REFLECTIONS ON THE NEW VISION
ALFRED JENSEN thought about very big ideas, and he expressed them in very loud tones. He believed in a universal order in the affairs of man, and in an eternal order in the affairs of God. He believed that scientists, political philosophers and artists would interact to identify a unity of truth. Jensen was a worldly, and yet highly spiritual, artist of his time.
His professional life began as it ended, in the presence of death. "It all began," he said, "when as a seven-year-old boy I faced death's tragic implications. My mother had died and on a sunny afternoon I stood before the orange colored oblong box ornamented with its kneeling silver angels, their praying hands each pointing toward the cardinal directions. I saw my mother's remains lowered into the darkness of the grave.... Preoccupied with my early encounter with the mystery of death, my painterly effort has centered around ... the light of life, the somberness of death, the color of art, the designated pattern of phenomenal existence."
My own twenty-three year friendship with Al Jensen began the same way, albeit figuratively. One day in 1958 I was wandering among some 57th Street galleries and at Bertha Schaefer came upon an exhibition of Jensen paintings. Their checkerboard patterns, their brilliant colors, their use of outlined images to intrude on the then all too familiar mode of pure abstractionism, made an instant impression on me. Among the many canvasses, which were smaller than his later major works, my preference settled on one, entitled "Forsaken," which in sombre brown and black checkers outlined the form of a crucified body. This image was against a background of violet, red, blue and yellow checkers, along with some white which increased proportionately from bottom to top as if to show the way clear toward resurrection in the sky. I was struck by the apparent symbolism in the colors of the emotions attendant on The Crucifixion, violet for sadness, red for blood-letting violence, blue for mystery, yellow for hope. It reminded me of Seurat's strong use of color symbolism, his dominant red for a noisy, tempestuous night club, his blue for ultimate mysteries of space beyond, his green for life and growth and tranquility, his yellow for the joy of his circus scenes.
I ordered the picture and asked the gallery attendant if he could tell me something about the artist, such as where he lived, for example. I was told that he lived in New York. So I asked if, by chance, they had his phone number, and they did. When I rang up Al Jensen, it was the only time I had ever called an artist on the strength of viewing his work for the first time.
Al asked me to stop by his tiny studio at 284 East 10th Street. Its front room was more than half consumed with stacks of canvasses. Al invited me to sit on his other chair and started to recount his color theories, and fragments of his life of world travels. I assumed that the apartment's back room was a slightly more habitable bedroom, but I never saw it. Al's discourse was engaging, if not hypnotic, as he ranged over subjects from his perceptions of ancient civilizations to Goethe's analysis of prismatic light to experiences in the studios and salons of Europe. I found the man fascinating. Whenever it later was that I decided there was much that he said that I didn't understand, I also decided that I wasn't going to let that bother me. And so a friendship developed, and I found myself inviting Al to my home and looking upon him as a man of judgment, someone to depend upon. I remember one evening I was depressed by a personal problem and it was Al that I called. He said come on over, apologizing for the fact that he had on hand only one bottle of bad Rye, knowing by then that I preferred Scotch. As I sat with him in that other chair, he reassured me greatly. It must be the only time in my life that I drowned any sorrows in bad Rye.
Six months after the acquisition of "Forsaken," and my meeting Al, he called me asking me to come by to look at a work. When I got to 10th Street, he set about laboriously pulling canvasses out of the stack, barely able to find space to line five of them up in a row for me. When he was done, I reacted with an immediate, compulsive "Wow," a monosyllabic critique which remained for long moments the only comment I could make of my first viewing of "The Golden Rule," so great was its impact.
"The Golden Rule" is an epic story in symbolic painting of the building of a Mayan pyramid. Along the way, it describes all the facets of Mayan culture, the king's authority, the surveying of the farm lands, the practices of sorcery, the constellation of divinities. Since Al was born it was only natural in Guatemala and had an Indian nurse in his childhood, for him to pick the Mayan as the first of the civilizations of antiquity which he would interpret.
At that time, I was building the Time & Life Building. I must have told Al many accounts of the complexities and difficulties of that project, for I have the impression from Al, never but casually alluded to, that it may have been part of his inspiration, by analogy, to do the Mayan pyramid builders.
