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All The Beautiful Systems: Alfred Jensen


artscanada May/June 1979 pp 40-49

The exhibition, Alfred Jensen: Paintings and Diagrams From the Years 1957-1977, which originated at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo and traveled to five other American museums in 1978, was a rich and rare thing to see, and a challenge to us to rethink our definitions of the words "abstract" and "obscure."

Jensen's work is always "about" something, referential, but it's also extremely personal in the way the subject is handled; his own thinking plays with the topic until it isn't necessarily even recognizable any more, and will certainly take some thought to figure out. Critics, always slow-moving and always pressed for time, haven't begun to do a proper job on this artist yet. It isn't enough to pinpoint the reference and call it elucidation, and few writers have done even that. A commentator might do his homework and tell us that a "Katun" is a 20-year period in the Mayan calendar, but so far no one goes on to explain why Alfred Jensen, then, in one work says in so many words that a Katun is 72 years, which is what we really need to learn. His calculations and intuitions are not self-explanatory; I can in fantasy imagine meetings of a future Jensen Society where the workings of his mind are mulled over and thrashed out in debate, like the Browning Societies at the end of the last century (though O. Henry in a wicked short story tells us that these were actually just an excuse for women to consume ice cream without their husbands' knowledge). We must leave definitive explanation to the lucky future scholars who have background, leisure, imagination, and foundation grants. I envy them, it's going to be soul-satisfying work. And it isn't going to get done in a day.

The artist, who was 75 in December, understands this and accepts it. Instant comprehension hasn't been his motive any more than quick-and-easy fame has. He wryly cites Pascal, who was content to have his thinking understood by two men in his lifetime, knowing the number would grow eventually. On the surface of Jensen's earliest painting in the show, My Oneness, a Universe of Colours (1957), we read in his handwriting, "So we'll live and pray and sing and tell old tales and laugh at gilded butterflies," which the catalogue strangely calls "a written reminder of mortality...from the death scene of King Lear." Wrong on both counts. It's from the "let's away to prison" speech, and marks Lear's breakthrough from vanity to wisdom—having insisted on status more and more futilely throughout the play, he now realizes he no longer wants it; he only wants to spend his days in obscurity with Cordelia whose loving heart he has, through suffering, at last learned to value. Jensen, already in his mid-fifties then, is saying that attention, adulation, don't matter as long as he can follow his own route, at his own speed, to self-identity, self-integration—and both these words are written on the canvas as well.

Therefore Man is the heart and mind of Heaven and Earth, and the visible embodiment of the five elements. He lives in the enjoyment of all flavours, the discriminating of all notes of harmony, and the enrobing of all colours.

Thus it is that when the sages would make rules for men, they felt it necessary to find the origin of all things in heaven and earth; to make the two forces of nature the commencement of all; to use the four seasons as the handle of their arrangements; to adopt the sun and stars as recorders of time, the moon as the measurer of work to be done, the spirits breathing in nature as associates, the five elements as giving substance to things, rules of propriety and righteousness as their instruments, the feelings of men as the field to be cultivated ...

The Li Yun or Ceremonial Usages, in the Li-Chi (Book of Rites),
translated by James Legge

And self-integration involves the integration of wisdom from all parts of the world. Jensen is particularly partial to correlative systems, ways of hanging things together in an attempt to keep meaninglessness out of the universe, the drive behind all religion and philosophy. Making things hang together by will and imagination, and sometimes by any way that can be made to work. As Edward Maziarz and Thomas Greenwood show, the Pythagoreans were expert at correlating by number: any two things expressible in numbers could be said to be related to one another, even when it didn't make much sense according to any other kind of reasoning. The catholicity of what they could represent this way was the root of the Pythagorean fascination with number systems themselves. (Certainly Alfred Jensen is the only visual artist alive today who would paint the words "All the original 9 numerals with the addition of a place-value-component, which was not itself a numeral" onto a canvas containing ten number grids, and then interpret the resulting sums in lunations.1) The Pythagoreans weren't alone in this kind of thing; here is an early Chinese sample. "Heaven is 1, Earth is 2, Man is 3. 3 x 3 makes 9. 9 x 9 makes 81. 1 governs the sun. The sun's number is 10. Therefore man is born in the tenth month of development."2 The Mayans too, in such things as their calendar-related temple architecture. And the Mesopotamians, for what is astrology but a correlative system of the shakiest kind, with nothing but post hoc ergo propter hoc, and our need to believe, to justify it? Yet there isn't one of us who isn't fascinated by the "meanings" in his own chart. (We tend to lose interest when other people want to talk about theirs.) The Crow Indian who interprets the ritual number of cupfuls of water poured on the hot stones in the sweat lodge ("They still pour the four, seven, ten and countless number of cupfuls on the red-hot stones, but many do not know what this means. The first four cupfuls are First Worker's arms and legs. They are also the four main supporting willows of the sweat lodge. The next seven are the pipe-pointer star [the Big Dipper]. The ten cupfuls represent the cluster stars, and the countless number means the Other Side Camp, where we live after we die"3) is hanging number images together arbitrarily like the anonymous English poet of "Green Grow the Rushes, O!", obeying Michael McClure's call to "Absorb all the beautiful systems."

to enhance our perfect freedoms.
Enjoy the liberation of breath.
Do not fear death.
Love the children of dreams.
We move in warm streams...

Michael McClure, "Up Beat," from Jaguar Skies

McClure may seem an odd man to cite, McClure who once wrote "There are no laws but living changing ones, and any system is a touch of death." Clearly "system" can mean different things. The pedantic/critical system building encouraged by the publish-or-perishers (the kind of thinking that compares Jensen with Hanne Darboven because both are preoccupied with numbers, as if this were a bright observation or as if the two preoccupations had anything in common) doesn't make for the "beautiful" systems that enhance freedom; for McClure these are found in the natural world (the way a snake sheds its skin, for example), and occasionally in more abstract orders (as in his brilliant number sestina); for Jensen they are found not only in both of these, but also in the correlative belief systems of man; handled with imagination, these are responsible for some of the most affirmative recent statements in the arts: McClure's poem on gravity, or Jensen's intuitions about the earth's spectrum which resulted, after the flight of the first astronaut, in a complex but lighthearted collage of diagrams and newspaper clippings about the event with these words added in the artist's writing: "convex picture produce a converging sense and one sees an orange edge ... concave picture produce a diverging sense and one sees a blue edge. Bravo Gagarin, I knew it to be so! 4/14/61 Al Jensen."4

The sky is pitch-black. The stars look brighter and clearer against the background. The earth is surrounded by a blue halo. It can be observed very well in the direction of the horizon. The color of the sky merges very gradually and beautifully from a delicate light-blue, through ultramarine, dark-blue, and violet, and finally into inky black.

