September 16, 2013

Geometric Painting, Strict and Loose

Kazimir Malevich, Suprematism (Self Portrait in Two Dimensions), 1915; oil on canvas,
31 1/2 x 24 3/8 in.

I have long loved abstract painting, and within that broad field, I have most admired paintings using geometry as their form. There is something about the rigor of the stripped down canvases that moves me; it points to a sense of a reality at the heart of things, which I wrote about in a blog post "Geometric Abstraction: Toward the Essential". It was not until I began making textiles that I was able to explore my interest in abstraction, which has now expanded with making prints, drawings, and most recently, boxed paintings. Today I'd like to speak about the continuum within this art of reductive means, allowing a range of expression from severe to playful, austere to sensuous. Even with Malevich, that most serious of artists searching for purity and truth, his Suprematist compositions at times balanced color and shape in such a way as to seem buoyant.

Liubov Popova, Painterly Architectonic, 1917; oil on canvas, 31 1/2 x 38 5/8 in.

Another Suprematist, Popova pushed her dynamic paintings of overlapping planes into new territory by using unheard of color combinations: red and pink? ! This is one of my favorites of her paintings, and it's inspired works of mine, including a painting I'm working on now.

El Lissitzky, Untitled, ca. 1920; oil on canvas, 31 1/3 x 19 1/2 in. 

El Lissitzy, usually more restrained in his color choices, here plays with tilting rectangles of intense color. Pink makes another appearance, along with oranges and deep red, all contained within a light egg-like oval. In the three works I've shown above, I see play within an abstract structure of line and shape. 

Piet Mondrian, Composition in Blue and White, 1935; oil on canvas, 41 x 38 in.

It is uncanny how standing in front of a Mondrian painting, made with the most minimal of means––line and rectangle, primary colors and black––can be such a moving experience. I have felt that I was sinking into a world beyond appearances, that I was touched by the universal. The austerity of his work in reproduction is belied by the richness of the paint in actuality, so it is a human hand guiding us to his truth. What is so interesting to me is how he was affected by his move to New York City during WW II, moving away from his black lines and into a more visually dynamic imagery with "Broadway Boogie Woogie".

Hélio Oiticica, Painting 9, 1959; oil on canvas, 45 3/4 x 35 1/8 in.

Oiticica was a Brazilian artist who did some marvelous installations of hanging colored planes, one titled "Homage to Mondrian", which you can see here, and paintings which are indebted to the artists above but which tweak that tradition. Here the rectangles are slightly askew, bumping up against each other in a jittery dance.

Blinky Palermo, Speaker in a low voice II, 1969; two pieces: cotton and cotton on wood; 
31 1/2 x 84 1/2 and 22 1/4 x 43 1/4 x 4 in. 

The German artist Blinky Palermo expanded the parameters of minimalism, especially in his final complex work "To the People of New York City", which you can read about in an excellent blog post by the painter Steven Alexander. In this earlier piece it is as though he is thumbing his nose at a strict interpretation of what makes a painting; he simply hangs a piece of red fabric above a stretched piece of the same fabric, variations on a rectangle.

Harvey Quaytman, Untitled, 1991; acrylic and rust on canvas, 46 x 46 in. 

Harvey Quaytman (you can see more of his work here) uses crisply formal shapes, but the thing you can't tell from a photo is that he creates a surface so gorgeous, so elegantly rich, that it's almost dizzying.

Mary Heilmann, Little Mondrian, 1985; acrylic and watercolor on canvas, 30 x 22 in.

Mary Heilmann's paintings use the history of minimalism as fresh jumping off points, a way to joyously paint over a loosened geometry.

Richard Tuttle, Ten, D, 2000; acrylic on plywood, overall 40 x 40 in. 

Tuttle also has a way of subverting geometry; although it is part of the structure, it is allowed freedom to waver and drip. I think of Tuttle's and Heilmann's work as a "funky" minimalism.

Stephen Westfall, Tunnel Vision, 2006; oil and alkyd on canvas, 24 x 30 in.

Another way to subvert geometry while using it is with humor and association. Here Stephen Westphall, with very crisp and precise shapes, wittily reminds us of the everyday, what had been ordinary air mail envelopes.

Ellsworth Kelly, Curves on White (Four Panels), 2012; oil on canvas; four paintings, each comprised of two joined panels; 70 x 54 in, 60 x 60 in, 70 x 44 in, 60 x 60 in. See high resolution image at 
Matthew Marks website

Finally, one of the great contemporary painters: Ellsworth Kelly, who is still producing beautiful work at 90 years old. When I first saw this image online (I unfortunately wasn't able to see the show) it was a jolt, then a feeling of exhilaration: flat colors and simple curves touched a life force, a reality as essential as that of Malevich and the Suprematists, though in a brighter key. I love thinking about the myriad ways these artists, and many others, approach geometry; they have inspired me, moved me, given me ideas, and deep pleasure while spending time with their paintings.


  1. what a great post, I love all the examples! thanks.

  2. Ditto what Ravenna wrote--she took the words out of my mouth.
    Hélio Oiticica is new to me, so thanks for including his work, Altoon.

  3. I'm so glad you liked this post, Ravenna and Tamar. I've been thinking about it for weeks, but finally got the images together and sat down and wrote it. I discovered Oiticica's work at a terrific show of Latin American abstraction at the Grey Art Gallery in 2007 titled "The Geometry of Hope".

  4. yes, a wonderful post and introduction, for me, to Lissitzky and Oitcica! your love of the subject comes across in your writing Altoon and is inspiring.

    1. Thanks, Maureen, I'm so glad you found this work inspiring, as I do.