After the first flush of emotion at my viewing of "The Golden Rule" had subsided, I thought about how most artists never make any sense in words of what they are trying to do in paint, and I thought of Dali's grandiose self-promotions, which in the long term had to detract from the virtuosity of his work. So I asked Al if he would write a paper explaining "The Golden Rule," and that he did, five typed pages worth, one section explaining his color theory and another outlining the legendary bases for his depiction of the Mayan civilization.
Al Jensen had spent fifty-five years kicking about the world, picking up experiences as a merchant sailor, studying with noted European painters, hobnobbing in the international art world, trying to paint. But it was not until his written statement about "The Golden Rule" that he articulated, as he put it, his "experience of the New Vision." This new vision, he said, told him that black and white checkers could describe "alternating rythms in light and darkness" and that this process "reflects the cycle of man's destiny: the vastness of my former fears of darkness were resolved as I read first the dark square, then the light square, meaning first night then day. I saw appearing as images the living followed by the dying in my checkerboard existence. Since every black is followed by a white, I found my place in eternity." It had taken Alfred half a century to summon up his Vision—his Muse. For me, it was an exciting feeling to be witness to its creation.
After I bought "The Golden Rule," it was exhibited at Martha Jackson in 1959, along with some works of the next civilization that Al had gone on to, the Spanish Renaissance and its conquistadores, arabesques and all. The following year, Martha Jackson told me that the Museum of Modern Art would be pleased if I were to donate a single-panel Jensen work entitled "Clockwork in The Sky" to the museum, and so I said I would be delighted.
I then approached Al with the proposition that I would like to commission him, on behalf of Time Inc., to do a mural which would reflect the several major books which Life at that time had published, "History of World War II," "World's Great Religions" and the like. Al threw himself into this assignment with gusto, and surprised me when he called me down to I Oth Street by displaying not one, but two versions of the proposed mural. I said there was nothing for it but that I would have to have the second version, which Al labeled "The Title Makers." Al's title for the panel on "World's Great Religions" is typical of his persistent hope. It was "Towards belief, clarity and order." Time Inc. decided that its mural, the first version, would go to its Paris building, a regrettable decision in view of the disastrous fire that occurred there in 1967 destroying the mural along with two people. As luck would have it, it fell to me as then London Bureau Chief to represent the company at the gracious observance of sympathy arranged by our Paris neighbors.
In 1960, I went up to Boston to look at the new Institute of Contemporary Art building which its then director, Thomas Messer, had just built, and to look at the first show which he had called "The Image Lost and Found." The show, which started with a Courbet, went through a lot of abstract expressionists, and ended (would you believe?) with a Jensen, one that had a figurative image emerging from all the checkers. I had developed a rapport with Tom when he was mounting a show at the Time & Life Building Reception Center.
I received a letter from Messer, now director at the Guggenheim, under date of August 28, 1961, saying, "Your original presentation of Alfred Jensen's work has borne fruit since I gradually warmed up to him to the extent of featuring him at the Guggenheim during September." This show consisted of 16 Jensen canvasses all done in the three-month period April to July, 1961. They were inspired by the flight of Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin. I also received a letter from Al Jensen dated the same day as the Messer letter, saying "I offered (The Guggenheim) in your name the loan of your mural The Title Makers. However, in view of the crowded condition at the museum at the present moment Mr. Arnason (the curator) asked me to thank you for your generous gesture!"
The following month the Guggenheim had a group show for which Arnason wrote in the catalogue, "The group of geometric abstractionists who are now attracting increasing attention, Kelly, Sander, Jensen, Stella, etc., many of whom have actually been working in this direction for a long time, object to being associated with the school of Mondrian or other pioneer purists or constructivists. The reason for this is simply that they insist their motivation is not a pure analysis of abstract form. Their concern is with an abstract content or subject matter, with an expressive end rather than a formal one. This raises the entire historic question of the relation of content to abstract form; and in a sense this is the central question of the present exhibition."
In response to this formulation, Al wrote me, "I think this wording of my interest and purpose of painting is a good one. It applies to all my work and leads me inevitably to my capacity to combine the language form of painting with the expressive sign of meaning, and that accomplished will carry me forward to take on a leading exponent's position of the art of our time! It is not an easy task. However, for me it is a marvelous challenge. So I continue my work and I fight against odds for honesty and truth in painting."