On emerging from the shadow the sun shone through the earth's atmosphere and the halo was of a somewhat different color. At the very horizon, close to the earth's surface, it was a bright orange which then passed through all the colors of the rainbow to ultramarine, blue, violet, and black.

Yuri Gagarin, press conference at the Scientists' Club, Moscow, Sunday, April 16, 1961

What else interests Jensen? A lot, and the retrospective was especially welcome for the way it let us see how all themes, all systems, are foreshadowed and aftshadowed, interlinked in unlooked-for ways with other systems, treated from different angles and in different graphic formats from work to work across the 20 years (or "Katun"- we might as well use the vocabulary we learn from this artist) the show encompassed. The workings and observations of the prism are the subject of almost the first, and almost the last, paintings on view (A Prism's Light and Dark Spectral Color Action, 1957, Diagram for a Prism Machine, 1977). This theme is combined with the points of the compass, also a recurrent subject, in A Glorious Circle, A Story of Cosmic Color Correlation, as early as 1959, and with the protons and electrons, which will recur often in the mid-seventies, in Correspondence in Function of Magnet and Prism (1961). What else? The Lo-Shu magic square, the rectangle, solar physics ("In a school story about his family, six-year old Peter wrote, 'My father is strong and good because he paints solar energy'"5) spectral effects of the earth's motion in space (Mr. Faraday's Diagram, 1975, and from the same year the remarkable giant Spectral Timing, where the turning world reminds us of Rilke's image of our heavy planet falling through the darkness), time, and systems of time measurement, seasonal change, the calendar generally, particularly the solar year (Jensen calls it the "antediluvian" year) of 360 days, number systems including one built on 20 (vigesimal), one on 5 (quinary), color theory, temple architecture, and as has been said, correlative systems of thought, whether ancient Chinese, Mayan, Pythagorean, Babylonian, or combinations of these. This list is not exhaustive. We're confronting what Wallace Stevens calls "the never-resting mind."

You have to know all sides before you can present the diamond.

Alfred Jensen, videotape interview by Christopher Crossman
and Nancy Miller, April 6,1977

The work would be less trouble if he took his systems straight, but Jensen plays with his sources always—conquers them, subdues them, and transforms them. If he just painted the Lo-Shu diagram in his smashing array of colors (unmixed straight from the tube, usually), instead of combining it with other things to make a new creation, we could look it up in the library, say "Oh yes, I see!" and go our way feeling wise. It wouldn't be Jensen's kind of wisdom, though. Artist rather than scholar, his references are just raw material for new inventions. His approach to his sources is reverent enough—he clearly loves them—but there's no humility in the handling; he combines them and builds onto them in ways we can only call regal. There are different kinds of conqueror: the destroying kind, which Jensen isn't, the kind who settles down to colonial administration and retires to a boarding house to write his memoirs, which Jensen isn't (though I'm starting to realize that a good many artists over 30 are), and the Alexander the Great kind who imposes harmony upon the opposites of East and West by a combination of individual vision and kingly will, and single-handedly lays the groundwork for the Hellenistic world. As a painter, Alfred Jensen's task has been to find pictorial means of presenting his wide-ranging, referential, correlative, and imaginative thinking. Some fresh symbolic configurations lay ready to his hand, like the ancient Shang numbers, the Lo-Shu diagram, the geomancer's compass, lines of force—also Mayan numbers as in a beautiful work from 1973 that was regrettably not in the exhibition, The Sum of the Square of the Houses. (I called them "abstract signs" in an article in this magazine only a year ago,6 but I didn't know what they were then. We always run the risk of being wrong with Jensen.) Others had to evolve out of the diagrams he had been making for himself alone to chart his developing ideas. "I was unconsciously doing my style for ten years, but didn't know a painting could look that way." The visual format suited to his thinking which he has used as frequently and flexibly as any is the grid.

... the greatness of the Chou Pei is that at a time when astrology and divination were universally dominant, it speaks of the phenomena of the heavens and the earth without the slightest admixture of superstition.

Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Vol. 3

In Jensen's work the grid most often takes the form of a two-or-more-color checkerboard, and can never be called nonrepresentational; if it isn't an out-and-out "picture" it will be an ideogram or a demonstration of a particular process of thought. One of its most logical applications is as the architectural ground plan of a temple. A striking painting from 1962 called Athena, Hephaistos Above; Aphrodite Below, Marduk presents, in one design, four checkerboards of differing lengths and widths (the Parthenon is recognizable, being 17 x 8 squares; the Hephaesteion's 12 x 6 departs from the actual temple's 13 x 6 columns and makes it clear that the artist is involved in private arithmetical calculations awaiting a paper to be presented at a future meeting of the Jensen Society—as I've said, he's never going to take data as they are, he's always going to play around with them, and we're not always going to be able to follow; for Marduk, presumably the Esagila in Babylon, I can't find a plan that explains his grid). Number totals and the word UNITY are painted on the canvas, and, a very Jensen feature, the Athena and Aphrodite gridded ground plans are not filled in in their centres, while the Marduk and Hephaistos plans are: the opposition of male and female is never out of his consciousness. In more "abstract" gridded works like the "acroatic rectangle" paintings or the later, simpler, Study of a Rectangle, 1970 (upside down in the catalogue, by the way) the opposites of black and white, left and right, up and down, and numerical oppositions like odd and even which seem to increase in import in the seventies, can all be read as metaphors for the twoness of the sexes.

But the temple ground plan works are correlative too. It was a Mayan practice to include calendar calculation in architectural design (some temples were rebuilt at the end of each "long count" of 52 years),7 and Jensen is fascinated by combines of time measurement and space measurement, and makes considerable effort to harmonize them. 190 Columns of a Temple (1962) is not a painting, but a page of arithmetic containing notations like "30 + 30 + 130 + 210 = 400 and so completes a 400 cycle of 20 years duration." Mayan Katun (1973), also a checkerboard painting, has been mentioned, and the culminating calendar study is also a triumph of pictorial structure based on alternating 10-color diagonal checkerboards, the beautiful The Earth's North-East-South of 1974.

