M A D I S O N _G R A Y | deep_SIGHT
"I never had the idea of becoming a painter any more than I had the idea of breathing." ---Georges Braque
 
 
OPTICAL ILLUMINANCE
"The abandon vital to me in the act of painting is the equivalent of the path of the spirit. Each day the art and the life must be renewed." ---Don Kunz
 
DEEP PAINT: the Significant  R E T I N A L  S P A C E  of Don Kunz
Untitled Abstraction, 1991-92. Oil on linen. 80 x 62 in.
PAINT. Step off the elevator into abstract painter Don Kunz's 9th-floor, white-walled Manhattan studio loft, and that's what you smell. There's nothing like the smell of oil paint to signify the presence of serious endeavor.
 
For almost forty years, within the prismatic spatial boundaries of this paint-fumed aerie-like seclusion (top floor in photo), five blocks south of Daniel Burnham's Flatiron building, Kunz, professor of painting at the celebrated Cooper Union School of Art, has been producing works of stunning optical illuminance. Henri Matisse described color as "magnificence." Kunz's paintings show us what he meant.
 
Kunz is a master colorist. Dense and intense, restless and rhythmic, visceral, vibrant, contemplative, exuberant, joyful, and profoundly retinal, his expressive paintings extend the researches of earlier colorists---Monet, Bonnard, Gorky, Matisse---to whom he turns for chromatic instruction no less than Cezanne and Seurat turned to Piero della Francesco for instruction in form. As if the spirit of de Kooning and Abstract Expressionism has been infused with the color intelligence of Milton Avery and the literacy of Proust.
 
They vary as to the degree of abstraction. Certain recent works are purely retinal. In these, color functions as both form and content---as the irreducible light-refracted essence of painting. Others, such as the work above, occupy the impalpable realm of semi-abstraction. They strike one as texts to be read and deciphered; as rich intuitive tapestries, resonating with discursive meaning; as palimpsests of the imagination, in which the archaeology of the painter-story teller is as much the substance of the art as the optical wizardry of the color magician.
 
When you look deep into this painting you begin to discern a seemingly infinite wealth of marks, symbols, scratches, and ghosts and traces of episodic phenomena. Out of the initial blur, we begin to discern specificity. What was on first inspection perhaps fuzzy, comes increasingly into focus. Ovoid and rectilinear shapes, letters, references to nature and perhaps domestic buildings, abstract trails of paint, if not also physiognomic forms---at varying scales and made variously explicit or suppressed---thread through the surface or are embedded within the shadowy structure of the painting,
 
In other words, Kunz heightens our awareness of what I call deep paint. And deep paint is not simply physical, or optical. It is also a mental phenomenon. It involves history. What Klee called the prehistory of the visible: "One learns to look behind the facade, to grasp the root of things. One learns to recognize the hidden currents, the prehistory of the visible. One learns to dig below the surface of things, to uncover, to find causes, to analyze."
 
Conscious (and unconscious) connections to the work of previous painters are aspects of this prehistory. So are intrinsic, underlying properties of perceptual and conceptual structure. And in regard to "Untitled Abstraction," which is obviously not intended as a political assertion---its fundamental raison d'etre has obviously little to do with novelty or inciting controversy---these questions come to mind: What is its cerebral substance? What lifts it above the purely decorative and empirical? What makes it didactic?
 
"The modern artist is the conscious artist," wrote Mondrian. And Kunz is surely conscious of the idea of dualities , which is vital to the life of this painting. Light is contrasted to shadow, and small scale is juxtaposed to large scale (e.g., large "T" upper right, small "t" lower left). Archetypal, primordial symbols infiltrate a realm of idiosyncratic, invented and enigmatic gestures. Calligraphy and drawing are counterpointed to pure painting. Blurring and veiling are played against clarifying and revealing, restlessness against stability, density against dissipation, primitivism against sophistication. And sustaining this enterprise, deep down, are the dualities, operating as adhesive epistemological forces, that perhaps Kunz wants us to consider the most. One is precisely the tension between spontaneity and calculation (i.e., the intuitive and the rational, unconcious and conscious). The other is the tension between abstraction and semi-abstraction.
 
To this end, specific dualities involving color, organizational structure, surface, space, and the identity of painting are especially important.
 
The play of warm colors (orange, yellows, and reds) against cool colors (icy lavenders, blues, and whites) produces a visual field of remarkable equilibrium, one that seems perfectly balanced in a temperate zone between the two. Numerous local chromatic oppositions contribute to this. For example, the yellow solar radiance that breaks through at the top center of the painting, reflected in more muted tones at the bottom, is balanced by the icy blue upper left corner, wherein the solar orb is now dim and cold. The horizontal swath of luminous orange paint that ends to the center of the canvas is counterbalanced by the dark bluish rectangular area, within the deeper space of the painting, which intersects it and continues to the right.
 