The following April, Al wrote me to report on a telephone conversation. "The Modern Art Museum yesterday called me up to inquire whether I own a similar picture to the "Clockwork in The Sky" owned by the museum and given to them by your generous good will. The senator from New York, Mr. Javits, wanted to borrow this picture to ornate (sic) his office in Washington, D.C. However, the museum thinks this picture so beautiful that they'll not deprive themselves of its presence for a year's term loan. Therefore, the museum has requested of me to lend to the senator's office a similar picture. And I have suggested they can pick one up from my studio. It's fun to see how the acceptance of my work spreads more and more and it does me good to be admired a bit, which is to say that the reward comes to one by trying and trying again."
While Al's mind probed wide and deep to interpret great civilizations of antiquity, he was disarmingly in awe of the trappings of the present one. The simplicity of his lifestyle belied his drive for fame and fortune. In this period, Al was beginning to achieve visibility in Europe, particularly in Switzerland where the Kornfeld Gallery of Bern and Zurich took the lead in giving him exhibitions. The crowning accolade came on the last evening of January, 1964. From Basel, Al wrote me: "Last night the American ambassador to Switzerland, William True Davies, the American cultural attaché, the finance minister and the health minister of the Swiss government, the president of the Basel Art Association, museum directors and the trustees and collectors of Basel attended a dinner given in Franz Kline's and Alfred Jensen's joint exhibitions. 700 invited artists and friends of art all over Switzerland gave me a real ovation and the museum's director Arnold Rüdlinger presented Mrs. Regina Jensen with a large bouquet of yellow tea roses and it was a very important introduction for me because now I am regarded as an international artist."
Although Al identified with some established contemporaries, notably Mark Rothko and Sam Francis, the former died early and the latter drifted away. Al operated as a loner, showing no interest in most other contemporary art, and cultivating an acute suspicion of art dealers, particularly those in New York, which is why he bounced from one to another. More important to the definition of an artist than his identity with any movement or school is his clarity of purpose and strength of commitment, and these Al certainly had in spades. That Al has a place in art 's mainstream, I have no doubt. It is a stream which has many tributaries, of course. I think it is possible to hypothecate that part of Al's aesthetic lineage came down a tributary whose fountainhead is the sixteenth century dramatic colorist (and loner) Matthias Grünewald, and which leads to Die Brucke (The Bridge) group of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner and Emil Nolde, and on to Paul Klee, to Robert Delaunay's Orphism and its American offshoot the Synchronism of Morgan Russell and Stanton Macdonald-Wright. Many younger artists in America and abroad have been influenced by Jensen's work. Among the younger generation, one who may have no conscious reference to Jensen, but who is certainly a kindred spirit, is the leading Australian painter Leonard French, who also extracts images from geometric forms and turns them into powerful statements of spiritual conceptions.
Of his commitment to the evocation of ancient civilizations, Al wrote for a Kornfeld catalogue four years ago, "The artist in me is not only seeking a renewal of worn out visual representations, but is as well engaged in the reestablishment of man's lost ties with the universal laws of nature. Today, forgotten and ignored, these values of former times, now misunderstood, must come back. I for one lend all my energy in dedication to attain this quest."
That year, the retrospective show, 1957-1977, went to the São Paulo Bienal as the sole U.S. representative, a selection in which Messer was instrumental (and from there to Buffalo's Albright-Knox, to New York's New Museum and points west). Al's postcard from São Paulo said, "The top man of the Bienal feels that my show is the most beautiful creation seen in all the artists' work shown at São Paulo." I went to the opening in Buffalo (in January) and was surprised, but honored, that Seymour Knox, the museum's chairman and leading benefactor, asked me to speak. I used the occasion to reminisce about my two decades with Al, those decades which coincided with his development of the New Vision.
The last letter came three weeks before the end. The mind was wandering from months of illness, but The Vision was clear. "We live now in an epoch of revelation. The invisible forms are visible. We must extend our horizon. Progress will be made in the future." Alfred Jensen has found his eternity, here and in the hereafter. He has extended his horizon.