The Maiden: Have you ever thought about the properties of numbers? The Youth: Numbers!!! I cannot imagine anything drier or more repulsive. The Maiden: They are fascinating, just fascinating. I want to get away from our eternal dancing and music, and just sit down by myself and think about numbers.

Bernard Shaw, As Far as Thought Can Reach, from Back to Methuselah

Beautiful and puzzling. Mayan Katun, which tells us "72 years of Solar Time = 25,920 Days = a Mayan Katun," applies a numerical ratio of 18/5 to the actual Katun, a ratio that obviously has real meaning for Jensen, since it reappears here: the year gridded in The Earth's North-East-South contains 1,296 squares (36 times 36, though arranged on grids of 9 x 18 and 9 x 9) which is 18/5 of 360, the days in a solar year. It is also 360% of 360: the painting is some kind of attempt to harmonize decimal and nondecimal systems of time and space measurement. If we divide the year into 100 equal arbitrary units, and then multiply such a unit by the actual number of days in a year, 360, the result will be 1,296 days. But why should we do this?

Maybe the reader to whom it is obvious will have the kindness to write. Meanwhile I'll hazard that it may be an extension of the "stems and branches" way of measuring time by multiples of 10 and multiples of 12 together; the two multiples coincide at 60 and multiples of 60.8 With cycles of two other numbers the points of coincidence would be different, but only a lot of trial and error calculating would prove this guess right or wrong. That something cyclical is involved is almost certain—recurrence in the course of endless change, for which the turning year is the commonest metaphor and the circle shape the most universal visual symbol. If stems and branches don't apply here (they do preoccupy Jensen elsewhere without doubt), we can rest, in this predawn of Jensen scholarship, in Loren Eiseley's dream-certainty that the counting matters.

At the end of a poetry reading in the early fifties, a girl in the audience asked Edith Sitwell, "But, Dame Edith, how can we understand your poems?" Relishing the moment, Dame Edith inclined her turban and answered resonantly, "Read them, my dear, read them." The question always has a right to be asked, though. No art of any value is beyond the reach of understanding. Jensen's work is harder to figure out than most, but only because it requires us to know more than we do, not because it tries to hide anything.

I do not mean by beauty of form such beauty as that of animals or pictures, which the many would suppose to be my meaning; but understand me to mean straight lines and circles, and the plane and solid figures which are formed out of them by turning lathes and rulers and measures of angles; for these I affirm to be not only relatively beautiful, like other works of art, but they are eternally and abstractly beautiful.

Plato, Philebus

Is it possible to consider it strictly pictorially? Yes, though we miss a lot if we do. It is what most reviewers have done up to now. Sensually, Jensen is pretty easy. His color may have its roots in Goethe's Farbenlehre and be arranged according to number, but it hits us at gut-level. Do you remember being so young you chose ice cream flavors by their color? When which came next in the roll of Lifesavers was a crucial issue? That's what Jensen's color is like. Massed together in Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art, there was a wham-bam-alacazam look to the show that made it seem to give out energy, not just depict it. The artist thinks long and deeply, then presents it as boldly and handsomely as he knows how. People should be warned against judging his paintings from color photographs. Jensen's paint surface is rough and thick,9 reflecting light from all different directions, and the flat, slick, picture-postcard look of color photos does the originals considerable injustice. (In all of Chicago I saw only one artist's work with a thicker, richer surface—Hans Hofmann, in a painting in the Art Institute called Burst Into Life, 1952. Hofmann much earlier had been for a while Jensen's teacher.10) The ocean with the sun on it, omniplanar and reflecting light in thousands of little glints, which also don't show up well in photographs, is the closest parallel to Jensen's surface.

Even the checkerboard paintings are more sensual than they sound. The nearly innumerable bright small squares that make up Reciprocal Relation (1969) are globbed thickly onto the canvas and then seemingly punched in the centre, maybe with the wooden end of the brush, to make each a little crater. It's as if a Hellenistic coffered ceiling, jubilantly colored by some Minoan painter's ghost, were hung sideways for us to see better. A group show called "Grids: Format and Image in Twentieth Century Art" was recently mounted at the Pace Gallery in New York, and the Village Voice, recommending it, couldn't resist adding, "It's all very anal compulsive." Journalists say this kind of thing to save the trouble of thinking. Inept this time, for any exhibition containing a Jensen color-grid painting from the "Aperspective Nature of the Square" series has to be at least partly oral expressive, if that's the right phrase. Or, to talk something closer to sense, the paintings are physically immediate rather than distant. Jensen wants to present a square, a number, a spectrum, a thought process that will appeal to our senses and feelings exactly the same way a landscapist wants a tree, a field, a seashore to reach our senses and feelings, the way the ancient wanted to paint cherries so that birds would try to peck them from the wall.

When the Pythagoreans were obliged to take an oath, they would say: "By him who revealed the Tetractys, Fountain of Eternal Nature, I speak the truth." By "Him" they referred to Pythagoras. The Tetractys, or Four, was depicted symbolically by ten points arranged in the form of a triangle.... The Monad stood for Harmony and the Dyad represented the boundless Aether. The Triad was a symbol for the atoms and the Tetrad referred to the nature of Number. Taken together they became the Decad, a name they gave to the universe and everything within it.

Leslie Ralph, Pythagoras

As for form, this tends to be so directly related to content that if we see even a glimmer of what a painting is about we find we also like the look of it. A huge, elaborate work that was not in the show, A Quadrilateral Oriented Vision (1960), is disturbing in the photo in the catalogue because the various parts seem to conflict, but I know this is only because (1) I haven't seen it in color and (2) I'm unsure of the ideas behind it. In one of the more readable reviews of Jensen's work so far, Peter Schjeldahl took the opposite view, praising "their success as modern abstract paintings, scarcely needing the prop of comparison to, say, Hindu yantras or Moorish mosaics, let alone a concordance of old lore. Jensen is, simply, a painter of wonderful skill and intensity."11 But this is taking the easy way out.