In terms of organization, we might well infer that the rectangular boundaries of the painting describe a cropped sample of a continuous aesthetic field that extends in all directions outside the frame of the painting. The part that Kunz has captured here is subdivided into thirds, with the center third functioning as a vertical seam between the peripheral strips. This seam admits light and functions as the zone of intersection and interruption. It is the place/space of greatest turbulence. Centripetal and centrifugal forces, symbols and abstract gestures, converge at its center, the locus of heightened intensity and density. The left side of the painting, especially, seems to breathe with spatial airiness and recessional depth, in contrast to the more solidified coplanarity of the right side. The large yellowish "T" at the upper right seems at one moment to be in the same spatial plane as the blue rectangle in the upper left---at the next moment it appears to be infinitely closer, advancing toward us while the upper left corner punches deep into the distance.
 
Which raises another salient issue Kunz is attuned to: The problem of surface and space. That is, the problem of the reality of the surface versus the illusion of into-the-picture spatial depth. And one of the more brilliant aspects of this painting, and many of his others as well, is that it succeeds in asserting both with equal force. For how deep is the space in the painting? How shallow is it? Studied long enough, one begins to see the mastery of spatial control. While various elements dance in the foreground, field-like areas of color reside inertly in the background. This is clearly modern space. Not the illusionistic space of traditional painting. And yet, spatial recession, perspectival and layered, in dramatic contrast to the apparent flatness of the surface, is nonetheless in evidence. Kunz has created a masterful dialectic between the very shallowest of depths and the very deepest of surfaces.
 
The hand is the primary instrument in the creation of art, and Kunz signals this "truth" in a number of ways, not least through the echoing of the letter "T" throughout. ("T" may well also signify related word-concepts equally important to Kunz spiritually and artistically, such as "transcendental," "thought," and "transparency.") Calligraphy is an important element of the painting. Calligraphy expresses the natural correlation between writing and drawing: The word "graphic" refers to both. And between writing and painting: The Japanese speak of "writing a painting." Moreover, if drawing is the primary writing of children, as Helene Nonne-Schmidt suggested in an essay on the Bauhaus in 1929, there is something at once childlike and knowing about this work. I sense the idea of the child-as-artist, drawing archetypal orbs for suns, expressive of the primal urge to make art, in which the hand innocently expresses the child-like soul in man. At the same time, Kunz engages the advanced problem that concerned Matisse: The difference between painting and drawing. And this double-identity, in which the hand is the instrument of both primitive and sophisticated expression, is central to the intellectual premise of much of his work.
 
Ultimately, what many of Kunz's paintings evoke for me is an image of the cosmos, light-filled and resplendent. And, in certain instances, it is an image that calls to mind the terrestrial-galactic phenomena that the Sumerians associated with one of their gods, Ea, as described by Timothy Ferris in "Coming of Age in the Milky Way." "The Ea myth . . . " explains Ferris, "suggests that the creation of agriculture and the written word were attributed by the ancients to the incentive provided by the sight of an exploding star" (William Morrow and Company, Inc., New York, 1988; 72).
 
I like thinking of "Untitled Abstraction" this way. As the invention of a landscape. The origin of writing. An exploding star. Deep paint as deep time. The prehistory of the visible, transmogrified by abstraction, as an ontological idea . . . emerging out of the dawn of cosmology and myth.
 
To Kunz, painting is meditation and elation. It is a search for meaning. (If "T" is for "Truth," is that an "A" for "Art" slightly above the mid-point of "Untitled Abstraction"?) It is an expression of joy and renewal. Exterior beauty reflects inner serenity. It is the revelation of Form.
 
His canvases arise out of humility, scholarship, contemplation, and inveterate devotion to craft. They represent a mature equivalence, I believe, between the demands of interiority and exteriority, complementary forces palpably present in advanced art. The first is a projection of the artist-as-philosopher's soul, the second a reflection of the artist's aesthetic knowledge, technique, and intelligence. The desire to record something innocent and transcendental---to create significant retinal space, imaginative, transformative, and soul-stirring---is at the heart-beating center. And we are the beneficiaries.
 
"To behold Don Kunz's paintings," writes critic Shelly Estrin, "is to quicken with life and receive the spark that sends one off on one's own journey." Absolutely . . .
 
True.
 
click on images to see enlarged in color
2000|MADISON GRAY
e-mail MadisonGray@thearchitectpainter.com

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