(1) "Per IV, 9 Equivalent Squares of Value 5" from "Square Beginning--Cyclic Ending", oil on linen, 50 x 50", 1960. Photo courtesy the Pace Gallery.
(2) "Square Beginning--Cyclic Ending", first three panels ("Per I", Per II", and "Per III"), oil on linen, 50 x 50 each, 1960. Photo courtesy the Pace Gallery.
(3) "Acroatic Rectangle 13", o/c, 74 x 59", 1967. Photo: Ellen Page Wilson.
(4) "Study for Mural at Albany Mall", o/c, 68 1/4 x 47 1/4", 1968.
by Jody Zellen
(PaceWildenstein, Beverly Hills) Alfred Jensen (1903-1981) was best known for his checkerboard-like paintings in which numbers, symbols and words were applied to the canvas like frosting on a cake. Jensen worked with a limited palette, relying mostly on primary colors, to create his densely packed compositions. He was by age and by training a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists. He studied with Hans Hoffman, was friends with Mark Rothko and Sam Francis, and began painting in a gestural style similar to works being made by artists of the New York school in the 1940's and 1950's. But in 1957 Jensen turned away from expressive gesture in favor of a more hard edged geometry. His subsequent works could be described as decorative, as the geometric patterns he employed created beautiful compostions akin to Islamic rugs and tiles.
Jensen's paintings are diagramatic and mathematical. He based his works on the study of systems, theories of color, light and time, architectural renderings, the Mayan calendar, and even the I Ching. He created color systems to match the notational systems he studied, and put it all on canvas. The resulting works have squares of color, crudely drawn numerical and alphabetical symbols as well as flowing script. Jensen described his work as "a continuous oscillation between numerical and prismatic concerns." His intention was to translate truths first discovered by early civilizations into modern truths. Jensen was a scholar who spent as much time studying history as he did painting.
The subject of his paintings includes a depiction of the plans of ancient temples in Greece and Central America, a subject he chose because they portray the sun and the planets in their calendrical permutations. In Where The Gods Reside (1968), a multi-paneled painting that resembles an altarpiece, Jensen used the architectural layout of the pyramids as viewed from overhead as the point of departure for the work. In these paintings squares of primary colors move in from the edges of the canvas, creating the illusion of receding space. Jensen's works can have an Op Art feel, but it should never be forgotten that they are based on more than visual devices.
Jensen continued to produce closely related works throughout the balance of his career. Yet each work had a complex set of references and genius of its own. Beginning Cycle - Ending (1960) consists of five 50 inch by 50 inch panels. Each panel is given its own title. For example, panel one is called Per I, 80 Equivalent Squares of Value 5. In this section, the canvas has been divided into a 9 x 9 grid. Each of the 81 squares is thickly painted with oil paint in colors including white, black, blue, green, yellow, orange and red. Each square also contains a symbol. The signs within the squares are numbers from Shang oracle bone inscriptions from the 14th-11th Centuries, B.C. In panel one, another empty grid has been painted over the base checkerboard pattern. The overlay is repeated, albeit differently from painting to painting in this sequence. As the work progresses from left to right, the number of squares in both the under- and over-painting are reduced.
Without a working knowledge of ancient systems and alphabets it is impossible to decode Jensen's works. So, the viewer must appreciate them in more familiar terms, even if only on a formal level. The paintings do work in many ways simultaneously. Jensen was a painter of graphic rather than pictorial representation and, in this respect, one of the first conceptual artists. As his art is brought back into view, his prominent influence on other artists, especially conceptual artists of the 1960'S and 1970's will become more evident.