With every constellation and every musical note characterized by a number, the study of the heavens and of sound would suggest by analogy the establishment of a number theory extending to ethics and religion. From trade to liturgy through astronomy and acoustics, man's interests would be linked together by the power of number. Merged into the things perceived by the senses as well as the higher values of life and destiny, numbers must have appeared to Pythagoras as more universal than any other human conception. Stripped of the accidents identifying them with specific objects, or even with the astrological chart of any person, numbers could be taken as the real constituents the very nature of the world. Thus Pythagoras was led to declare that number is the essence of things.

Edward A. Maziarz and Thomas Greenwood, Greek Mathematical Philosophy

It's also clouding the issue. Schjeldahl pretends that Jensen's referents are merely metaphorical, so that we have the choice of considering them or not. A Jensen painting isn't comparable to ancient lore, its subject is ancient lore. To pretend otherwise is like saying "Vermeer's The Lace Maker is so successful as a composition of light and color that it scarcely needs the prop of comparison to other Vermeers or other Dutch painting, let alone to a young woman doing something intricate with her hands." Jensen in a way is just as representational as Vermeer is. We just aren't so familiar with his referents.

And these, though we don't find them on the front page of the daily paper, are not truly obscure. Or maybe it's better to say they aren't any more obscure than much of the best art of the past. We often have to do our homework there too. In the Chicago Art Institute (for me forever haunted by the shade of Charles Laughren, who maintained that the best viewing angle for La Grande Jatte was from the floor; astonished visitors, it is said, would find him sitting on the marble for quarter hours at a time) I saw an El Greco I didn't know, Christ in the House of Simon. Jesus and the disciples were clear enough, and the older, slightly sleazy man was presumably their host; but the good-looking woman in the if-you've-got-it-flaunt-it gown—too young for Simon's wife—who was she? Christ's sympathetic yet intense expression—what was he saying? What was the point? The Gideons don't seem to leave Bibles in hotel rooms any more; I had to wait till I got home to find out. But no one calls El Greco an obscure painter on this account. We shouldn't complain about present-day art that imposes a task on us that we perform willingly for the art of the past. An example from a different discipline, requiring even more specialized theological knowledge, is the violin solo in the Missa Solemnis. No one can fail to find it beautiful, but if we aren't Catholics we may have no notion why it comes just there. Even Protestant Christians will be more than hazy about the import of the elevation of the host, which this solo accompanies. Is it important that we know? Yes, it's knowledge Beethoven could count on in the Catholic Austrians for whom he wrote; he expects us to know exactly what he's doing, and the extraordinary nature of the risk he's taking. Music for a miracle, the moment of transubstantiation, the actual physical presence of God—to listen just to violin-playing is to create our own loss. No one with or without knowledge of this reference blames Beethoven for being obscure here, though. Nor should we carp at Alfred Jensen's "obscurity" if we say in the next breath that The Waste Land is one of our favorite poems. Eliot is apropos in a discussion of Jensen with his dead-on phrase about the work of art as "a lemon to be squeezed until the juice of meaning runs."

Und in die Nachten fallt die schwere Erde
aus allen Sternen in die Einsamkeit.

Rilke, "Herbst"

Also, Jensen's references are to such interesting stuff. We're all glad to garner some new lore, it's actually one of the attractive things about works of art: they're a more painless place to pick up random information than the lecture hall. Here is a couplet by Auden; we like it for the poignant fact in it, not for anything poetically astonishing:

After Krakatoa exploded, the first living thing to return
Was the ant, Tridomyrex, seeking in vain its symbiot fern.

Even a yarn in the modern ironic-fantasy manner, Tom Robbins' Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, is full of interpolated bits like "The normal rectal temperature of the hummingbird is 104.6" which for all I know may even be true.12 What it's like to work on a nineteenth-century A.D. whaling ship or a twelfth-century B.C. sailing ship are not why we read Moby Dick or the Odyssey, but we're glad of every bit of data all the same. It isn't elitist for a work of art to teach us something we didn't know before, as long as it isn't thrown in to impress us; as long, that is, as it's something that honestly interests the artist so much he doesn't have the choice of leaving it out.

and two,
then rosy three.
I know four
and sweet black five
and swanlike six.

Yet another six.
A new one.
The hand's shape makes five.
(Ten is that times two.)
What is this four?
The next is stanza three.

This is three.
Times two it is six.
I am for
all being one
but it is nothing, too.
Zero plus fingers is five.

Right before the swan is five.
And minus three
leaves two
(one-third of six).
All being one
is something I am for.

Thoughts move at our bodies' fore
in this stanza, five.
The muscles have won
the charge past three
toward swans of six
we're moving to ...

We have become two
in trails of what we're searching for...
Swan silhouettes of six
flutter on past five.
Their sounds are like three
symbionts moving into one.

A cell moves to meat five
before the rosy three
divides to six and halves again
to make one.

Michael McClure, "Sestina of Numbers," from Jaguar Skies

Since "abstract" is loosely used to mean nonrepresentational in general (this is obviously how Schjeldahl uses it), and since all of Jensen's work is not only about something, but seeks to communicate rather than to obscure its subject and its processes, we can question the aptness of the word when applied to him. There aren't any doves or a tree in the fall (there were, in the retrospective, some "representational" horse-and-rider shapes from the Parthenon frieze, color-gridded in checkerboards, which I could only see as a divertimento though most of the public seemed to like them best13) , but a temple platform plan or a geomancer's compass are equally "subjects." Possibly even a repeated pattern which grows numerically in color components from left to right is too describable a process to be called abstract, to make purely visual sense when its sense is also numerical, and the shape of the pattern is, again, a ground plan. This painting, Taj Mahal (1975), Marcia Tucker calls "the closest Jensen comes to making a completely decorative painting," and it isn't too close.

I find in the square specific settings, divisible areas, number structures, possibilities of time, measure and rhythm as well as the essential form of color which can be placed in the square to interplay with number forms.

