masking tape borders, painted in a trompe l’oeil manner, Mangold mischievously plays with the viewer’s perceptions. Drawing Everything in My House: Towels is part of an ambitious series in which Suzanne Bocanegra attempted to record all of her household items. The artist constructed Towels from the blank endpapers of old books. The sheets, ranging in hue from warm white to deep orange, are loosely held together with tape. Here, Bocanegra riffs on the minimalist grid—this is a distinctly hand-made creation, far removed from the industrial or impersonal. Her papers form an open, pleasing framework, their various sizes and colors coalescing into a cohesive, abstract still life. Bocanegra discovers beauty in the banal—the beauty of found objects and of everyday items.

  1. Ibid. []