Alfred Jensen, "Explanations for a Friend and Artist,"
in Alfred Jensen: The Aperspective Structure of a Square

For a more precise use of "abstract," I can recall a time when art students were told to take their sketch blocks to a "real" subject, a bridge, say, and draw it over and over until there was nothing left but pictorial form, not recognizable as a bridge except to those in the know. This was making an abstract in the dictionary sense. But if your real subject is the Pythagorean tetractys and you paint a canvas full of them and conjoin them with other forms and ideas as well, you haven't abstracted, you've done the reverse and fleshed out an abstraction. I don't know a word for this, perhaps the Jensen Society will have to coin one.

There would still remain the never-resting mind,
So that one would want to escape, come back
To what had been so long composed.
The imperfect is our paradise.

Wallace Stevens, The Poems of Our Climate

Alfred Jensen has had an interesting life, and a publisher would be wise to ask him to tape an autobiography. It's unlikely that he would want to take the time away from painting to write one down. Born in Guatemala of a Danish father and a Polish-German mother, as a young man he traveled widely, working as a seaman and a rancher, began to study art seriously in San Diego in 1924, went to Europe to work under Hans Hofmann in Munich and Charles Dufresne in Paris, among others, and in 1927 met the American art collector Mrs. Saidie Adler May, with whom he lived and traveled until her death in 1951. She was forming a collection which was eventually to go to the Baltimore Museum of Art, buying directly from artists where possible, which gained Jensen entry to the studios of Matisse, Giacometti, Miró, and others, and the acquaintance of people like Etta Cone, of whom his reminiscences would surely be worth preserving. In the fifties Jensen settled in New York, and though he never stayed long with one gallery he gradually gained a reputation among artists and a few collectors like Henry Luce III. Rothko and Sam Francis were friends. In the sixties, while his work was being seen more widely and regularly both in the United States and Europe, he married and became a father for the first time.

A great fortune, to have lived through the second half of the past century
A great advantage, to have lived at the time of the great inventions

Goethe, Notes for Naturwissenschaftliche Entwicklungsgang, 1821

The seventies have seen continuing growth in critical awareness and appreciation, culminating in the work being sent to the São Paulo Bienial and touring America in this 20-year retrospective. Criticism worth reading is still rare, though it includes Don Judd's 1963 review ("Jensen is great. He is one of the best painters in the United States.") which looked directly at the works and observed that they are "thoroughly flat, are completely patterns. Jensen's paintings are not radical inventions but this aspect is. There are no other paintings completely without space."14 I've tried to suggest that the missing third dimension is the referent, and it is always there: it is we who are two-dimensional if we persist in thinking only pictorially. The other essential reading on the artist so far is Marcia Tucker's catalogue essay for this 1978 retrospective. She is in line with present-day prejudices, going out of her way to align the artist with myth rather than with the search for truth, new and old, and she leans too heavily on Cassirer when she needs someone to cite; but she has faced the work head on (you have to extend yourself to write adequately about Jensen, he gives you no choice), and though not any more precise about his processes than she has to be, she has come up with some excellent generalizing, of which it is a pleasure to quote: "Jensen's amalgamation of so many kinds of information from disparate and arcane sources, his life-long attempt to combine and unify them in a single pictorial system, and the origination of this work in profound personal conviction and feeling, constitute an attempt to infuse each work of art with all the knowledge and feeling available in the world."

I respond to the sensibility of my epoch. I don't predict things - the artist's message is faith in his own epoch. The artist is the predecessor to actual events and discoveries. I don't want results. I want the road ... the way . . . the Tao, whatever you call it. That is the presence I want in my painting.

Alfred Jensen, Crossman-Miller videotape

It's easier to be general than specific all the same, and Tucker's refusal to admit that anything puzzles her, and her unwillingness to go to Jensen's own sources—among her 77 footnotes there are 40 references to Cassirer and none to Needham or de Groot!—make us hope that she will someday be given the time to do a study that goes deeper into the exact and formidable processes of Jensen's ratiocination than an introductory essay, which is obliged to cover all the ground however lightly, is able to do. If I quibble with her at all it is with respect and out of a shared love for our subject, the spirit in which I hope later writers on Jensen will quibble with me.

I slept as the temple slept in the timeless Caribbean sun. This was what it meant then, the counting: the dots and bars on the great stelae. The wisdom could take care of itself. It was beyond me. It was beyond every man. But for all that the counting mattered.

Loren Eiseley, All the Strange Hours

The rest of the crop so far is not all very flattering to the art of criticism. "In his own words, Jensen is a mystic."15 "I agree with Jensen that he isn't a Mystic."16 "Essentially, Jensen is a naive painter."17 "Jensen is a rogue Conceptualist."18 "the appearance of primitive op art."19 "the richness of oriental rugs."20 "they look like hooked rag rugs."21 With his love of black/white, earth/heaven, male/female, odd/even oppositions, Jensen may be entertained by these contradictions, but those of us who remember Orwell's two imaginary art critics ("The outstanding feature of Mr. X's work is its living quality" ... "The immediately striking thing about Mr. X's work is its peculiar deadness."22) may feel a twinge of shame for our profession. We may have Jensen's own comment on his critics in the magnificent A Divine Mission (1976)—Confucius' humorous despair at the lack of a sage in his own time, or the lack of recognition of his own sagacity, may be the painter's also.

The supreme benefit for which sight is responsible is that not a word of all we have said about the universe could have been said if we had not seen stars and sun and heaven. As it is, the sight of day and night, the months and returning years, the equinoxes and solstices, have caused the invention of number, given us the notion of time, and made us inquire into the nature of the universe; thence we have derived philosophy, the greatest gift the gods have ever given or will give to mortals.

Plato, Timaeus

I've imagined a Jensen Society to give this artist his due since most of us as individuals are too specialized, too limited, to do it alone. Artists, supposedly freer to choose and less at the mercy of the labor market, have also played an increasingly specialized game. "A is into zeppelins," "B is into dots this year (big breakthrough!)," "C is still exclusively preoccupied with formal problems." In the end it does make a difference what subject matter you choose. Campbell's soup, punk rock, or politics; where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. Jensen's strictures on specialization ("...it leads to self-destruction, through the atom bomb and so on"23) apply to us all. He has managed to avoid that wrong turning we all took, away from the Renaissance we are fated to miss forever, away from the eighteenth century of Voltaire, Diderot, Burgoyne, Jefferson, and especially of Goethe, where it's still possible to pursue anything that intrigues us as far as we can go. His breadth is part and parcel of his art. In an era of unimaginative pessimism he finds new things to fascinate him continually, as well as new ways of putting old information together. Like Goethe in his day and Cardano in his, he is glad to be alive in his own time, and says so in his work. There are a few people one is grateful to be sharing the world with, and Alfred Jensen is one of them.

We are here!
We are here!
Absorb the beautiful systems.
We move in warm streams
we're cousins of eagles and deer
and the flesh that we wear
is our dress.
Heartbeats in the ocean of stress.
Love the children of dreams.
Love the children of dreams.
Absorb the beautiful systems.

Michael McClure, "Up Beat," from Jaguar Skies

Square Beginning - Cyclic Ending
ALFRED JENSEN Square Beginning - Cyclic Ending, 1960
Per I, 80 Equivalent Squares of Value 5
Per II, 48 Equivalent Squares of Value 5
Per III, 24 Equivalent Squares of Value 5
Per IV, 9 Equivalent Squares of Value 5
Per V, 1 Square Area of Value 5,
oil on canvas, 50" x 250"

"Per" means "panel" and is a term used by Jensen consistently.

Shang Number System

...called the Lo-Shu diagram, or the Lo Writing, which according to one tradition was given to the Emperor Yu by a turtle from the River Lo. The "magic" of the square is that all columns—horizontal, vertical, or diagonal—add up to 15. Therefore the "equivalent squares of value 5" in the title refers to the average value of each square.

Also from ancient Chinese mathematical sources is the diagonal grid superimposed on the square grid in the second panel, which is an early demonstration of what in the West is called the Pythagorean Relation ("the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the square of the other two sides"), as it appears in the Chou Pei Suan Ching (Han period).

The two ideas are unrelated except that each employs the square grid; the construction of a sequence which joins the two is therefore the artist's idea, as is the circle around the tilted square grid in the first panel which becomes progressively more dominant; blue in all five panels and not even complete in the first, it dominates in the last like the earth's penumbra seen from space.i

The number arrangement in the panels other than the fourth are built on the same pattern as the Lo-Shu although none is a magic square in the same degree. Only in the first panel do all vertical and horizontal columns add up to exactly the same number (45), and even there the diagonals do not. In the second panel only the sums of the vertical columns are equal (35), and in the third panel one column equals 23, one 27, and three 25, both vertically and horizontally, so that the average value of 5 per square can only be determined when all columns are added together.

That Earth is square and Heaven is circular is also an early Chinese belief.

The colors are consistent with the numbers in their squares throughout the painting (that is all 8's [Shang Eight's] are yellow, all 9's [Shang Nine's] are blue, et cetera), except for 5 (Shang Five), which occurs so frequently that two alternating colors are assigned to it.

The Tetractys
ALFRED JENSEN The Tetractys, 1964
oil on canvas, 52" x 122"

The title refers to the number abstraction of Pythagoras: 10 as the sum of 1, 2, 3, and 4.

The "ground" is a grid of free-shaped triangles, alternately white on black and black on white except in the rows where the painting's three panels adjoin. Their loosely controlled, bear-paw shapes are obviously intended to contrast with the regularity of the squares making up the inner, colored "figures."

These latter are also figure-ground structures in themselves: 4-color (red, orange, blue and purple) areas in a number of variegated patterns are contrasted with 2-color areas (green and black in alternating squares, checkerboard style).

Tetractys Diagram

The figures suggest the architecture of the ziggurat or of the step pyramid of the New World: seen in elevation in the central, four-part shape, and in top view or ground plan in the outer figures, the right of which is twice the width of the left.ii

The area relationships are built on square numbers. Reading from the centre outward of the figure on the left, the numbers of individual squares contained in each color-combination area are 6, 24, .54, 96, 150, and 216. Taking 6 as the basic unit, it is x 1, x 4, x 9, x 16, x 25, and x 36, in other words 12, 22, 32, 42, 52, and 62. This is the same in the right figure, except that there the basic number is 12.

The square number relationship is also found in the central figure, whose top element (the apex of the tetractys) alternates the two color combinations in areas of 3, 12, 27, and 48 squares, reading from the bottom up, or 12, 22, 32, and 42 of the number 3. The remaining parts of this central figure are simply 2, 3, and 4 times the top element. The alternating left- and right-facing pattern of these four sections may refer to brickwork or stonework patterns of China or Central America.iii

The Sun Rises Twice, Per 3 & 4
ALFRED JENSEN The Sun Rises Twice, Per 3, Per 4, 1973
oil on canvas, 96" x 192"

This is the right half of a diptych.

Among the sources combined freely by the artist here are the sundial, the planisphere, and the ancient geomancer's compass. The "pole-pointing gnomon"iv refers to the earliest known device for measuring solar time (it goes back to ca. 3500 B.C.), a stick or pillar the length of whose shadow indicates calendar time or the time of day. "Everything depends on whether the gnomon was placed vertically, pointing towards the zenith, or whether it was inclined at an angle depending on the latitude, and pointing at the celestial pole [as in the sundial]—only in the latter case are measurements of equal time possible."v

The radiating white lines dividing each quarter into 24 parts are found in early examples of the geomancer's compass,vi a correlative divining device originally for choosing favorable tomb sites and house sites, among other purposes, taking into account topographical, seasonal, and climatological factors, which was the ancestor of the navigator's magnetic compass. As explained in De Groot, these divisions symbolize the stems and branches (12 and 10) and the four cardinal points, the two missing divisions forming this total being assumed to form the centre of the circle. The lines separating these divisions are numbered from 1 to 23 in each quarter of the outer rim.

Outward from the abbreviated names of the months are fourteen numbers in each quarter, 1 to 14 twice and 15 to 28 twice. These are the hsiu, the Chinese divisions of the zodiac, twenty-eight "houses" instead of our twelve. Where we see six houses in the sky at any given time of year, they therefore saw fourteen. "These constellations very likely represent the most ancient divisions of the Chinese sphere." (De Groot)

Outside the larger (white) square are the 64 hexagrams (kua) of the I Ching, with their own richly correlated symbolism. The four colors in the outer rim may also refer to early Chinese astronomy, which divided the sky into four seasonal quadrants: Blue Dragon (Spring), Red Bird (Summer), White Tiger (Autumn), and Black Tortoise (Winter), though Jensen, perhaps following other sources, varies these somewhat.

The squares of the grids in the corners of the picture (actually the same grid turned right 90° each time) that are tangential to the large circle contain the initials (in English) of the four compass points, and the upper left division between quadrants is labeled CELESTIAL POLE in black. On the line running from lower left to upper right is written EQUATORIAL COORDINATES in white. The inner square is labeled TIME INDICATOR in black.

The central sphere in the geomancer's compass is the earth, which sits inside the celestial sphere "like the yolk within the egg" according to the Hun I Chu (Commentary on the Armillary Sphere) of Chang Hêng, 1st century A.D.vii

Progression: Vertical 5, Horizontal 15
ALFRED JENSEN Progression: Vertical 5, Horizontal 15, 1976
oil on canvas, 51" x 86"

Jensen's characteristic impastoed surface can be seen in this photograph.

Another painting using the gridded Lo-Shu diagram, which is here made a component of a larger additive grid based on number totals. The length of the progression is determined by the sum of the numbers in a single Lo-Shu column (15), combined with another consideration in Jensen's familiar fashion—this time, the need to put the number 360 in the centre of the total design. 360 could be called the central number in Jensen's work altogether, the number of days in a solar year and a key number in all cultures (witness the 360 degrees in our circle); in China it was applied correlatively to many aspects of life other than time or measurement: there were 360 kinds of each of the five types of animal, for example.

It was an ancient practice, which Jensen observes throughout his extensions Of the original diagram, to write the odd ("heavenly") numbers of the Lo-Shu in white, the even ("earthly") in black.

Diagram for ProgressionThe colors of the squares are keyed to odd or even as well, six colors being allotted to each. Only six different color grids are used in this painting, some repeated once, some twice:

so although the painted numbers are in an ongoing order there is a symmetrical, closed form to the picture as well.

Notice also the repeating, alternating order of odd and even number patterns:

Odd and even are another fundamental opposition basic to Jensen's work, like yang and yin, male and female, earth and heaven, which will be "reconciled" in A Divine Mission (see p. 48).

The Family Portrait
ALFRED JENSEN The Family Portrait, 1975
oil on canvas, 86" x 102"

The trigrams from the I Ching signify (clockwise from top left):

Chien Trigram Ch'ien, male, heaven, father, metal, king, deep red, head, donator

Sun Trigram Sun, female, wind, eldest daughter, wood, merchants, white, car, penetration-mildness-continuous operation

Chen Trigram Chen, male, thunder, eldest son, wood, young men, dark yellow, foot, stimulation-excitation

Kun Trigram K'un, female tale, earth, mother, earth (the element), people, black, abdomen, receptor. This painting is a study, like many by Jensen, of the harmony of opposites.ix

The diagonal checkerboards filled with protons and electrons are in alternating colors in each row, the colors of the row on the outermost edge in the left half being the colors of the innermost row on the right half so a total contrast is created between left and right, inner and outer.

The only rows of unalternating color are the vertical rows of black (Alfred) or white (Regina), which appear in the checkerboards on the right (Anna and Peter), but horizontal, so that north, south, cast and west are all represented in one family. The colors of the squares in the grids are the same for the two males and for the two females, though again pointing in different directions. The ground of the painting is the same rich red as in Solar Energy Optics. The written words, and the trigrams, are white for male and black for female, which is traditional in China. The picture thus shows four related individuals, each with his own direction and essence, giving and receiving energy from one another.

Each row in the grids is thirteen squares long, but since the corner-to-corner row crosses them all with another element, there are only twelve squares that "belong together" in each row. So 12 and 13, an odd and an even number, are contrasted within each single row.

The artist calls this painting "a side trip into the dualities, as Faraday saw the physical realities of positive and negative electricity, so the everyday life is the positive and negative actions of the family, the father and son and the mother and daughter." Elsewhere he says, not referring specifically to this work, "I am still attentive to the revelations of the four corner edges of a square and the rectangular picture plane."

Physical Optics
ALFRED JENSEN Physical Optics, 1975
oil on canvas, 86" x 153"

Among the extraordinary, though quite natural circumstances of my life, the first and most unusual is that I was born in this century in which the whole world became known... (and) what is more amazing than pyrotechnics? Or than the fiery bolts man has invented so much more destructive than the lightning of the gods? ... Nor of thee, O Great Compass, will I be silent, for thou dost guide us over boundless seas ... The fourth marvel is the invention of the typographical art, a work of man's hands, and the discovery of his wit—a rival, forsooth, of the wonders brought by divine intelligence.

Girolamo Cardano, The Book of My Life, 1576

Additional work illustrated in the article but not presently availble on this site:

ALFRED JENSEN Solar Energy Optics,
1975 oil on canvas, 86" x 153" viii

ALFRED JENSEN A Divine Mission,
1976 oil on canvas, 86" x 204"

[Goethe implied] that science or, rather, the life of the scientist was creative, too, and that the impulse working in him and especially the impulse to understand the relation of the parts to the whole in living things, the ruling impulse in Goethe's conception of science, was indistinguishable from the artistic impulse—Wie nah dieses wissenschaftliche Verlangen mit dem Kunst—und Nachahmungstriebe zusammenhänge, braucht wohl nicht urnständlich ausgeführt zu werden. This was obviously what he meant when he said in his Geschichte der Farbenlehre that we were compelled to think of science as an art, if we expected any sort of totality from it—so müssen wir uns die Wissenschaft notwendig als Kunst denken, wenn wir von ihr irgend eine Art von Ganzheit erwarten.

Barker Fairley, A Study of Goethe


  1. This work was painted well before the first photographs of the whole earth from lunar satellites.
  2. Marcia Tucker calls the figure on the right a "square spiral," which I am unable to see. She also speaks of only two colors instead of six.
  3. The tetractys was primarily a correlative device for seeing the natural world mathematically. In Plato's Timaeus the triangle is the shape from which the shapes of the four elements are made. Desmond Lee in his 1965 translation of the Timaeus notes that "sub-nuclear particles have recently been plotted, according to two of their important properties, to conform to simple geometric patterns," and adds, "that one ten-member set of particles should fall into a triangular pattern arranged as the Pythagoreans arranged the decad is a coincidence that would have delighted Plato." And Alfred Jensen.
  4. "Pole-painting" in the catalogue, which doesn't make sense. And gnomon is persistently "gnomen." There is a picture of a pole-pointing gnomon in Volume 3 Of Needham, which is undoubtedly Jensen's source for the phrase.
  5. Needham, Vol. 3.
  6. For the geomancer's compass, see Jan Jakob Maria de Groot, The Religious System of China (Leyden: E. J. Brill, 1892-1910), Book 3, p. 958 et seq.
  7. Quoted in Needham, Vol. 3, p. 217.
  8. Note the Shang numbers 1 to 4 in orange at the corners of the central grid, and the 5 under it in the centre.
  9. Jensen married the painter Regina Bogat in 1963. Anna was born in 1965, Peter in 1970.

Group E at Uaxactun has a pyramid facing east. Across the court, three temples stand upon a narrow north-south terrace. From the pyramid stairs the rising sun emerged over the northernmost temple on the equinox (21 March, 21 September) and over the southern temple on the December solstice. Such arrangements obeyed celestial relationships, and they reflected the order of the cosmos in the spatial design of the little courtyards surrounded by platforms and temples, keyed together by astronomical sight-lines.

George Kubler, The Art and Architecture of Ancient America


  1. The work is A Place Value Component, Per I, Per II, Per III (1976).
  2. Quoted in Joseph Needham, Science and Civilisation in China (Cambridge: University Press, 1954-71), Vol. 2, p. 271. The passage continues, "8 x 9 makes 72. Here an even number follows after an odd one. Odd numbers govern, time. Time governs the moon. The moon governs the horse. Therefore the horse has a gestation period of 11 months." And so on for the gestation periods of various other animals. For ancient Chinese correlative thinking in general, see Needham, Vol. 3, p. 279 ff.
  3. Quoted in Peter Nabokov, Two Leggings: The Making of a Crow Warrior (New York: Thomas H. Crowell, 1967). Two Leggings, who is speaking, lived from 1844 to 1923.
  4. A Film Ringed the Earth (1961) is the title of this work.
  5. Most quotations from Alfred Jensen, in this article are from the catalogue, Alfred Jensen: Paintings and Diagrams From the Years 1957-1977, with essays by Linda L. Cathcart and Marcia Tucker, Buffalo, Albright-Knox Art Gallery, n.d. A few additional things are from a telephone conversation with the artist and his wife in July 1978.
  6. "Friends of the form, " artscanada No. 218/219, February/ March 1978, p. 52.
  7. "In the case of the pyramid at Penayuca, for example, it has been possible to lay open several such constructions one within the other, and it is accepted that each was built above and around the last at periods of 52 years, each new construction coinciding with the great feasts held at the end of each 52-year cycle. And as different ceramic types and other objects were encountered within each period, it was a simple matter to date them within the nearest 52 years." Norman Pelham Wright, Mexican Kaleidoscope, quoted in Harold Watkins, Time Counts: the Story of the Calendar (London: N. Spearman, 1954).
  8. The reader whose German is better than mine will find less conjectural answers in Eberhard, "Beitrage zur kosmologischen Spelculation Chinas in der Han Zeit," Baessler Archiv "Beitrage z. Volkerkunde herausgeg. a. d. Mitteln d. Baessler Instituts, Berlin), 1933, 16, 1, p. 41 ff. This is exhaustive and presumably convincing, examines "all theoretically possible combinations and permutations," and strongly features the number 36. Jensen's familiarity with Eberhard's tables and calculations is likely, given the similarity of their concerns. He would certainly at least have seen the reference in Needham, Vol. 2, pp. 253-254.
  9. There is a possibility that it may be a conservation problem later on. There are visible hairline cracks in more than one spot on the surface of Magic Colors (1959).
  10. The question of influences on Jensen has been skirted in this article, as it's 2 complicated subject that I have in no way mastered, and that the artist himself hasn't always helped to clarify. "Jensen," Marcia Tucker tells us, "says that he was influenced not by the Orphists or by Kupka, but by the writings of Michel Eugene Chevreul (1786-1889)" (these remarkable dates are correct), whose writings influenced Robert Delaunay. "Jensen feels that he and the Orphists are connected only by this bond; he is insistent upon focusing on such original sources rather than secondary ones." Which sounds good, but doesn't explain why, then, a painting by Kupka in the Museum of Modem Art in New York called The First Step looks like 2 direct ancestor of Jensen's galactic Aurora, Per VI, Motion in Coloristic Orbits (1961). There may be more complicated relationships to be traced here.
  11. Peter Schjeldahl, "Ever Intimidated by a Painting?" New York Times, May 28, 1972. Quoted in the catalogue.
  12. One of many other examples from the same source: "Newspapers keep photographs of famous persons in their files. When one of the famous dies, a staff artist (the same guy who draws the circles around fumbled footballs) borrows the dead celebrity's photo folder and with an air brush obliterates the highlights in his eyes.... By thus visually distinguishing those with us from those gone, the press shows its respect for, or its fear of, death." And for all I know this may be true.
  13. Men and Horses (1963), one of a series painted at that time.
  14. Arts Magazine, Vol. 37, no. 7 (April 1963), p. 52. Quoted in the catalogue.
  15. Leila Hadley Musham, "Alfred Jensen, Metaphysical and Primitive," manuscript article, 1975, p. 7.
  16. William Zimmer, "Alfred Jensen, A Major Artist," Soho Weekly News, April 13, 1978.
  17. April Kingsley, The Village Voice, April 17, 1978. This astonishing opinion is perhaps explained when we read further: "In short, everything that an unimaginably sophisticated artist like de Kooning isn't."
  18. Vivien Raynor, The New York Times, April 7, 1978.
  19. Chicago Tribune.
  20. Harold Hayden, Chicago Sun-Times, May 19, 1978.
  21. Chicago Tribune.
  22. "Politics and the English Language," from Shooting an Elephant, 1950.
  23. Crossman-Miller videotape.

As formulated by d'Alembert, the philosophy of science involved a distinction not easy to define clearly and maintain firmly: on the one hand, an avoidance of the "spirit of system"; on the other, a welcome of "the true system of the world" revealed by science and an extension of the revolutionary "new method of philosophizing" into all fields of thought.

Herbert J. Muller, Freedom in the Western World

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